Fleurs du Mur

A few days ago I was in such a hurry to post last week’s photo of Comrade Bear visiting the Hermitage Museum that I neglected to perform one of my favorite fundamental analytical exercises: an examination and explication of background imagery that often tells a story worth ten thousand words or so.  At the time, I briefly wondered “who are those 18th century gentlemen whose portraits grace that seagreen wall behind the charming hostess and her guest?” It seemed a mere passing thought swept away in the rush to blog about imagined cyberwar.


But the question nagged at the corners of my mind for several hours, and despite an initial reflex that dismissed this kind of research task as too difficult, I finally found a way to identify first one, then another of the portrait subjects. It was even more satisfying to discover the cultural/historical baggage associated with them.  It’s probably not an accident that Comrade Bear’s photo op was staged at this particular location, but it’s also unlikely that he fully grasped the historical allusions –the backstory– suggested by these portraits.

First, the painting on the left.  It’s a portrait of Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov (1750-1831), a cosmopolitan aesthete who “spoke five languages and corresponded with Voltaire.


Nikolai Yusupov was a Russian nobleman and art collector, the eldest son of Prince Boris Grigorievich Yusupov. He served as Director of Imperial Theatres (1791-1796) under a series of Czars, including Catherine the Great, Paul I and Alexander I. He later served as director of the Hermitage (in 1797).

A patron of the arts and a keen traveler, Yusupov spoke five languages and traveled widely throughout Europe. During his journeys he purchased a large collection of art for the Czars, acting as a middleman between the Czars and European artists.  Yusupov collected for himself as well as collecting for the Czars, and his personal art collection became one of Europe’s richest, including over 600 paintings, sculptures, works of applied art, more than 20,000 books and numerous porcelain objects.

Just the kind of semi-official entrepreneur for which Russia is known even today!  Imagine: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  After the 1917 revolution, much of the Yusupov art collection ended up in the hands of the Soviet state … and eventually in the Hermitage itself.  But in some ways, the origins of the House of Yusupov are even more interesting and resonant than its downfall:

In the 14th century one of Tamerlane’s greatest Tatar strategists settled on the North shores of the Black Sea, establishing the Nogai Horde and laying the foundations for the Crimean Khanate. In the 15th century, Khan Yusuf became the head of the Nogai Horde and allied himself with Czar Ivan the Terrible.  In the 17th century, Khan Yusuf’s descendant, Abdul Mirza, converted from Islam to Orthodox Christianity under the name of Dmitry.  After the conversion, Czar Feodor I bestowed upon him the title of Prince Yusupov.  Dimitry’s son, Prince Grigori Dmitrievich Yusupov (1676-1730) was a friend of Peter the Great, became General in Chief and Minister of Defense, and organized construction of the Russian Navy.

Get the picture? The House of Yusupov [Yusuf] was founded by Crimean Tatars who helped make Russia the great nation it has become.  And whose descendants were essentially the original curators of the Hermitage art collections. Kinda ironic that Comrade Bear’s Crimean “patriot nationalists” are now engaged in wholesale expropriation (theft) of Tatar property and business holdings in newly-occupied Crimea.

Now, the painting on the right.  It’s a youthful portrait of Czar Peter III (b. 1728 – d. 1762), the husband and predecessor of Catherine the Great (he lasted only six months on the throne).  He was the son of Anna Petrovna, daughter of Peter I and Catherine I of Russia.


When Peter succeeded to the Russian throne in 1762 (after 20 years as Crown Prince), he withdrew Russian forces from the Seven Years’ War and concluded a peace treaty with Prussia. He gave up Russian conquests in Prussia and offered to make an alliance with Frederick II of Prussia. Russia thus switched from an enemy of Prussia to an ally. This dramatically shifted the balance of power in Europe.

During his 186-day period of government, Peter III issued 220 new laws which he had developed and elaborated during his many years as crown prince.  He proclaimed religious freedom.  He fought corruption in government, established public litigation and abolished the secret police — a repressive organization started under his grandfather Peter I.  Some historians claim that Peter III intended to expose the czarist police  as betrayer of the state for its mercilessness and torture methods.

He established the first state bank in Russia, rejected the nobility’s monopoly on trade and encouraged mercantilism by increasing grain exports. One of his most popular reforms was the manifesto of February 1762 that exempted the nobility from obligatory state and military service and gave them freedom to travel abroad.  Peter’s short reign also addressed serfdom law and the status of serfs within Russia. For the first time, the killing of a peasant by a landowner became an act punishable by law.

However, this being Russia, things didn’t turn out so well. After six months Peter III was overthrown and assassinated at the instigation of his wife Catherine.  She embarked on a protracted, expensive and ultimately successful public relations campaign to conceal the brutality of her autocratic rule behind a facade of Enlightenment culture and erudition.  That’s why she’s Catherine the Great and why we have a Hermitage Museum today.  The rest became history.  All of which can be considered object lessons for Comrade Bear.  If only he’d get the picture.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: