by Anne Benson
In 1919 The Burlington Magazine published a letter titled ‘Salvage of Works of Art in Russia’ by Alexander Polovtsov (see full text of the letter below and HERE). This is a remarkable document—a rare firsthand account of what was happening to Russia’s art treasures during the 1917 Revolution. News from Russia was confusing, sporadic and unreliable in 1919, and the fate of the country’s art was generally only speculative. Polovtsov’s letter, with its matter-of-fact specifics, could only have been welcome news to the Burlington’s readers.
The writer: Russian émigré Polovtsov
Alexander Alexandrovich Polovtsov (1867-1944) was, at the time of his letter, a Russian émigré who left St. Petersburg (by then renamed Petrograd) at the end of October 1918. A highly-respected expert and connoisseur in the Russian art world, he came from a family of wealthy collectors, and had important connections to dealers and collectors in western Europe. In Petrograd, he was also a curator and collector for the Stieglitz Museum, a family-owned repository of fine and decorative art. The Stieglitz Museum actively collected art objects from Russia and around the world, held exhibitions, and housed a school that trained artists and craftsmen. Along with his work in the arts, Polovtsov was an interior and later foreign office minister in the Tsarist government, and a very able diplomat. He spent several years in Siberia and Turkestan on behalf of the government, where part of his work involved negotiating with recalcitrant Khans and local chieftains. In 1909, at the end of the “Great Game” between Russia and Britain, Polovtsov was appointed Consul General in Bombay, representing the first official Russian presence there since the tensions eased. He was well-connected, well-traveled, and well-liked, with a flair for languages and a passion for art and culture.
Polovtsov was in England when he wrote his letter, although he ultimately took up residence in Paris. The escape route taken by Polovtsov and his wife Sofia may have landed them in Britain, as when they fled Russia, the safest way west from Finland was by rail through Sweden and Norway, and thence to Britain by ship. The Baltic was closed to all but German shipping, and there was still fierce ground fighting in northern France. Polovtsov, like many other Russians of his class, had spent time in England as well as in France. He was fluent in French and English and had many friends and contacts in both countries, many in high places. The Randolph Churchills had been entertained by his parents in 1881, and Polovtsov himself was a guest of the Asquiths in 1916, during the run-up to a conference on Allied post-war plans. In exile, rather than languishing, he got on with life, publishing Les Tresors d’art en Russie sous le Regime Bolsheviste in 1919, a book that elaborates more fully the events mentioned in his letter.
The Letter to the Burlington: its historical context
The letter is a unique art historiographical record. It was written during the unfolding of a series of momentous, violent, and often confusing events. Although the Russian Revolution has been and continues to be widely studied and written about, the vastness of its stage, crowded with events and players, makes it useful to focus this post on the particulars relevant to the context and relatively brief timeframe of Polovtsov’s letter.
Polovtsov began what he called his “rescue work” under the Provisional Government, during the relatively non-violent period following the Tsar’s abdication in March, 1917. At this time, the principal danger to art works and buildings was destruction by invading Germans, feared imminent, especially after the fall of Riga in September, 1917. The foremost hardships then were economic—rampant inflation, breakdown of essential services like medical care and transport, food shortages, and closed shops and businesses. Operating factories were prone to strikes, inefficient, and run by quarrelsome local soviets. Policing was sporadic; there was an upsurge in petty and violent crime. The country was generally in dire straits after four years of war with Germany. It is in this context—fear of German invasion and local unrest—that Polovtsov mentions the sending to Moscow of the “best things of the Hermitage” (para. 3). The country was at that point under the precarious oversight of the Provincial Government, and subject to constant threat from opposing factions, most notably, the Bolsheviks.
However, Polovtsov’s statement a bit further on, that “During the bombardment of the Kremlin, these packing-cases remained untouched” is his near-laconic reference to one of the most dangerous and violent periods of 1917, when Bolsheviks, having won Petrograd earlier that November, fought to take power in Moscow. Some holdouts from the Provisional Government were holed up in the Kremlin, but were defeated following a week of violence and devastating damage to the ancient citadel. These events marked the earliest days of what would become the Russian Civil War.
In his Les Tresors, Polovtsov shares a few more details about the risks involved in that visit to Moscow, where he supervised the reception of packing cases from the Hermitage and Gatchina Palace while scouting out a refuge for valuables from the Stieglitz Museum. Polovtsov and his wife stayed with friends living directly opposite the Kremlin, from where he witnessed (para. 3) people being shot in the street as well as the shelling of the buildings opposite. “I saw the whole corner of the Palace collapse beyond the Convent of the Miracle; but the frightful wounds to the Cathedral of the Assumption [and] […] the hole in the tower of Ivan the Terrible made by the bomb which destroyed the Patriarch’s Treasure I did not see.”
