Russia Engages the World 1453-1825 Opens

Westernization. Modernization. Globalization. Socioeconomic terms of 20th-century coinage? In the late 17th century Tsar Peter the Great harnessed these forces to pull Russia out of isolation and propel it onto the global stage. Russia Engages the World, 1453–1825, a major new exhibition at The New York Public Library, places Russia in a global context, stressing its interaction with other cultures, and the exchange of ideas within its borders. The exhibition just opened in two galleries at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street and coincides with the 300th anniversary of the founding of Peter’s city: St. Petersburg, Russia’s “window on Europe.” It will remain on view through January 31, 2004. Admission is free. The Library will also present two symposia, a series of lectures, a film series, and a website related to the exhibition. A 224-page companion volume will be published by Harvard University Press.

“This exhibition could not have come at a more propitious time,” says Library President Paul LeClerc. “After more than seven decades of Soviet power, the Russian people are recapturing and celebrating their past and, in the process, reaching out for cultural partners around the globe. With a collection of rare historical artifacts and documents, Russia Engages the World provides a window to an earlier era of sweeping change in the country’s relations with other nations and perceptions of itself on the world stage.”

With books, manuscripts, and other works on paper drawn exclusively from the collections of The New York Public Library, the exhibition traces Russia’s development from the insular realm of Muscovy into a global empire and highlights its relationships with western, central, and northern Europe, as well as Asia, the great Muslim empires, and the Americas. The exhibition features approximately 230 items, many of which are being shown for the first time. In addition to materials from twelve divisions of the Library, a small selection of decorative and fine art items loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri–Columbia, A La Vieille Russie, the American Numismatic Society, and private lenders is also included.

“Most Americans know something about Tsar Nicholas II and the rise of the Soviet Union, but fewer know about Russia prior to the 20th century,” says Edward Kasinec of the Slavic and Baltic Division. Kasinec is co-curator of the exhibition, with Robert H. Davis, Jr. of the Library’s Slavic and Baltic Division and Professor Cynthia Hyla Whittaker of Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in consultation with twelve other scholars. “And while many have heard of Catherine the Great or Peter the Great, it is often in relation to their imperial or personal excesses. The exhibition will expand the audience’s appreciation of Russian and world history and culture before, during, and after the dynamic reigns of Ivan the Terrible, Peter I, and Catherine II—as well as dazzle visitors with the sheer beauty of the materials that document the times.”

In 1453, when Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) fell to the Ottoman Turks, Russia was truly a distant world in every sense. Christianized in the 10th century by missionaries, the Eastern Slavs adopted the sacred art, music, and traditions of the Orthodox church of the Byzantine Empire, centered on Constantinople. Throwing off the yoke of centuries of Mongol domination, which had effectively cut the region off from contact with other cultures, the nascent state of Muscovy in the 15th century assumed the mantle of the only remaining true Orthodox realm. Muscovite Russia would effectively maintain the isolation that prevailed under Mongol rule until the mid-17th century.

The exhibition begins in the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery. Dimly lit and suffused with Eastern Orthodox chants, the gallery evokes the close atmosphere of a Muscovite interior. The objects on view include richly illuminated Church Slavonic manuscripts, among them the brilliantly illuminated 16th-century Lestnitsa [The Ladder of Divine Ascent] of St. John Climacus and early printed books, including the first book printed in Moscow (1564), one hundred years after Gutenberg. A remarkable, hand-colored 1606 printed edition of the Gospels is believed to have originally belonged to the Moscow Patriarch (later saint) Germogen. The gallery is enhanced with ecclesiastical objects including icons and church vestments. Interestingly, the first Russian secular book, shown here, is a translation of a German treatise on military tactics (1647).

Russia’s isolation gradually came to an end as curious foreigners braved the distance to penetrate the kingdom and publish accounts of their travels. A fine example is the account of the journeys of Adam Olearius, Ambassador of the Grand Duchy of Holstein, to Muscovy in the 1630s. It is open to an engraving of Olearius being presented to the Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich in the Kremlin, a scene almost unchanged from a similar presentation recorded by a Danish visitor nearly a century before. By the 17th century, however, the Tsars of Muscovy were significant players on the east European and Eurasian stage. They expanded their territories west of the Urals and east to conquer Siberia, reaching the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Russia Engages the World – The major part of the exhibition unfolds in the grand space of the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall, where the display is oriented around the points of the compass, to correspond with the realms examined in the exhibition. More than a third of the works shown are in languages other than Russian, underscoring the cultural exchanges that were taking place during the time period covered. More than 15 languages are represented, including Mandarin Chinese, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish in addition to English and other European languages.

