This original research study will examine the town of Pushkin/Tsarskoe Selo (Russia) and its historical/cultural museums, focusing on the methods by which Russia's historical heritage is conveyed and constructed through the displays in these museums.
The town of Pushkin, in the 1930's renamed in honor of the famous Russian poet who lived and studied there in the early 1800's, was originally known as Tsarskoe Selo (which in translation from Russian means "The Imperial Settlement/Village"). The town was founded circa 1715 by Peter I (the Great) and subsequently further developed by his daughter Empress Elizabeth into a summer imperial residence and a prominent suburb of the new Russian capital, St Petersburg (1).
Until the Russian revolution in 1917, Tsarskoe Selo was considered the most elite suburban town in Russia, having been the first location in the country to get a railroad service and the first in Europe to get electricity (1). Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, and his family resided permanently in Tsarskoe Selo from 1896 to 1917 when they were kept there under house arrest by the Provisional Government prior to being transferred to an exile to Siberia (and to their subsequent execution). Currently, the town's population is approximately 109,000 residents (1) and it remains one of the "better" St Petersburg suburbs - close enough to the city to commute, yet far enough away to possess the benefits of a suburb. One of the largest employers in Pushkin is the Tsarskoe Selo Museum - Reserve, the Catherine Palace and Park - a major contributor to Pushkin's economy via tourism (2).
The main object of this study is to examine how Russian national heritage is reconstructed through the displays of two most prominent palace-museums in the town of Pushkin: the Catherine Palace (CP) and the Alexander Palace (AP). Technically, the AP cannot be considered a museum at this time as it is still under the jurisdiction of the Russian military government (which still occupies the main part of it with office and storage space), but the first floor of one of the wings has been "loaned" to the Tsarskoe Selo Museum-Reserve (TSMR) for their "Memories at the Alexander Palace" permanent exhibit since 1998. The AP is pending transfer to the Tsarskoe Selo Museum-Reserve complex at which point the plan is to fully restore it and make it a full-fledged palace-museum, like the CP.
The study focuses on two palace museums: the Alexander Palace (AP) - the last royal private residence of Tsar Nicholas II (1872-1918) and his family, and the Catherine Palace (CP)¨C the largest and best known official palace of the town of Tsarskoe Selo (TS).
One of the main goals was to establish and identify particular historical events and describe how these events are reconstructed in the displays at the museums. The study also contemplates the role of the town of Pushkin (the town formerly known as Tsarskoe Selo - the summer capital of the Russian Empire prior to 1917), as a representation of the history and heritage of the Russian nationhood.
Based on the main objective, the approach was to examine the construction of Russian history through different perspectives of:
1. The museum curators
2. The museum visitors
3. The researcher.
Three perspectives: the insight of the museum staff (including curators/administrators), the museums' visitors' and the researcher's are integrated to create a narrative and some conclusions. Data collection for the first two perspectives was conducted by means of semi-structured interview guide. The third was based on personal observations of the researcher, recorded in a daily diary.
1. History of Tsarskoe Selo and its palaces within Russian history - as perceived by the museum staff.
2. Determine how the image conveyed through the displays is perceived by the public (the visitor's interpretation).
The study was conducted on location, in the town of Pushkin, Russia, where the researcher resided for a little over 4 weeks (July 22 – August 26, 2005). The researcher was able to visit and observe the museums and other parts of the town every day during this time period.
Below are the descriptions of the two groups of participants: the museum staff and the museum visitors. The first group includes four professional staff members (curators) of TSMR, all females between the ages of 35 and 55. These participants were recruited (in person) during the time the researcher was working at the museum as an intern.
Participant Group 1 (Professional Museum Staff):
The second group of participants consisted of the tourists (both Russian and non-Russian) who visited the museums within the last three years. Five members of this group were recruited online, from a Russian history discussion site, The Alexander Palace Time Machine Discussion Forum (http://hydrogen.pallasweb.com/cgi-bin/yabb/YaBB.cgi). The remaining three were Pushkin residents who were recruited in person. This group consisted of two males and six females, between the ages of 30 and 70.
Participant Group 2 (Visitors)
Data collection tools included two questionnaires, which consisted of approximately 10 questions each. One set of questions was created for Participant Group 1- the museum professionals, the other for Participant Group 2- the museum visitors. This included guided interviews and informal conversation, the content of which was recorded in a notebook during, or immediately after, the interview. The museum staff was interviewed on the museum premises at various times. Some of the visitors were interviewed in person, at various locations in Pushkin, others in writing, via email. During the duration of the study, the researcher kept a personal diary where observations and other data relevant to the study were recorded regularly. As far as the museum staff members were concerned, the researcher had a unique “insider-outsider” status, which was the result of the position as a museum intern (“insider”), while at the same time not being a permanent part of the museum staff, or a Russian national (“outsider”).
“I do not rule Russia – ten thousand clerks do.”
Shortly after my arrival in Russia, I telephoned the office of the Director of Tsarskoe Selo Museum-Reserve, introduced myself and arranged a time to come in person to speak to someone about my study. Upon my arrival there, I was greeted by the administrative assistant of the museum’s director, once again explained the purpose of my visit and asked to meet with appropriate people. I was told that I might be able to meet the museum director.
Having spent some time in the front office, I was told that the museum director was too busy to see me today, but that I could be introduced to some others who may be of more assistance. I was told to return later that day, which was when I was able to meet with museum’s International Relations Liaison who, after again clarifying my goals, introduced me to the Deputy Director of Research.
In a room where I met with the Deputy Director (henceforth to be known as Participant 1 - P1), some items were laid out for display, and I was told that a private exposition took place earlier that day, for a group called the “Friends of Tsarskoe Selo”. Items included clothing, toys, clocks, dishes, etc. I was told that these items were there on loan from various antique dealers and museums, and were for sale. As it turned out, this private exposition was why the museum staff was very busy that morning. “The Friends of Tsarskoe Selo” consisted of a group of people, mainly from North America, who are interested in preserving artifacts of Russian history and heritage for its museums. They are the benefactors of the Tsarskoe Selo Museum Reserve, but instead of donating cash they contribute objects they purchase for the museum.
