The year of the 350th anniversary of Peter promises to be eventful. There are many planned actions related to the name of the king-carpenter. Museums, of course, did not stand aside. In the first days of the anniversary year, we talked with Elena Kalnitskaya, general director of the Peterhof State Museum-Reserve and the head of the recently created Assembly of Peterhof Museums.
Who entered the Petrine Museums Assembly?
Elena Kalnitskaya: To date, there are 114 museums. Many of them ended up in Voronezh, in Arkhangelsk, several in Petrozavodsk … We asked all of them to justify why they consider themselves to be Petrine museums. One hundred museums have already answered, the rest are still thinking …
The participation of some museums in the assembly came as a surprise to you. Why?
Elena Kalnitskaya: For example, the Battle of Stalingrad Museum-Reserve. It would seem, what does it have to do with the Peter’s museums? But, as it turned out, there is an explanation.
The museum staff is based on a legend: Peter visited the former Tsaritsyn, now Volgograd, three times, but few present-day Volgograd residents know about it, and even the existence of a monument to Peter I in the city remains incomprehensible to many. Volgograd Museum, by the way, is not the only one. It turned out that not all Peter’s museums have any things associated with his name. Many have only a legend about Peter in their anamnesis: here he stopped, ate, drank, slept.
Shouldn’t a museum back up legends with artifacts?
Elena Kalnitskaya: Not necessary. There is such a concept – the museumification of a legend. This gives, by the way, a lot of room for imagination. Therefore, having received a small but decent budget for the anniversary year, we are now looking for modern ways of telling about the first emperor of Russia. Basically, these will be stand exhibitions that do not require museum exhibits, which makes them mobile – they can be transported to different Petrovsky museums.
In Peterhof, you have already presented the history of Peter’s assemblies – with the help of cardboard figures of Peter I and his associates and dummies …
Elena Kalnitskaya: If we tried to tell about Peter’s assemblies in some other way, we would have faced the fact that there is nothing to show. And so, please, clearly – curious facts from the history of entertainment at the court of Peter the Great. Everyone is interested in this.
For some, the image of Peter I will be a revelation not only as a reformer of Russia, but also as “the main entertainer of court evenings.” It just seems that everyone knows everything about the founder of St. Petersburg …
The greatness that Peter dreamed of did not appear until 100 years later.
Elena Kalnitskaya: It’s true. In a sense, we must repeat what Alexander II did in 1872. He considered himself a reformer and, when compared to Peter I, was very proud of this. Faced with great difficulties in carrying out his reforms, Alexander II perfectly understood what it was like for Peter the Great in his time. It seemed unfair to the reformer Tsar that the first Russian emperor could not be forgiven for many of his difficult actions and harsh methods. Alexander II, relying on historians, expressed his will: Peter must be exalted. Deify, if you like. Make it a symbol of time. Sergei Soloviev, Vasily Klyuchevsky and other prominent scientists began to write about Peter and give public lectures. The Presidential Library catalog contains hundreds of publications about Peter I published at that time. An exhibition was organized for the people in 1872 on the Champ de Mars, then Tsaritsyno Meadow – a festival of extraordinary scope. In the pavilions, stylized as Russian huts, canvases were placed illustrating the great deeds of Peter. Scenes from the history of the formation of new Russia were played out in theatrical pavilions. The guests were also welcomed by roller coasters, festivities and all sorts of sweets.
Do you want to repeat the idea of Alexander II?
Elena Kalnitskaya: Yes. When we found out that 14 of the 30 paintings painted at that time were preserved in the Russian Museum, we agreed with Evgenia Petrova, Deputy Director for Science, about an exhibition in the alleys of the Summer Garden. And then the head of Gazprom, Alexei Miller, came to Peterhof and offered to finance the creation of the missing 16 paintings by contemporary artists. We were supported by the Academy of Arts, 16 painters were selected. They were faced with an interesting creative task – to link the 19th and 21st centuries: yes, painting has changed, but the artists still treat Peter with the deepest respect.
As far as I know, you are simultaneously working on a children’s book about Peter I?
Elena Kalnitskaya: Yes, together with the St. Petersburg artist Mikhail Bychkov. Now I have the 29th version of the manuscript on my desk. Bychkov is such an extraordinary master that I want to rewrite texts for his drawings ad infinitum. Here’s how one drawing is now in front of my eyes: Peter is sitting in a caftan, in a wig, stretching out his huge male fists in front of him – it’s immediately clear, here he is, the tsar-carpenter.
How do you think today’s children perceive Peter?
Elena Kalnitskaya: We asked schoolchildren a question: “What would you like to know about Peter I?” From their answer grew the title of the book “Be Like Peter”. It turned out that most of all they amazed how a person who did not study in an elite school, did not graduate from universities and did not have a serious education at all, became what he became. Like a spoiled child in a golden caftan, who grew up in Moscow chambers surrounded by boyar luxury, suddenly abandons everything and creates amusing troops – this is his first attempt to change the world around him. Realizing that he could not cope himself, Peter began to look for teachers. I was looking for them always, everywhere, all my life – among friends, among enemies. On his ring was engraved: “I am in the rank of learners and teach myself I demand.” That is, “I am learning and demanding teachers for myself.” This was the principle of his life.
Creating a new capital, the emperor could not help but realize that its greatness would not be found.
Elena Kalnitskaya: The greatness that Peter dreamed of did not appear until 100 years later. And sometimes I think: here they write – “Peterhof assemblies”, “Peterhof festivities”. What festivities! There was a young, freshly planted garden and a continuous construction site. Nevertheless, Peter I managed to see a lot. Petersburg was 20 years old when the emperor passed away, for a city this is a long time. And Peterhof has already found its beauty. Yes, the Hermitage and the Grand Palace were not yet fully finished. But both Monplaisir and the Marly Palace were completed during the life of Peter, and in August 1721 the first fountains and the Grand Cascade were launched.
We also judge the history of Peter’s relationship with Tsarevich Alexei – from the point of view of the 21st century, without delving into the realities, customs and laws of that time.
Elena Kalnitskaya: Whoever does not understand this cannot be explained to him why there was a double betrayal – a father and a son. One of the most famous Russian paintings – “Peter I interrogates Tsarevich Alexei” by Nikolai Ge – is also based on a legend. When the investigation was actually carried out in the case of the prince, Monplaisir, depicted in the picture, had not yet been built. But the atmosphere of the emperor’s office does convey the psychological tension between these two men who hate each other.
Are we not going anywhere from legends and myths?
Elena Kalnitskaya: As soon as life ends, it immediately turns into myths. And there will always be myths about Peter. Another thing is that after 350 years we find more and more new facts. There is a project “Digital Peter: Recognition of Peter I’s Manuscripts”, thanks to which it became possible to decipher his manuscripts. I must say that the emperor’s handwriting is almost unreadable. When we created the Institute of Peter the Great 20 years ago, primarily for the study of manuscripts, we said that literally two or three people in the country are able to read what was written by Peter the Great. But with the help of modern technology or artificial intelligence, this work can finally be done. And there is hope: when the huge handwritten legacy of Peter the Great is deciphered, we will be able to learn a lot more about his personality.