FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
RUSSIAN ARTISANS RECREATE ROYAL ROOMS FOR JACKSON VISITORS
BY TOM PITTMAN
Visitors to Jackson can walk in the footsteps of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, when a world-class exhibit opens March 1. They can feel how Russian royalty lived while the United States was being born and before the Communists took over Russia in 1917.
Five Russian palace rooms will be re-created. In them will be more than 600 objects that once belonged to Russian czars and czarinas. Their exhibition will mark another step in a unique exchange between Mississippians and Russians.
“We have chosen very spectacular objects that will give a good impression of Russia,” said Dr. Vadim Znamenov, director of Peterhof. Peterhof is one of the four summer palaces that “lie like jewels around the city of St. Petersburg” and are lending objects and expertise to the exhibit.
“We will show our greatest objects in Mississippi. It will be a world-class exhibition,” said Dr. Nikolay Tretyakov, director of Gatchina Palace, which also is part of the exhibit. It’s the first time the four palace museums have cooperated in a joint exhibition. Most of the objects, which more than double the number that were in the Memphis 1991 Catherine the Great exhibit, have never been displayed outside Russia.
“What is unusual — and exceedingly so — is that the objects will be seen in their natural settings, which will be re-created.,” said Peter Schaffer, an owner of A La Vieille Russie, a New York shop that specializes in Russian art and antiques. “Usually they’re put in a static museum exhibit and this will be anything but that. You can almost picture Catherine the Great walking around this exhibit.”
Five rooms from the palaces will be re-created by Russian craftsmen, many of whom have been restoring the palaces since they were nearly destroyed by Nazi German armies during World War II.
Victor Bogdanov, one of the craftsmen at Catherine Palace, said of the Mississippi rooms, “Will be better than the palace.” He reasoned that he and his fellow craftsmen have practiced on the palace restorations. They have learned to cut and match the inlaid floor pieces and carve the decorations. Russian craftsmen will be arriving in Jackson later this month to begin assembling the pieces and re-creating the rooms.
“Palaces of St. Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style” will open March 1 in Jackson’s Mississippi Arts Pavilion and run through Aug. 31. It will not be on display anywhere else in the United States. The exhibit, which is partially funded by the state Legislature, is organized by the Mississippi Commission on International Cultural Exchange, which is an outgrowth of the relationship forged between Mississippians and Russians.
Mississippi reaching out
The relationship began in 1991 when a group of St. Petersburg young people sang in Jackson. They were traveling around America seeking donations that would allow them to buy enough medical supplies to barter for a church building. Mississippi’s First Lady Pat Fordice heard of their need and got the ball rolling for an organization that became “Mississippians Reaching Out.” That organization of physicians, pharmacists and medical supply personnel has arranged for donations of more than $20 million worth of medicine, medical supplies and medical equipment to be sent to St. Petersburg.
Buck Stevens of Jackson, the head of the organization, said he became committed to the project when he learned that insulin shortages in Russia made the medicine unavailable to diabetic patients when they became 50 years old.
Touched by Mississippians’ concern and generosity, St. Petersburg leaders offered to share some of their city’s cultural wealth. Mississippi’s charitable commission for cultural exchange was formed to take advantage of that offer.
As the Gatchina Palace director told a group of American journalists on his grounds this fall, “Democracy requires cooperation in culture, economy and human contact.”
The re-created rooms in Mississippi will contain the objects that are in the original rooms in St. Petersburg. While the palace rooms were virtually destroyed during World War II’s 900-day siege of the city, the imperial objects were unharmed. They had been shipped to the Ural Mountains when the war began. After the war they were returned to storage in Pavlovsk Palace, which also is cooperating in the Mississippi exhibit, until their original rooms were restored.
In addition to the exhibition of original furnishings in the re-created rooms, the Mississippi exhibit will have additional objects from the palaces displayed in galleries.
All the objects belonged to czars or czarinas from Peter the Great, who conceived and constructed St. Petersburg as the new capital of Russia, to the last czar, Nicholas II, who was overthrown and executed by the Communists.
Peter built his new capital, which was called Leningrad during the Soviet era, as “a window to the West.” He wanted to bring his huge nation into the modern age that he discovered while traveling around Europe. He didn’t want to merely copy the finest of Europe; he wanted his new city to surpass the finest he had seen in his travels. In 1703 he laid the first stone for the city that now has 5 million residents. It remained the capital of Russia for more than 200 years until the Soviet Union moved the government center back to Moscow.