Members of this group are invited to attend private exhibitions annually, and to purchase some of the items displayed in these exhibits, in an auction. They donate the items they purchased to the museums and in return receive the membership to the “Friends of Tsarskoe Selo” and privileges to view items and areas in the palaces, which are not accessible to the general public, exhibits that the general public, or even the museum staff, does not normally see. Because of the timing of our meeting, P1 was able to show me some of the private displays that this group saw that morning, before they were dismantled. When asked why these displays were dismantled, P1 explained that these were private displays created specifically for the “Friends of Tsarskoe Selo”. Some of the items in the displays were those donated to the museum by this group in the past, and (as it was explained to me by P1 and later P4) they are not currently a part of any regular displays at the museum, but are kept in various private funds, not generally available to the public. Some of the objects that the North American organization donated to the museum are original objects from either the Catherine or the Alexander Palace. These items were taken out of Russia at the time of the revolution and thus survived destruction or falling into oblivion (the fate that most items which stayed in Russia met). But because items inherent to the palaces are extremely rare even outside of Russia, most of the pieces donated are analogous objects, created by the same artisans during the same time period.
The creation and dismantling of displays for someone’s benefit on my initial visit to the museum turned out to be my first official encounter with a practice that I came across regularly in Russia. The artificial façade created for specific occasions seems to be a common and accepted practice and is now almost a natural part of Russia’s mentality and culture. As I found out later there is in fact a term that exists in the Russian language that cannot be precisely translated into the English language: “pokazukha”, which roughly means “putting on a show for someone’s (usually someone important) benefit”, in this case it is a form of non-political propaganda.
As I learned through further research, this concept is by no means a new one, or is strictly a relic of the Soviet system (although it was vigorously practiced by the Soviets), as some would be tempted to imagine. A quick review of Russian history makes it clear that this concept goes back more than two hundred years, when, as conventional wisdom has it, Prince Gregory Potemkin - the favorite of Empress Catherine II who led the Crimean military campaign of 1787, had ordered the construction of hollow façades to appear as affluent peasant villages along the desolate banks of the Dnieper River. This was done in order to impress the monarch with the value of her new conquests, thus enhancing Potemkin’s own standing in the empress's eyes. Further, Potemkin created a series of obstacles, delaying Catherine’s trip from fall into winter, when heavy snow would disguise various problems of the roads. He also reportedly hired theatre set designers and builders from Moscow and Kiev to create these building facades, with nothing behind them, to line both sides of one single street through each village – the street which the empress’s entourage would be riding down. The Empress would speed by in her troika and marvel at all the beautiful new buildings, while it was too cold to stop and inspect behind them (4).
From this incident, which clearly has at least some roots in reality, the term “Potemkin Villages” has come to mean - especially in a political context - any hollow or false construct, literal or figurative, meant to hide the undesirable and to promote the desireable, even if the latter does not truly exist. Potemkin Village is "something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance". The artificiality of Potemkin Villages came to represent in the minds of many, Catherine’s superficial and halfhearted attempts to reform and liberalize her kingdom (4).
The concept of Potemkin Village continues to reverberate throughout Russian history, most certainly including the eighty years of the communist regime. In fact, it can be said that during that time, the concept was perfected and completely ingrained into the Russian culture. The notion of Potemkin Village seems to have become such a significant part of Russian mentality that it appears almost status quo and an acceptable idea that does not carry negative connotations. Hence, the 21st century version of the Potemkin Village concept is also subtly seen in institutional organizations like historical museums which endeavor to recreate the glory of Russian heritage, past and present, which does not necessarily exist.
From our conversation about the displays, we transitioned into another realm – that of internal institutional issues. I found out that behind the scenes things are a lot more complicated than they first appear. Coming in with the assumption of intentionality only, I realized that much of what is intended cannot be realized due to the institutional system itself blocking a process that should be fairly straight forward and relatively easy to achieve. Attempts to create are thwarted during the operational process itself, rendering them useless.
To those looking in from the outside (myself included), it is an irrational system which to the insiders seems rational, or at least not unacceptable. It is the premise of “external forces” regulating lives and actions, much like the pieces on a chess board. This is a theme which will come up again later.
“Whether you like it or not, history is on our side…”
- Nikita Khrushchev
History of the Museum as Told by the Staff
Reportedly, some of the current TSMR staff members are the descendants of the staff members who during WWII worked on evacuating the museum’s treasures. The current staff and curators I spoke with stated that they “love the Romanovs” - the last Russian Imperial family as individuals not as historical characters. Large portraits of the members of the family hang in most offices of the museum (most likely using the same nails in the walls that once held the portraits of Lenin, Stalin and other communist leaders).
Wednesday, August 3, 2005 and Thursday, August 4. The first person from the TSMR staff I interviewed was P1, who ended up being my major informant. P1 is an author of the book “Russkaya mebel” (“Russian furniture”) – which was the first book related to history of pre-revolutionary Russian furniture styles from the 18th century until 1917. Her experience includes 15 years at Peterhof Museum in another St Petersburg suburb, which also consists of a Palace-Museum/Park complex. Since 1996, she started working at the Catherine Palace, and has held her current position since 1999.
