History of Imperial Courier Service Museum Opens at Peterhof Topic: Peterhof
The History of Imperial Courier Service Museum is situated in the Alexandria Park at Peterhof
A new museum dedicated to the history of the imperial courier service has opened in the Alexandria Park at Peterhof. The museum is housed in the old Courier cabin built by Emperor Alexander II, who wished to keep his summer residence in Peterhof. Constructed by the architect E. L. Hahn in the Russian style in 1856, the Peterhof Courier is a modest building of “national importance,” it provided a link between the sovereign and the army and his senior ministers in the capital.
The first horse couriers appeared in ancient Russia in 1649, by decree of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. In 1716, Peter I established the "martial couriers." Vadim Snakin, director of the Alexandria Museums of the Peterhof State Museum Preserve notes that Imperial courier service was established in 1796 by the Emperor Paul I.
The museum consists of three rooms, of which the decor of the second half of 19th century has been meticulously recreated.
The museum is divided into two parts. In the first part you can see the dress uniform of the Imperial courier of 1881, medals, the icon of the Presentation of the Lord - especially esteemed in the courier service, anniversary books written for the centenary of the Courier Service, which were presented as a gift to dignitaries and members of the imperial household. Here are also antique drawings, designs, including the original plans for the construction of the Peterhof Courier house.
The second part of the exhibition recreates the authentic life of courier duty and their conditions of service - here you can see postal cards, stationery and furniture of the era. Also on display are special equipment - such as a 19th century safe, plus a large forged chest for transporting money and valuables, as well as a courier bag, which transported the most important and sensitive packets sent to or from the emperor. Also recreated here and a specific feature of the officers daily life, is the smell of tobacco in the room. "We are not advocating smoking, but for historical authenticity added this in our exhibition, as well as ashtrays and other smoking accessories", - Snakin said.
The restoration of the Courier house took about a year. As previously noted, the building was constructed in the middle of the 19th century. It is the only wooden building, which survived after the Second World War.
Stolen Romanov Photos Return to Russia Topic: Gatchina
Yuri Gloukhov – Consul Géneral of the Russian Federation in Geneva hands over 33 photographs
of the Russian Imperial family to representatives of the Gatchina State Museum
On June 24th a collection of 33 photographs which originated from the family archive of the Romanov family were handed over to representatives of the Gatchina State Museum at the Consulate General of Russia in Geneva. The photographs had been stolen by a German soldier during the Nazi retreat from the Soviet Union in 1944.
Thus ended the long history of the return of unique photographs taken by members of the imperial family in the late 19th - early 20th centuries. "For us this is a very important moment that has symbolic significance in that these Romanov photos return home to their beloved Gatchina" - said Svetlana Astahovskaya, scientific secretary of the Gatchina State Museum.
For a long time these materials were considered irretrievably lost, but in December 2013 they were suddenly put on the block at the Geneva auction house of Hôtel des Ventes.
Among the 246 lots from various private collections in the catalogue prepared by the Hôtel des Ventes, was a collection of photographs, which attracted the attention of Russian diplomats. Soon it became clear that the photographs were those which have been taken from the USSR by the German army soldier, Otto Hofmann. During World War II he was drafted into military service and by chance found himself in Gatchina. It is interesting to note that Hoffman was an artist and had earned recognition even before the war.
Exactly how he came to find the photographs is not known, but it is obvious that he actually saved them from destruction. Upon his return to Germany in 1947 Hofmann kept the photographs in his personal collection. After his death, his widow Marian Hofmann decided to put the photographs up for sale.
Thanks to the timely energetic intervention of the Russian Embassy in Switzerland and the Consulate General of Russia in Geneva a Swiss Court ordered that the photographs be withdrawn from the auction on 9 December 2013. According to the Russians the photographs fell under the category of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the USSR during the Second World War.
