Room 35. Russia in the Epoch of Emperor Alexander I The Autocracy and Society

After the end of the Napoleonic wars Alexander I, recognized by Europe as a “true liberal on the throne”, decided to return to the projects which he had conceived in the beginning of his reign. They included a solution to the peasant problem and the introduction of a constitutional rule, which were the main and most painful problems of Russian life throughout the 19th century.

The implementation of these plans, which required the support of the broad circles of the nobility but were differently evaluated by society, forced the government to balance between reforms and protective measures, which ultimately led to a crisis in many state spheres. At the same time, the fruits of liberal ideas and enlightenment and the victorious war contributed to the formation of national self-consciousness and the emergence of new cultural phenomena and a variety of forms of public and private life. All this is reflected in the exposition of room 35.

case 1
The central place in case 1 is occupied by the tsar’s throne, the embodiment of autocratic power, but at the same time the bitter symbol of the history of Alexander’s accession to the throne on March 11, 1801, on the night of the palace coup and the assassination of Paul 1. The desire to rectify the consequences of the “tyrannical” rule of his father, to free society from ineffective laws and improve the situation in the state by reforms had brought the heir to the throne to the group of the plotters.

In the left section of case 1 there are portraits of members of imperial councils set up at the beginning of the rule of Alexander I for working out and discussing the projects of reforms — Count P. Stroganov, a representative of the liberal “Secret Committee”, and Count N. Rumyantsev, a member of the moderate “Permanent Committee”. The “Manifesto on the formation of ministries” (1802) was a sign of the beginning of the transformations in governing the country, which presupposed a more rational organization of executive power for carrying on the reforms. There is a rare print, “Alexander hands Count Rumyantsev his decree on free tillers of the soil” (1803), which was done in Paris on order and had an aim of popularizing the policy of the emperor, as well as the decree, which was the first document calling on the landlords to free their peasants from serfdom voluntarily.

Another set of exhibits is connected with the name of the outstanding reformer M. Speransky: a copy of his letter to Alexander I from exile (1813), which reflected his wonderful career success and noble mission. He wrote: “At the end of 1808 Your Majesty began to entrust me more and more oft en with the subjects of high management… From them came the plan of a general state transformation…” Beside is a watch of the famous firm “Breguet”, like the one presented to him by His Majesty, and a cup with a portrait of Speransky made after his return from exile. There are also notes by N. Karamzin “About Ancient and New Russia…” (1811), outlining the views of the opponents of Speransky’s project for the radical transformation of Russia, which contributed, in a way, to his exile and a stop to the implementation of his project. N. Karamzin, supported by the conservative circles, wrote that Russia did not need “speculative” reforms detached from its foundations, but it needed the strengthening of traditional values — the strong autocracy, revived Orthodox Christianity and respect for national laws.

After the war society returned to discussing the problems of serfdom. In the right section of case 1 there is an article “On slavery and its beginning and consequences in Russia”, in which the author substantiated the need for the abolition of serfdom, thus expressing the sentiments of both the liberal circles and the emperor himself. At the same time the decrees shown confirm that the authorities did not wish to introduce radical measures, reducing a solution of the problem to nothing more, but softening serfdom. For instance, it was not allowed “to draw peasants to work for their owners on Sundays and holidays”.

On the initiative of the emperor projects of the abolition of serfdom were drawn, which were not implemented, including the most progressive project submitted by Count A. Arakcheyev. The activity of that omnipotent official, close to the emperor, but known for his cruelty, is illustrated by the materials about the implementation of another “humane Endeavour” of the tsar — the organization of military settlements. Along with the memorable items of Arakcheyev, there are documents and a pamphlet “On Military Settlements”, which explained the essence and aim of the creation of special districts where, with a view to saving state means and storing military reserves, soldiers would have to combine service with working on the land and “thus feed themselves”. Some utensils of those living in military settlements are exhibited. There is also a part of the dinner set of the “Grenadier Regiment of Count Arakcheyev” with the inscription “For Faith and Loyalty”. Petty regimentation and arbitrariness prevented the effective “combination of service and field work” from realization and soon became known as the worst type of serfdom.

