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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Buried Treasure in the Seat Cushions




In the famous satirical classic of Russian literature, "12 Chairs," Ostap Bender and Kisa Vorobyaninov turn post-revolutionary Moscow upside down in their search for treasure hidden in one of 12 chairs somewhere in the city. And now, perhaps, the search has begun again.


Back then, the fictional hunt brought Bender and Vorobyaninov a good deal of adventure and, eventually led them to, of all places, the Moscow Furniture Museum. Quirky concept, indeed, but this is no figment of the authors' collective imagination - the place really existed. Founded in 1920, the Furniture Museum was located in Moscow's Neskuchny Sad, which is today part of Gorky Park.


But a year after Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov's novel was completed in 1929, the museum was closed and its unique collection divided among other museums - the majority of the museum's almost 2,000 items was sent to the State Historical Museum and another large portion of the collection went to St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum.


Today, 80 years after the Furniture Museum was first opened and 75 years after the events in the famous novel took place, "One Hundred and Twelve Chairs," a collection of all manner of chairs, stools and thrones, has opened at the State Historical Museum to bring it all back.


"Of course, we were inspired by Ilf and Petrov a great deal," exhibition curator Olga Strugova said. "The exhibit is an unusual combination of literature and the fine arts."


But, aside from the fame of the novel, why, after all this time, chairs?


"The chair is the lightest, most mobile item in any interior and it reflects the style of a room in its build and design," Strugova said. "Our exhibit proposes to trace the process of changing furniture styles, using the chair as an illustration of those changes: from Baroque and Rococo to Classical and Imperial to Art Nouveau and Eclecticism."


Boris Messerer, the well-known artist in charge of set design at the MKhAT Theater, created special podiums used in the exhibit - the podiums are elevated above the floor in order to allow visitors to view the chairs from all sides.


In addition to its 112 chairs, the exhibit features a number of 18th- and 19th-century paintings by unknown artists - all have something to do with the reputation, form or idea of the chair in recent centuries. Many illustrate the chair's role in interior floor plans of recent centuries.


Inevitably, perhaps, some will pooh-pooh the exhibit for its devotion to a thing as mundane and functional as a chair. But Strugova said she feels that the chair's value extends beyond its identity as a useful piece of furniture.


"Chairs possess their own charm and aesthetic," Strugova said. "They reflect not only varying styles of interior decorating, but they are also the main representatives of Russia's history, technical achievements and the boundless fantasy of artists."


Among the "main representatives" of Russian history who have rested in the many chairs here are Russia's Princess Miloslavsky, sister of Peter the Great (a wooden chair that belonged to her); Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great (an armchair from her boudoir); and Tsar Alexander I (his throne from the Moscow parliamentary chamber, see photo above).


Recent centuries' progress in chair-making is especially well-illustrated by two items in particular: a comfortable chair with a collapsible reading desk equipped with a special drink-holder (mid-19th century) and an armchair-cum-water-closet, the seat of which can be raised to reveal a small chamber inside the structure (mid-19th century).


Most noteworthy, perhaps, of the exhibit's chairs is a Gothic armchair built in the workshop of P. Ghambs, the real-life carpenter who was said in Ilf and Petrov's novel to have made the fictional 12 chairs in which the treasure was to have been hidden.


But don't get any ideas about treasure hunting.


Their reputation for zeal in taking the book quite literally apparently precedes fans of "12 Chairs" - in order to discourage visitors from dismantling the chairs in search of buried treasure, a museum representative announced at the exhibit's opening that "Each of the 112 chairs has been inspected during the restoration process.


"No treasure of any kind was found."


One Hundred and Twelve Chairs" (Sto Dvenadtsat Stulyev) runs through April 15 at the State Historical Museum, located at 1/2 Red Square. Metro Okhotny Ryad. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except Tuesdays.