Art heritage saved for humanity

by Chris Graeme

Last week we looked at how the Hermitage's art collections were evacuated to Sverdlovsk. Apart from the general evacuation of treasures on 24 July 1941, 146 children belonging to the museum workers were packed off on that long and difficult journey eastwards. But as the German armies closed in, they cut off the rail routes out of the city and the evacuations came to an end. It was now up to the team of frightened but dedicated staff who stayed behind to guard the Hermitage.

From the first days of the war, the Hermitage took in for safekeeping priceless artworks and manuscripts from the city and its environs. Manuscripts from the Academy of Science archives, Alexander Pushkin's manuscripts from the Institute of Russian Literature, gold nuggets from the Gorny Museum and portraits of famous astronomers from the Pulkovo Observatory.

Preparations for a third train to evacuate these and the remaining Hermitage treasures to the Urals were scuppered as the front widened and the German pincer encircled and then cut off Leningrad from the rest of Russia.

The treasures, already in their storage crates, were left in the Hermitage, all packed up with no where to go. After the previous two evacuations, a large group of museum workers remained behind to supervise and carry out work protecting the buildings and removing the vast majority of exhibits which remained in the city and put them under cover. Apart from these, the Hermitage basements began to fill up with various art works from out-of-town museums and palaces as well as paintings from private collections.

On September 8, 1941 German warplanes encircled the city and bombed Leningrad for the first time. Later on these enemy air raids became commonplace for Leningraders who noted that they began with nightfall and continued until dawn the following day.

The enemy got closer and closer to Leningrad and while the night air raids were carried out over the city, Leningrad was bombarded by artillery from the outer suburbs which caused significant damage to the city's buildings and terrified its inhabitants.

To protect the Hermitage employees from shelling, 12 air raid shelters were set up deep under the building and from the start of 1942, up to two thousand people sought refuge in them. Among the documents from this time are a collection of drawings by A. Nikolsky who lived in one of the shelters and portrayed life in them.

It must have been a strange sight to see employees in the shelters, clustered around handmade tables and chairs while behind them ornate and gilt pieces of 18th and 19th century furniture were stacked against the walls. Later, during the blackout, small oil lamps and candles appeared on the tables burning in huge and priceless gold candelabrum from the museum's collection.

There's an impression that Leningraders sat in their apartment buildings passively awaiting their fate from the Germans during the Blockade. While some may have, it was quite a different story in the Hermitage.

Life went on and there are surviving documents to tell us about tasks carried out for museum security, changing administrative positions, people being admonished and even sacked for persistent lateness to work and breaking the rules.

The lists of employees got shorter as some members died in those terrible days and for those who survived it was tense, non-stop work to provide order and security for the Hermitage and its buildings.

Shelling in the city caused incalculable damage, demolishing whole buildings and damaging others. The shells broke many of the Winter Palace windows, especially along the Neva and Admiralty facades.

Then the snow got in through the open windows and damaged the parquet floors and stucco mouldings. Up until then many windows were carved with the autographs of imperial family members, their names etched into the glass from their diamond rings. The Hermitage employees hadn't insulated the windows in time and the force of the blasts shattered them and the etchings were lost.

One if these autographs, scratched onto a window pane facing the Neva in the north-western corner of the palace, survived. Written in English, it is said to have been made by Dowager Tsarina Marie Fedorovna's diamond ring as she watched her son review a military parade. Dated March 17, 1902, it states, "Niki (Tsar Nicholas II) watched the Hussar officers."

The empty and frozen museum halls must have left a strong impression during the Blockade. Footsteps echoed through the empty halls while balsa wood covering the windows created a strange twilight world as dim light danced off the golden but empty picture frames.

The winter of 1941-2 was especially severe and limited the enemy's activities and significantly worsened the lives of Leningraders who were dying of cold and hunger. From November 20, 1941 the bread ration was reduced to 200 grams for workers and 125 grams for everyone else.

To heat their homes, people burnt their furniture and books in their stoves. Things were somewhat different in the Hermitage where pre-war wood stocks, work shop refuse and old exhibit stands kept some of the rooms warm. But freezing cold reigned in the vast majority of the halls and rooms in the Hermitage.

When the water supply was cut and the trams stopped operating from December 10, 1941 the employees drew their water directly from a hole in the ice in the frozen River Neva. You could look out of the Winter Palace windows overlooking the Neva and see battle ships, whose task was to protect the Hermitage from enemy aircraft fire, frozen solid into the ice.

On August 24, 1944 immediately after the front moved back from Leningrad, the Council of Commissars decided to start restoration works on the Hermitage and provided all the necessary materials.

As the war turned in Russia's favor it was time to take stock. Six people from the ranks of the museum's researchers died at the front while 43 died during the Blockade. There were even more casualties among the museum's administrative personnel.

Two bombs had hit the palace and 17 artillery shells had caused significant damage. On October 10, 1945 the evacuated treasures arrived back at the Hermitage and by November 4, 1945 the first exhibition was mounted in 69 of the Hermitage's halls.

So ended a difficult and tragic chapter in the Hermitage's 200 year history. But today, Hermitage employees looking back to the war can proudly say, "If nothing else they remained at their posts."

The State Hermitage. Priceless imperial state carriages used for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra were badly damaged by enemy shells.

© 1995 St Petersburg Press