case 2
Vainly trying to combine the “ideal with the existing” in his policy, Alexander I only created new problems. Such was his constitutional “experience” (case 2). In 1815, after the annexation of Poland according to the decisions of the Vienna Congress, the Russian Emperor granted the new territory the most liberal constitution in Europe. Its printed text is displayed beside items of Russo-Polish statehood: bowls, a snuffbox with the Polish emblem and the emperor’s monogram, coins of the Kingdom of Poland with a portrait of the King of Poland Alexander I. Freemason signs of the Polish freemason lodges revived by the emperor showed the favourable attitude of the emperor to unions which could contribute to the most rapid incorporation of new territories in the empire.

A print with a view of the Royal Castle in Warsaw shows the place where Alexander I delivered his famous speech at the opening of the Polish Seym in which he expressed his desire to grant freedoms and introduce a constitutional order on the entire territory of Russia. On his instructions, the Russian state charter deed was prepared in Poland. The portrait of N. Novosiltsev and personal belongings of P. Vyazemsky show the men who took an active part in the working out of the constitution. The prepared draft required financial means and support, but the emperor’s intentions caused a controversial reaction. As M. Speransky wrote, “the landowners see nothing in His speech, except freedom for the peasants, and this causes fear and despondency among them”.

case 3
The “view” of the chairman of the economic department of the State Council N. Mordvinov on the revenue and expenditure in 1821 (case 3) shows one of the important reasons for “delay in allocations” for the purpose. This document dealt with the current budget and the general situation which was fraught with a financial crisis. The lowered customs duties on imported foreign goods, the sharply reduced export and the prices of grain produced by serfs caused an agrarian crisis and had a negative effect on the development of industry and trade.

The manifesto “on reducing the duties to be paid by trade classes” was supposed to be one of the measures to develop trade. However, due to the exorbitant expenses of the military department, this policy did not bring tangible results, of which N. Mordvinov reported in his confidential letters to the emperor.

The unresolved problems caused discontent among the nobility. Many people thought that “the country was heading for an impasse, while pretending to be marching forward in ceremonial step”. Alexander I attempted time and again to oppose political disunity with the ideas of “Christian unity”, on which, as he believed, “the tranquility and happiness of the peoples could only be based”.

case 4
The materials of case 4 show the principles of religious liberalism preached in the beginning of the reign of Alexander I. Although the decree of 1807 on religious tolerance declared Orthodox Christianity as the dominant religion, the emperor and the chief procurator A. Golitsyn in order “to contribute to the unity and moral enlightenment” of Russian citizens also supported apocryphal trends. The most popular of them was freemasonry revived by Alexander I. Among freemason relics on display are the signs of lodges using state symbols and the emperor’s name, a copy of the list of the members of the Grand “Astrei” Lodge (one of them was kept in the study of the emperor), portraits of M. Speransky and I. Fessler who initiated the project, approved by the emperor, to create a system of special lodges for the clergy with a view to adapting the “humiliated” section of the population to “good society”. The project was not realized, but its was created within the framework of the reformist trend in Russian freemasonry which strove for achieving general affluence through social transformations, but not only through self-perfection.

The icon “Bearing the Cross” is a replica of the print from the book by the German preacher K. Eckartshousen “Sacrament of the Cross”. The simplified interpretation of the image of the Saviour surrounded by the crosses of “lawlessness and sins of the world”, which was not accepted by Orthodox Christianity, should have served “the correct orientation orient and improvement of worldly life”.

Works by western preachers (case 4) became widespread in postwar years, when rationalism, revolutions and battles were replaced by theories about the need to grasp the deep-lying essence of religion, creating the universal “unity of its adepts in the Spirit of Truth”. This time began to be called “the epoch of mystical enlightenment”. The inter-confessional character of these ideas was in line with the quest of the emperor for the foundations of the unity of different states after the victory over Napoleon and the creation of the “Holy Union” (1815).

case 5
The materials of case 5 tell about the activity of the Biblical Society in Russia, which popularized the universal “Christian doctrine” and “education through the thorough study of the word of God”. The foundation by Alexander I of a branch of the British society, which popularized the Holy Writ on the inter-confessional basis, helped create a broad network of the branches of the Russian Biblical Society. The number of copies of the Bible distributed throughout the country increased sharply, and the edition of “The New Testament” displayed in this case opened a new page in the history of the Russian Church. For the first time the texts of the Gospel began to be published in the Russian language. The portrait of Metropolitan Filaret (Drozdov) in the case shows one of the creators and sponsors of the translation and an active popularizer of the Bible. During 12 years 104 editions of books in millions of copies were distributed to a sum of over 2.5 million rubles.

A portrait and works of another representative of the “Biblical circles”, the German preacher J.-E. Hosner, show the growing mystical trends going beyond the bounds of canonic texts and causing discontent and protests in society. The book of interpretations of the Gospel texts by Hosner, “The Spirit of Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ…” was in the centre of the struggle against vulgar Christianization, which resulted in curtailing and stopping the blessed “Biblical initiatives”.

case 6
Case 6 is devoted to the attitude of figures of the Russian Orthodox Church to the reformist trends and currents at the time. Regarding the Orthodox Church as an ally in moral and public service, Alexander I wished to transform certain aspects of religious life in order to raise the prestige of the Church. The reform in religious education was connected with the names of Metropolitan Evgeny (Bolkhovitinov) and Archbishop Feofilakt (Rusanov). The rescript of Alexander I sent to Archbishop Feofilakt specially noted his services for spiritual education on the territory of Georgia which had joined Russia.

Among other exhibits of the case is a portrait of Metropolitan Mikhail (Desnitsky) by the outstanding Russian portrait painter V. Borovikovsky. The Metropolitan supported the “blessed” church reforms and the “biblical initiatives”, but feared the spreading of books preaching “false teachings and the Protestant interpretations of holy texts”. He was the first of the church hierarchs to make an attempt to draw the emperor’s attention to the weakening of the ties of the monarch with the Orthodox Church and the concentration of power over religious departments in the hands of the minister-mystic A. Golitsyn, who “sympathized” with too great freedom in religious matters. A portrait of Archimandrite Fotii (Spassky) depicts the image of a man who became “the mouthpiece of the Orthodox opposition”, and the decrees on “the eradication of crime among the clergy” and “deviations from canonic traditions” on display were a result of the impact on the emperor of the fiery speeches of the “furious archimandrite”.

The struggle within the church circles passed against the background of the confrontation in the court for greater influence and the invisible ideological battle between A. Arakcheyev and A. Golitsyn, which resulted in the latter’s resignation. Case 6 contains certain “mementoes” connected with the religious life of the rivals. Although the policy of spiritual renovation led to return to traditional values, it was later marked by a variety of ideological quests, and the incomplete church transformations should have been taken up by Alexander II. The icon “St. Alexander Nevsky” is connected with his birth and destiny.

case 7
The materials exhibited in case 7 are devoted to the sudden death of Emperor Alexander I in Taganrog, which caused a dynasty crisis. There are the death mask of the emperor, a snuff – box with a strand of his hair and a facsimile of his signature, as well as the “Supplement to St. Petersburg Chronicle” reporting his death and the oath of loyalty to the new emperor — the heir apparent Konstantin, who, according to the secret agreements of 1822, was not the heir.

case 8
The exhibits of case 8 tell about the interregnum which was used for the open mutiny on December 14, 1825, and the tragic events that followed. The letter of Crown Prince Konstantin with his refusal to ascend to the throne, which was not made public in Alexander’s time, and the unique “Konstantin ruble” with the portrait of the emperor who never ruled the country, show the difficult situation of the accession to the throne of the legitimate heir, Grand Prince Nikolai Pavlovich. The Manifesto of December 13, 1825 on his accession to the throne as Nicholas I and the oath of allegiance should have put an end to anarchy, which lasted too long. The leaders of the secret societies decided to use this moment for mutiny and the forcible realization of their plan to transform the country.

