ArchivesEastern Europe/Communism, Exhibition Reviews, History

A Nation Safe for Autocracy

May 30, 2007 — Fedor Solntsev (1801–92) at the New York Public Library Published originally in The New York Sun

Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, Aug 2000 (AS)Much as blood and soil may help, it takes more to make a nation than a happy coincidence of genes and real estate. Today’s nation-states are, whatever they may claim, purpose-built, as artificial as they are organic. Many may now have developed a genuine sense of self, but that identity is often rooted in myth as much as history, in fantasy as much as fact, and in forgetfulness as much as memory.

Nowhere is that more the case than in those states where the past is as awkward as geography is inconvenient. Imperial Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, was an emerging power of jumbled ethnicities, shifting borders and a culture uncertain whether its dominant influence was Byzantium, the Mongols, “Europe” or, more prosaically, distance, backwardness, and poverty.

It was frustration over Russia’s failure to adapt to modernity that led Peter the Great to turn westward in the early 1700s. Unfortunately for his successors, as the West itself evolved in a more democratic direction, it became increasingly obvious that the course set by Peter, modernization on Western lines, must in the end lead to some dilution of Romanov control. The liberal Decembrist rising against the incoming Tsar Nicholas I in 1825 may have failed — the new emperor brushed it aside with the traditional handful of executions and Siberian exile all ’round — but it was a clear sign of trouble to come.

If autocratic rule was to survive, Peter’s idea of a westernized Russia had, Nicholas understood, to be replaced with something more congenial to absolute monarchy. This, in a sense, is where the New York Public Library comes into the picture. Its Wachenheim Gallery is currently featuring a fascinating exhibit dedicated to the work and impact of Fedor Solntsev (1801–92), an artist who made a significant contribution to Nicholas’s new project, the fabrication of a notion of a nation safe for autocracy. The exhibition is small (it’s confined to just one room), but its implications are not. The idea of an exotic, ageless Muscovy, distinct from, and morally superior to, the rest of Europe has shaped both Russia’s history and its perception of itself up to the present day. Besides, the show’s almost ecclesiastical setting — hushed, intense, and darkened, presumably to protect some of the artwork — is not inappropriate to showcase a man recruited by a tsar who liked to sum up his own vision of Russia with three nouns: “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality.”

Operating at the intersection of ethnography, archaeology, art, and propaganda, Solntsev traveled throughout Russia’s ancient heartland recording the artifacts, architecture, and costumes he saw there. He then used their images to build up a picture of the country’s past that, with diligent editing, could be shown to have been the story of one people, united around church and monarchy. Just a few years before, Nikolai Karamzin (1766–1826), the influential nationalist historian, had written that poets, sculptors, and painters could contribute to the creation of patriotic feeling. Solntsev proved Karamzin’s point, and helped make the tsar’s too. This was underlined by Nicholas’s decision to fund the publication of “Antiquities of the Russian State” (1849–53), six volumes showing Solntsev’s depictions (some are on display in this show) of the medieval artifacts that could be found in Moscow’s Kremlin. Recently invented chromolithography meant that this skilled draughtsman’s careful, almost photographic images could be disseminated in vivid color throughout the empire they were designed to promote.

Those six volumes represented the high point of Solntsev’s career. His royal patron died in 1855. “Costume of the Russian State,” a series of watercolors painted over the course of three decades and designed to show the traditional clothing worn in different parts of the tsars’ domain, never found a publisher. By the end of his impressively long life, Solntsev was, in the view of the organizers of this exhibition, somewhat passé, a verdict that only appeared to be reinforced by the triumph of the Bolsheviks, barely 25 years later, and (it seemed) their irreparable break with the past. Less than two decades after the revolution, the cash-strapped Soviet government sold some of Solntsev’s works to the New York Public Library. Like history itself, they were thought to be disposable.

But the real story is more complex than that. As is partly acknowledged by the exhibition’s inclusion of designs by Natalia Goncharova for a production of “The Firebird” in the 1920s, Solntsev’s influence on the arts, and the artistic interpretation, of Russia, was immensely important until, and beyond, a revolution that has, in this respect, proved to be little more than an interruption. By the 1930s, Russian nationalism, snarling and spiky, was back. The familiar iconography of onion domes, benign autocrats, and happy peasants reappeared shortly afterwards, along with the distinctively styled “Old Russian” design that accompanied it. It still flourishes today, nurtured by political support, fashionable taste, and genuine popular demand.

The fake, in short, has become real.