The photographs caught the eye of Russian diplomats last year after they were put on the block by the Geneva auction house Hôtel des Ventes
After five months of painstaking work with the support of Geneva lawyer, Dmitri Yafaev, the Russian Consulate General was able to negotiate with the widow Hofmann on how to complete the judicial settlement proceedings. In accordance with the agreement, Marian Hofmann donated the photographs to the Gatchina State Museum, where they had been taken more than a century ago.
"We are grateful to Madame Hofmann for this gesture of goodwill. The photos will be returned to their rightful place, where they should be, "- said Yuri Gloukhov – Consul Géneral of the Russian Federation. The director of the auction house Hôtel des Ventes, Bernard Piguet also took an active part in the negotiation process.
Today we can say with confidence that these materials represent a valuable source of information for historians and restorers at Gatchina. "Here we see, for example, a terrace, a marina, which today is now in very poor condition. Soon we will begin restoration work on them, and these photographs are invaluable in addressing the more precise details of the restorations" - explains Svetlana Astahovskaya.
As for the photos, there is still a number of studies to be done, including the identification of the persons in the photographs, many of whom are members of the Russian Imperial family and other members of the Court. Further, who was the photographer of these images? "We have no answer to this question at this point. Many members of the Imperial family were interested in photography as a hobby: the palace contained countless cameras. I must say that this family shared a keen interest for this technical innovation of the time, so the photographer of the images is clearly a member of the Imperial family" - says Svetlana Astahovskaya.
Of course, these photos will be made available to the general public at a future exhibition. But at the moment it is too early to call a specific timeframe and format of the exhibition possible.
Beautiful Orthodox Churches of Russia No. 22 Topic: Beautiful Orthodox Churches
A spectacular belltower and entrance gate with beautiful curving colonnades stretching on either
side lead to the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (currently under restoration) in St. Petersburg
In St. Petersburg, towards the southern end of Ligovsky Prospekt, at the point where it crosses the Obvodny Canal, stands the Cossack Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It is in fact a complex of churches and chapels dominated by a spectacular belltower and entrance gate with beautiful curving colonnades stretching on either side.
The Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross stands on the site of one of St. Petersburg's oldest cemeteries and churches. Originally the parish church for the Coachmen's Settlement, the first wooden church, named after the Birth of John the Baptist, was erected here in 1719.
View of the facade and iconostasis of the Tikhvin Church
The Tikhvin Church contains two side chapels: the Chapel of the Holy Royal Martyrs (left) which contains numerous icons of the Saints Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, Tsesarevich Alexei and Saint Elizabeth, and the Chapel of Saint Alexander Nevsky (right)
In 1764-68, a second wooden church, with heating for winter services, was consecrated in the name of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God. In 1842-44, the Tikhvin Church was replaced with a new stone building by architect V. E. Morgan. A simple white one-storey structure with a single pale blue dome, is currently the only fully functioning church in the complex.
The first stone church was built on the orders of the Holy Synod in 1794, by which time the area was predominantly populated by Cossacks serving in the Imperial regiments. Thus the church got its current name, and it remains a centre of the Cossack community in St. Petersburg to this day. The superb early neoclassical belltower and its two side chapels were built 1810-12.
In 1848-51, the old Church of the Exaltation of the Cross was replaced by the modern cathedral. Designed by Egor Dimmert, the Cathedral took its cue from the belltower, and is a similarly elegant and symmetrical neoclassical structure. The five-dome Baroque style church with three side-altars was embellished with double pilasters along the facade, extended and reconstructed in 1848-52. The icons were painted by Korotkov; modelling was done by T. Dylev.
The domes of the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross and a view of the dilapidated interior (now under restoration) at Easter 2014
The final church in the complex, the Church of Saints Kirill and Mefodiy, was built by church elder and merchant Ivan Shigalev in 1872 in memory of his wife.
In 1875, the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross founded a charitable society that supported a hospice, two orphanages and a Sunday school. From 1909, a children’s group was held here.