There is a unique water-colour which the artist K. Kolman, a witness of the events, created, as he remembered them, in the 1830s. A little-known canvas by the artist A. Ladurner, “Arrival of the 1st battalion of the Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Guards to the Winter Palace”, was made after the pencil sketches made by Nicholas I and reflected his impressions of that tragic day.

Among the materials telling about the confrontation are the standard and the uniform of a private of the Moscow Regiment of the Guards, which was the first to come to Senate Square and was the main force of the rebels. Then there is also the uniform of an officer of the Engineers battalion, which belonged to Nicholas I, and a casket with the list of the officers of the Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Guards who arrived to the square to defend their emperor.

From the evidence of members of secret societies Nicholas I learnt about the difficult situation of the country, complete mismanagement and the loss of influence and prestige on the international scene. The closed military court condemned the five rebels to death by hanging, and 121 other participants in the anti-tsar plot were sentenced to various terms of hard labour. The broken sword reminds one of a civil execution during which the sword was broken above the heads of the prisoners of the state as a sign of demotion and the deprivation of all ranks and titles.

The materials devoted to the Siberian period of the Decembrists’ life are contained in case 8. The portrait of A. Muravyova made by the talented artist-Decembrist N. Bestuzhev is of special interest. Eleven women came to Siberia to join their exiled husbands, and Russian society admired their boundless selflessness.

There are unique exhibits in the collection of personal belongings of Decembrists: the portfolio of P. Pestel, the chess-set of K. Ryleyev, the walking stick of N. Turgenev (central case 18), the rings of the poet-Decembrist A. Odoyevsky made by the Bestuzhev brothers of irons, as well as a unique album with a cover inlaid with various kinds of Siberian wood (case 8). This album belonged to the Volkonsky family, and the great-great-granddaughter of the Decembrist, E. Volkonskaya, presented it to the History Museum in 2001.

cases 9, 10
The exhibits of cases 9 and 10 deal with upbringing, education and science. Handwriting samples, a toy desk set and abacus were meant for children taking their first steps in education. The cards of a children’s patience gave them some initial knowledge in geography, ethnography and statistics of each Russian gubernia. There is an original copy-book with Russian and French handwriting samples in which it was written that it had been bought by the peasant D. Popov in the village of Voshchazhnikovo.

Education was mainly private and its results largely depended on the professional quality of teachers. Private boarding schools and state schools were the alternative to education at home. Universities and Lyceums were secular educational institutions. Case 9 contains award medals of the Demidov Lyceum for noblemen and young men of other classes who did not belong to the nobility, the Smolny Institute for girls of noble families, a closed privileged educational establishment, and Kazan University.

The war of 1812 prompted society to a more thorough study of its Motherland and its place in the world. In 1816– 1818 the first eight volumes of the monumental work by N. Karamzin “The History of the Russian State” came off the press, on which the writer had worked from 1803. The 3,000-copy edition was sold out in 25 days. A. Pushkin wrote: “Men of society rushed to read the history of their Motherland. It was a real discovery for them. Ancient Russia seemed to have been discovered by Karamzin, just like America had been discovered by Columbus”. The book “Picturesque Karamzin, or Russian History in Pictures”, which was published in 1836, proved to be a real treat for Russian young people. It described in a simple form “The Histiory of the Russian State” by Karamzin and was illustrated by the best book artists. This book can be “leafed through” thanks to the electronic version of the publication.

The publication of the “Collection of State Documents and Treaties” is justly regarded a patriotic deed of Count N. Rumyantsev. On his initiative a special commission was set up at the archives of foreign affairs, which was engaged in systematizing and publishing all Russian acts and treaties. N. Rumyantsev took upon himself all expenses involved in this monumental publication and insisted that “this undertaking is meant both for the benefit and glory of the country, and therefore don’t spare money on the quality and beauty of the work”.

N. Rumyantsev also financed the construction of the naval vessel “Neva” which made Russia’s first round-the-world voyage under the command of I. Kruzenstern. On the screen one can see printed pages from the atlas describing this voyage, as well as water-colours by the artist P. Mikhailov who took part in the first Antarctic expedition headed by F. Bellinshausen and M. Lazarev. The expedition discovered the continent of Antarctica.

