Historian Puts Russian Private Living on Display

Dmitry TixaseThe author, Alexandre Vassiliev
With his bright orange cravat and brooch, Alexandre Vassiliev seems to be straight out of 17th-century France. His occupations of costume designer and fashion historian are easy to guess as a result. What comes to light only in speaking with the man and reading his books is an overarching passion for Russian culture, which the eminent socialite and scholar displays in his recent book "The Russian Interior in Old Photographs," an impressive, 412-page tome of glossy photos that show the evolution of Russian interior design from Peter the Great to the Romanovs.

Vassiliev's extensive resume boasts costume design for 126 productions in 26 countries, teaching fashion history and fluency in seven languages in addition to writing books. He also enjoys between three to five interviews per day. "I am popular," he admits. Instead of hogging the spotlight, though, Vassiliev uses his popularity to spread his love of Russia internationally. "It's to show my empathy to the culture which I want to cherish and show to the whole world in the most beautiful and intriguing terms."

Like in many of Vassiliev's other books, such as in his first bestseller "Beauty in Exile" about Russian expats who fled their country after the Bolshevik Revolution to join the world of fashion abroad, many of the featured photos are taken from his personal collection of more than 10,000 images. "Most of the photography I am publishing comes from private sources," he said. Some of the photos are candid shots of Russians in their homes, others are Vassiliev's own royal family friends.

The Russian Interior in Old Photographs
Many of the images in Vassiliev's new tome come from private sources, showing family life from centuries past.

The historian's 21st book on fashion, "Russian Interiors," seeks to revive appreciation for the imperialist and tsarist periods. "I love Russia of the bygone days above all," Vassiliev declared. "I hope that my book will help, especially the Westerners, to discover the soul of my homeland. They will be able to see what actually changed in Russia in the last centuries in the very private way of living."

Vassiliev lamented the lack of appreciation for these periods. "There were books on this subject before, but almost all of them stop at 1850. Since then, 150 years have gone by!" He credits the lack of books on the topic to government policy during the communist era, when praise of the tsars was frowned upon. "They wanted to say that people were poor and shabby, and when the Communists came everything became rich and opulent. It is quite the reverse."

The way Vassiliev sees it, the core of Russian culture lies in the style of Russian homes. "[Russians] don't like changes. You can see this stability in the style of decoration as well," he claimed. "[Russians] don't like sober and minimalist apartments -- they like plentiness in every sense."

An interior designer as well, Vassiliev has been asked by some of Moscow's nouveau riche to recreate the imperialist and tsarist styles he loves so dearly in their own homes. He says this is because "the dream of their life is to live as princes, counts or marquis." For those who aren't blessed with the riches to invest in such styles, simply the knowledge that it existed makes many Russians happy, he claims. "The knowledge of the past is sometimes more important to Russians than having it."

A return to imperialist interior decorating may just be the first step to total revival, though, according to Vassiliev. "I will even not be surprised if Medvedev and Putin will try somehow to bring back a Romanov to the throne."

For those princes, counts and marquis interested in honing their fashion sense, there are courses offered at the "Alexandre Vassiliev School" almost every month; the next one will take place in Paris from Dec. 22 to 29. Go to his web site www.vassiliev.com.ru to book a spot.