WASHINGTON -- Winter in Washington this year is a very Russian one, at least for visitors to the Smithsonian Institution's S. Dillon Ripley Center.
Through Feb. 3, this expansive exhibition space beneath the capital mall is host to "Moscow: Treasures and Traditions," an elaborate, five-century display of more than 200 icons, paintings, royal and priestly raiment, weapons, jewels and other priceless artifacts.
Organized by the Smithsonian and the Seattle Art Museum, the show is a serendipitous byproduct of last summer's U.S.-U.S.S.R. Goodwill Games in Seattle. The Kremlin State Museum, the State Russian Museum and eight other Soviet cultural institutions contributed to it, as did a number of private collectors.
Although the exhibition includes works by such celebrated Russian painters as Vladimir Makovsky, Aleksey Savrasov (father Russian landscape painting), and modernists Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, it is not intended as a show of the best of the best of the Moscow school of art. It is a depiction of the history of the Russian capital as viewed through its cultural development.
However, from the crude medieval icons to Malevich's profoundly abstract "Black Square," it does serve as a history of Russian art and of the Russian people.
Peter the Great's establishment of a czarist capital at St. Petersburg put a European face on Russia, but Moscow has always been its heart -- a fact recognized by the Bolsheviks when they restored it as the seat of government after the 1917 Russian Revolution.
While the West may perceive Moscow in the grim tones of Stalin's state mediocrity or the impoverishment of communist economic collapse, it is as full of its history as Paris or Rome -- if not more so -- and, in many ways, still the city of Leo Tolstoy's epic "War and Peace."
As curator Donald McClelland noted in remarks accompanying the exhibition: "Tolstoy, like his compatriot Rimsky-Korsakov, evoked mythic themes that had been played out for centuries in the epic chronicles of the ancient capital, and thus were ingrained in the fabric of the Russian character.
"Over nearly a millennium, Moscow -- great crossroads of culture and conflict -- had become a place where fact and legend were almost as one, just as it is today.
"Through the paintings and decorative objects in this exhibition, we can see the unfolding of Moscow's turbulent and splendid cultural development. To Moscow has fallen a special role in the minds and hearts of the Soviet citizens, a role forged by its history of celebrated and sobering events -- the coronations of the czars, the October Revolution, the great victory parade of 1945. These works of art, from warrior icons to Sergey Ivanov's 'Arrival of the Foreigners,' reflect both the troubled history and unique genius of the city."
Moscow began as a little hilltop frontier outpost and fort in a ring of defenses established by a 12th-century noble chieftain, occupying land that gained value simply by being fought over so repeatedly. It took a full century before an actual town was established around the fort, but Moscow slowly gathered strength. The early Czar Ivan I ("Ivan the Moneybag") doubled the size of the fortress to ensure the safety of his treasury.
Even when Peter the Great moved the capital to St. Petersburg, Moscow continued to flourish, especially culturally, in large part because it remained the religious center of the country. It had begun importing Greek painters to decorate its churches as early as the 14th century, and at one point, it was called "the Third Rome," after Rome and Constantinople.
The exhibition begins in the Middle Ages -- the introductory chamber is dominated by large display cases containing lavish noble robes and other garments. On the walls are fabulously restored icons (religious paintings on wood), mostly pieces from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries (still a deeply medieval time in Russia).
4 From there, the show progresses chronologically.
Throughout its labyrinthian length, the exhibition is aglitter with polished jewels, samovars, drinking vessels, sculpture and, of course, a fabulous Faberge jeweled egg.