Museums Russian Federation

Retreat in Moscow

Proposal for a Russian national portrait gallery is killed off by museum celebrating Napoleon’s defeat

For tsar and country: the Battle of Borodino was re-enacted last month

Muscovites can now celebrate Tsarist Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invasion in a museum near Red Square. It opened on 6 September to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino—a Pyrrhic victory for the French Emperor, who was beaten back by the ensuing Russian winter.

Called the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812 (as Russians refer to the conflict), the institution reflects Vladimir Putin’s support for symbols and events that may help to unify post-Soviet Russia. There was a re-­enactment of the Battle of Borodino outside Moscow last month, as well as the restoration of a commemorative arch and a small museum in the city housing a panorama of the battle.

The opening of the 1812 museum, however, closes the door on a proposal to create another patriotic institution: a national portrait gallery. The latter project’s main instigator, Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky, a Russian émigré art collector, says: “The idea for a national portrait gallery in Moscow is dead.”

The Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812 is part of the nearby State Historical Museum. The new museum’s red-brick building was previously home to a celebration of Lenin’s life and achievements, and was originally the headquarters of the Moscow city parliament. It has been converted by the Moscow architect Pavel Andreyev and features a 2,000 sq. m exhibition space.

More than 2,000 items record Napoleon’s defeat, including portraits, canons, uniforms and a fragment of a fresco by the 19th-century artist Henryk Siemiradzki, which was saved from the original Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The cathedral was built in the 19th century to commemorate the 1812 war. It was blown up in 1931 on the orders of Joseph Stalin.

“Heritage preservation will be the primary purpose of this new museum. And that it’s based in this building is great news in itself. I can read some historical parallels here; to me, this is about the triumph of historical justice,” said the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, at the opening ceremony on 4 September.

Lobanov-Rostovsky’s proposal to open a national portrait gallery in the building was publicly supported by Vladimir Putin in 2010, but failed to win the support of Aleksei Levykin, the director of the State Historical Museum.

The State Historical Museum held an exhibition this spring of around 100 portraits from its collection and those of the State Tretyakov Gallery and State Russian Museum, which was promoted as a proto-national portrait gallery. In August, Levykin told the Trud newspaper that a permanent portrait gallery requires a larger space and that the State Historical Museum effectively functions as a national portrait gallery.

The collector says the museum director “used all his Byzantine administrative skills to sidetrack the implementation of a national portrait gallery and substitute it for the Museum of the 1812 War”. A strong personality will be needed if a Russian national portrait gallery is ever to come into formal existence, Lobanov-Rostovsky says. “One would have to wait for a new generation of museum officials and, most importantly, an autocratic ruler who would understand the political importance of a national portrait gallery for Russia and enforce his will on reluctant museum officials.”

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