The muted commemorations of the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia on November 7 have been widely interpreted internationally as a political tactic by an authoritarian regime that is wary of dissent. President Vladimir Putin’s cultural envoy told the New York Times earlier this year that the Kremlin cannot celebrate an event that still divides Russians. More surprisingly, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, seat of the Romanov dynasty and symbol of the Bolshevik seizure of power, also almost avoided the anniversary.
The Hermitage flooded the facade of the Winter Palace with red on the occasion of the opening, on October 25, of the great exhibition The Winter Palace and the Hermitage in 1917: history was made here ( until February 4, 2018). The more than 250 item show fills the palace’s Neva Enfilade and features a dramatic and immersive design by the Caspar Conijn Office, a Dutch company.
But the museum had not initially planned a special exhibition to mark the Revolution, its director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, said at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in September. He changed his mind after staff at the museum’s Amsterdam branch, which opened its own century-old exhibit in February (including more than 200 items from the Hermitage collection), were shocked by the omission, he declared. “Our Dutch colleagues said: ‘Are you crazy? The whole world is waiting. Something has to be done.
Yelena Solomakha, deputy director of the Hermitage’s manuscripts and documents department, organized both exhibitions and a series of smaller Revolution-themed exhibitions during the year. Prior to February, the museum had no clear idea of how to display such historical material inside its expansive halls, she says. She praises the Dutch designers, who also created the Amsterdam displays, for achieving “that emotional inclusion effect … which was important to us”.
History Was Made Here encompasses the grandeur of the Russian court, the conversion of the Winter Palace into a military hospital during World War I, the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, the failure of the Provisional Government and the “storming of the Palace.” Winter ”.
“The scariest objects in Russian history are on display,” Piotrovsky told The Art Newspaper. They include entries in the Tsar’s diary from the day of his abdication and the day of his death, from Russian state archives, and, most gruesome, a bayonet used to kill him and his family in Yekaterinburg in 1918. New revolutionary banners are hung in contrast to the gilded interiors. Piotrovsky says he received hate messages for the preponderance of slogans such as “Send Lenin back to Wilhelm” (the German Kaiser).
Piotrovsky has run the Hermitage for over 25 years, after his father before him. He knows the weight of the history of the Winter Palace for Russian visitors, who flocked to the exhibition. “No Soviet leader has ever been there, they felt they would feel uncomfortable there,” he says. “It tells us that we are all mere insects compared to history.”
An entire room in the exhibition is dedicated to the museum’s fate after the Revolution and its fight to save the collection from expropriation by the emboldened nations of the former Russian Empire, including Ukraine, and from physical destruction. A torn portrait of Tsar Alexander II hangs above the photographs of Nicholas II’s office and Tsarina Alexandra’s boudoir, ravaged by looters.
Although Piotrovsky’s family has aristocratic roots in pre-revolutionary Russia, he supports the low-key tone of the official centenary commemorations. “What should have happened?” Should Putin have given a speech? He nevertheless expresses his pride that the Hermitage has “given new life to the walls of the palace”. One hundred years later, he says, it is time to stop glorifying the Revolution and start examining it as “past history.”
At the Winter Palace, the significance of history is undeniable. Yet sometimes the personal resonates as much as the politicians. Exhibits include a Faberge train and plush toys belonging to the Tsar’s only son, watercolors by the Grand Duchess, and a poignant note to a Russian nurse from a prince of Siam who served as a surgeon at the hospital of the Winter Palace.
• The Winter Palace and the Hermitage in 1917: history was made here (until February 4, 2018), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg