Museum of Russian Art documents tragic Czarist past
Museum of Russian Art documents tragic Czarist past
Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
Updated: November 22, 2013
Clothing, dishes and other ephemera speak to Russia’s tragic Czarist
past in in "The Romanovs," a lush new show
at the Museum of Russian Art ( http://tmora.org/ )
Amid all the dazzling memorabilia — maps, letters, coronation menus,
photos, paintings, china and even bejeweled Fabergé buttons — in “The
Romanovs: Legacy of an Empire Lost,” it’s a humble petticoat that most
haunts the mind after leaving the Museum of Russian Art in south
Made of white batiste linen so fine it’s almost translucent, Anastasia’s
half-slip and someone else’s pretty blouse now adorn a tall mannequin in
a little side room. Her floor-length petticoat is simple, unembellished
aside from embroidery at the hem and two initials stitched in red at the
back of the narrow waistband: A.N. for Anastasia Nicolaevna, daughter
of Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia.
Anastasia wasn’t wearing that slip when she died sometime after midnight
July 17, 1918, in a basement in Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. She
and 10 others were murdered there — her parents, three sisters, a
brother, their doctor, maid, valet and cook.
Afterward reports were sent to Moscow, things were packed and shipped.
The civil war dragged on between the “Red” Bolshevik revolutionaries and
the “White” Russians loyal to the czar. The Romanov dynasty, which ruled
Russia for three centuries, faded into history and legend. But Romanov
things survived and found their way into the outside world, cherished by
monarchists, sold by the Soviet government, sought by collectors,
preserved by museums.
“Legacy” gathers more than 200 Romanov artifacts and historic documents
from 25 institutions and private collections, including souvenirs from
the 1896 coronation of Nicholas II brought home by a pair of pretty
Minnesota girls who were among the 15 American “Strangers of
Distinction” invited to the Kremlin festivities.
Beautifully designed and installed, as always at TMORA, the show offers
a transporting experience of Russia’s tragic past.
‘They became close to me’
It’s important to remember that “everything in this exhibition is
authentic; it’s the real stuff,” said curator Masha Zavialova, who
tracked down the material with help from a team of consultants.
A substantial portion is on loan from the Foundation of Russian History
at Holy Trinity Seminary, a Russian Orthodox repository in Jordanville, N.Y.
Anastasia’s skirt came indirectly from the czar’s sister, who was in
London when the family was killed. Fifty boxes of their goods were
shipped to her via Siberia, of which about half arrived, Zavialova said.
She in turn entrusted much of the material to the Orthodox church, a
traditional supporter of the czar.
“Working on this was really hard because I had to touch these things and
it was heart-wrenching,” said Zavialova, who grew up in St. Petersburg
in the Soviet era before moving in 2001 to Minnesota, where she earned a
doctorate at the University of Minnesota. “No leaders are perfect, as we
know, but Nicholas was a good person and they became close to me, people
I really feel I know.”
For all their tragic fame, Anastasia and her family are bit players in
the Romanov saga.
The marquee actors include Peter I the Great, who built St. Petersburg
as a gateway to the West during his reign from 1682 to 1725; Catherine
II the Great (1762-96), a willful German princess who disposed of her
Romanov husband and established her own imperial court as a center of
European art and culture, and Alexander II (1855-81), a modernizer who
emancipated the serfs in 1861, introduced jury trials and began to
reorganize the country as a constitutional monarchy before being
The wealth of Russian royals in their heyday is almost unimaginable now.
Paintings by Rembrandt, Raphael, Leonardo and luminaries of that ilk
lined their palaces; intellectuals including Voltaire enlivened the
court; bling abounded.
“Under Catherine the Great, you were served on silver and gold if you
were not important,” said Zavialova. “Only the imperial family was
served on porcelain because it was so expensive.”
But once the Romanovs established their own porcelain factory, they
turned the stuff out in bulk — exquisite hand-painted, gold-rimmed,
47,000-piece table settings. The show’s coronation memorabilia ranges
from a deep blue 1825 bowl rimmed with golden military insignia to a
banner-length menu for Nicholas II’s 1896 fete at which guests munched
an all-Russian menu of borscht, pickle soup, fish, pastry and ice cream.
Come the revolution, the luxe life ended as aristocrats fled the country
fearing for their lives. Strapped for cash, the Soviet government sold
paintings from the Hermitage palace in St. Petersburg to, among others,
American financier Andrew Mellon, who made them the core of what is now
the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Porcelain, jewelry,
icons and other artifacts were sold through New York’s Hammer Galleries,
where royal dinner plates fetched $55 each.
Newspaper articles, bank notes, stamps and other documents show the
change from Czarist to Soviet power.
“We’ve studiously tried not to proselytize for or against the
aristocracy,” said TMORA director Brad Shinkle. “We’re just trying to
provide a context for the history of Russia over 400 years.”
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431
See also: http://tmora.org/exhibition/the-romanovs-legacy-empire-lost/