The vase “Seasons of the Year” made of a mammoth bone (case 9) was connected with the diplomatic mission of the first round-the-world voyage. The envoy N. Rezanov was given the task to get permission for trade with Japan. The vase was just one item among the many presents to the Japanese emperor. However, the prolonged negotiations with the Japanese authorities ended in failure, the Japanese remained loyal to the law of 1638 which said that “As long as the Sun shines in this world of ours, nobody dares land on the shores of Japan, be he an ambassador or somebody else.” The presents were not accepted and brought back to Russia.

The exhibits of the central case 18 recreate the interior and atmosphere of “drawing rooms” where plans of the transformation of Russia were discussed in between drinking wines, playing card games and fighting duels.

The stepping up of restrictions could not stem the desire of society to contribute to the radical transformation of the country; it only increased discontent and enmity toward the authorities. This was manifested, among other things, in the activity of clandestine political organizations which sprang up in postwar years against the background of an upsurge of civic self-consciousness. Civic sentiments borne by the war and liberal enlightenment contributed to the creation of the first unions of like-minded thinkers — the Union of Salvation and the Union of Welfare which strove to help the authorities continue the reforms and overcome the socio-economic backwardness of the country.

In the centre of the case is the print by A. Ivanov depicting the triumphant return of the Russian regiments from Europe. There are portraits of many heroes of the 1812 war, who were members of the first political societies. On M. Lunin’s memorial bureau stands a souvenir model of the monument to Minin and Pozharsky, one of the first replicas of the project by I. Martos. The solemn ceremony of the unveling of this monument in Moscow in 1818 became for many people a symbol of patriotism and social responsibility for everything taking place in the Motherland.

Among he exquisite articles of the Empire interior and items of man’s free time there are duel paraphernalia made by the French master J. Lepage. The “duel situations” for men were not only a means to protect their honour, but also a kind of special daring, or scrapping. Within secret societies political motives oft en became a pretext for duels, which became a special symbol of the epoch.

The copies of the programmatic documents — “Russkaya Pravda” (“Russian Truth”) by P. Pestel and “Constitution” by N. Muravyov — show a different approach of members of the Nothern and Southern societies to the transformation of Russia. Already in 1824– 1825 a plan of the armed coup was evolved with a view to forcibly changing the existing system. The refusal of the authorities to pursue the course of reforms led to the reorganization of secret societies.

case 12
The materials of case 12 are devoted to the Russian landowner estate, where the culture of the nobility coexisted and interacted with popular traditional culture. There are culinary recipes of the Russian and French cuisine, and poetic “estate” silhouettes made by Count F. Tolstoi, who was the first among Russian noblemen to have chosen art as profession.

A scarf hand-made by serf weavers at N. Merlina’s manufactory in Nizhni Novgorod and then Ryazan gubernia is an excellent sample of double weaving. Shawls and scarves were made of the down of Kyrgyz goats and saiga at the manufactory. Thirteen grams of yarn were needed to make the thinnest thread 4,500 metre-long, which was then painted in up to thirty different shades with the help of natural dyes. Girls aged from 14 to 18 with thin flexible fingers and good eyesight made patterned stripes and one-colour stockinet on small looms. Then the stripes and stockinet were sewn together. Sixty weavers working on the estate made up to 16 big shawls and 19 kerchiefs and scarves a year. These goods invariably won gold medals at industrial fairs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. From the early 1830s N. Merlina received the right to place the state emblem on her trademark. These goods were very costly and could only be bought by very rich persons in society and at the court.

Beside case 12 there is a unique carpet hand-made of hemp and wool threads at the serf manufactory in the village of Bogucharovo, Tula gubernia, which belonged to the ancient rich family of Khomyakov. The owner’s estate, house, menagerie, and scenes from the life of landlords were depicted on the carpet.

case 14
Case 14 contains, along with beautiful miniature water-colour and gouache portraits on bone and copper, an album of an unknown lady with mother-of-pearl decorations. Such albums were a mirror, as it were, reflecting tastes and mores and morals of noble families. This was closely connected with the development of artistic amateurishness, which gripped both the aristocracy in the capital and provincial young girls. On the screen one can see lists from the album of S. Ponomareva, a beautiful and well-educated mistress of a literary salon visited by almost all well-known writers, the album of Prince P. Vyazemsky with his drawings made during a trip to the Orient, albums of an unknown girl and boy from the village of Zvezdunovo, a sheet of paper with the best wishes of the teacher A. Smirnov to his pupils, etc.

