On first hearing about this exhibition, I turned slightly cynical. The Amsterdam Hermitage had had a successful exhibition on Nicholas and Alexandra in 2004-2005. So were they milking a money-spinning subject?
Last week, the exhibition “1917: Romanovs and Revolution” opened in Amsterdam. This month, a century passed since the Russian Revolution started. The murder of the last Czar and his family ended the Romanov’s rule.
Nicolas, Alexandra, their children and the people who joined them during their captivity (murdered with the family but usually forgotten) are money spinners. As an American friend remarked: documentaries about them continue to be made and viewed.
This exhibition covers both the years and events leading to the revolution, as well as events after 1917. Because of its span, one should not expect to leave with in-depth knowledge of events. It does contain unique pieces. There are more than 250 items on show from the collections of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, its Artillery Museum and the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow.
It gives an impression of life of the ruling classes versus life of the struggling masses. On entering, what impresses are photos. Deputy director Mr Mosterd explained, these are blown-ups made of early 20th century glass-plate negatives, which are so sharp, pictures do not distort much when increased to decorate museum walls. Some show Nevsky Prospect.
At the back of the first exhibition room, above a portrait of Czar Nicolas, a series of films are projected at regular intervals. Short cuts show his children dancing, walking, playing tennis, on board the family’s beloved yacht “Standard”.
This room gives visitors the impression they are entering a shopping arcade at Nevsky Prospect. Look up at its “gas lights”, look at what is sold here: ravishing evening dresses, Russian made of course. Look above the shop windows, at the “advertisements: on one side photos of Lenin, Russian Revolutionary troops, fights – on the opposite site every day life.
On the left, the shop windows contain samples of upper and middle class life. There are exquisite gowns, jewelry – some by Fabergé, exquisite glass vases, paintings. Alexandra and Nicolas loved “modern” furniture: Russian Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Here are short films of Anna Pavlova dancing, modern art and culture were flourishing.
On the right, one also finds Fabergé. Fabergé helping the war effort: copper pans and samovars for the army. For Russia was at war: with Japan, Germany, WWI happened. Criticism of German-born Alexandra increased – though in reality, she despised the German Emperor. On the right are also works by writers like Gogol and Dostoevsky – who both wrote about the Nevsky Prospect – as well as furniture.
Already, the gap between public perception and private reality of the Romanov family becomes clear. At the end of this room, there are not only portraits of Nicolas and Alexandra. There is another blown-up photo of the facade of the immense Winter Palace – where they did not live..
During WWI, it was turned into a hospital. After training as nurses, Alexandra and her daughters assisted at operations (the Czarina was seen carrying away amputated limbs). Her husband and son were with the Russian army.
The corridor behind this room tells the story of Nicolas and Alexandra: how they met, their courtship and marriage. Here are private letters written by Nicolas and Alexandra to each other. As one visitor remarked: the handwriting is very beautiful and readable. The letters are in English, for Alexandra was one of Victoria’s granddaughters and had been raised by English staff – as would be her children.
One floor up, either by elevator or stairs, and the story of the shy, reserved Nicolas and Alexandra continues. As is often the case with shy and reserved people, their behaviour were interpreted as coldness, aloofness, arrogance.
Further along, one finds Alexandra’s study. Furniture, lamps, various items show her taste for what were modern styles. Nicolas was fairly modern too: he gave his children pocket cameras. Many of the photos from family albums grace exhibition walls.
Examples of the children’s personal belonging are exhibited. There are small uniforms worn by Alexei and dresses belonging to his sisters. But it were the kids’ paintings and drawings which brought tears.
As Mr Mosterd pointed out: the Russian curators helped select unique pieces. Visitors are seeing these, knowing how the story ends. The children were merely painting, dancing, playing – with a future ahead of them. Here are a grumpy teddy-bear, clumsy paintings and good drawings, a hand-written letter with a happy message to dear Mama.
A room follows dedicated to Rasputin, his hold on Alexandra, his murder. Some people wonder how Alexandra could have been duped? She was raised and remained deeply religious. She was aware, that her only son and possibly last child, had inherited his painful disease through her “faulty genes”. She witnessed his sufferings, she was aware he would not grow old. The guilt was immense and here was this monk who did seem capable to improve her son’s health. An exhibition text will tell visitors how.
People forget, Alexandra was not the only crowned head who turned to faith healers. Even now, plenty people are so desperate they become easy prey for charlatans. But why did Nicolas not change fairly recent Russian laws to ensure his girls could reign in case Alexei died? After all, Russia had had female rulers like Elizabeth and Catherine.
Rooms dedicated to the Russian Revolution follow, then the ultimate fate of this Romanov family. If the personal items exhibited already give one the feeling of voyeurism – what to think of the bayonet?
This was used during the murders: first the victims were shot, then a firing squad had a go. Who was not dead yet, was repeatedly stabbed with this bayonet. Those still alive, were finally shot through the head. Then the disgusting circus started to get rid of the bodies.
The last room shows the fate of other Romanovs. For the horrific murder of Nicolas’ family was not enough. Though some of the extended family managed to escape, others were murdered.
Things could have ended differently: a few heads of states tried to safe the family. For the Romanovs were related to most of Western Europe’s aristocratic families. Other leaders signed treaties with Russian revolutionaries, while British politicians simply were not interested offering help. One may be a rich and well-connected refugee – this does not guarantee survival.
Russian documentaries are shown, explaining how remains were discovered, what happened to the Romanov’s last prison, the reburial of some of the family. There is also a wall showing imposters, the most famous one being Anna Anderson.
Visiting Amsterdam or living there? Go and have a look. An audio tour is included in the ticket price and the museum houses other exhibitions as well. I for one, will certainly revisit. However: squeamish or sensitive like me, visiting with impressionable kids? Then it might be best to hurry through certain rooms on the second floor, without looking at exhibits there.
Hermitage Amsterdam: “1917: Romanovs & Revolution” can be visited till the 17th of September 2017.
Hermitage Saint Petersburg: opening of the Amsterdam exhibition. An adapted version of this exhibition will open in Saint Petersburg, once the Amsterdam exhibition has closed.