When P1 started at the TSMR, she worked on an exhibition where only original items from the AP were shown. Most of these items were borrowed from other museums because TS Museum no longer owned them. They were mostly pieces of artwork, because this was what was commonly saved from the destruction of Bolshevik revolution. Personal items, which belonged to the members of the imperial family, are extremely rare because they were either destroyed or disguised to make them less dangerous to their subsequent owners in the post revolutionary Soviet Union. Later on it became impossible to identify them. (P1)
Currently, the AP is not part of the museum complex that belongs to the TSMR, as it still belongs to the Russian Military. But it is in the process of being transferred, which will take several years. Due to financial difficulties this is a complicated process and it is unclear at this time exactly when the transfer of ownership will take place. (P1)
Our conversation went back in time to the early 19th century of AP’s history. Whenever Nicholas I and Alexander I stayed at the AP, they were lodged in the west wing. The AP was Nicholas I’s favorite summer palace, and on the eve of WWII, many private objects from his collection were saved from the AP. Since most artwork was saved, when part of the palace was restored for the exhibit, many of these paintings came back.
All members of the imperial family got excellent education in art and always collected good art. Many of the current expositions, and the future ones, are of the art collections, which belonged to various members of the imperial family. There are still a lot of original items remaining, but the original space where they were held has not been restored, so other space will have be used to show them (P3).
The family of Nicholas I lived at the AP until the death of their daughter Alexandra at the age of 19, after which they moved out. After they moved, the palace was reconstructed completely (P1, P4). Today, large portraits of Nicholas I’s children still hang on the walls of the portrait hall. Although once in a while original items from the AP are found and purchased for the exhibit (such was the case of the clock that once belonged to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the wife of Nicholas I), most items donated are generally not the original items from the palace that actually belonged to the members of the imperial family who resided at the AP, but analogous items, made by the same artisans during the same time period, or come from the same batch, etc. These items are then displayed at the museum to give the visitor the idea of the types of items that were once here. However, the original owners of these items are unknown, since records were deliberately not kept during the communist regime, because owning items that once belonged to or were in any way connected to the imperial family, or to members of the nobility in general, would have put their subsequent owners in political danger. (P4)
According to P1, it was not uncommon for former noble families to rub off the imperial emblem from china or other items they owned, in order to hide their origin, so as not to appear to be imperial sympathizers, which would have put them in grave danger during the Soviet era (P2). After the fall of communism, the opposite phenomenon occurred. In search of national imperial identity, any pre-Revolutionary imperial items gained a special value – the highest value of all other artifacts. (P1, P2)
Some of the original items from the AP, which belonged to the Russian imperial family still exist, but they now belong to other museums. They were taken out of the palace before WWII, to other cities, and thus were saved from destruction by occupying German forces in 1940’s. Presently, these items remain the most valuable collections in other museums - therefore they refuse to return them to the AP. They feel that the fact that these items were taken in by them before the war saved them, and if it weren’t for that, these items would not exist today. Therefore, they feel, these items rightfully belong to them. The AP curators understand and sympathize with this view: they would feel the same way were they in their places. (P1, P2, P3, P4)
August 24th, 2005. Another study participant was the Head of the Expositions Department (P3). According to her, the museum’s Expositions Department consists of three staff members, its head being a historian by education, who grew up under the Soviet era. Her main interest is to convey the real events in the lives of real people - the every day history of the imperial family. The objective should be presented so as to interest the visitor in the history behind the displays, so that they leave the museum with the feeling of wanting to know more. It is all about the public and their interests. (P3)
P3 stated that the entire staff of the Expositions Department is involved in the display decision-making process, in addition, a team of representatives from other departments, as well as liaisons from outside agencies are involved in brainstorming as to the themes and arrangements of each display. Unlike the Hermitage Museum, where they have separate people for concept and for realization, in TSMR the members of the Expositions Department are involved in the entire process. (P3)
The concept of the 1999-2000 Nicholas and Alexandra Exposition abroad was also created by the TSMR as an extension of the Russian museum. The idea was for Russian history to be conveyed through the expositions, particularly the history of TS, to the non-Russians. TS was the summer capital of the Russian Empire, it also represented the private history of the imperial family as individuals who spent their lives here. More than that, TS was the reflection of the whole nation on a smaller localized scale. In all the exhibitions, TSMR cooperated with GARF (Gosudarstvenii Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatzii - State Archives of the Russian Federation). (P3)
The Expositions Department is planning a special exhibit in 2010 – for the 300-year anniversary of the town of Tsarskoe Selo, as well as a foreign exposition that TSMR will be involved in abroad: Russia - Tsar to Emperor (in Iceland, Finland, Belgium). Hermitage is leading the planning of these expositions and also allows TS Museum to lead in the current foreign exhibits. (P3)
From the very beginning of the museum’s history, Anatoli Lunacharsky, the son of a local government official, was the one who played a major role in preserving the AP. It was by his initiative that an orphanage was created there and because of that the AP remained intact after 1917, even though it once served as the private residence of the then reviled last Tsar. (P3) At around the same time a catalogue was created of the missing AP items, which is still used today to set up exhibits. The goal of these exhibits remains the same for everyone – the guides are heavily trained in history, art, etc. The exhibits are set up to stir an emotional response from the visitor. They try to combine academic research with popular appeal to attract as wide an audience as possible. (P3)
The Alexander Palace became an official museum in 1917 (since the revolution) and remained so until just before WWII. (P3). In 1941, Pushkin and its palaces were occupied by the Germans, and AP was used for various purposes by them. In front of the palace, German graves still exist. (P1, P3)
From the AP, the main items that were evacuated on the eve of WWII were the art works and any other items of real value. Very few private belongings were saved, since there was neither time nor the desire to evacuate private items, which represented individuals who were at this time vilified. Hence, mostly formal state items were saved, private things were not considered as important and many were left behind and consequently perished. The goal during the soviet era was to get away from the individual owners of the items and shift the focus on their style as a work of art (P1).