In the centre of the case there is a casket with little jars of paints. It is said to have belonged to Empress Maria Fyodorovna, the mother of Alexander I. She painted pictures, carved bones and made medallions. The decorative insert on the lid was made, perhaps, by the empress herself in etching on sheet gold or silver, eglomise style.

case 15
The exhibits of case 15 are all connected with grand balls, the unending festivity in honour of the victory of 1812. Balls were a form of social organization where the social contacts and public life of the nobility were realized. The exposition shows items of the court interior — a mirror, armchair in Empire style, gilded bronze chandeliers and floor lamps, decorative vases, as well as jewellery and costumes.

A tailcoat made on the English fashion of the 1810s was a classical version of the clothes of a dandy. First, it was meant for horse-riding, and subsequently it became an evening dress. The “sculptural form” of the dresses was achieved due to a special cutting and hand-making. The hat was called “Bolivar” in honour of the leader of the Latin- American liberation struggle Simon Bolivar, the idol of liberally- minded young men. The top hat in the case was made of straw (there is no other exhibit of this kind at any Russian museum).

Empire style was predominant in fashions at the time. A simple and strict outline of female dresses reminded one of Ancient Greek chitons and tunics. Shawls and fans were indispensable items of costumes. Women wore light, fl at shoes and exquisite jewellery, including diamonds, which became fashionable at the end of the 1810s and lent a tint of romanticism and subtlety. The exposition has a little book (carnet de balle) with gold and mother-of-pearl decorations for writing down the names of men who invited ladies for a dance, and also a fan which belonged to Natalia Pushkina.

case 16
Case 16 contains exhibits showing the popularity of literary works. Books became a symbolic feature of the time, to have them at home became a fashion, book-shelves were part of the interior of a house.

The personages of the novel “Paul and Virginie” by the French writer Bernardin de Saint-Pierre found an expression in the goods produced by A. Popov’s plant in the village of Gorbunovo, and the illustrations to a novel by the French authoress M. Cottaigne were depicted on a vase and cup made in the village of Korotkaya, Moscow gubernia. The heroes and heroines of these works were the romantic idols of young Russian girls.

The armchair on display, probably, belonged to the authoress E. Rostopchina, whose poetic talent was highly praised by A. Pushkin. According to his words, one of the victories of Russian education was the emergence of a reading woman. It was impossible to imagine the cultural life of Russia at the time without the image of the hostess of a literary salon.

case 17
Case 17 contains materials connected with literature. At that time it became a reflection of society’s life, problems and quests. A mahogany secretaire and an Austrian clock on display were in the Ostafyevo estate which belonged to Prince P. Vyazemsky. His place near Moscow was frequently visited by A. Pushkin, V. Zhukovsky, E. Baratynsky, A. Mickiewicz, A. Griboyedov and N. Gogol. N. Karamzin stayed in Ostafyevo while working on his “History of the Russian State”.

The water-colour portrait of A. Pushkin on display was made by an unknown artist on V. Tropinin’s original. On the secretaire’s desk lie some editions of the poet’s works published in his lifetime and the content of the first volume of his magazine “Sovremennik”. Literature exerted a tremendous influence on young noblemen, oft en determining their outlook and behaviour. Indicative in this respect was the denunciation of the writer N. Karamzin made by the curator of the Moscow educational department P. Golenishchev-Kutuzov and forwarded to the minister of education, Count A. Razumovsky, in which he claimed that the writer’s works had a pernicious influence on young people. “His works are read and learnt by heart…,” he wrote. “This is fraught with danger. He should be incarcerated, instead of being awarded, and his works should be burnt, instead of being praised.”

Current exhibitions