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.
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 Minneapolis.
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 assassinated.
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.