Russia’s imperial past.jpg

Russia’s imperial past

Russian history is so often like some huge tragic pantomime, an opera of monumental proportions littered with events that no script-writer could dream up.

The contrast between the vast, decadent wealth of the ill-fated Imperial dynasty and the all-consuming poverty suffered by the vast majority of the Tsar’s subjects couldn’t have been starker.

Yet all the same it is with a sense of sadness that perhaps, things could have been different, when one strolls through the halls of the latest exhibition, Imperial Russia – Art and Culture: Peter the Great to Nicholas II.

The huge, towering figure of Peter the Great and his obsession with mechanical instruments, ship building and dragging Russia kicking and screaming into the Age of the Enlightenment. It was he that built St.Petersburg in 1703 on the mosquito-infested marshes of the Bay of Finland.

At the exhibition, you get to see his actual shoes, his hand print and several uniforms that he once wore.

Then take Catherine the Great, who wasn’t even Russian, but an obscure penniless German princess betrothed to an idiot of a man, Peter II, who despised his own people and was obsessed with Prussian militarism.

She had him murdered, it is said, and rarely slept in the same bedroom twice thereafter, for fear of suffering the same grisly fate. She extended the Russian Empire as far as Siberia to the East and the Crimea to the South, and her gargantuan appetite for lovers, are all legendary.

Her imposing full length portrait is included in the collection along with that of her lover and statesman Count Gregory Orlov.

The magnificence of the Imperial Russian court in St. Petersburg during and immediately after the Napoleonic Wars is well represented and felt in terms of the superbly crafted furniture, porcelain dinner services, and magnificent gilded bronze surtout-de-table centre pieces.

But most interesting and saddest of all is taken up by the echoes of ghosts, of tragic people long-since vanished, seen in the last two rooms.

Here are touching memorials to Russia’s last two Tsars and the ill-fated personalities that became caught up in a drama that finally played itself out in the dingy cellar of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where, in 1918, the entire Imperial family, the Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their four beautiful daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia, and their sickly son Alexei, were all shot and bayoneted to death.

Alexandra, hauntingly beautiful, cool blue eyes, was prone to frequent bursts of hysteria and nervous exhaustion as she desperately tried to hide the fact and guilt that her son and heir was carrying the deadly disease haemophilia.

Nicholas, handsome, charming, distant, perfectly suited to being a constitutional monarch in a country where such a thing was inconceivable. A man who never wanted to be Tsar, one who passionately loved his wife and children, but was incapable of making an informed decision.

Could it have been different? Perhaps. Reforms were making headway before the First World War, but then that dynastic catastrophe swept away the remnants of a regime long played out, like rose petals from an ornate table decoration, fallen to the floor, after an imperial ball.

Art and Culture in Imperial Russia – Peter the Great to Nicholas II – is on show at Ajuda National Palace (until the end of February).

Chris Graeme

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