By the time of Polovtsov’s letter, the extent of this destruction had been made known by Harvard archaeologist Thomas Whittemore, in the November 1918 issue of the National Geographic. Whitmore’s report was not firsthand, rather reported to him by Bishop Nestor of Kamchatka, an Orthodox prelate visiting Moscow who was later imprisoned for making known his observations, which verified Polovtsov’s own: “The Patriarchal Sacristy, containing treasures of incalculable value, has been turned into a heap of rubbish, where among sand, rubble, fragments of the walls, and broken glass, the unholy hand digs for diamonds and pearls.” The Polovtsovs and their hosts could only watch, peeping through the curtains as the Kremlin—with its venerable churches, monasteries, and palaces—was pounded by shells and bombs. The watchers often cowered on the floor, as their own building was targeted. They could not, of course, interfere.
While returning to Petrograd with Sofia, Polovtsov discovered what would later turn out to be a partial solution to his powerlessness. “I learned from a paper bought at the station that one of the new masters of our unhappy Country, named Lunacharsky, had hurled anathemas at the destroyers of the Kremlin…(saying) that he would having nothing to do with the Government unless immediate measures were taken to safeguard the works of art.” Anatoli Lunacharsky, a friend of Lenin’s, was a respected critic and art historian and the Bolsheviks’ newly-appointed “Commissar of Enlightenment.” Polovtsov looked him up as soon as he returned to Petrograd. “Write your name,” Lunacharsky told Polovtsov, handing him a scrap of paper. “A few days later I received a paper naming me Commissar, (and) Conservator of the Palace of Pavlovsk” (see below).
Further along (para. 3), Polovtsov’s letter states that “The Malmaison Pictures, though claimed by the German government, have not been surrendered”, referring to the fact that in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed between the Bolsheviks and the German Government on 3 March, 1918, “the question of the Kassel Pictures became almost the only point on which R
ussia did not give way to Germany”. Polovtsov’s mention in his Burlington letter may be the first time many in Europe learned of the collections’ fate.
The letter to the Burlington: objects and collections
These events involved human beings, and many aristocratic collectors and patrons of the arts were now dead, imprisoned, or in exile—their property vandalized and looted, or else requisitioned by the new government. Shortly after the Bolsheviks took over in November, 1918, they began to arrest members of the Romanov family and either imprison them or send them into exile. At the same time, opposing forces who became known as Whites, were gathering strength and significant numbers of followers from Russia as well as commitments from the Allies. As civil war intensified, Lenin and his associates, fearing the Romanovs might serve as figures around which anti-Bolshevists would rally, decided on a more permanent fate for Imperial family members.
By the time of this letter, the Tsar’s execution was public knowledge, but the fate of his wife and children was not made public until 1926, although there were grim rumors as well as countless conflicting reports. Polovtsov also (para. 5) mentions two more Romanovs, the Grand Dukes Nicholas Mikhailovich and Paul (Alexandrovich), both executed in Petrograd’s Peter and Paul Fortress “on January 29th of this year.” Nicholas was a historian and a lepidopterist as well the owner of a significant collection of art and antiquities so vast that he opened a wing of his palace for its public viewing. Grand Duke Paul and his wife Princess Paley were great friends of Polovtsov, he being one of the few willing to associate with the couple during their years of disfavor and exile in Italy. In her memoir, Princess Paley recounts her attempts to save both her family and their property. Polovtsov, it turned out, was uniquely positioned to help save her palace in Tsarskoe Selo. “I for my part addressed myself to my old life-long friend, Alexandre Polovtsoff, who was Commissary of Fine Arts, and to whom Lunacharsky listened devoutly […] the Commission of Fine Arts, having become excited over the danger our house was in, declared it a “Museum of the People”. After her husband’s death in 1919, Paley fled Russia. While in Finland, she learned that their exiled son Vladimir had also been executed on 18 July 1918, along with six other Romanovs and a number of their associates and retainers.
In relating the fate of Nicholas Nikolaievich’s porcelain collection (para. 4), Polovtsov explains that the Stieglitz Museum’s ability to “seize” property and objects on behalf of the State was a useful tactic in helping to preserve them. He had judiciously given over the museum’s premises to the Red Cross for the manufacture of gas masks and bandages, packing up and storing the contents in strong-rooms, in the first year of the war. Indeed, this tactic of turning important buildings into museums did have a significant role in preserving both their premises and contents. However, during the 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet Government, desperate for hard currency, began a drive to sell off Russian treasures to buyers (mostly) from the west. Many of the properties, saved in many cases by people who risked their lives to do so, were then destroyed by the German invasion in World War II.
