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The Glory of Russia

By Richard Carter | HUMANITIES, March/April 2000 | Volume 21, Number 2

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, Fabergé 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. Founded a little over a century ago by Tsar Alexander II, the museum is the repository of three hundred years of Romanov rule. Visitors to the exhibition are taken on a voyage through two centuries and across three continents. Beginning at the city on the Neva that was built by command of Peter the Great and named after himself, the visitor travels across the Urals and the vast Siberian outback to the Bering Straits, down through Russian settlements in Alaska and British Columbia, and back to Moscow and St. Petersburg. There, awaiting the traveler's report at one of her opulent palaces, was that remarkable woman Voltaire called "the Semiramis of the North": Catherine the Great, who, lest it be forgotten, politely refused George III's request for Russian soldiers to help him put down that pesky revolt in his thirteen colonies.

Leaping forward in time, we also meet Catherine's talented grandson, the reform-minded Tsar Alexander I (who sent his bust to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello), and his equally autocratic but reactionary brother, Nicholas I. It ends at the glittering courts of the liberator tsar, Alexander II, and his son, Alexander III, another arch-reactionary. Before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Alexander II freed Russia's serfs, only to have his legs blown off in a terrorist assassination in 1881; Alexander III died of lingering complications from an attempt on his life little more than a decade later.

The exhibition is also the story of the Russian-American Trading Company. The company was the arm through which Russia extended its rule in the New World. It was founded by the much-loathed and hapless Emperor Paul I, son of Catherine the Great. Paul, who set about undoing the achievements of his mother, was killed in a palace coup after only five years on the imperial throne. Looking at his portrait, which is included in the exhibition, it becomes rather clear why he was so quickly dispatched.

Russia's presence in North America came to an end when the decision was made to sell Alaska to the United States. Prince Alexander Gorchakov, foreign minister under Alexander II who had toasted Lincoln as "a man who sacrificed his life for the sake of duty," choreographed the sale with Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, the emperor's brother. Arguing for the sale of Russia's American colonies, the grand duke ironically observed, "Their loss would not be too painful." Even today, many in the Kremlin still rue the decision.