In the 1930s all of the churches in the complex were closed, and their rich decorations plundered. The Church of Our Lady of Tikhvin was closed down in 1932 and accommodated a boiler-house. The Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was closed in 1938 and in 1939 its interior was completely reconstructed inside and, ironically, turned into restoration workshops.
In 1991, the complex was returned to the Orthodox Church and the Cossack community. In the same year divine liturgies were resumed to the SS. Cyril & Methodius Church, and in 1993, they resumed in the Church of Our Lady of Tikhvin. In 2000, the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross became the Cossacks Cathedral.
This much neglected complex of churches is still in a very dilapidated state, restoration work is ongoing. Services are held in the Tikhvin Church daily, and in the Church of Ss. Kirill and Mefodia on Sunday mornings. Many male members of the Cossack community attend services in full Cossack uniform of the tsarist period.
Male members of the church in full Cossack uniform of the Tsarist period pose in front of the three monuments to last Imperial family of Russia:
Tsesarevich Alexiei, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna
In the last decade, three monuments to the last Russian emperor and members of his family have been erected in front of the church. In 2002, the bronze bust to Emperor Nicholas II was unveiled (sculptor S. Alipov); in 2013, a bronze bust to the Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolayevich was unveiled; and in 2014, a bronze bust to the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna was unveiled.
To view all *22 churches featured in our Beautiful Orthodox Churches of Russia series, please refer to the following link:
Two centuries Since Russia's Alexander I Was Feted in England in 1814 Topic: Alexander I
Photo: The Allied Sovereigns at Petworth, 24 June 1814. George, 1751–1837, 3rd Earl of Egremont, with His Children Looking on, is presented by George, Prince Regent, to Tsar Alexander I of Russia accompanied by his sister, the Duchess of Oldenburg in the Marble Hall at Petworth with the King of Prussia, Frederick. Painted in 1817 by the British artist Thomas Phillips (1770-1845)
Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, is staging an exhibition to commemorate the summer of 1814 when England's Prince Regent invited his allies - Emperor Alexander I of Russia, William of Orange and Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia - to London. VoR's Tim Ecott asked Dr. Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski, the curator of the exhibition, why Alexander I was so popular with British people.
The exhibition, 'Peace Breaks Out! London and Paris in the summer of 1814', at the Sir John Soane's Museum in London focusses on the summer of 1814, when Europe celebrated peace after the Treaty of Paris following the fall of Napoleon.
Displaying over 100 rare pieces from the museum and private collections, the exhibition will explore this pivotal moment in the history of Europe, through the eyes of its contemporaries.
It was a period when Europe was at peace and Napoleon had been exiled albeit briefly to the Island of Elba. England's Prince Regent invited his allies - William of Orange, Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia and Emperor Alexander I of Russia.
Tsar Alexander was also accompanied by his sister, the Duchess of Oldenburg (Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna, 1788-1819). The royal visitors were feted and wined and dined and there was great public interest especially in the Russian Emperor.
Dr Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski told VoR:
"He was unusual, for a ruler of his time, to have been taught English. He spoke it very beautifully, so I think immediately, there is a fluency of communication between the emperor and Londoners. Also his own political outlook: he was noted for his failed – failed – attempts at reforming. For example the situation among the Russian serfs, there were certain elements of constitutional monarchy that the emperor seemed to sympathise with and made attempts to introduce to Russia.
“He attempted to reform the Russian education system. His sister also is quite a presence. There is a wonderful caricature in the exhibition which shows the Duchess of Oldenburg with her entourage in Oxford. The Tsar, the Prince Regent and the King of Russia were all invited to Oxford to receive honorary degrees, but it was the Duchess of Oldenburg’s rather extraordinary bonnet with a very long beak-like brim, which completely obscures her face, which seemed to form the point of fascination.”
The exhibition also contains a knitted purse which was presented by the emperor to 'Gentleman' John Jackson.
