World War I Era Fabergé

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At the time of the Great War, the sons of Russian nobility wrote to their mothers that they had food at the front, but had nothing to cook it in. In response, their mothers commissioned cookware by Fabergé, not knowing of any other sources.

For the centennial of World War I, we present one such object: a copper and brass soup pot lined in pewter, with the imperial warrant and “K. Fabergé/war/1914” stamped in Cyrillic on its …

Tags: Faberge Russian Russian History

Nicholas & Alexandra, a Romanov Romance

1901 photograph of Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia

Photograph from the Illustrierte Zeitung, 1901, via Wikimedia Commons

“I never saw two people more in love with each other or happier than they are,”

wrote George, the Duke of York, to Mary in England regarding the wedding of the Russian Tsarevich Nicholas II and Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt.

Some of the greatest love stories exist in history books, and the romance of Nicholas and Alexandra is quite the page turner, set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Russian Revolution.

They first met at the ages of 12 and 16, when Alix’s sister, Ella, married Grand Duke Serge, the younger brother of Tsar Alexander III. The two could not help but exchange glances.They did not see each other again until five years later, when Alix spent six weeks in St. Petersburg and they began spending more time together.

The romance, at first, was not without conflict, as the shy and awkward Princess did not make the best impression on Russian society. Nicholas’s parents, Alexander III and Empress Marie, expressed anti-German sentiments, instead having their sights set on the daughter of the Comte de Paris, Princess Hélène. But Nicholas only had eyes for Alix.

Princess Alix, torn about giving up her Lutheran faith to become Russian Orthodox, tearfully turned down Nicholas’s first proposal. Her hesitancy to abandon her faith did not last long, however, as she conceded the next day, at the convincing of her father, her grandmother, Queen Victoria, and, ultimately, her own heart.

Among the most touching aspects of their story, is their correspondence. Not long after their betrothal, Alix discovered Nicholas was keeping a diary and began writing her own entries. These included prayers, poetry, and other notes, including,

“I am yours, you are mine, of that be sure. You are locked in my heart, the little key is lost and now you must stay there forever.”

After their wedding she wrote,

“Never did I believe there could be such utter happiness in this world, such a feeling of unity between two mortal beings. I love you, these three words have my life in them.”

Such a happy and affectionate marriage lasted the rest of their lives. While they met a tragic end, in the words of Alexandra, they would

“meet again in the other world and remain together for eternity.”

(Quotations from Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra).

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Kvas, a mildly alcoholic drink made from bread, has a long history of being a drink of the common people. The recipe involved soaking leftover dark bread in hot water and left to ferment for a few hours, adding honey, fruit, or sugar for sweetener as desired. Kvas was cheap to make and the yeast provided nutritional benefits to an otherwise limited diet, so becoming a staple for the Russian peasantry.

In the 19th century it became more popular than in earlier times, even enjoyed by the nobility on occassion. The degree of ornament applied to these kvasniki, pitchers for kvas, hints at the newly elevated status of the beverage. Of the askos form, modeled after ancient Greek goat-skin containers, they recall a renewed interest in classical art. In the second half of the nineteenth-century, applied decorations like flowers or bright red coral, as seen here, became fashionable. These decorative yet functional vessels attest to how a simple beverage transcended class boundaries, to the extent that the Russians, in the words of Pushkin, “like fresh air they loves kvass”.

Antique Russian Carved Coconut Tankard with Imperial Portraits


Finely and elaborately carved coconut mounted as a tankard with silver gilt mounts and gilded interior. Features the profiles of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Elizabeth

Russian, 19th Century
Height: 6-1/4 inches


Antique Russian Carved Coconut Tankard with Imperial Portraits, side bAntique Russian Carved Coconut Tankard with Imperial Portraits, side cAntique Russian Carved Coconut Tankard with Imperial Portraits, side d

Russian Antique 11th Artel Enamel Kovsh


Gilded silver and shaded and cloisonné enamel kovsh with geometric and floral motifs on a blue ground. A kovsh is a traditional Russian drinking cup, originally carved out of wood in the form of a duck. In this decorative kovsh, the bird-like form is clearly evident.

