The outstanding Russian historian V. Klyuchevsky called the period between the death of Peter the Great and the coronation of Catherine the Great “the epoch of palace coups”, for during some forty years six emperors and empresses had changed on the Russian throne. Nevertheless, the reforms begun by Peter the Great still continued.
Among the portraits exhibited in the room there are ones of Catherine the Great whose accession to the throne opened the “epoch of palace coups”, and the subsequent overthrow of her husband, Emperor Peter III, put an end to the struggle for Peter the Great legacy. Portraits of imperial favourites — Prince A. Menshikov, Duke E. Biron and Count A. Razumovsky also merit attention.
In the central case there are items of the palace interior of the 18th century (floor clock, armchair, miniature table, bronze candelabra with crystal pendants). The officer’s uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Guards, which belonged to Emperor Peter III, and officer swords with the inscription “Vivat Anna the Great” and “Vivat Elizaveta Petrovna” on the blades remind one of the decisive role of the Guards in the palace coups.
The silver vessel of Russian make, used in Communion, with the inscription “Made in 1726 for Preobrazhensky Regiment in Catherine’s reign”, as well as the decree of the Empress on the formation of the Supreme Privy Council (case 2) are connected with the first fight for the throne in which the Guards took part. The Council consisted of members of the closed circle around Empress Catherine I, and it received the functions of the Senate for a term of five years, which had been set up by Peter the Great.
Among the exhibits telling about the short reign of Peter’s grandson, Emperor Peter II, there is the state seal with his title (case 3). Nearby is the icon “The Blessed Virgin Sign” with which Prince A. Menshikov blessed his son Alexander shortly before the former’s death. The icon reminds of the collapse of the career of the plebeian favourite of Peter the Great and the head of the Supreme Privy Council, who ended his days in exile to the Siberian village of Berezovo.
Documents and other items in case 4 are devoted to the accession to the throne of Empress Anna Ioannovna. The handwritten copy of the constitutional draft of 1730 made by General- en-Chef M. Matyushkin, which was known as the “Draft of Fifteen” (because there were that many people who signed it) is of special value. It was compiled after the general meeting of the Supreme Privy Council, the Senate, the Synod and the generals made public the “conditions” signed by Empress Anna Ioannovna to limit her powers, on February 2, 1730. The authors of the draft came out for the re-division of power for the benefit of the nobility and the broadening of their privileges. There is also the manifesto of Anna Ioannovna of March 4, 1730, on closing down the Supreme Privy Council, instead of which the Cabinet of ministers was formed. The former members of the Council ended their life ignominiously: some of them were executed, other were exiled to Siberia. The epoch of Anna Ioannovna was one of political surveillance and persecution, and the activity of the Secret Chancellory headed by Count A. Ushakov, whose silver mug is also exhibited in case 4.
In its foreign policy Russia followed the course mapped our by Peter the Great, strengthening its positions both in the West and in the East. The cross made in Danzig (now Gdansk) in 1733 during the presence of the Russian army there (case 5) testifies to Russian participation in the struggle for the Polish throne. It was ordered by the private F. Rostovtsev of the First grenadier regiment. The traditional Russian copper cross, which belonged to him, was used as the model for the Danzig cross. After siege Danzig was captured, and Russia secured the election of its ally, the Saxon ruler August III, to the Polish throne.
The silver ladle made in Moscow in 1738 (case 5) was a present which had an interesting inscription on it saying: “To Ataman Stefan Yefremov of the Don armed units for taking prisoner from the Crimea on April 4, 1738”. Such ladles were a traditional military award in the Cossack armed units in the 18th century. In this case the ladle was presented to a participant in the Russo-Turkish war of 1735–1739 during which the Russian army commanded by General-Fieldmarshal Count B. Minich (his portrait etched by I. Stenglin can also be seen in case 5) made a raid into the Crimea for the first time in the 18th century.
The main exhibit in case 6 is the magnificent glass goblet with the monogram of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna made in Germany on the occasion of the signing of a peace treaty between Russia and Sweden in Abo (now Turku) in 1743. The military hostilities started by Sweden in 1741, during the short reign of the baby-emperor Ioan Antonovich, were aimed at recapturing the lands in the Eastern Baltic region. During the reign of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna a peace treaty was signed, according to which Russia not only preserved all the Baltic lands won by Peter the Great, but also annexed part of Southern Finland.
Case 7 contains materials telling about the palace coup of 1741 and the accession to the throne of Elizaveta Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great. The certificate to confirm the nobleman’s status was handed to Lieutenant P. Mukhlynin (he was a private of a grenadier unit at the time of the coup) for his participation in the event. The certificate had the coat of arms and motto of the new nobleman and was endorsed by an impression of the state seal in a gilded box.