Dr Kierkuc-Bielinski said: “He was one of the greatest boxers of Regency Britain. A boxing match was held and Jackson fought for Alexander, but we also know that the Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher was also at this match. There’s an account of the time.
Blücher was particularly struck by Jackson’s physique, but also the elegance of his pose. Jackson was known for that – he was also called the emperor of boxing. Jackson wins the match on behalf of the emperor and is presented, by the emperor, with this rather ornate knitted purse."
The exhibition Peace Breaks Out! runs until September 13 at the Sir John Soane's Museum.
The monument was unveiled on June 21, 2014, in Banja Luka on the initiative of the Serbian Republic’s (Bosnia and Herzegovina) president, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation, and the Russian Military Historical Society. The Serbian Republic’s president Milorad Dodik and assistant to the Russian president Igor Shchegolev were to be present at the opening ceremony.
The artist of the monument is the sculptor from Russia Zurab Tsereteli.
The monument was unveiled after a joint liturgy of Serbian and Russian clergy in the local cathedral. After the consecration ceremony performances of the “Kazachsky Krug” Cossacks’ group, the choir of the Ipatiev Monastery at Kostroma (the Ipatiev Monastery is historically connected with the first Tsar of the Romanov Dynasty) as well as a round table of Serbian and Russian historians took place.
The opening of the monument is timed to coincide with the centenary since the beginning of the World War I. When in July 1914 Austria-Hungary with the support of Germany started a war against Serbia, the Serbian successor to the Throne Prince Alexander Karadordevic appealed to the Russian Emperor Nicolas II, who assured him that “Russia will not remain indifferent to the destiny of Serbia”. Soon after that Russia launched a war against Germany in order to defend their brothers, the Serbian people.
In the words of Holy Hierarch Nikolaj (Velimirovic): “Our debt to Russia is great. A person could owe a debt to another person, a nation – to another nation. But the debt the Serbian people owe to Russia for its actions in 1914 is so great that it won’t be repaid in generations and centuries. This is a debt of love, when one dies saving one’s neighbor. There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends, said Christ. The Russian Tsar and Russian people, who went to war in order to defend Serbia, entered it unprepared, knowing full well that they are facing death. But the love the Russians have for their brothers did not retreat in the face of danger and was not afraid of death”.
A Crown, But Not On This Earth Topic: Elizabeth Feodorovna GD
Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the June 24th, 2014 edition of The American Conservative. The author Rod Dreher, owns the copyright of the version presented below.
Look at that face. It belongs to St. Elizabeth the New Martyr. She was a Romanov Grand Duchess, German-born and the sister of Tsarina Alexandra, as well as married to Grand Duke Serge, an uncle of the Tsar. Excerpt:
Grand Duke Serge was killed by an assassin’s bomb on February 4, 1905, just as St Elizabeth was leaving for her workshops. She visited her husband’s killer in prison and urged him to repent, giving him an icon. She eventually built a shrine over the site of her husband’s martyrdom (which was said to have been destroyed by Vladimir Lenin himself in 1917).
After her husband’s murder, she began to withdraw from her former social life. She founded the Convent of Sts. Martha and Mary in Moscow, a community of nuns which focused on worshiping God and helping the poor. She sold all her fine clothes and jewels, and moved out of her palace into the buildings that she had purchased on behalf of the convent.
St. Elizabeth and her sisters continued to visit the poor and hungry in Moscow. During the First World War, she nursed sick and wounded soldiers in the hospitals and on the battle front. She was respected and admired throughout Russia and people came to her for spiritual direction.
After her brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas II, abdicated the throne and he and his family were placed under house arrest, St. Elizabeth was urged to abandon her convent and seek shelter with her remaining family in Western Europe. She refused all offers of help, saying she would not leave the other sisters and would die in Russia if that was His Will.
