A Culture Offensive From the Kremlin Armory

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The Kremlin Armory has opened its vast storehouse of treasures for display in the West in two major exhibitions. The "The Magnificence of the Tsars" on display earlier this year in London's Victoria and Albert Museum featured coronation vestments of the Tsars from the time of Peter II in 1727 to Nicholas II in 1896. A second, "Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in the Moscow Kremlin", is a sumptuous collection of diplomatic gifts to the Tsar from Persia and Turkey in the 16th and 17th century (now trough September 13th at the Sackler Gallery in Washington DC). The clothing and objects are of the highest artistry and craftsmanship of the Kremlin, Persian, and Ottoman workshops. Both exhibits are beautifully mounted meticulously documented. They are pointed reminders of the power of the Moscow rulers and their strategic position in the Moslem world. The Sackler exhibit is sponsored by Lukoil as well as the Federal Council of the Arts and Humanities and was organized by the Embassy of the Russian Federation and the Kremlin Armory.

The London exhibit opens with curious nostalgia, a fancy dress costume worn by Tsar Nicholas II at a masquerade ball in 1903. It recalls an earlier time, when Tsars were arrayed in oriental splendor. Throughout the 1700s the Tsars vestments were modeled on those of the French court made of beautifully embroidered silk brocade. In 1797 Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great, began a new tradition. He wore a uniform of his own design, largely an imitation of that of a Prussian general. Thereafter, all Tsars wore military uniforms for coronation. The military style reached a low point with the simple dress of the Tsar and battlefield commander Alexander III, crowned in 1886. It is described as "gloomy in color and rude in cut". Splendor was reserved for the clothing wives, mothers, and courtiers-and splendid it was! The emperor, empress and dowager mother all wore ermine mantles, seven meters long made from the skins of about nine hundred animals apiece, each supported by seven chamberlains. The uniform may have been simple but the trappings were not! Such contrasts persist today as the leaders of Russia, wearing unadorned western style business suits, are sworn in amidst the gold and glitter of the Kremlin halls.

The Sackler exhibit opens with a map of the key trade routes and an explanation of the complex web of political relationships amongst these three great powers. Trade between Moscow and Isfahan and Teheran ran overland to the Volga, by ship to the Caspian. Multiple trade routes connected Moscow and Istanbul, west through Minsk, or further east overland to either the Dnieper or Don then down to the Black Sea. Finely wrought bejeweled gold silver objects, fine swords and armor were prized by the Russians. Russian furs and minerals were sought by the Persians and the Ottomans. Formal trade agreements cemented relations between the Tsars and both southern neighbors.

The politics of the region were as complex then as now. The history of the region runs deep. Chengiz Kahn swept out of Mongolia destroying all in his path in the early part of the thirteen century. He and his successor Ogedai created an empire that extended from the Sea of Japan to Hungary in the West. At its peak the Mongol Empire included what is now Iran and Iraq as well as the Southern half of Turkey. Upon Chengiz Khan's death the empire was divided into four Khanates, ruled separately but united by both political and commercial ties. The Khans established a network of secure trade routes that included China, Iran and southern Russia and Turkey. These routes remained active throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The Khanate that was adjacent to Russia was called the Golden Horde. The earliest pieces in the exhibit include fragments of gifts from the rulers of the Golden Horde to Grand Princes of Moscow. By the beginning of the 16th century, the Golden Horde was gone to be replaced by three great powers, Russia ruled by the Tsars, Turkey by the Ottoman Sultans, and the Safavids of Persia. All three vied for the wealth and strategic value of the Caucasus. Persia and the Ottomans each sought Russian help against the other. Persia was concerned about the Russian fortifications on its northeastern boarder. Russia and Turkey combined to thwart the expansion of Poland to the South and East. Goods from the Persian and Ottoman empires traveled north through Russia to reach Northern Europe either from ports on the Baltic or Archangel. An unending round of diplomatic missions sealed political and trade agreements. The path was smoothed by magnificent gifts, presented at court with great ceremony. Many of the gifts were chosen as much for their visual impact in great diplomatic pageants as for their intrinsic worth. All were meticulously assessed, cataloged and chronicled by the treasurer of the Tsar. In 1806 the treasury was transformed into a museum by Alexander I.

The gifts are divided into four categories, those that incorporate fragments of work of the Golden Horde, gifts from Persia to the Tsar, gifts from the Ottomans, and objects from the Kremlin workshops. An icon and a magnificent literurgical cloak, called a phelonion, both incorporate gold work from the time Mongol rule. The icon of the image of Mary holding the baby Jesus is surrounded by finely worked gold interwoven with the Arabic word Allah (the Golden Horde converted to Islam in 1334). The richly embroidered cloak incorporates smooth gold plaques in the shape of stylized Chinese clouds.

The gifts from Persia to the Tsar are magnificent. The earliest is a full length 15th century collar, that extends from high above the wearer's head to the floor. It is decorated with intricately embroidered angels in gold, silver and silk threads. Ceremonial armor and weapons, rich fabrics and trapping for both man and horse are feast for the eye. Some objects were specially made as gifts for the Tsar, including a shield made from a single sheet of watered Persian steel, wondrously engraved with gold designs and set with rubies, turquoise and pearls. Others are obvious re-gifts and include a beautiful Persian silk brocade bearing the symbols and inscriptions of Venice.

The gifts to the Tsar from the Ottomans are no less impressive. Most are richly decorated armor, swords and daggers with hilts of jade set with gold, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies. Some are luxurious fabrics of cut velvet displaying the typical carnation and tulip designs of the 17th century Turkish court. Vessels of cut crystal, jade and agate, chased with gold and set with precious stones forming intricate floral designs are a highlight of the exhibit.

The Kremlin workshops responded in kind. Workmen were imported from the east and west to add to the Tsar treasury. Techniques, designs, and materials from Byzantium, China, Persia and Turkey all contributed in the creation a unique Russian visual identity. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries these workshops poured forth beautifully wrought gold and silver objects, the finest embroidered silks, jeweled ceremonial saddles and bridles, all for the Tsar and his court. The workshops also produced vestments, and richly jeweled pendants, plaques and icons for the church. What we know as Russian splendor was created here. The exhibit catalog, "The Tsars of the East" published by the Arthur M Sackler Gallery, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, is well worth buying.

These two exhibits, one concentrated on the 16th and 17th centuries, the other on the 18th and 19th, provide a glimpse of the vast wealth in the Kremlin storehouse. We can hope that more of these treasures will be soon revealed for reasons of history, art and state.

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William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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