Peter began construction of his official summer palace, Peterhof, in 1707. It was to outshine the French palace at Versailles. For his wife to pass the time while he was traveling through Europe, he had Catherine Palace built in what is now the village of Pushkin. Rooms from both palaces will be re-created in Jackson, and objects from both will be displayed.
The two other palaces coorperating in the exhibit — Gatchina and Pavlovsk — are associated with the czarina Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762-1796. She purchased Gatchina for her favorite lover, Grigory Orlov, who had helped overthrow and murder her husband and establish her as czarina. Pavlovsk had a more civilized beginning. Catherine purchased the land for her son, Paul, and his wife, Maria Feodorovna, on the birth of their son, Alexander I, and the couple quickly began construction of a summer palace.
Peterhof has been completely restored from its World War II devastation. The palace director, Dr. Vadim Znamenov, calls it “the symbol of optimism of the Russian people.”
“When I was a boy in 1944 and climbed these ruins,” he said, “I never dreamed it would be restored.”
The room from Peterhof that will be re-created in Mississippi is the Yellow Dining Hall. It’s from the palace’s Catherine Block, whose name derives from the fact that Catherine the Great waited in it to hear that her husband had been murdered. She left from there to return to St. Petersburg and claim the throne.
The dining hall will be set with 24 place-settings of Guryev imperial porcelain. It’s so valuable that no one from Mississippi will be permitted to touch it. Two curators from Peterhof will install it for the exhibit, and then one will return three months later to dust it.
From Peterhof also will come a portrait of Catherine the Great riding on horseback from Peterhof to St. Petersburg after the coup along with the gold embroidered saddle in the painting.
Catherine Palace, which Peter the Great’s wife built, became home to the last czarina of Russia, Nicholas’s wife, Alexandra. In between, Peter’s daughter Elizabeth inherited it and marked it with her extravagance. She converted the relatively modest structure to the longest palace in the world — more than 900 feet. Gold domes were added to crown the sky-blue walls decorated with, it is said, more than 200 pounds of gold. The interior, it is also reported, was decorated with an equal amount of gold.
The palace’s Portrait Hall that will be re-created in Mississippi has its walls covered with 130 paintings, which Elizabeth wanted. This palace contains a second room for the Mississippi exhibit, a blue formal sitting room. These two rooms illustrate the feminine taste for which Catherine Palace is known.
Gatchina Palace, which will be depicted in a Faberge egg at the exhibit, is the opposite. It’s an English-style castle with a plain exterior, towers, a moat and secret underground passages. It was designed for everyday life, not formal state functions like Peterhof and Catherine Palace. Still, it has 600 rooms.
After Orlov’s death, Catherine the Great bought it back from his estate and gave it to her son, the future Czar Paul I. Paul enjoyed parading his armies on the palace grounds like toy soldiers.
Paul’s throne, known as one of the gems of the late 18th century, will be shipped to Mississippi and displayed in a room just like the one that was restored 12 years ago in Russia. The ceiling is painted in the pink and green pastels that are so typical of St. Petersburg. The floor is a work of art designed with eight different kinds of wood. The walls are decorated with two massive Gobelin tapestries, “Asia” and “Africa,” that were presented to Paul and his wife, Maria Feodorovna, by France’s Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Paul and Maria built the fourth palace participating in the Mississippi exhibit, Pavlovsk. Its design is based on the same Italian villa that Thomas Jefferson used for his home at Monticello. It was at the end of Russia’s first railroad, which connected it to St. Petersburg. Behind the Hermitage museum, Pavlovsk has Russia’s second-largest collection of antiques.
After her husband was assassinated in 1801, Maria lived continuously at Pavlovsk for 20 years. The room in Mississippi from this palace will be her Lantern Study. Half the room is a bow wind overlooking her flower garden, which will be represented with an illuminated photo mural. Like an old lantern, the other half of the room is dark — a combination library, portrait hall and study. It wil have Maria’s desk, books, Italian paintings and numerous other personal items.
The Mississippi exhibit is “not just a monument of architecture and culture of the 18th century, but also a monument of the 20th century,” Pavlovsk director Ludmila Koval said.
The exhibit is a monument to the human contact established by a Russian youth choir, nurtured by generous Mississippians and returned by Russian officials proud of their country’s cultural heritage. It’s also an opportunity for Mississippians to step into that heritage.