The sections of the exhibition that deal with Russia’s contacts with eastern cultures are rich in visual materials, including a 17th-century Chinese imperial manuscript scroll in colored silk, and engravings from 1725 documenting the ceremony accompanying the arrival of the Russian delegation in the Forbidden City.

Peter the Great and St. Petersburg – Russia underwent a metamorphosis during the reign of Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725). Peter overturned the old order and devised a blueprint to bring his realm up to the technological and cultural standards of western European countries. In 1703 he founded St. Petersburg, personally overseeing the construction and moved his capital from the ancient city of Moscow to the new city, which bore his name. Russia’s only warm water port, the cosmopolitan capital of St. Petersburg embodied not only Russia’s new cultural identity but its imperial aspirations as well.

The growth of St. Petersburg is represented in maps and rare engravings depicting the majestic expanse of the city, including fine prints by the 18th-century artist and engraver Mikhail Makhaev. In contrast to these are three late 18th-century etchings of the Moscow Kremlin by the Italian artist Francesco Camporesi. A Dutch atlas (1703-1704) by hydrographer Cornelius Cruys is open to the allegorical titlepage showing the foot of a youthful Tsar Peter resting on the maroon and gold crescent ensign of the Ottoman Empire, an allusion to Peter’s capture of the Crimean city of Azov from the Ottomans.

From 1725 to 1801, the throne changed hands eight times, and in six instances succession crises erupted, with four coups d’état and two assassinations. The most dramatic of these occurred in 1762 when Catherine II overthrew her husband, Peter III, who had ruled for only six months.

Catherine the Great – Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great (r. 1762–96), brought Peter the Great’s projects for europeanizing Russia to successful conclusion and confirmed Russia’s status as an imperial power. During her reign the empire expanded to the Black Sea, the Crimea, the Caucasus, and into Poland, partitioning the country with Austria and Prussia. An enlightened absolute monarch, Catherine the Great was inspired by the ideas of the French Enlightenment, and she corresponded with Voltaire and Diderot and other philosophes. Her reign saw a flowering of arts and letters in Russia; Catherine herself authored about two dozen plays.

The section of the exhibition devoted to Catherine the Great’s reign occupies the central portion of Gottesman Hall. Among the highlights is Diversity and Pleasure, a rare late 18th-century Russian manuscript collection of poetry and prose inscribed to “Her Imperial Highness, Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna,” the empress-to-be. Many items illustrate the pageantry of the court, among them an engraving depicting the coronation banquet of Catherine II. Exemplifying Catherine’s largesse toward supporters is an Imperial Charter granting privileges and lands. Richly illuminated, and displayed with box and seal, this document is signed by the empress. Another of Catherine’s gifts is a splendid Altar Gospels—a book held aloft during the liturgy to be seen by the entire congregation—given to the Monastery of Aleksandro-Nevsky. Bound in gilded silver with enameled medallions of Christ and the Evangelists surrounded by green stones, it is a rare survivor of the Bolshevik Revolution, when such objects were often stripped of their precious jewels and metal ornaments, which were melted down.

During Catherine’s reign, Russia launched numerous expeditions to explore its eastern territories, and in the early 19th century several Russian explorers circumnavigated the globe. Many expeditions employed foreign scholars to document the flora, fauna, and native peoples they encountered. Of special note are Ludovik Choris’s colorful ethnographic depictions of Pacific Islanders.

The closing date of the exhibition, 1825, corresponds to the death and end of the reign of Catherine’s grandson Tsar Alexander I (r. 1801–25). Alexander’s victory over France led to the emergence of a proud and self-confident Russia, a vast, multiethnic empire at the pinnacle of its glory. The year 1825 ended with the warning shots of the Decembrist Revolt, an initial attempt to force the pace of domestic reform. The suppression of this revolt began a century of unrest that would culminate in the end of the Romanov dynasty and the ushering in of the Soviet regime.

Since 1991, a new Russia has signaled a return to some of the trends described in this exhibition, with Russia once again identifying itself as an integral part of the European family of nations and a participant in the endeavors of the entire global community.

Related book, lectures, films, and other events.

Published in: on October 6, 2003 at 12:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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