SALVAGE OF WORKS OF ART IN RUSSIA
By A. Polovtsoff.
The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 34 (April 1919), pp. 160-161
Gentlemen, — Having, since my arrival in London some time ago, heard many anxious enquiries about the fate of art treasures in Russia, I venture to ask you whether you will allow me, by printing these lines in The Burlington Magazine, to convey what information I possess on the subject to all lovers of art.
I left Petrograd at the end of last October, having remained there nearly a full year under the Bolsheviks, and having devoted all my time to saving works of art from destruction. When the Bolsheviks usurped power in the first days of November 1917, a few of my friends and myself decided to stay on and exert our energies in that one direction of rescue work, and when I was obliged to take to flight our numbers in Petrograd reached about eighty. All the best things of the Hermitage had been packed and sent to Moscow after the fall of Riga, and, therefore, previously to the Bolshevist revolution; not only the pictures and the Greek and Scythian works of art, but also the 18th-century china and the best of the smaller works of sculpture, of the furniture and vases.
The packing was done so thoroughly that when one of the boxes containing porcelain groups was dropped at the station in Petrograd it was brought back to the Hermitage and when unpacked it was found that none of its contents had suffered. Two trains had taken the packing-cases to Moscow, at an interval of ten days; the Provisional Government had given a special guard of cadets from military schools for accompanying the trains, which proved very useful, as they had to defend one of the trains at a small station against an attack from demobilised soldiers, who wanted to seize the cars for travelling themselves. During the bombardment of the Kremlin these packing-cases remained untouched, having been stored in the basement of the Kremlin Palace. One box was grazed by a bullet which came in through a window, but no damage was done. Rumours having spread of boxes being taken away from the Kremlin at night, a commission was sent to Moscow from the Hermitage in September 1918, to investigate the matter; the commission reported that all the boxes were untouched and their numbers corresponded to those on the lists.
Fearing, however, that when the Bolshevist chiefs, who now live in the Kremlin, were turned out, a second bombardment might ensue, we took steps towards returning the things to the Hermitage. Unfortunately, the Moscow railway absolutely refused to put separate trains at our disposal, offering, instead, two cars a week for the work; this we all deemed unacceptable. With the Hermitage things are stored some of the best things from Peterhof (two waggon -loads), and from Tsarskoe-Selo (three waggon-loads), also a number of cases with pictures from the Academy of Fine Arts and from the Alexander III Museum (now re-named by the Bolsheviks ” Russian Museum”). The Malmaison pictures, though claimed by the German Government, have not been surrendered, and are in their packing-cases in Moscow. I have good reason to believe that all the plate from the Winter Palace, and the Greek jewels, coins and medals from the Hermitage, also the snuff-boxes, watches and jewels from the Treasure Gallery, which were taken away from Petrograd by order of the Emperor after the fall of Warsaw, are safe. During the bombardment of the Winter Palace, and the looting which ensued, one first-rate work of art perished, that was the portrait of the Emperor Nicholas II by Seroff.
The rumours about the ancient plate having been looted were untrue, as this plate was no more in the palace ; the mob broke open packing-cases full of modern forks and spoons, and could, fortunately, steal only those. The palaces of Ielaghin, Tsarskoe-Selo, Pavlovsk, Gatchina, Peterhof and Oranienbaum were turned into museums, and nothing really important has perished in any of them. I undertook to do the work in Pavlovsk, and by the time I escaped (leaving a perfectly reliable man in my stead) I believe I had succeeded in instilling into the minds of the local people that the palace was national property, and not merely booty offered by the Revolution for plunder. The same in the other palaces, though for months the battle had been a hard one. I was fortunate enough to save the collection of Russian porcelain belonging to Grand- Duke Nicolas Nicolaievitch and also Count Poushkin’s enamels and silver by having them seized and handed over to the Stieglitz Museum; the latter is packed in cases and stored in its own building. All the museums of Petrograd started taking in private property for storage. The Bolsheviks seemed to chuckle over this, intending probably to declare the things national property. I do not think, however, that they will be taken away, as in all the museums the former staff has remained.
Many private collections have been looted; luckily the Stroganoff Palace is untouched, owing to part of it having been turned into a club for sailors. The miniatures, pictures and library of the Grand-Duke Nicolas Mikhailovitch (who was murdered on January 29 of this year) have been saved. The palace of the late Grand-Duke Paul (who was murdered the same day as his cousin), full of beautiful things mostly collected by the Grand-Duke and his wife, Princess Paley, had been also turned into a museum.
When all houses were declared public property, and the mob began settling in other people’s drawing-rooms, we succeeded in having a certain number of the best houses declared national property, and to these the choice things from the neighbouring streets were brought for storage. In that way Count S. Cheremeteff’s and Count A. Bobrinskoy’s houses were saved, and into the latter all Prince A. Dolgorouky’s china was carried over. About seventy men of good will had by the end of last summer divided the town into as many parts, and, by joining the local Soviets and urging them to be given a free hand in selecting ” national property “, managed to save a good many works of art. Of course this was only possible in the large towns, and most of the country seats, in many of which there were splendid things, have perished. One of the worst losses for the world is up to now that of the Treasury of the Patriarchs, which had been for many years on view in the Tower of John the Great in the Kremlin ; after the bombardment it was stolen in its entirety and melted down by the robbers.
The other irreparable calamity is the destruction of a number of the most beautiful ancient churches in Russia during the bombardment of Iaroslav. Unfortunately the splendid collection of prints and drawings belonging to Mr. V. Kotchoubey was stored in Iaroslav at that moment, and was equally destroyed. I should like to add that the Bolshevist chiefs have a wish to appear enlightened in the eyes of the world, and, therefore, were in a way pleased with our work, which, as they seemed to think, added a halo of civilisation to their laurels; at heart of course they were vexed with having to comply with our demands, but they realised that they could not find men amongst their own people to replace us ; therefore they on the whole helped us with our work, and did not try to force us into joining them politically as members of the Bolshevist party. — Yours sincerely