Elizaveta Petrovna regarded herself the direct successor of the course of her father, which is shown by a print of 1751 with the words “Fulfill the unfulfilled”, and also by goblet and bowl, made of coconut shell with portraits of the Empress and her parents Peter the Great and Catherine I (case 8).
The seals of the customs offices of the towns of Romanov on the Volga, Kyakhta and Verkhoturye in Siberia, as well as a silver memorable medal “On Abolition of Internal Customs Duties” were connected with one of the most important reforms of the epoch of Elizaveta Petrovna, namely, the abolition of internal customs offices in Russia in 1753. This measure contributed to developing trade and turning the country into a single economic area. The initiator of the reform was Count P. Shuvalov, who actually stood at the head of the domestic policy of Russia under Elizaveta Petrovna. The measure stick of an official of the St. Petersburg customs office (case 8), on which units of measures used in different states of Europe were marked with copper nails, testify to Russia’s broad trade ties.
The items of case 9 are connected with the events of the Seven-year war of 1756–1763, during which Russia, as member of a coalition, fought Prussia and its allies. There are portraits of General Field-marshal Count P. Saltykov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian army in 1759– 1760, General Count P. Rumyantsev, and also a silver medal “For Victory at Frankfurt-on-Oder and Kunersdorf on August 1, 1759”. They remind of the biggest battle of the Seven year war and one of the greatest victories of the Russian army in the 18th century. Special mention should be made of the silver fanfares awarded the St. Petersburg carabineer regiment for the capture of Berlin in September 1760. Silver trumpets were collective regimental awards in the Russian army in the 18th–19th centuries.
As a result of the victory over the army of Friedrich II, Russia annexed, though temporarily, Eastern Prussia, whose population gave the oath of allegiance to the Russian Empress, which was shown by the Russian coins minted for Prussia in 1759–1761.
A glass goblet with the inscription “To the Health of His Imperial Majesty, Tsar and Grand Prince Pyotr Fyodorovich” made at the Imperial glass works in St. Petersburg in 1761 is exhibited in case 10. After the death of Elizaveta Petrovna in December 1761, her nephew, Peter III, ascended the throne, who greatly admired the Prussian king. The policy pursued by the new emperor of Russia aimed at rapprochement with the enemy of yesterday, almost nullified all positive gains of the Seven-year war for Russia. This is reminded by a print of the mid-18th century — “Emperor Peter III extends the olive branch to the King of Prussia Friedrich II”. The most important legal act adopted during the short reign of Peter III, the manifesto “On privileges of the nobility” was enthusiastically welcomed by the noblemen, inasmuch as it relieved them from the mandatory military and civil service (case 10).
The exhibits contained in cases 13–18 show the main directions of cultural development. At that time cultural ties with the West broadened and strengthened. Russian masters did not simply copied West-European works of art, but changed and transformed them in accordance with national traditions. The europeanized noblemen elite was formed. Under the impact of a number of internal and external political factors the national consciousness of Russian people was growing in the middle of the 18th century. All this prepared the ground for the emergence of Russian educational and cultural institutions.
Case 13 is devoted to music and theatre. The second quarter of the 18th century was marked by the growing interest in these arts in all sections of society — at the court, among the nobility, merchants, petty officials and certain elements of the urban population. The print by F. Kamporezi (1789) was one of the rare pictures of a theatre building at the time. An opera house —a wooden theatre near Golovin’s palace in the German suburb of Moscow, was specially built for the presentation of the opera “Titus’s Mercy” during the festivities on the occasion of the coronation of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna in April 1742.
During the reign of Anna Ioannovna and Elizaveta Petrovna, German and Italian opera companies gave regular performances, just as the del’arte comedy, at the court. This is shown, among other things, by a payroll of 1742 on paying a salary to Italian actors. There is an interesting collection of hand-written tragedies by A. Sumarokov, a poet and the first Russian playwright. Written in classical style, they formed the basic repertoire of amateur drama groups, and also the first Russian professional theatre. Above case 13 there is a portrait of F. Volkov of Yaroslavl, the son of a merchant and the founder, director and leading actor of the theatre group which formed the basis of Russia’s first professional popular theatre organized in St. Petersburg in 1756 by a decree of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna.
Beside it is a portrait of I. Shuvalov, the man who played the key role in the history of Russian culture in the mid-18th century. A well-educated nobleman, follower of the ideas of West European enlighteners, lavish patron of art and collector, he was the founder of the two largest educational institutions — the first Moscow University (1755) and the Academy of Art (1757).