Before WWII, the entire 18th century collection of various personal items was still intact, including many items belonging to Nicholas I, as the AP was his favorite private summer palace. There were large portraits of his children in the portrait hall. His family lived there until their daughter Alexandra died, then they moved out and everything was reconstructed after that. (P1, P3) The only Emperor whose personal belongings were actually evacuated from the palace during WWII was Alexander II, known as the Tsar Liberator - who had some respect from the communist government because of his history of liberating the serfs. Alexander II also reformed the army service structure from a very long-term service to short-term service, realizing that it would make better soldiers and better army. (P4) Currently there is a permanent exhibit at Catherine Palace’s Cameron Gallery entitled “Alexander II and Tsarskoe Selo”.
At the Cameron Gallery’s Alexander II exhibit, which I visited after the interview, a lot of the focus was on the military aspects – uniforms, guns, etc. Some exhibits had personal things, like the tsar’s own watercolors, various personal items, which belonged to Alexander II or the imperial family. Most items were collected from his offices in various other places, not all being native to the Tsarskoe Selo palaces.
The library collection from the AP was one of the few personal collections that was saved. The books from the AP Library were transported to Ekaterinburg after the revolution and later returned to the AP. About 4,000 books were returned to the museum – a large part of them was Catherine the Great’s private library, including the book collection she purchased from Voltaire’s estate after his death. Most of these books are now at the Russian National Public Library. But at least two recently discovered books from this collection (with Voltaire’s numerous annotations) are still kept at the Rare Book Fund at the Catherine Palace. (P2)
After WWII, central storage was set up at the State Museum at Pavlovsk, which received a lot of the original items from the AP because their building was restored first. Many items also got distributed among various other museums, and at present time it is a complicated political process to try to return them to the AP, which will most likely never happen. (P3)
After WWII, the AP was not reinstated as a museum, which was done intentionally according to P1. At this time, there was a lot of interest in the palace, and its doors were closed due to “too much” interest. The closure started with the children’s wing (east wing, second floor) (P1). This did not happen by chance. The government was not happy with the idea that the public was so interested in the last imperial family, and preserving their last residence as a museum would bring forth too many uncomfortable questions as to their fate – particularly that of the imperial children. Exhibiting their personal items would remind the public of their individuality and humanity and possibly evoke pity and remorse, which was the last thing the Soviet government wished for. Hence, the children’s wing was closed first, the rest of the museum followed and was closed shortly and was used for governmental purposes. (P1)
The Russian people are very interested in their pre-revolutionary history, particularly in the last Tsar, his family and their last residence – the AP (P7). But as more information emerged about what happened to the last imperial family after the perestroika, it became a sore spot in Russian history. The Russian people are now ashamed of what happened, of what they had done (P6). The Russian people look at the revolution with regret thinking “it should have been done differently” but when asked precisely what could have been done differently, there seems to be no answer. In lieu of the current situation in the country, all the past history is seen in a nostalgic light (P6).
The current AP exhibit opened in 1997 as a temporary/semi-permanent exhibit. A lot of the original structure, floors, fireplaces, etc, still exists at the AP, but not the east wing, the wing that is open to the public today (P4). When the restoration of the entire AP begins, they will try to encompass different eras of the palace’s life. Acute problems such as a leaky roof are usually taken care of immediately, but other restoration will take a very long time in planning (P4). When the AP becomes a museum once more, a lot will have to be restored - many details are already planned but the main things need to be done first. Currently, only the first floor of the east wing was semi-restored for the permanent exhibit: “Memories at the Alexander Palace”. This was the wing that the last imperial family actually called their home. (P4) There are plans to restore much of the AP, including private apartments of the imperial family. But before that can be done, the main areas of the palace need to be restored first. Currently about 70% of all that has already been restored is not related to the Russian imperial family, yet it still remains a very emotional tour for the visitors, particularly Russian nationals, due to the current state of mind of the Russians. P1 had emphasized several times how the Russians today love the Romanovs and all they stood for. As if to confirm this, in many of the staff offices, including P1’s office, large portraits of the members of the imperial family hang on the walls.
“When the Tsar has a cold, all of Russia coughs"
- Old Russian Proverb
Touring the Palace Museum
The west wing of the AP always contained the imperial quarters, and the heir to Alexander III’s throne, the future Nicholas II, was born there. The east wing held the servants’ quarters, as well as rooms for foreign royal guests such as Marie of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess Elizabeth, Alexandra’s sister and wife of Nicholas’s uncle Grand Duke Sergei. Nicholas and Alexandra used to stay in the west wing when visiting Tsarskoe Selo, but when they decided to settle at the AP permanently, they chose the east wing. At this time, a tunnel leading from the separate AP kitchen building located on the east side of the palace, was built, leading to the Maple Room. This tunnel was used at meal times by the kitchen staff to bring food over to the imperial family. Today, the tunnel is used as storage space by the Russian government to whom the space belongs. (P3, P4).
As soon as a large enough group forms in the front room, a tour guide leads it through the east wing of the palace. In the first room, which contains the portraits of Catherine the Great, who built the AP, as well as Alexander I – the favorite grandson she built it for, his brother Nicholas I – who made it a semi permanent residence for him and his family, and some of other early palace owners. The first famous exhibit is that of the Mauve Boudoir – the Empress Alexandra’s sitting room, commonly referred to in many books and films about the last rulers of Russia. A few of the original pieces can be seen among analogues and current replicas: a writing desk and chair, a weaving basket, a phonograph. This room is known for having exclusively mauve wallpaper, curtains and other décor, as well as for its immense collection of icons. The icons on the walls of the exhibit are not originals.
Nicholas’ New Study has been almost completely restored, including its original loft. The museum guides point out to the visitor that this is where the last tsar’s wife Alexandra would hide and listen to his conversations with officials during the early years of WWI.
Many of the items in the study are originals, restored for the 1997 film (Romanovi-Ventzenosnaya Sem’ya) (P4). Hence, the displays can be viewed as “theatrical” (the term that P1 later used to refer to the black-and-white backdrops in each display room of AP). Much of the furniture and other items diplayed at the entire exhibit came from the actual movie set. The rooms where the current exhibit is now located served as a set in a 1997 production and filming of the Russian historical drama mentioned above, roughly translated as “Romanovs: the Imperial Family”. At the time when Russian history was once again in the process of being re-written due to the latest events, this film depicts the lives of the last Tsar and his family – a new attempt to view them as non-political individuals and a “normal” family. The producers felt it was necessary to film on location – at the palace the family actually lived until the revolution. Viewing this may serve as a good tool to understand how the last Tsar and pre- revolutionary Russia is viewed in today’s Russian society. The history of the last imperial family is closely associated with the history of Russia – it is as if taking Nicholas II back into favor, the Russian people are trying to negate a little of what happened in the second decade of the 20th century. This film too serves as a device for the creation of Russian heritage and it is very symbolic that it was shot in this palace museum, which now uses its former set as an exhibit.
The perception of the film by the “outsiders” (non-Russians) as an attempt to reflect Russia’s state of mind can be quite varied, and one observation in particular stood out. From a post on the Alexander Palace discussion forum: “ [In the film]… Nicholas and Alexandra’s bedroom is recreated so faithfully that it is almost indistinguishable from photographs of the real thing… But that’s it for historical accuracy. The minute you start paying attention to what the characters are actually saying, you realize that what this film presents is not an episode of Russian history but a new Russian national myth about the last tsar and his family… Not surprisingly, no mention is made here of Rasputin, recently murdered, or of his deleterious effect on the Romanovs’ reputation. Because as it turns out the Romanovs were "really" brought down not by their own actions or by the Russian people themselves but by the treacherous, lily-livered elite and a conspiracy of "outside" agitators. Thus the outbreak of protests in Petersburg is presented as peaceful and of no danger to the monarchy until two mysterious men (German agents? socialists?) are shown throwing a bomb into the middle of a demonstration. The implication being that the March Revolution was the handiwork of agents/provocateurs, and not a "real" expression of the popular will… [T]he filmmakers are at great pains to show how very Russian the imperial family was… not only in their religious faith but also down to singing Russian romances together and dancing about to the strains of a balalaika… [C]ut from the brutal, bloody execution scene to the year 2000 and the ceremonial burial of the imperial family in the cathedral, with everyone in the congregation holding up images of the holy martyrs...” (3). The observations are quite accurate, although the things mentioned are very subtle, almost subliminal. The message of the film is clear: the Russian people did not want the revolution, they did not want to kill the imperial family, but they loved them. Russia has been “done wrong” by external forces, something that was out of their control, while the Russian people were just pieces on a chessboard, who have nevertheless are paying for what happened.
Next to the study is the room where Nicholas’s Aide De Camp used for his duty - there are displays of military uniforms in front of the original wardrobe. Next to that is the room where Nicholas’s pool was originally located, it has now been converted to a library where surviving books from the AP are kept and displayed in reconstructed bookcases (P4). The original AP library, where these books were kept, is not part of this exhibition, it will be restored when the AP becomes a museum again.
Part of the room which was once a larger family room with another loft (called the Maple Room) now contains various displays related to the last imperial family. There is a large group photo of the family and under it is a poem written about this photo. On the walls of this room are various images/paintings of the Feodorovsky Cathedral and Gorodok (Little Town).
Feodorovsky Madonna was the Romanov family icon. Alexander III and his son Nicholas II, both slavophiles, wanted to return Russia to its original Slavic roots and history. Unlike his earlier predecessor Peter the Great, Nicholas II loved all things Russian and in the first decade of the 20th century, while Russia was getting entangled in the first world war, and German sounding names of Russian cities were being “russified”, Nicholas was building Feodorovsky Gorodok - a tribute to the ancient Russian architecture, culture and history. He hoped to return to the original roots of the Romanov dynasty, while unknown to him this was the time just before this dynasty ended. (P4). The architecture of Feodorovsky Cathedral within the walls of the Gorodok, also commissioned by Nicholas in 1909, is reminiscent of the Cathedral in Kostroma at the Ipatiev Monastery, where the Romanov dynasty originated with Mikhail Romanov. It was as if Nicholas II closed the circle by building the cathedral in Tsarskoe Selo, where the Romanov dynasty ended.
The Gorodok, a tiny pseudo-town, was the last Tsar’s patriotic attempt to return his country to the original Russian culture starting with its native architecture. Even seen today, in ruins, it is obvious that the Gorodok indeed is a replica of an ancient traditional Russian town, complete with a “kremlin” - the protective wall, which surrounds it. Completed in 1912, Nicholas had many ambitious plans for the Gorodok and the cathedral within it. But the First World War halted his plans, while the revolution ended them completely. Currently the Gorodok stands in ruins, almost as symbol of things that could have been but never came to fruition (P4).
After the revolution, the plan was to destroy Feodorovsky Cathedral, but for some unclear reason it never happened (P4). It is uncertain when, or if, any restoration of the Gorodok is planned, although the Cathedral has been fully restored in August of 2005 and is now fully functional.
In Nicholas’s Reception Room (the last room of the AP exhibition), all paneling is original. According to P4, the restorer’s goal was to recreate personal atmosphere as well as the imperial history behind it, at the moment that it all ended. The tour guides’ story of the last days of the imperial family at the Alexander Palace, as well as the story of their execution is told in the last room of the exhibition. The tour guide also mentions the imperial remains found in Ekaterinburg and only recently interred at the St Peter and Paul Cathedral, making a point that not everyone accepts these remains as authentic, least of all the Russian Orthodox Church.