On Pascha 1918, Soviet soldiers came to the convent and ordered her to leave Moscow to join the royal family near Ekaterinburg. She was allowed to leave with a novice, Sister Barbara, but was not permitted to say goodbye to the other sisters.
After arriving in Ekaterinburg, St. Elizabeth was denied access to the Tsar’s family. She and Sister Barbara were placed in a convent, where she was warmly received by the sisters.
At the end of May St. Elizabeth and St. Barbara were moved to the nearby village of Alopaevsk with the Grand Dukes Sergius, John, and Constantine, and the young Count Vladimir Paley. They were all housed in a schoolhouse on the edge of town. St. Elizabeth was placed under guard, but was permitted to go to church and work in the garden.
On the night of July 5, they were all taken to a place in the woods, twelve miles from Alopaevsk, and executed. Grand Duke Sergius was shot, but the others were thrown down a mineshaft, with grenades being tossed in after them. St. Elizabeth lived for several hours, and could be heard singing hymns by local villagers who came up to the mineshaft after the murderers had left.
Breaking Bronze - the Equestrian Statue of Peter the Great Topic: Peter the Great
The Bronze Horseman, an impressive monument to the founder of St Petersburg, Peter the Great, stands on Senate Square, facing the Neva River
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the June 25th, 2014 edition of The St. Petersburg Times. The author Gus Peters, owns the copyright of the version presented below.
The Bronze Horseman, the famous statue of Peter the Great immortalized by Pushkin and which stands sentinel on the southern shore of the Neva, is one of the most recognized symbols of the city. It is considered to be a masterpiece, an imposing edifice symbolizing the power of autocratic rule; a masterpiece its creator would never see finished.
In the 1760s, at the beginning of the reign of Catherine II, better known in the Western world as Catherine the Great, the Empress wanted to build a monument that physically expressed the monarch’s bond to the lineage of Russia’s great rulers, despite her German heritage. Yet she did not believe any artist in Russia was capable of taking the lead on such a project, so she asked her ambassador in Paris to find someone willing to work for the right price.
Through the Enlightment philosopher Denis Diderot, the ambassador was introduced to Etienne Maurice Falconet, the director of a sculpture workshop in a French porcelain factory who was renowned for his small figures but had never built anything on the large scale Catherine wanted. He was not a vastly talented sculptor but he was competent and, more importantly, willing to work for less than what more accomplished artists demanded. He accepted the Empress’ offer and moved to St. Petersburg in 1766 to begin his work.
After three years of work, an incomplete model of the statue was revealed to the public to mixed reactions. Some did not understand why there was a serpent beneath the horse’s hooves and they told Falconet he should remove it, not understanding that the serpent was essential to the statue’s ability to stand. A finished model was presented a year later to yet more criticism. Some claimed that Peter looked more like a Roman emperor than a Russian tsar because of the clothes he wore. Catherine had to reassure her obsequious sculptor, telling him in a letter, “…you can’t please everybody.”
Despite her initial assurances, Catherine grew more and more frustrated as the project dragged on. Once the base, a 1,500-ton boulder discovered in Finnish Karelia, was put in place, it took another four years to both find a casting master and to construct the mold for the statue. There were a series of failures during the casting and as time wore on and the cost rose, relations between Falconet and Catherine, who could not understand why there were such delays, frayed. Eventually, Catherine grew tired of her sculptor and asked for two Italian architects, telling the man in charge of hiring them that, “You will choose honest and reasonable people, not dreamers like Falconet; [I want] people who walk on the earth, not in the air.”
After 12 years, with the project still unfinished and Falconet tired of the constant criticism and the icy demeanor of the Empress, the sculptor asked Catherine for permission to leave Russia. She agreed and paid him the money he was due, but did not see him before he left. Falconet, a broken man, returned to Paris. He never sculpted again.