Polovtsov recognized early on that working with the Bolsheviks and with Lunacharsky in particular would enable him to preserve Russian works of art. His ability to do so productively is credit to his considerable diplomatic skills as well as his art historical expertise. In his letter’s final paragraph, he backhandedly credits the Bolsheviks with “wishing to appear enlightened,” and at least recognizing that they needed help from beyond “their own people” to do so. Thus, as a leading member in the Bolshevik-sanctioned Commission of Fine Arts, Polovtsov toured various palaces (para. 4, end) and when unable to protect them himself, was at least able to make sensible recommendations to the proper authorities and find qualified guardians who would both occupy the premises and inventory the contents. The two palaces with which he was most directly involved were Gatchina and Pavlovsk.
Polovtsov’s work at Gatchina began before Bolshevik take-over when he and his associates removed, among other pieces, the Veronese picture The Conversion of Saul as well as Watteau’s The Repose in Egypt, both of which are now held in the Hermitage. In the intervening months Gatchina was invaded by various factions of revolutionaries, and was in a severely compromised position when he visited as a Commission member. However, by using this authority, along with his title of Commissar, he and his associates were able to expel the intruders and make the contents and grounds reasonably secure. He then went on to Pavlovsk, a place that he came to regard as a refuge—an island of peace and beauty in the turmoil surrounding him.
At Pavlovsk Polovtsov threw himself into the work—overcoming obstacles would have frustrated anyone less passionately determined or skilled in the various arts required. Les Tresors is his account of how, even in the most trying and dangerous circumstances—perishing cold, lack of food, and persistent harassment by various factions—Polovtsov and his crew labored to save and restore the palace, its contents, and its grounds. Pavlovsk, along with several other palaces, opened to many visitors in the early summer of 1918. This popularity gave Polovtsov huge satisfaction. The people, thrilled by the opportunity to see how their rulers had lived—to enter places formerly forbidden to them—were both respectful and interested, in one case chastising a soldier who initially refused to don the special felt overshoes that protected the parquets from damage.
By late autumn of 1918 it became too dangerous for Polovtsov to remain in Russia. Polovtsov’s own possessions were confiscated, and he was imprisoned and released. He, Sofia, and several family members were threatened and intimidated. It was time to leave. “Without passports or papers of any kind, with very little luggage, deceiving the servants lest they inform on us; in a word, like common criminals, we crossed the frontier into Finland.”
Acknowledgements: Anne Benson would like to thank Benjamin Zucker, Dr. Adele Lindenmeyr, Sofka Zinovieff, and Margaret Trombly for supporting her work on Alexander Polovtsov.
The letter by Polovtsov in the 1919 Burlington Magazine:
- Alexander Alexandrovich Polovtsov (1867-1944)
Public Domain, Photographer unknown
Photo source: www.saint-petersburg.com/famous-people/polovtsov/.
- Corridor of the Stieglitz Museum, 2011
Photo Credit: Sailko, Wikimedia Commons
Permission granted to distribute and/or modify image.
- Claude Gellée, called Claude Lorrain. Landscape with Tobias and the Angel, 1633
Oil on canvas, 116 x 153.3 cm (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg).
Entry from the Collection of Empress Josephine, from the collection of Landgraf von Hessen-Kassel.
- Box with profile images of the first six children of Tsar Paul I, engraving taken from a miniature by Maria Feodorovna. c.1775. Gold, malachite, verre églomisé. 2.6 × 9.9 × 4.7 cm (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore).
- Antoine Watteau, Holy Family (Rest on the flight into Egypt), 1719
Oil on canvas. 117 x 98cm (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg).
Entered the Hermitage in 1920 transferred from the Gatchina Palace Museum
- Palace in Pavlovsk, by unknown artist, 1847. Watercolor and gouache. 25 x 35.5 cm. (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg). Series “Views of St. Petersburg and Moscow produced as a gift for Queen Victoria on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of her reign”.
 Vol. 34, Issue 193, pp. 160+161.
 For examples of what the Polovtsov family owned, see sale cat: Tres Importantes Bijoux (etc.) Collection de M. A. Polovtsoff. Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 1909. Item 18, p. 9 (for ex.) describes the Kingston Tureens, one of which was sold by Sotheby’s in 1998, and to which the auction house dedicated an entire catalogue.
 Baron Stieglitz was Polovtsov’s maternal grandfather. The Polovtsov and Stieglitz family collections are described in O. Neverov: Great Private Collections of Imperial Russia, New York, 2004.
