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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flush Royal Collections Reveal a Tsar's Life

Russian monarchs were always devoted collectors of art. Peter the Great founded the Kunstkammer in St. Petersburg; Catherine the Great started the Hermitage.

The contributions of other Russian monarchs are much less known, although just as important, and continued right until the end of the dynasty. Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II, founded the huge Russian Museum in 1895 to honor his father, Alexander III, who himself was a dedicated patron of Russian arts.

In their gifts to museums and in their choice of acquisitions, the tsars revealed a good deal about their own lives and the empire they ruled. Thus a new exhibit at the Moscow Kremlin Assumption Belfry offers a fascinating glimpse of the life of Nicholas II.

The exhibit, titled "Tsars to People and People to Tsars," comes from the royal collection of the Russian Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg, which this year marks its 100th anniversary. The museum, which began as part of the Russian Museum and was spun off in 1934, counts the Romanov material among its most valuable.

The current exhibit at the Kremlin opens with a display of Russian festive costumes, plates, pitchers and chests given to the Romanov family as gifts from people high and low from various regions of Russia.

On view are presentation plates -- designed for use in the Russian salt and bread greeting ritual -- decorated with dedicatory inscriptions and symbols of different ethnic groups. One of the plates was given to Alexander III and his wife by Tersk cossacks in 1888 during their trip to the Caucasus. The plate's ornamentation shows compelling details of day-to-day life and and the military regime of the cossacks.

The luxurious women's festive dresses from different provinces are decorated with pearls, lace and filigree buttons while the shawls are embroidered with gold ornaments. The objects, dating back to the late 19th century, were handmade in European Russia.

The exhibit also includes a charming collection of earrings of different shapes with relief decorations, covered with patterns, colored enamel, glass and semiprecious stones. Along with traditional designs are samples assuming the shapes of rosettes, bows and bunches of grapes.

The display goes on to "The Journey to the Caucasus" section with a unique collection of armaments presented to Alexander III and his family during a formal visit to the Caucasus.

The highlight of the exhibit is the reproduction of an Oriental Room from the late 19th century. Used as a library or a smoking room, these warm and intimate enclosures were an an integral part of each aristocratic house in the mid-19th century and a favorite place for the young aristocracy. The interior of the room combines ancient and modern Persian and Turkish carpets, Chinese porcelain, weapons of Oriental armies, and exquisite Buddhist bronze sculptures.

All the items included in the exhibit's Oriental Room are from the private collections of Alexander III and other members of the Romanov family.

Here, visitors will find the precious Oriental curtain called "Alaman," which was purchased by Nicholas II from the Russian General Vereshchagin especially for the Ethnographic Museum.

In 1890 and 1891, the Tsarevich Nicholas went on a voyage -- well-publicized at the time -- throughout the Orient, and brought an immense collection of gifts back to St. Petersburg.

Most of the items were given to him by residents of the Siberian towns and villages through which the royal train passed. One of the more attractive gifts was a Yakut woman's fur wedding coat, covered with cloth and Chinese silk and decorated with adornments of silver and sable.

In this Siberian collection, items associated with shamanism take a special place and illuminate how the religion existed alongside Christianity and Buddhism. One Yakut cloak in the exhibit was given to Nicholas II in 1907 and was worn during special rituals as a way of boosting the priest's supernatural powers.

Throughout his reign, Nicholas II received delegations from Buddhist communities which had long been supported by the tsars in the Russian territories of Kalmykia and Buryatia. Some of these gifts, as well as those from Tibet itself, form the Buddhist collection.

Among the selected Buddhist rarities, the most remarkable and precious is an altar piece consisting of a depiction of the 13-deity Vajrabhayrava, a mystical model of creation. The three-dimensional model of a palace surrounded by concentric circles, eight intricate cemeteries and a ring of lotus ponds was created to be placed on an altar for worship.

All in all, this exhibit is a must-see for anyone interested in gaining further insight into the life of the last tsar. Aside from that, many of the items on display have never before been seen in Moscow and provide a wonderful glimpse of the pre-communist lives and folkways of the many peoples of the Russian Empire.

"The Royal Collections of the Russian Ethnographic Museum: Tsars to People, People to Tsars" exhibit runs until April 1. The Kremlin Assumption Belfry museum in the Moscow is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thursday. Tel. 202-1752. Metro: Alexandrovsky Sad.