By the 11th Artel, Moscow, ca. 1910
Length: 4-1/8 inches; height: 2 inches


Russian Antique 11th Artel Enamel Kovsh

Russian Antique Decorative Arts and Jewelry


The most noted Russian jeweler from the late 19th century to 1917, the year of the Revolution, was Carl Fabergé. He produced some of the world’s finest enamel work, featured on many different types of items, ranging from clocks to frames to jewelry.  Works of art included sculpture such as hardstone flower studies and miniature animals, and household items such as bellpushes, often made for the Tsar and other wealthy Russian families. Original Fabergé works of art have become some of the most coveted antique items on the market.  (More to come.)

Antique Russian Enamel Tazzas by Feodor Rückert


Set of four gilded silver and shaded Russian enamel tazzas by Feodor Rückert, Moscow, ca. 1900.

top view of antique Russian enamel tazza with swirl design by Ruckerttop view of another antique Russian enamel tazza by Ruckerttop view of another antique Russian enamel tazza by Ruckerttop view of another antique Russian enamel tazza by Ruckert

Antique Russian Enamel Bowls


Two matching gilded silver and transparent enamel bowls.

Khlebnikov, Russian, ca. 1900.
Diameter: 4 1/4 in.
Height: 2 1/4 in.

aerial view of antique Russian enamel bowls by Khlebnikovadditional view of antique Russian enamel bowls by Khlebnikovone detail view of antique Russian enamel bowls by Khlebnikovanother detail view of antique Russian enamel bowls by Khlebnikov

Portrait of Russian Empress Alexandra Feodorovna


Hand-colored photograph of Alexandra Feodorovna in an oval frame with gilt Romanov crown.

Russian, late 19th century.
17 1/4 in. x 14 3/4 in. (24 in. x 21 in. framed)

ЗА ВАШЕ ЗДОРОВЬЕ! (to our health!): A Little History of Vodka

Imperial Russian Green Glass Vodka Bottle Elizabeth Bem

This blog post raises a glass to Russia’s favorite spirit: vodka. Derived from the Slavonic word for water, voda, the beverage certainly lives up to the vitality implied by this etymology. Throughout Russian history, vodka has been so culturally and economically vital that it’s no wonder it’s been called, “the elixir of life, the living water.”

One decanter in ALVR’s collection is adorned in such a way that speaks to vodka’s significance in Russian history and culture. It was designed around the year 1900 by Elizabeth Bem (1843-1914), an artist most well-known for her popular postcard designs and children’s book illustrations. Her works of glass are just as highly regarded and she received significant recognition for them at many world’s fairs.

Elizabeth Bem Wikipedia

Elizabeth Bem, Wikimedia Commons, ca. 1900

Imperial Russian Green Glass Vodka Bottle Elizabeth Bem

Made of green glass and adorned with dancing devils and Russian drinking maxims, this decanter certainly suits our motto, Where the Unusual is Usual! The maxims translate as follows:

Oh, Vine!
My sweet friend!
Go down my throat!
It’s so wonderful, my sunshine!

Hello, shot glasses!
How do you do?
Waiting for me?
Drink-drink, and devil you’ll see!

First of all – I do not drink;
Second – I do not like it,
And third – I have had a drink already!

Got drunk, broke in fight!
Woke up, got a fix,
And friends again!

Imperial Russian Green Glass Vodka Decanter Elizabeth Bem_snake detailAlso of note is a green serpent in an orange box in the upper left corner of the decanter. “Zelyony zmei,” or, the’ green serpent,’ is a Russian nickname for vodka that references both drunken visions and the coils of the pipes involved in distillation. The coil, or ‘serpent’ had to be especially made, making vodka more expensive to produce than beer, mead, or kvas. It’s believed that the image of the coil within poorly distilled muddy-green vodka inspired the ‘green serpent’ metaphor. Bem appears to play on this reference with both the addition of a serpent and the green hue of the glass.

