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Editor's Note, May/June 2001

Remnants of Empire

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, May/June 2001 | Volume 22, Number 3

The arrival of the Russians was memorable for Kodiak Islanders.

Arsenti Arminak, just a boy at the time, tells the story. "When we saw the ship far off, we believed it was a giant whale and curiosity drove us to examine it more closely." Those aboard appeared unnatural. "We thought they were squid but when we saw that they took fire into their mouths and blew out smoke -- we knew nothing of tobacco -- we could only believe that they were devils."

In the 1760s Russian traders were sailing across the Bering Sea to hunt otter and seals. The Alutiit drove away the intruders, but two decades later a more heavily armed expedition would made Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island the first Russian settlement in America.

In this issue, we look at the tangled history between America and Russia from the time of the czars to the present day. One byway takes us along the Chinese Eastern Railway to Harbin, for a time the largest Russian city outside of the Soviet Union. White Russians fled to Harbin after the revolution of 1917, only to be driven out again in a second revolution in China itself. The stories of these émigrés are being translated and digitized with NEH support. Another foray takes us north through Arkhangelsk Province, where log churches and Russian Orthodox monasteries dating as far back as the fifteenth century, having survived the Soviets, have fallen into disrepair. A scholar named William C. Brumfield is preserving them on film, in a photographic quest that has taken twenty years.

We pause at an unlikely juncture of American and Russian culture: 1891 in Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Buffalo Bill was looking beyond the frontier, refusing to call his event a "show," insisting its purpose was educational. Quite an educational event it was. He filled the arena with Mexican vaqueros, Irish lancers, German cuirassiers -- and a dozen Cossacks from Russia. A review a few years later in the New York Daily Tribune was enthusiastic: "The Cossacks, riding like mad, whipping wildly, leaning far over, swinging and swaying, make you cry out with enthusiasm."

The times were high-spirited, but the sawdust of Buffalo Bill's world would be blown away in the realities of a Boer War, a Spanish-American War, a Russo-Japanese War, and the first world war. New faces would come to power, some of them allies, some of them adversaries.

World War II brought the United States and Russia into the same camp again, and as the war came to a close, they looked at what they would take from their victory. Families were sundered, land devastated, and cultural heritage endangered. Great European art had been destroyed or appropriated in the Nazi advance into Russia; art had been sold or stolen in occupied France, Poland, and Central Europe. Historian Lynn Nicholas talks with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris about the rescue effort and some unresolved mysteries of the art world. In wartime France, a woman named Rose Valland watered the potted palms at the Jeu de Paume by day, and by night, made copies of German photographs of the looted artwork; because of her work, most of it was recovered after the war. The Russians assembled a "trophy commission" of art historians to sweep along the advance, looking for Russian-owned art and Nazi holdings to take as reparations. By Nicholas's estimates, "hundreds of thousands of objects" went to the Hermitage, the Pushkin, and other museums across the country, where they were kept hidden for fifty years after the war, until the Soviet Union fell. Nicholas believes the art will eventually surface. Tantalizing questions remain: a missing Raphael portrait, the fate of some Bellinis in Berlin, the whereabouts of the legendary Amber Room that graced the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. The room, made of slivers of amber put together like stained glass, is being copied and restored even as experts continue searching for the original.