Back in November, on rainy Saturday afternoon, I went to see the Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery. It thoroughly was a treat: it ticked every one of my boxes: history, politics and glamour. The advertisement struck me while transferring from the Northern line to the Victoria at Euston: a painting of the wedding ceremony of Nicholas II and Alexandra stopped me in my tracks, their candlelit faces aglow: A desperation coursed through me; pushing me to text my friend Abby to arranged a date; anything to do with Russian royalty, and I am there.
It must be said; now seems like a strange time to curate a celebration of Russia, a country the UK has extra strained relations, especially at such an official institution but, what could a few accusations of international terrorism sway us history boffins from turning out to ooh and ahh at a selection of Faberge trinkets? Come to think of it; the last time we were properly friends with Russia was pre the election of Clement Attlee. Stalin is reported to have been enamoured with Churchill; The two world leaders cooked up themselves something of a bromance. Stalin was completely bamboozled when Churchill was replaced with what he deemed a mousey man with a fraction of the charisma. While I need not prove my left wing credentials to any anonymous pair of eyes reading this, but The Romanovs have always appealed to me more than their successors combined as merely as a matter of aesthetics, the decadent excess of the prerevolutionary period is much more captivating than the bare bones of communism, and this felt new.
This exhibition supplied a first to me: a public space fully dedicated to the Romanovs. Unless, you seek them out, they are a footnote, an honourable mention or just the interlude to what came next. To me, their way of life, governing and failure to adapt to growing political changes has kept me enamoured to know more. While every other monarchy amended themselves, Russia remained adamant to stay the same. A few important, but superficial alterations took place; the freeing of the serfs, the establishment of the Duma and so on, but the power structure remained: the tsar ruled all.
I’ve lapped up the documentaries and gobbled up the books, but was yet to see anything in the flesh. This is not to say that museums can capture everything, but ever since I was little, the only place I’ve ever been absolutely desperate to see is St Petersburg, and this exhibit was like transferring a fraction of Tsarskoe Selo to me. Of course, I’m not the only person to be enraptured by them, and their way of life, but that poster felt like it was calling out to me, only to me.
The series of galleries provides a capsule of Imperial Russia. It is not an overtly political affair, as in it didn’t have a message differentiating it from similar showcases I’ve seen before, like the Victorian walls at the National Portrait Gallery. This is hardly surprising; it is authored by those faithful to those with noble lineage. This uniformity adds a level of consistency: Even though its Russian, it’s just like us, because its display of portraiture of Russian aristocrats, jewels and other artefacts; simply a snapshot of an era in Russian history, because that’s what it is. The influences, easily cited from its location, ought to be treated with the same as the British ruling class, because it was. This is a point made throughout — a connection between the two nations. Mainly, these stemmed from Queen Victoria, who cemented alliances via marriage. As the display drew to a close, illusions were made to connections to Queen Elizabeth II, their distant cousin.
If you know me and anything about my politics, this summation might astound you as I’ll declare my off with their heads republicanism. Bonfire Night makes me uncomfortable, not only to my loathing of fireworks, but the celebration of a foiled plot to assassinate royals makes me wince, but despite my magpie appreciation, I am a student of politics, and royalty is politics. Until recently, the rule of law was not the defacto in Europe; its predecessor the divine right of kings ruled the roost. Contemporary conceptions of democracy are intertwined or created in opposition to or with royalty.
Additionally, the study of royalty can lead to the study of women in power. Of course, regal power is inherently exclusive, and not representative of womankind. In British history, we have the Elizabeths and the Marys, but Tsarinas, in particular those who ruled independently of a man, are another kettle of fish. The nature of unruly Russian royal prerogative did not change if it was wielded by a man or a woman. Misogyny still reigned, so thanks to Catherine the Great’s son Tsar Paul II, whose hatred of his mother led to the pulling of the plug on women ascending the Russian throne again. Ultimately, the lesson we can learn from royalty, and the Romanovs particular, is that women are just as ruthless, cruel and power hungry as men.
It was new to see Russian royalty presented as equals to their British counterparts. Of course, they weren’t. Tsars were seen as God’s direct anointed representative, their authority was granted by him alone, and it sank their British counterparts. There connection was a large part of the exhibit. A lot of the items were the private collection, bought by Queen Mary in the 1930s, showing that the Windsors didn’t help Nicky and co but would buy all their jewels.