The imperial family members, particularly the children, are currently viewed as individuals with no political significance. The guides talk about interpersonal relationships between the Tsar, the Tsarina and their children as a normal family. During the tour, excerpts from personal letters are quoted: the children’s personal feelings and problems are mentioned. A parallel is drawn between Marie Antoinette of France and Empress Alexandra – when the guide points out the tapestry in the Grand Hall. (P4)
“Men often applaud an imitation and hiss the real thing”
During the interview, P1 pondered several times on the idea of complete restoration of the AP: should it be restored to its original pre-Revolutionary state? Ultimately she answered her own question, reasoning that since many of the original items from the AP no longer exist, it would be difficult to retain the aura of authenticity if exact restoration is attempted, what will be achieved would be purely reproductive, lacking any authenticity. Although an attempt to restore the palace to its exact original state may give people the feel of what it really looked like, the exact restoration is not really desirable since it will lack authenticity in the direct historical sense – something which can never be achieved at the AP. Alas, most of the items from the palace no longer exist and there is no real collection that can be used as part of restoration. The few rare items from the AP that survived the revolution now belong to another museum. They have, however, on at least one occasion had been able to borrow these items for a temporary exhibition (P3, P4).
Some visitors do not realize that the items displayed are not original items from the palace, and not even analogues (P 10, P11). The displays in every room of the temporary exhibit have floor to ceiling black-and-white backdrops against each corresponding back wall, with pre-WWII images of each room and the items that it used to hold. When asked to elaborate on these backdrops, P1 stated that these were created before she assumed her present position and did not know what the goal behind this type of an approach was. She felt that the curators took a “theatrical” approach, but she is unsure what they were going for. Originally the idea was to show through these black and white images what these rooms looked like prior to WWII, providing there were at least 2 or 3 original items available for display. But as more objects were acquired by the museum - not the originals but analogues, the rooms began to look less and less like the photos, and the backdrops no longer worked effectively. (P1) Most museum visitors agree that the backdrops are ineffectual – they add nothing but distract from the exhibit (P5, P9-12).
According to P4, the black and white backdrop approach started out with a temporary exposition at the AP that displayed items that were strictly inherent to the AP - mainly personal belonging of Catherine II, which included lots of paintings. Then the black and white backdrop was created and at least one or two items displayed on this photo had to be included in each exhibit. The furniture used in the displays of the Alexander Palace was built for a film set. The movie, ‘Romanovi: Ventzenosnaya Sem’ya” (“Romanovs: the Imperial Family”) was filmed on location at the palace, and in return for allowing this, the film studio donated the furniture to the palace to use in their exhibit. The film portrayed the private life of the last imperial family viewing them not in the political light, but as just an ordinary family. Because the furniture was given to the palace, the exhibit at the Alexander Palace was created. Without this furniture, there would be too few items to exhibit, as each room only contains 2-4 original items or analogues from the contemporary time period. Hence the museum display literally became part of a movie set, where historical reality became fluid and the displays are a form of story telling based on a script.
In contrast to the CP, the AP was not changed drastically from its original design, but things were added, particularly in the east wing where the servant’s quarters were from 1896 then from 1903. (P1)
P1 spoke about the CP: the almost fully restored main palace museum of the town of Pushkin. When the revolution had abruptly transferred the ownership of the palaces from the imperial family to the people, the CP was found to be full of artifacts of the tsars: imperial furniture, 18th century art, and many personal belongings such as clothes. Initially, the concept of its restoration was to return the palace to its original period – Rastrelli’s design (Baroque). In 1918 many items from the CP were given away or sold: dishes, linens, clothes, rugs uniforms. At this time all inventory was taken and the palace became a museum. (P1)
Most visitors, particularly foreign ones, come to the CP with a group led by a tour guide, and are literally rushed through only one half the museum which always includes the Amber Room. The Amber Room is probably the single most famous tourist attraction of the palace. P10: “I have read a great deal about the Amber Room, seen pictures, know the story and the legends. But nothing had prepared me for the real thing. I am not easily amazed or impressed, but I could not leave the room. Stunned is probably close to the truth… What blew me away … was… that it is the recreation by modern hands…” The legend of the Amber Room precedes it. Films have been made and books, both fiction and nonfiction, have been written about this 200 square feet of space. Reactions from tourists like P10 are not uncommon.
Behind the scenes, things are not nearly as poetic. I had the chance to visit the amber shop, where the Amber Room was recreated. With no sophisticated tools or gadgets, the new Amber Room was probably created in much the same way as the original, three hundred years ago. Even the dyes for the amber were kept in used soda bottles – no special containers! Only six masters worked on the entire room, and it took them many years to complete it. It was difficult to believe that a glamorous legend was created in such unglamorous, unsophisticated and even mundane, atmosphere.
The CP had suffered damage from two major fires, in 1820 and 1863, and was subsequently almost completely restored. But the most devastating damage from fire occurred at the end of WWII when, as the Germans were retreating, the palace was burned almost to the ground. Fortunately, a lot of the artwork and décor was previously evacuated and saved by dedicated curators, but much still perished (2).
The remaining part of the palace that did not burn down in 1863 was the chapel – the area directly below the onion domes of the CP. The chapel at this time is not open to the public, but I had the chance to get a private tour with one of the curators. The chapel is still in excellent condition and needs minimal restoration, except for the floors, which is the reason why it is closed to the public (P4). During the Nazi occupation of WWII this chapel was used by the German soldiers as garage for their motorcycles. Ramps were fashioned through the large floor-to-ceiling chapel windows in a way that allowed the motorcycles to be driven directly into the chapel. It is unclear why the chapel alone was left untouched while the rest of the palace burned down (P4).
