It was a pleasure to interview Dr. Liudmila Gavrilova, Head of the Phaleristics Department of the Armoury Chamber at the Moscow Kremlin Museums, during her latest visit to Estonia where we met at the Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood.
I would like to hope that people interested in history and phaleristics will find many new things in my monograph on Foreign Orders of Russian Emperors and Empresses, which are, in a way, symbols of Russian and World History.
Catherine Lapinsh: Dear Liudmila, your new book has just been published. What is it about and where can one buy it?
Liudmila Gavrilova: I would like to hope that people interested in history and phaleristics will find many new things in my monograph on foreign orders of Russian emperors and empresses, which are, in a way, symbols of Russian and world history. The monograph is the result of many years of research, working with the collection of the Armory of the Kremlin Museums. All books published by our museum are available at the museum kiosks on the territory of the Kremlin and in the Museum Souvenir Shop, which is located in the Alexander Garden.
CL: Do you remember the moment when you first realised that orders and decorations were exactly what you want to devote your life to?
Liudmila Gavrilova: My professional life had begun long before the need arose to study the full meaning of the concept of orders and was devoted to academic science – the study of the evolution of historical science in the XVIII century. After graduating from the Faculty of History at the Chuvash State University I applied for postgraduate studies at the department of Russian pre-revolutionary history at the St. Petersburg University [Leningradat that time].
I was quite fortunate to become a student of the outstanding scientist Professor Aleksander Shapiro. In Soviet times he continued the traditions of the famous St. Petersburg school of History. His History seminars were quite unique for that time and extremely popular. Although the Professor was advanced in years, but still every Saturday his students and former students, Doctors and professors in their own right, would gather together at his apartment. At these seminars we would discuss various scientific works and issues and everyone, regardless of scientific rank, could express their own opinion or critical comment.
For me it was an excellent school – this was the place where I got the taste for research and understood the necessity to acquire the skills essential for a professional scholar.
Prof. Shapiro suggested choosing the theme, which Soviet historiography never dealt with – exploring the works of Catherine the Great on the history of Russia. Everybody knows her Sketches on Russian History which she wrote for her grandsons Alexander (the future Emperor Alexander I) and Konstantin. Since the moment they were published in the 1780’s, historians have been questioning Catherine’s authorship and speculating on who could be the real author. The study of historical literature, archival documents, including published and unpublished material written by Catherine II’s hand, led me to the first scientific discovery in my professional life. In my Ph.D. thesis I proved that the Empress herself wrote this work. Of course, she did not sit over the chronicles, deciphering the texts – she took as a basis the book by Russian historian Vasily Tatischev. The book had been written methodically, but in an excessively “scientific” manner; so Catherine just rewrote it in a simple, easy to understand way, practically in the Russian language of commoners.
As she rewrote the texts, she also “revised” certain facts from Russia’s past, establishing a new official version of history, which had later been adopted by all history textbooks of pre-revolutionary Russia. It is quite interesting that Catherine the Great devoted some chapters of her Sketches to drafts of Russian medals to be established on the occasion of certain historic events. At that time, I did not attach much importance to these materials, as the texts repeated the contents of the previous account of historical events. But imagine my surprise, when by will of fate I started working at the Moscow Kremlin Museums, and in 1997 was appointed responsible for the collection of orders and medals of the Armory Chamber. Before me were the medals from the Historical Series created by famous medalists of the St. Petersburg Mint after the designs made by Catherine the Great. Truly it was the finger of fate!
In 2001, having plunged into the study of medals created on the initiative of Catherine the Great, I successfully defended my doctorate thesis on the problems of Russian historiography, source studies and medal art of the second half of the 18th century.
But it was only in 2003, during the preparation of the first Kremlin order exhibition named Valour. Honour. Glory. Awards of Russia that I for the first time paid close attention to orders’ insignia. The exhibition opened in 2004 and was a tremendous success.
CL: So you have never been interested in orders when you were a child?
LG: At that time I was only interested in my father’s awards. My father, Mikhail Gavrilov, was a teacher of history and school principal well-known in the Chuvash Autonomous Republic of the Soviet Union. In 1942, at the age of 18, he was drafted into the Red Army and fought in the Great Patriotic War – first at Stalingrad. He was badly wounded and served as a soldier until the victory over Nazi Germany. The War ended for him in 1945 near Konigsberg. Every year on the 9th of May, as he would get together with his brothers in arms, my father would put on his awards, and we children knew exactly when and for what each award had been bestowed.
CL: Have you ever been tempted to start a collection of your own?
LG: I have never collected awards. There is an ethic rule in the museum commonwealth – never collect items that you are entrusted at looking after in your museum. Though like many people, at home I love to surround myself with beautiful works of art – paintings, small porcelain pieces.
CL: What are your job responsibilities, and which aspects of your work are of most interest for you?
LG: As head of the Department of Phaleristics and Russian Metal Art Works of the XII-XVII at the Armory Chamber I am responsible for managing employees, custodial and scientific work. This includes the preparation of plans and reports, participation in exhibition projects and restoration committees, scientific seminars and conferences, methodical and scientific councils, and procurement committee. A curator should take care of the collection in their charge, minding its condition, making sure the collection items undergo timely jewelry checks, or restoration and preparing them for exhibitions. Not only are we responsible for preserving the collection, we study it, input the data into the e-base of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, and prepare scientific catalogues of the collections. The employees of my department deal with one of the most important parts of the Armory collection, which beside orders and medals, also includes regal attributes – crowns, scepters, orbs, thrones, Byzantine antiquities, etc.
As you can see, the tasks are quite serious and complex. In addition to fulfilling my direct duties I write reviews for scientific catalogues and works published in the Armory and other museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and serve as a doctoral theses opponent. I am a member of the Heraldic Council of the City of Moscow and expert on cultural values of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, which imposes additional responsibilities. All aspects of my work are quite interesting, but I like research and exhibition projects most of all.
CL: What is special about the Moscow Kremlin Museums’ orders and decorations collection?
LG: The Kremlin collection of orders and medals like no other mirrors the history of our country from the times of Tsars and Emperors up to the present days.
In terms of quantity and quality our medal collection is not as rich as those of the Hermitage and State History Museum, but it is comprised of rather rare medals from the early period of Peter the Great, still minted at Moscow mints.
The collection of both royal Russian and foreign orders is the most complete and significant in the world. After the 1917 Revolution the Armory took over the legacy of the Administration of the Russian Imperial Orders, which kept order insignias of emperors and empresses, as well as standard badges of Russian orders, statutes, orders’ seals and orders’ ceremonial dress. The collection has been repeatedly supplemented: in 1923 – with the badges acquired after the revision of the Romanov family treasures; in 1963 – with Russian and foreign orders’ badges from the State Depository of Precious Metals; after the Exhibition of 2004 – with the orders and medals of the Soviet period and contemporary Russia, transferred by the Award Department of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation.
CL: You must surely have a favorite item in such a vast collection or a favorite order?
LG: It is quite difficult for a curator to prefer one item before others. All of us treat our collections with love and care, and are “bound” with them by some invisible ties. I believe it to be a distinguishing feature of Kremlin curators as we are custodians of relics of the utmost importance – national treasures. Personally, I get an indescribable feeling when holding in my hands the Statute of the Order of St. George of 1769, the first military order of Russia. On its cover of brocade, there is a two-headed eagle woven with golden threads. Its pages of parchment are decorated with drawings done by court artist G. Kozlov and are separated by moire cloth. The last page holds the signature of Empress Catherine the Great, founder of this Order. We have all the original copies of statutes from all Russian orders, each signed by one of the Russian Emperors and furnished with silver cased pendant seals bearing the Russian Coat of Arms. Such a way of arranging essential documents regulating the functioning of orders, inspires great respect.
CL: You yourself are a member of the Hospitaller Order, commonly known as the Order of Malta. It is the oldest of the existing knightly orders and for many it is enveloped in a halo of romanticism and mystery. What are the duties and privileges of the Maltese lady?
LG: I am the recipient of the Cross Pro Merito Melitensi with Crown – a special order of merit of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The Order was established in the early twentieth century and is translated as For Merits before the Order of Malta. It can be bestowed upon people of all faiths for certain achievements and merits before the Order. The grade for Ladies, bestowed on me, corresponds to that of Commander for Gentlemen. This is my first award for scientific discoveries in the study of the history of the Order and diligence in preparation and execution of the exhibition dedicated to its history. Such careful attention on the part of the Order and high appreciation of the job done by a museum employee inspires the feeling of gratitude and admiration.
Only a person of Catholic faith who has given certain vows can be a true Dame of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The duties and privileges of the Knights and Dames of the religious Catholic Order have remained unchanged for nine centuries – to serve Faith and Charity, giving all their strength and wealth towards ridding the fellow man of illness, need and suffering, regardless of nationality and religion. The modern Maltese Order strengthens communication between nations, transferring humanitarian aid and industrial technologies of Western civilization to developing countries, rendering assistance in eliminating the consequences of technological and natural disasters.
CL: You organized several spectacular exhibitions, which ones do you remember the most?
LG: In terms of the number and level of participants, complexity of concept and execution, the 2012 exhibition Treasures of the Order of Malta. Nine centuries of service to Faith and Charity was most remarkable for me personally. Among the participants were eleven museums and archive collections from Russia; nine foreign museums including the Palatine Gallery [Florence], the Louvre and the Museum of the Legion of Honour [Paris]; three museums and the National Archive from Malta; art collections, Archive and the Library of the Order from Rome. A catalogue of the exhibition was prepared in Russian and English. All Russian copies of the catalogue had been completely sold out even before the Exhibition ended – something never before seen in my experience. The Grand Master of the Order Fra’ Mathew Festing, knights and dames of the Order and members of the Government took part in the opening ceremony.
CL: I know that you have been involved in locating and attributing historical valuables – order insignias of the Russian Emperors which were sold off in the beginning of the XX century. Among the latest findings there was a Victorian chain of Nicolas II, which you’ve identified among the incredible collection of Andrey Khazin while preparing the exhibition European Orders of Knighthood.
LG: It was very interesting but at the same time quite difficult to work with such a prominent private collection. Some foreign awards in the collection were familiar to us only from books, as they had no Russian recipients, and we didn’t have them in our museums. It was necessary to work closely with jewelry experts in order to decipher all the trade-marks and to clarify insignias provenance as far as it was possible.
In particularly difficult cases, I always consult with my colleagues from other museums. In September 2013, while preparing the exhibition I got an exceptional opportunity to be among researchers from many countries, museums and auction houses studying the Royal Collection in the UK. I was able not only to get acquainted with the art collections of Queen Elizabeth II, but also to engage with my colleagues and study the orders collection. Many years of cooperation with Stephen Patterson, my colleague at the Royal Collection, and the participation of the British side in our exhibition, allowed me to turn to Stephen for help and ask him to look through photos of selected English orders and their origin descriptions. Imagine how amazed we were with Andrey Khazin, when it turned out that the Victorian chain, which he purchased believing it was of Abbas II, khedive [viceroy] of Egypt, in fact belonged to Nicolas II, the last Russian Emperor. When handing the court treasures over to Gokhran [ the State Administration for the Formation of the State Fund of Precious Metals and Precious Stones of the Russian Federation ], the Bolsheviks depersonalized the chain before selling it.
On the initiative of Andrey Khazin, the owner of the collection, the decoration was returned to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Royal Orders of Great Britain. Thanks to the Queen’s generosity this high honor of the last Russian Emperor came back to the Moscow Kremlin. The Queen handed the Victorian collar of Nicolas II over to the Moscow Kremlin Museums for long-term storage among other awards of the Emperor.
CL: Of course we here in Tallinn are really excited about your other recent discovery which you announced during your presentation here at the Conference of Phaleristic Societies. How did you discover that the badge stored in the Tallinn Museum was bestowed on Peter the Great?
Pages from the book Foreign Orders of Russian Emperors in the Collection of the Moscow Kremlin Museums.
The book is the result of years of research and attribution of foreign orders insignia from the museum’s collection. It comprehensively covers the complete range of issues related to foreign orders of Russian emperors, as it is based on meticulous analysis of archival documents that have not yet been included in open scientific circulation, study of a wide range of specialized literature, as well as research of many valuable objects from public and private collections all over the world.
The book contains rich illustrative material, including never before published photographs of valuable pieces from the collection of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, unique documentary evidence, and masterpieces kept in art collections in Europe and the United States.
LG: As it so often happens in the course of research projects, numerous data taken from different sources got together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle forming a clear picture. It feels like some unknown power inspires you and leads on towards a discovery. In this particular case everything occurred in wonderful sequence. I spent the whole of 2017 working on my book on foreign decorations bestowed upon Russian rulers. For [the International Women’s Day on] the 8th of March my daughter Ekaterina made me a present of a trip to Paris with my husband for some rest and relaxation. While enjoying the beautiful sites I couldn’t help and stop by at the Museum of the Legion of Honour to meet my friends. Besides, I was planning to choose some illustrations from their exceptional collection for my future book. When I met Anne de Chefdebien, Chief Curator of the Museum, she asked whether I was going to take part in the Tallinn exhibition. At that time I knew nothing about the conference, or the Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood. Anne provided me with the Museum’s brochure and information on the upcoming conference, and strongly suggested that I should consider participating as it would be the perfect opportunity for other European experts to meet with their Russian colleagues. In the brochure I found several interesting photos of order badges. I contacted your museum, with a request to provide me with certain pictures for my book. Soon I had the permission to use them in my publication.
As for the badge of the Order of the White Eagle – it caught my attention from the start. Its picture in the brochure of the Tallinn Museum matched the description of the order insignia from the Archive of Ancient Acts of Russia. From the beginning I found the history of the badge cited in the brochure – frankly speaking – rather doubtful. After examining photographs of both sides of the badge, I surmised that, taking into account all the data gathered from three Archives, and information concerning the Order of the White Eagle and its insignias exhibited in European collections, particularly in Dresden and Warsaw, it was possible to come to the conclusion that the badge was quite likely the one of Peter the Great. Thus, my desire to see the badge for myself led me to the conference in Tallinn. The examination of the badge [at the Tallinn Museum], reinforced my belief that it had belonged to Peter I.
CL: You have close ties to many museums around the world. Which museums would you recommend for visiting for those interested in phaleristics, or, more precisely, in orders of knighthood, and why?
LG: Unfortunately, there aren’t many museums dedicated to orders of knighthood. The biggest and most comprehensive collection is at the Museum of the Legion of Honour [Musée de la Légion d’honneur] in Paris. As a museum employee and expert in this field, I am quite impressed not only by the modern presentation style of the exhibition, but also by the possibility of combining highly valuable state-owned and private collections. I am talking about the amazing collection of priceless artefacts of Antonio Spada – former Spanish Ambassador in France, now the Ambassador of the Order of Malta. I am especially pleased by the fact that he took part in our exhibition Treasures of the Maltese Order, and not just as the collection owner, but also as the author of the catalogue descriptions of the items he provided for the exhibition.
I am familiar with various museum and Royal collections that are of an extremely high-level, but not all of them are open to the public. This is also true for some private collections. Personally, I would recommend visiting the Green Vault [Grünes Gewölbe] in Dresden, where one can see the collection of order insignia of Saxon rulers and Polish kings. And certainly the Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood, which, although it is just being established, has already impressed its visitors and all experts with the quality of its collection.
CL: Your books are highly valued around the world, I’m certain that many are wondering whether your new book will be translated into foreign languages. Can we expect an English edition?
LG: Like any author I would like for my book to be available for all my colleagues all over the world. Its availability only in Russian narrows the scope of its circulation.
CL: I heard that there are serious plans to significantly expand the territory occupied by the exhibitions of the Moscow Kremlin Museums. Do you have any good news for fans of phaleristics, will the Order’s exhibition be expanded?
LG: The buildings of the Sredniye Torgovye Ryady in the Red Square have been given over to the Moscow Kremlin Museums. At the moment they are being renovated and new premises for our museum’s exhibitions are being built. After the construction is completed and a certain part of the collection is transferred to the new buildings we plan on rearranging the exposition in the building of the Armory on the territory of the Kremlin. A special place in the exposition is reserved for the Orders’ Hall, where we will be able to showcase our orders collection in all of its variety, including ceremonial robes, decorations, statutes, seals and so on.
CL: A matter of concern here in Estonia is the collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms made for Konstantin Päts in 1936. Is it as present under your care and are there any plans to include it in any future exhibitions?
LG: I fully understand the interest in the heritage of one’s own history kept in museums of other countries. I also follow very attentively the items from the Crown Jewels of the Romanovs’ sold off after the revolution and stored in museums around the world. I am always ready to help my colleagues with the attribution, for example, of Russian insignia with diamonds which are now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and in the private Hillwood Museum near Washington, and in other collections. I am glad that, despite the wars and the revolution, they have survived and are carefully preserved.
Regarding the collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms of Konstantin Päts, I – as the curator of the collection – can say it is stored next to the collars and badges of Russian and foreign monarchs and statesmen in accordance with standards of museum storage. Taking into consideration the big changes to our exposition, that I have mentioned earlier, we are not planning any item relocations.
CL: You visited Tallinn for the first time when taking part in the XI Conference of Phaleristics Societies. What is your impression of the city?
LG: Tallinn is a fantastic city. It has its own memorable historical look, where old buildings harmoniously co-exist with modern architectural structures. I especially liked the inhabitants of the city. They are hardworking, friendly and affectionate, with a sense of dignity. Tallinn is a city I would like to return again and again.
CL: And now a traditional last question: could you share with us your plans for the future?
LG: This year I have to finish editing the 1st volume of the Medals Catalogue for the period from Peter the Great till Paul I. I am working on the compilation of descriptions for close to a thousand medals, finishing two scientific articles summarizing my research in the field of medal art of this period. Simultaneously, I will continue working on new exhibitions, editing articles and catalogues of orders and medals chosen for Moscow Kremlin Museums’ exhibitions in France, Japan and China.