Among the most unusual exhibits in case 13 are brass pipes of a horn orchestra, which was one of the most original phenomena of serf music-making at country estates in the 18th — beginning of the 19th century. Nothing of the kind had ever been seen or heard in Europe. One of the features of the horn orchestra was that each instrument could produce the sound of a certain timbre, so that to play even the simplest melody there should have been from fifteen to a hundred musicians. Contemporaries spoke highly of the music played by such orchestras, whose sound could be compared with several big organs playing simultaneously. There is a unique collection of the pipes of a horn orchestra — 47 pipes with a length from 13 to 213 centimeters.
Case 14 contains items connected with the work of V. Tatishchev and A. Kantemir, outstanding cultural figures of the second quarter of the 18th century. The former was a state figure and historian, the author of the first comprehensive work on Russian history and the first Russian encyclopedic dictionary — “Russian Lexicon”, and the latter was a diplomat, enlightener and poet, the author of political “Satires” which castigated human vices and enemies of the enlightenment activity of Peter the Great, “vicious noblemen” and ignorant churchmen. Prince Kantemir was the founder of Russian satirical literature and the first writer who introduced the words “citizen” and “laugh through tears” into the Russian literary language.
Case 15 is devoted to the foundation of Moscow University. There is a water-colour of the building at the Voskresenskiye Gates in which it was housed for the first decades of its existence, and the silver memorable medal minted on its foundation and made by J. Dassier.
The idea of founding a secular university in Russia where there was no chair of theology and people from all sections of the population could enrol belonged to Mikhail Lomonosov.
A portrait of M. Lomonosov by an unknown artist is regarded one of the best. The great savant sits at a table engrossed in work against the background of the glass factory in Ust- Ruditse near St. Petersburg. The table’s drawers contain samples of the factory’s goods made of coloured glass invented by the great Russian scientist and scholar.
There is a various material in case 16 telling about the multifaceted activity of M. Lomonosov who, without any exaggeration, can be described as the central figure of the Russian cultural life of the mid-18th century. He made a considerable contribution to the formation of national secular culture and the Russian school of science. In case 16 there are items connected with his work: a vessel for oil distillation from the chemical laboratory set up by Lomonosov, with the inscription “MV LOMONOSOV ACADEMIE ST PITER BURHC”, and the mosaic image of “The Saviour Not Made by Hands” created by the scientist at the request of Countess M. Shuvalova as the sign of the beginning of artistic experiments with mosaic.
Among the printed works of this encyclopedic scientist there is the proof copy of his “Ode to Empress Ekaterina Alexeyevna on New Year 1764” with his own autograph. Lomonosov was a pastmaster of this genre, which embodied the ideological and artistic image of the epoch.
Cases 17 and 18 are devoted to the development of Russian science in the second quarter of the 18th century. A major event at the time was the opening of the Academy of Sciences in St. Peterburg in 1725. A print depicting the Imperial library and the Cabinet of Curiosities (Kunstkamera), which became part of the Academy, gives an idea of the outward appearance of the building and its interior. The universal instrument with the sun-dial designed and made by the head of the Instrumental chamber of the Academy of Sciences, N. Chizhov, is of special interest. The Academy had a print shop which issued scientific papers, textbooks, dictionaries and maps. Case 17 contains works by V. Trediakovsky, one of the first Russian members of the Academy of Sciences, poet, translator and author of a theoretical work on poetry, who laid the foundation of the transformation of Russian versification.
The exhibits in case18 tell about geographical explorations and the drawing up of maps of the country’s territory, and, above all, the First (1725–1730) and Second (1733–1743) Kamchatka expeditions under the command of Captain V. Bering. The thorough exploration of Siberia, confirmation of the existence of a strait between Asia and America, the drawing up of maps of the Kurile Islands, and the beginning of the exploration of the Aleutian Islands were just a few results of the work of the Kamchatka expeditions.
The copy of Bering’s report on the expedition’s journey through Siberia to the Pacific Ocean, and “The Description of the Land of Kamchatka” by Academician S. Krasheninnikov about the geography, history and life of the peoples of the peninsula are of great interest. As a university student, S. Krasheninnikov took part in the Second Kamchatka expedition in 1737–1741 and was the first to thoroughly explore the peninsula. The hand-drawn variant of the map of Siberia was made on the basis of the map compiled by V. Bering’s companion, warrant officer P. Chaplin. In the centre of case 18 there is the first national atlas of Russia of 1745 compiled by the geography department of the Academy of Sciences on the materials of instrumental surveys of the 1720s — early 1740s.