It would be another four years before the finished piece was unveiled on Senate Square on Aug. 7, 1782. In all, Falconet’s masterpiece, which he never saw completed, took 16 years to build. The statue of Peter atop his horse, looking out at the city he built, is now one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
Russia Starts to Rehabilitate its Forgotten War Topic: World War I
Emperor Nicholas II speaks from the balcony of the Winter Palace to a large crowd in Palace Square in St. Petersburg
announcing Russia’s entry into war with Germany, August 2nd [O.S. July 20th], 1914
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the June 23rd, 2014 edition of the Irish Times. The author Isabel Gorst, owns the copyright of the version presented below.
Defeat and its fallout meant the first World War went unheralded until last year
There are only three marked graves in Moscow’s former Brethren cemetery, where the bodies of thousands of soldiers and officers who perished in the first World War were laid to rest beneath the aged oak and lime trees.
For most of the last 100 years Russia has tried to bury memories of the conflict of 1914-1918 and the even more disastrous civil war that followed in its wake.
However, as the centenary of the outbreak of the first World War approaches, Russia has begun to delve into its history and talk about the so-called forgotten war.
Russia commemorated the outbreak of the war for the first time last year in what was seen as a milestone in the complicated rediscovery process. At the same time the Kremlin announced a competition to design a memorial to the millions of Russians who rose up in 1914 “to protect the motherland”.
Andrei Kovalchuk, president of the Russian Artists’ Union, made the winning sculpture, of a soldier brandishing a huge Russian flag. It will be unveiled on August 1st at Poklonny Hill park in Moscow, where there are already memorials to other wars – including the second World War and the 1812 defeat of Napoleon – about which Russia feels more proud.
Statues by the two runners- up in the competition will be unveiled on the same day at Gusev in the Kaliningrad region and Pskov in western Russia, both scenes of important battles fought by the Russian imperial army against the central alliance.
The reasons why the Kremlin sought for so long to bury memories of the first World War go much deeper than the obvious fact that Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in 1918 and lost control of large swathes of territory in the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine.
Shot as traitors
Many of the soldiers who survived the battles went on to fight for the White army in the bloody civil war that tore Russia apart after the Bolsheviks or “Reds” seized power. Men who in other circumstances would have been hailed as heroes were rounded up in large numbers by the Soviets and shot as traitors.
In the Soviet encyclopedia the 1914-1918 war was dismissed as “an imperial struggle between capitalist powers for the redivision of a divided world.” Information about the war disappeared from the official historic narrative, which highlighted the rise of Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik revolution and the foundation of the first communist state.
Russia has struggled to come to terms with its history and establish a new identity since the Soviet Union collapsed.
President Vladimir Putin, who has set out to restore Russia’s great power status, understands the consolidating role history can play. Huge crowds attended an exhibition in Moscow honouring the 400th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty that the Russian president opened last year. A special commission founded by Putin is organising a series of exhibitions and educational events to mark the centenary and bring the first World War into the mainstream of Russian history and cultural life. Among the highlights will be the Last Battle of the Russian Empire at the State Historical Museum in Moscow’s Red Square – the first exhibition dedicated to the first World War staged in Russia.
“We live in a different country now and can look at the war more widely,” says Kirill Meerov, head of multimedia projects at the Historical Museum. “It was all so politicised before.”
An even more ambitious endeavour is under way in St Petersburg, where the authorities are restoring the first World War Museum founded at the Ratnaya Palata, or Armoury, by Tsar Nicholas II in 1915. Most of the original exhibits either disappeared or were hidden in archives when the Soviets took power and destroyed the place. Curators have appealed to the Russian public to donate any first World War memorabilia they can find, from old photographs, clothing to binoculars and gas masks.
Soviet and more recently Russian directors have made countless films about the second World War and are now looking to the first World War for inspiration. With the support of the Russian culture ministry, Igor Ugolnikov is producing Death Battalion, which tells the story of a woman who joined Russia’s first female combat unit founded by the provisional government in 1917.
