Magazine article Humanities

The Glory of Russia

Magazine article Humanities

The Glory of Russia

Article excerpt

While rabble-rousers were throwing tea over the sides of ships in Boston, at the other end of the continent, settlers sent by Catherine the Great of Russia were colonizing parts of what was to become Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and northern California.

For one hundred and twenty-five years Russia had colonies in North America. In 1867, when Secretary of State William P. Seward bought Alaska from Tsar Alexander II for the then-princely sum of $7.2 million, people thought that he had temporarily taken leave of his reason to spend such an amount on a frozen wasteland.

An exhibition, "Unseen Treasures-Imperial Russia and the New World," currently at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, celebrates the cultural impact of the Russian-American Trading Company and the Romanov dynasty through the rich artifacts associated with the imperial Russian court.

The objects dazzle. They speak of a court unrivalled by any other in Europe, of splendor so vast and magnificent it was considered, in the words of Queen Victoria, "slightly vulgar." Here you will find the heavily galooned uniforms of senior ministers, diamond brooches bearing the miniatures of Russian tsars, a solid gold jewel-encrusted case for Catherine the Great's eyeglasses, Faberge gold and diamond cigarette cases made for grand dukes, a solid silver sculpture of Peter the Great standing in a boat, a silver-- gessoed rococo sleigh used by Catherine at her coronation (still with its original deep-red velvet seat), jewel-laden gold and satin church vestments of Orthodox archdeacons, books and icons encrusted in gold, rubies, sapphires and enamels, and gold and jeweled Orthodox wedding crowns. A rose silk and embroidered court dress of Empress Marie Fedorovna, wife of Alexander III, has a waist so small it appears that it could be encompassed in one's hands. There are diamond signet rings, ormolu and crystal inkwells, and an emperor's razor (in solid gold and mother of pearl-just one from a group of seven). There are gold, silver, and jeweled earrings, snuff boxes, furniture, paintings of Russian sovereigns and grand dukes, combs with jewels, and malachite objets d'art.

"Unseen Treasures-Imperial Russia in the New World" is sponsored by the Russian-American Cooperation Foundation. A conference on the exhibition and the history of Russian colonization in the New World takes place on April 1 under the sponsorship of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the NEH, and the State Department.

"Unseen Treasures" draws its contents from one of the richest troves in the world, the Russian State Historical Museum in Moscow. …

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