During the Soviet era the CP was restored in one single style: the original Baroque designed by Rastrelli for Empress Elisabeth. All other additions by subsequent Russian emperors were ignored as if they never existed. Only after perestroika were the restorers allowed to add other styles from other owners of the palace, such as Classical style contributed by Catherine II (P1). Studying historical styles of individual owners was “not recommended” during the Soviet era. But as far as the museum staff was concerned: nothing had changed after the perestroika, except that they can now talk freely about the owners of these private collections as individuals, talk about their personality preferences, which made these collections what they are. (P1, P4) Prior to perestroika, exhibits at the CP focused on artistic styles of the objects, time periods, their owners were mentioned very vaguely and cautiously. After perestroika, the curators were able to focus on the individuals, in this case the imperial family and their private lives. Their private collections, which reflect the personalities and individuality of the former imperial owners, can now be displayed and discussed. (P1, P4) According to both P3 and P4, the CP restorers decided to keep to the original Rastrelli period, although other periods are also represented, albeit to a much lesser extent.
" Some things lead us into a realm beyond words."
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Pushkin is located on a hill, and from its outskirts near the Egyptian Gates, the skyline of St Petersburg can be seen. During the years of German occupation and the siege of Leningrad, the Germans were able to observe individual buildings through binoculars from this hill (P7). The town was occupied for four long years, between 1941and 1944 - the period which became ingrained in the town’s history and heritage - an unwelcome and painful part. During the four years of occupation, much of the town - people as well as buildings - was destroyed. After the war, the German prisoners of war were forced to rebuild the town - a task that lasted into the mid 1950’s. POWs built many of the residential and other buildings in Pushkin: they were forced to rebuild what they had destroyed during World War II (P7, P8).
There are very few remaining Pushkin natives who actually lived through WWII and the German occupation of the town. But when P12 moved to Pushkin from Volgograd 30 years ago, many of the WWII survivors were still alive and lived here. The town was respected then - therefore well kept, clean, safe and pleasant. The new generation does not know of that other life, so they do not respect what they have. The new generation is apathetic; they do not care about the same things as the older Soviet generation cared about (P12).
As heritage is recreated in Russia today, other parts of its history seem to be obscured. One of the most prominent examples of this is the World War II graveyard located in front of the Alexander Palace. The graveyard was created during the German occupation of Pushkin. German soldiers who were killed during this time were buried in front of the AP, where one of German headquarters was also housed. After the town was liberated, the graves stayed put and were never repatriated. Today, they are camouflaged beneath a large round flowerbed, with no plaque that may mention of what is still there. The only documented proof of this graveyard can be found in the Museum of the History of the Town of Tsarskoe Selo, where one archival photo and one painting of the graveyard are displayed. No mention of the existence of this graveyard can be found anywhere else.
Another prominent example of an attempt to erase history is the fate of Pushkin’s Jews during WWII. Most were victims of the same genocide that took place in countless towns and villages of Eastern and Central Europe. In the same museum of the town’s history, one can view archival photos of civilian Jewish residents of Pushkin hanging from lamp posts along the street adjacent to the Catherine Palace, as well as documented accounts of them being executed in the Alexander and Catherine parks. There are also documents that state that before being executed, the Jews of Pushkin were kept prisoners in the cellars of the Catherine Palace. Not one book or tour guide at the museum that I came across had mentioned these important facts, and very few people seem to be aware of them. Those who are aware of this appear reluctant to give more information. A memorial to the Jews of Pushkin just outside the gates of Alexander Park was recently erected with private funds, however it does not provide victim’s names or the background of what had occurred, and I was unable to obtain official historical information about it.
Nostalgia for illusions
"The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us then ten-thousand truths."
The most apparent theme that emerges when examining Russia’s heritage construction is that some of the local (Russian) participants of this study seem to be desperately trying to return to and recapture the moments just before Russian revolution occurred in 1917. It is almost as if they are looking back through a cloud of sentimental haze, disregarding anything negative that was happening during that time and idealizing history. They do not seem to ponder on why Russian history took the path it did, why the revolution occurred, but instead they seem to only wish to return to a time that in their minds is only remembered as “good”. Even very well educated participants expressed sentiments such as "we are now being punished for what we did during the revolution" (P8). Many do not seem to realize that possibly the changes were needed precisely when they occurred, only perhaps the wrong kinds of changes ended up being implemented.
The current Russian society seems to mirror the Russian society - a society of extremes - during the reign of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, in its general standard of living as well as its outlook. It seems that a full circle has been made, and as if the 90 years in between never happened.
And although many of the Russian natives I spoke with were nostalgic for the monarchy (even if they had never experienced it personally), there were others who felt the same about Stalinist era (P5-P8). One thing that both these groups had in common is that they spoke as if they had no control of their own destiny or of their country’s future history, as if they already accepted the idea that they are just pawns being moved around on the chessboard. This fatalistic attitude seems to be a common trait among the Russian people, pre- and post- revolution alike. It has been said that Tsar Nicholas II’s fatalistic attitude was partially responsible for the revolution, an attitude that led him to abdicate the throne (P7).
The Ghosts of the Past
The Ghosts of the Past
“Russia! Russia! I see you now, from my wondrous, beautiful past I behold you! How wretched, dispersed and uncomfortable everything is about you...”
-Nikolai Gogol “The Dead Souls”
Going into this study, I had some very specific objectives in mind, as well as specific targets of focus. But once I had the chance to listen and observe, my direction changed significantly. My initial impression was that the palace-museums were indeed the most important avenue through which the Russian heritage is conveyed to the public and that the native public learned of their heritage through these types of organizations.
Turned out that the places that were left untouched and un-restored are the ones that speak loudest to the visitors and the locals alike. The ruins of Pushkin, in an almost literal sense, are its outdoor museums - they transform the entire town of Pushkin, its streets, buildings and parks into a museum dedicated to Russia’s history.
This town is where the Russian revolution was conceived and born – with the arrest of the abdicated Tsar Nicholas II and his family. This was where the last Tsar lived immediately after the revolution: under house arrest with his wife and children – their last royal home before they were sent to Siberia where they met their deaths.