 Polovtsov’s papers, consisting mainly of handwritten or typescript draft articles, various handwritten notes, and a typescript memoir (1932) are held in Yale’s Sterling Library Archives (MS 403). There are no diaries or letters. Polovtsov authored four books as well as many articles in English, French and Russian.
 Paris, 1919. Available in reprint. Expanded information on the events described in Polovtsov’s letter are taken from this work and his memoir, unless otherwise noted. Sources consulted for Russian history include: S.A. Smith: Russia in Revolution, 2017; D. Lieven: The End of Tsarist Russia, 2015; S. Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs: 1613-1918, 2016.
 “The Rebirth of Religion in Russia”, The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 34 No. 5, 1919 p. 385
 Exh. cat: Piotrovsky: France in Russia: The Empress Josephine’s Malmaison Collection, London, 2007), p. 9. Items from Kassel collection, originally looted by Napoleon, make up part of the Malmaison Collection, now held in the Hermitage. Alexander I purchased several of the Kassel pictures along with many other pieces in this collection. See also exh. cat: Alexander, Napoleon and Josephine, Hermitage Amsterdam, 2015.
 For example: “Ex Tsar of Russia Killed by Order of Ural Soviet”, The New York Times, July 21, 1918.
 Grand Duke Paul married the divorced Olga Pistohlkors morganatically after the death of his first wife. For this the disapproving Tsar Nicholas II exiled the couple from Russia. Paul was pardoned in 1913; he and Olga returned to Russia with their children, and she was styled Princess Paley.
 This commission is given different names in various sources. I have settled on the Commission of Fine Arts. It was comprised of a combination of experts (curators, art historians, and artists) and bureaucrats, sanctioned by the Bolsheviks, who were empowered to take or recommend official action regarding the seizing and or preserving of art and property in the name of the State.
 Princess Paley: Memories of Russia 1916-1918, London, 1924, pp. 153+163. Polovtsov’s strategy was to have the house overseen by the Commission of Fine Arts, of which he was a member. Sometime in the 1920s the Soviet Government sold many pieces owned by the exiled Paley to the dealer Norman Weisz. Polovtsov appeared for Paley in her lawsuit (see: “High Court of Justice, Russian Princess’s Property Sale by Soviet Challenged”, The Times, Friday Nov. 30, 1928, p. 5) claiming that her possessions had been illegally sold. She lost the suit, and those pieces were sold. See sale cat: The Collection of French Furniture, Objects of Art and Porcelain formed by Her Highness Princess Paley, removed from the Paley Palace, Tsarskoye Selo, Christies: London (1929).
 Three other Romanovs were killed in the Peter and Paul Fortress along with Grand Duke Paul. Altogether, seventeen Romanovs were executed, aside from the Tsar and his family. The surviving family members, with a couple of exceptions were rescued from Yalta, in Crimea by the British on HMS Marlborough, in mid-April, 1919. See esp. R. Massie: The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, 1995.
 This Grand Duke Nicholas (1856-1929) was a second cousin of the Tsar, and was also known as “Nikolasha.” He served as a general in the Tsarist Army until the abdication. He fled to the Crimea, an area that was relatively safe from the Bolshevik terror. His porcelain collection dated from the earliest days of the Imperial Porcelain Works in St. Petersburg, and, according to Polovtsov in Les Tresors, contained many pieces from the 18th century that were of the “greatest beauty and unique”.
 See esp. N. Semyonova, et al., eds: Selling Russia’s Treasures, London (1913) and A. Odom et al: Treasures into Tractors, Washington DC, (2009).
 Polovtsov constantly stresses the importance of accurate and detailed inventories. Without being able to identify a piece and know its provenance, he knew that efforts to save treasures would ultimately be frustrated by the fact that their importance would be lost if no one knew what they were, where and when they were made, or to whom they belonged. His own meticulous work at Pavlovsk bears this out, described in detail in Les Tresors.
 Although he never mentions it directly, Polovtsov had a personal link to Pavlovsk. Its original chatelaine Maria Feodorovna (1759-1828), the Dowager Empress and widow of the murdered Tsar Paul, was Polovtsov’s natural great-grandmother. Polovtsov’s mother Nadezhda (d.1908) was the illegitimate daughter of Mikhail Pavlovich (d. 1849), Maria and Paul’s youngest son and her heir to Pavlovsk. Nadezhda was adopted and raised by Baron Stieglitz at the request of Nicholas I. When she married Polovtsov’s father Stieglitz settled a huge dowry on her, founded his museum on her urging, and made her son Alexander his heir.
 Les Tresors (note 5) p. 294.