It was essential that Russia produced a film about the war to coincide with the centenary, Ugolnikov told the Vecherny Petersburg newspaper. “Few people want to talk about the first World War, it’s understandable that there is nothing to be proud of . . . Patriotism is not only about saying ‘Hurrah’; it’s about showing human tales from the war.”
Russians have mixed feelings about the revival of the war’s history. In recent years the Moscow authorities have installed war memorials in the former Brethren cemetery and allowed the descendants of White army soldiers to reinstate tombstones torn down in the Soviet era.
However, Tatiana Bartsova, a local pensioner who grew up at a time when it was forbidden to talk about the cemetery, said it was best not to dig up the past. “Everyone died – even officers – in that meat grinder, and the civil war was even worse. All over Moscow we are walking on bones.”
Fabulous Faberge Takes a Peek Inside Imperial Russia Topic: Faberge
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the June 19th, 2014 edition of the National Post. The author David Berry, owns the copyright of the version presented below.
As objets d’art go, there is not now nor is there likely to ever be anything more famous than the intricate Easter eggs designed by Peter Carl Fabergé. They were commissioned by the Russian czars from 1885 until the Bolshevik revolution made both imperialism and gilded, jewelled imperial presents fall sharply out of favour. Crafted by hand, extravagantly decorated, and each containing a special surprise inside, the Fabergé eggs evoke an opulent style and time with their name alone.
“The work is still a living symbol,” explains Nathalie Bondil, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which has just opened a deep and detailed exhibit of the craftsman’s work, Fabulous Fabergé: Jeweller to the Czars. “But the name, it remains something completely historical — its history is done. It’s a bit like Napoleon: I can feel the same fascination, the same fetishism, because they symbolize a moment of great history. The power of suggestion is so, so strong.”
That was true even before they had a century worth of legend-building. Many of Fabergé’s greatest creations, including several of the 50 eggs he is said to have made for the imperial family (he made a handful of others for private clients), were either scrapped or sold by the Soviets as part of their “treasure into tractors” program, which aimed to both raise money and wipe out the traces of Russia’s royal past.
Nearly 100 years later, they are now some of the most sought-after pieces of Russian history in the world, particularly by the modern heirs to the Czars, the oligarchs who have made billions in the rush back to capitalism. Viktor Vekselberg, chairman of the Renova Group and Russia’s third-richest man, has bought 11 of the Imperial eggs for the $100-million total, and the recently rediscovered third egg just sold for about $35-million to a private collector, believed to be a Russian.
This hunger for the hallmarks of Imperial Russia’s pre-eminent designer makes the MMFA exhibit, on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the most impressive collection of Fabergé works outside their homeland. Though it features a host of pieces, particularly miniature objects, the exhibit is organized around the four Imperial eggs Virginia has in its collection: The blue-and-gold Cesarevich, which reveals a diamond-encrusted portrait of Nicolas II’s heir Alexei; the relatively simple red gold Pelican, with a jewel-encrusted figurine of the bird perched on top; the intricate Peter the Great, which commemorates the 200th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg; and the Red Cross, presented during the First World War and featuring members of the Imperial family dressed as Sisters of Mercy.
Each egg is used to explain some part of the world from which it sprang, including the tradition of eggs in the Orthodox church, the history of Imperial Russia and the role of Fabergé in imperial society. They’ve also been set against works by modern designers, which, as Bondil explains, is a way of taking the pieces of the pedestal and getting them into a conversation with the modern audience.
“We wanted to show it a new way, a way that wasn’t cute or kitsch or old-fashioned … I think sometimes because Fabergé is so well known, it can get a little overlooked, [treated] a little hands-off. But they should be conversational … each object represents so much more than itself,” she explains, before adding that there was a practical motive behind displaying other works with the Fabergé, too. “A lot of these works are miniatures, which are very, very small; they’re exquisite, but they’re not so easy to display.”
Fabulous Fabergé: Jeweller to the Czars is on until Oct. 5 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.