“I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling.”
So declared 26-year-old Nicholas II in 1894, the year he inherited the throne after the death of his father Alexander III. The disastrous Russo-Japanese War in 1904, followed by Nicholas’s failed military command during World War I, and the ensuing Russian Revolution would culminate in the end of the three century Romanov dynasty. On the evening of July 17, 1918 by Vladimir Lenin’s order, Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their five children were executed by a firing squad.
“The Reluctant Autocrat: Tsar Nicholas II” at the University of Georgia’s Georgia Museum of Art is a fascinating window into this period of momentous political and social change. Curated by Asen Kirin, Parker Curator of Russian Art and professor of art history at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, the exhibition explores the reigns of the last two Romanov tsars who clung tragically to the idea of divinely inspired autocracy. Organized thematically, the exhibition features objects primarily from the Parker Collection. Each tells a story.
Sparkling silver, gold and enamel badges, medals, orders of chivalry, and silver-gilt and silk epaulets attest to the social importance of military regiments. “In this empire of emphatic social stratification and of multiple ethnicities, languages, and religions, the relative cohesiveness of the society was manifested, among other ways, in the symbolically charged material objects seen here,” says Kirin. Along with a silk hand-painted military standard are two gold-embroidered hussar sabretaches — flat satchels with long strips worn by cavalry officers.
Through the centuries, Russia’s tsars and tsarinas were honorary commanders of the various military regiments with specific patron saints and feast days. In this tradition, imperial uniforms and court costumes conveyed important cultural meanings. Installed in the middle of the first gallery are show stopping textiles including Nicholas II’s exquisitely tailored blue and black parade uniform for the Imperial Life Guard Sapper Battalion (military engineers), created during the Napoleonic war of 1812.
The impressive costume of the Lord Chamberlain of the imperial household is also on view, along with his sword, ostrich feather topped bicorn, and ceremonial key adorned with the tsar’s cypher. The gilded bronze key was worn with a ribbon of light blue moiré silk, an attribute of the Order of Saint Andrew the First Called, Russia’s most prestigious order of chivalry. Two children’s costumes complete the display — a small Cossack robe in wool, silk, and metallic threads and a boy’s stunning black velvet and gold-embroidered Caucasian vest. Dating to the early twentieth century, both costumes are thought to have belonged to either the Tsarevich Alexei or another young Romanov grand duke.
During Nicholas and Alexandra’s May 26, 1896 coronation celebration at Khodynka Field, Moscovites were to receive modest gifts including a loaf of bread, a piece of sausage, candy, gingerbread, a handkerchief with a portrait of the imperial couple, and a commemorative cup. But the celebration turned into an epic tragedy when the covers over the fairground’s trenches collapsed. Over 1,300 people died. The disaster was a severe blow to the image of the new tsar who was dubbed “Nicholas the Bloody” after attending a coronation ball at the French embassy. One of the very rare surviving “Cups of Sorrow” is on view. The enameled tin cup features the double-headed imperial eagle, monograms of Nicholas and Alexandra, and decorative patterns in the Russian Style, evocative of Pre-Petrovian or late medieval visual culture.
Eight years later, on August 12, 1904, Alexandra gave birth to the couple’s fifth child and only son, Alexei. The Tsarevich became the supreme hetman of the Imperial Cossack Army. To mark the occasion, the Cossack Army presented the newborn with a cream colored silk baby blanket featuring a laurel wreath and double-headed imperial eagle — like that on the national flag and military banners. “In a very literal sense, the Tsarevich was to be wrapped in the national flag, with all that this entails,” says Kirin.
Alexandra, the German-born favorite granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, passed down hemophilia to her son. To treat Alexei’s life threatening disease, she turned to the controversial healer Grigori Rasputin, a relationship that contributed to her unpopularity. In her prayers for Alexei and the safety of her family, Alexandra used devotional icons of the Holy Virgin, the patron saints of her husband and five children (Sts. Nicholas, Tatiana, Olga, Maria, Anesthesia, and Alexa), and in particular St. Seraphim of Sarov, glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1903. Many icons were hung in a small private chapel in Alexandra’s bedroom at Alexander Palace, her husband’s birthplace.
Over forty late nineteenth and early twentieth century icons with imperial associations fill a gallery — the majority on loan from Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery. Two of the older icons were displayed at Alexander Palace. The rest represent the type of elaborate devotional works that were gifted to or acquired by the Romanov family.
“The Reluctant Autocrat” also offers insights into Alexander III. His father Alexander II had emancipated Russia’s roughly 20 million serfs in 1861, only to be assassinated two decades later by a bomb thrown by a member of a left wing terrorist group. The gruesome murder, witnessed by his eldest son and grandson, triggered a major suppression of civil liberties. Nicknamed “The Peacemaker” for avoiding war, Alexander III promoted industrial development while shifting alliances to Great Britain and France. Yet his reign is remembered for his ultra-conservativism and the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, and virulent anti-Semitism.
A simple porcelain coronation service gives us a glimpse into Alexander’s personality. He and his Danish wife Maria Feodorovna made their own modest breakfast of bread, butter, eggs and coffee. Ironically, it was frugal Alexander who accidentally launched a renaissance of Russian jewelry making by surprising his consort with a jeweled enamel Fabergé Easter egg, an annual tradition continued by their son Nicholas. On display is a copper bowl by Fabergé — the start of World War I demanded increased frugality by Nicholas.
Save time for the finale, a Romanov photo gallery. Photography was a popular pastime for the social elite and Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were avid amateur photographers. The pictures on view were mainly taken by professional photographers and illustrious amateurs, like Count Sergei L. Levitskii and Count Ivan G. von Nostitz.
Among the dozens of fascinating pictures are original prints from Nicholas’s coronation and poignant images of young Alexei and his older sisters. A snapshot from an album of an English aristocrat shows Nicholas and Alexandra with her grandmother Queen Victoria and Edward, the Prince of Wales at Balmoral Castle. The couple visited Scotland in the summer of 1896 with their first child, Olga.
“Nicholas II lacked the decisiveness and foresight of his predecessors,” adds Kirin. “The massive failures of state and army, as well as the sickness of his son, overwhelmed and diminished him. While a reluctant autocrat, he was a loving father, whose ultimate tragedy was that could not protect his family.”
For more information, visit http://georgiamuseum.org/exhibit/the-reluctant-autocrat-tsar-nicholas-ii/