The New York Public Library has one of the largest collections of Russian books, prints, maps and journals outside of Russia. Recently it opened a display of 230 written works they are complimented by paintings and artifacts. Judith Kampfner reports on the impact of an exhibit called Russia Engages the World .
Kampfner: When ex Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev swept up a grand staircase of the New York Public Library to address a private dinner on the eve of a new exhibition, he said: It's a landmark event, we are grateful to you - this is a period Russians know very little about, . He's not the first prominent Russian politician to grace these rooms says Edward Kasinec chief of the Slavic and Baltic collection.
Edward Kasinec: Trotsky and Bukharin- were readers in this library - but after 1917 they became the leaders of the new Soviet state - they knew about the glories of this library. They said - please come we are in need of hard currency, these books have been nationalized confiscated, please purchase some of these treasures - and we did.
Kampfner: And so the NY Public Library became a major repository of pre -communist treasures . Called Russia Engages the World this exhibit begins in 1453 when Russia inherited the leadership of the Orthodox Church from Constantinople. It ends in 1825 when as a great world power her explorers got as far as California, India and the South Pacific.
The show begins in a remarkably spiritual room for a secular library. We see and hear the religious influence of Byzantium. One Russian visitor is amazed to find valuable pre-Revolutionary books and paintings
Student Ekaterina Eilina gazes at a dark skinned Madonna and Child framed in gold. It may have been owned by the Tolstoy family.
Ekaterina: I'm personally shocked in a good sense of the word to find that something like this is preserved with its gemstones and pearls because I know a lot of it was robed or destroyed - something like this with all the richness of decoration
Kampfner: The faces of icons are lit by the amber glow of the library's swinging lanterns. They almost seem to be scattering incense
In a corner Olga Hizza a painter sketches a tiny enameled saint. Her mom likes the way printed material is next to coins, vestments .
Irya and Olga:
Irya: Different means of arts - different
Olga: Various objects are put together in such a way with a dark backing and it almost reminds me of an altar of a church and the music gives it an ambience - in this beautiful room which is so gorgeous.
I love these beautiful spaces they make me feel very safe.
Kampfner: As we leave the vespers and chants and enter the library's crowded lobby, a Russian Orthodox priest in black gown and tall hat looks very much in place in this classical European building. He hopes visitors will appreciate a religious heritage that was forbidden for 75 years.
Priest: If you look at the Russian history religion played a role in over a thousand years so 75 years is only a droplet in time. Religion played such an important role. I think in time many westerners and Americans will understand what the spirit of Russia is about
Kampfner :The great exhibition hall is filled with cases which document a powerful Europeanized Russia.. Olga and Irya begin to talk about their bond with the old country. - thirty years ago Irya was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum--formerly the Tsars Winter Palace. Olga's story attracts an audience.
Olga : when my mother worked at the Hermitage,we would hang out and wait for her me and my friends and the guards who knew us would actually let us sit on Peter the Great's throne. They would actually let me try some of the garments of the princesses because I was fascinated by them and I went looking for them. I was convinced they were hiding behind someplace .
St Petersburg was built exquisitely by Peter - he invited Italian architects..
Kampfner: The building of St Petersburg unfolds in maps, technical diagrams and panoramic sketches.
Irya: Not only him Katherina the Great I would say she was like the Medicis she bought art from auctions and sales ..those were very very educated people
Kampfner: Catherine consolidated what Peter had begun. As a patron of literature, she invited French philosophers, acquired libraries and and wrote plays. She presided over a glittering court there's a rare drawing of a young Catherine in a packed stateroom. The library's Edward Kasinec.
Edward: what is remarkable about this engraving to me ..is look at the right side there are shelves which are groaning with German and Swedish silver which is used in its brilliance to impress the foreign diplomats with the wealth and majesty of the newly crowned Empress.
Kampfner: And the walls and tables groan with books on geography and diaries of explorers. Color plates of flora and fauna and exotic peoples. Visitor Ekaterina Eilina reads a description of tattooing in the South Seas.
Katya: I am fascinated with the whole direction the exhibition is taking..
Russia and China. Russia and the Pacific. To me in school it was always Russia and Europe but there were so many more expeditions.History was only represented from a communist and socialist perspective.
Kampfner: Stories of Russian exploration to the New World, to Alaska and Hawaii were not taught during the Cold war. Nor was the detail about Catherine's refusal to send troops to help George 111 against the rebellious American colonies. This pleases a Russian American visitor. Peter Koltypin fought as an American in WW2 and has a son serving in Iraq.
Peter: Catherine replied to the British that it ill becomes a civilized monarch to interfere with the growth of a nation and none of this is talked about.
Kampfner: Catherine's leadership is mostly overlooked in school books the world over - In fact she's ridiculed for tales which include her penchant for bestiality. Sergei Dreznin is a composer who has come to the exhibit looking for information about Catherine for an opera he's writing.
Sergei: She was a woman of enormous sexual energy - so gifted, probably the best woman of her time. Kampfner: There's 2 things here that rather struck me.. like there's this kind of naughty picture.. Sergei : everyone's been talking about it..show me where is it?
Kampfner: We're looking at a little water color of Catherine in flagrante with an army officer
Segei: You are kidding ! ( laughter ) Kampfner: And what about the story that she died making love to a horse? Sergei No horses, no there were no horses who needs horses when you can have a Russian man?
Kampfner: A little risqu humor adds spice and sparkle to a show that reveals a period in history that both Americans and Russians are ignorant of.
Sergei: This exhibition is as much for Americans as it is for Russians as it is for me. We didn't know our history - it was served up on a platter with a red ribbon.. we didn't want that plate we want it now.
Kampfner: Sergei's opera includes an aria for Catherine the Great in which she sings, don't forget me. In this the 300th anniversary year of the founding of St Petersburg The NY Public Library has remembered. For WNYC, I'm JKMore on the "Russia Engages the World" exhibit