What reflects and evokes Russia’s imperial past most markedly are not the elaborately restored Catherine Palace-Museum, not even the more modest semi-restored Alexander Palace, but the abundant pre-revolutionary ruins found around the city of Pushkin. In the northwestern part of the Alexander Park - a relic of Russia’s imperial past in its own right - Feodorovsky Gorodok. Currently, the Gorodok stands in ruins, almost as a symbol of things that could have been but never came to fruition.
But in the summer of 2005, seeds of new Russia seem to be slowly burgeoning within the ruinous kremlin walls of the Feodorovsky Gorodok. Some of the buildings inside these walls have been converted to charity housing to benefit the most destitute and vulnerable population group in today’s Russia: the elderly - the function they were intended for in an another era - 100 long years ago. The Feodorovsky Cathedral - the Gorodok’s church - was recently restored to its former gilded glory and is fully operational. Tourists and Orthodox pilgrims alike flock to see the cathedral and to pay respects to the last Russian Emperor who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church along with the rest of his family.
An occasional walking tour, conducted strictly for the Russian-speaking locals (one never sees any western tourist groups here), attracts the curious and the devout - those who wish to hear the story behind these not-so ancient historical ruins. The guide reviews its history and ends with these words about the Feodorovsky Cathedral, undoubtedly meant to inspire: “The restoration of the Feodorovsky Cathedral represents a new hope for the Russian people and nation” (P5).
Many western tourists are not even aware of the existence of the Gorodok and the Cathedral. It is not part of the “mainstream” Tsarskoe Selo tour, nor is it usually mentioned in the tours of the museums. Those westerners who are in the know (perhaps having a special interest) and are intent on seeing the Gorodok while visiting Pushkin must go there on their own. According to them, it is a worthwhile trip. P12: “So exciting about the restoration of the Feodorovsky Cathedral. It is a beautiful building in a charmingly bucolic setting with a poignant history, indeed. Such restoration is ‘healing’ for the country… Russians have been through so much, and continue to struggle, to restore, rediscover, and/or to create a national identity for the 21st century. 75 years of destructive ‘interruption’ has done their national heritage no favors - that is for certain.”
Behind the cathedral, on the side of its former imperial entrance, is a memorial to its founder: Nicholas II. Propped up at its foundation is a framed picture of his son and heir Alexei, perhaps left there by one of the cathedral parishioners. I had visited this memorial on three or four different occasions, and each time found fresh flowers next to the photo. Behind the memorial are four oaks, personally planted by the last Tsar and Tsarina during the consecration of the cathedral in 1909. Unlike many “official” memorials to various Russian rulers, these oaks survived wars and revolutions, regime changes, and became one of the rare symbols of Russia’s historical continuity. The recognition of these artifacts is clearly a spontaneous attempt to return Russia to its imperial heritage – these symbols are not meant for the eyes of foreign tourists, not created to convey a certain message to a certain kind of a visitor. These are meant for the Russian people alone - to rekindle the faith in their heritage and to give them hope in the future of their nation.
The ruins of the former imperial station, standing some distance beyond the walls of the Gorodok is another area of the town of Pushkin that was left frozen in time. It too is a structure that still reflects the by-gone days of the imperial Russia. The station was used by members of the imperial family as well as palace officials arriving by train from St Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo. They were then taken from the station by coach to the AP or CP, a distance of about a mile and a half, which took the arrivals through the outskirts of the Feodorovsky Gorodok. Most certainly these visitors would see the golden domes of Feodorovsky Cathedral behind the Gorodok walls as they headed towards the palaces in their carriage.
Today the imperial train station ruins look so incongruous in the midst of the late 20th century residential buildings. The original train tracks are gone, while the walls are falling apart and full of graffiti, but the imperial insignia is still clearly visible.
While taking a car ride past the train station ruins with one of Pushkin’s residents (P8), I pointed out its historical background and asked if she knew of any future restoration plans. Surprisingly, P8 was not even aware of what these ruins once were, and admittedly never thought about them, even though she passed them every day on her way to work. She said that this moment was the first time she realized that she lived among so much history and never thought about its significance before this.
These places, more than any museum displays, evoke the nation’s heritage and bring forth emotions even in individuals with a minimal connection to the events that took place there less than a century ago.
The town of Pushkin – Tsarskoe Selo, is a place where Russia’s past and her present converge, not only through its carefully and deliberately restored palace-museums, but more so through its neglected ruins – artifacts untampered with since the passage of another era. Hence these artifacts recall the not so distant past effectively - in a way that none of the restored museum displays ever could. Unlike the palace-museums, the ruins - evidently not viewed as economically valuable by Russia’s tourist industry and which, for the most part, go unnoticed by tourists - are part of Russia’s past as well as its present – as strong symbols of continuity of the nation’s historical heritage. The entire town of Pushkin is the real heritage museum because it echoes Russia’s imperial past, while slowly but spontaneously evolving towards its still uncertain future.
1. Lastochkin, S.Y. and Rubezhansky, Yu.F. (2005). Tsarskoe Selo: the Residence of the Russian Monarchs (in Russian: Tsarskoe Selo: residentztia Rossiyiskikh monarkhov). St Petersburg: Sankt Peterburg.
2. Popova, N. and Raskin, A. (2003). Tsarskoye Selo: Palaces and Parks. Ivan Fedorov Publishers.
3. Tempest, Anne (Nov 26th, 2005, 12:38pm ). Alexander Palace Time Machine Discussion Forum. http://hydrogen.pallasweb.com/cgi-bin/yabb/YaBB.cgi?board=films_cat;action=display;num=1086018823;start=75#75 (retrieved on Nov. 28, 2005)
4. Laplante, P.A. The Polemic Village and the art of deception. Penn State University, Malvern, PA.
5. Pushkin/Tsarskoe Selo webpage http://www.pushkin-town.net/.pushkin/eng/nowhist.htm (retrieved October 25th, 2005).
Text and photos: Helen Azar (copyright 2005). Not to be used without author's permission.