Vodka’s fiscal benefits were first realized in the sixteenth century during the reign of Ivan IV (“The Terrible” 1533-1584). In the 1540s Ivan opened a few kabaks, or taverns, with the intention of using the profits to fill the state treasury.  And so began a state monopoly on vodka production. Subsequent rulers introduced various laws to control vodka’s production and consumption. Peter the Great (rumored to drink up to half a gallon of vodka a day) created liquor licenses to constrain home-brewing, only to later rescind such restrictions. Catherine the Great limited production to the aristocracy, which helped improve vodka’s quality and fill the state treasury. Vodka’s fiscal contrition continued to rise and by the nineteenth century it became the single most important source of government revenue.

That an inebriated public was easier to rule did not go unnoticed. In fact, some historians attribute Russian sobriety to the Romanov downfall. In 1914, Czar Nicholas II was so troubled by rampant drunkenness that he made alcohol illegal. The revolution can’t be attributed to Russian sobriety alone, but lifting the drunken spell certainly must have helped. Prohibition lasted until 1925, coincidentally, when the Bolsheviks began to run low on funds.

Why do Russians drink so much? For one, alcohol consumption has always been linked to Russian spiritual and social life. From the many events on the closely intertwined church and agricultural calendars to a long list of other holidays, there has always been an excuse to raise a glass…or drain a bottle. Russia’s long cold winters also play a role. After all, vodka warms both body and soul! Russians also believe vodka has medicinal qualities. Truly an “elixir of life,” there is nothing vodka can’t cure.

Economically, socially, culturally… even medicinally, this special Russian “water” has been vital to Russia’s existence. So here’s to life, vodka, and ЗА ВАШЕ ЗДОРОВЬЕ! (to our health)!

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“Elisabeth Boehm” (accessed 12/28/17)
David Christian. ‘Living Water’ : Vodka and Russian Society on the Eve of EmancipationOxford University Press, 1990.
David Christian. “The Green Serpent: Vodka, Marx and Primitive Accumulation” in Eat History: Food and Drink in Australia and Beyond. Cambridge, 2013.
Martin McKee, “Alcohol in Russia” Alcohol and Alcoholism. Volume 34, Issue 6, 1 November 1999, Pages 824–829. Oxford Journals (accessed 12/28/17)
Claire Suddath, “Russians and Vodka” Time January 5, 2010,8599,1951620,00.html (accessed 12/28/17)
Edwin Trommelen. Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka. Russian Life Books, 2012.

Teatime! Traditions Steeped in Nationalism

Russian Tea Drinkers from chatterbox magazine
From “Russian Tea-houses and Tea-drinkers” in Chatterbox, 1867

How greatly tea is used in England by every class of society, we all know… But greatly as tea is used in England, it is still in Russia more common. From the palaces of the great and wealthy nobles, down to the wretched hovels of the poor peasants, tea is the universal beverage. – James F. Cobb

James F. Cobb noted the significance of tea in Russian culture in his 1867 article “Russian Tea-houses and Tea-drinkers” for the English publication Chatterbox.  While Mr. Cobb noted that British tea culture has its own interesting history and customs, Russian culture is steeped in its own rich tea traditions.

Pictured right: Gilded silver teapot with the Imperial Eagle. St. Petersburg, ca. 1785Gilded Silver Imperial Teapot with Russian Imperial Eagle

Russian tea’s status as a national beverage was slow to brew. When it was first introduced in the seventeenth century, Russians were skeptical. This early tea was very different from the tea drunk today. The tea was in a brick form, which was smashed and mixed with grain and butter, and then consumed as both a meal and beverage.

In the eighteenth century, during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), tea consumption increased slightly, but it remained expensive and rare, confining its consumption to the Russian aristocracy who used it primarily for medicinal purposes.

Russian Cloisonné Enamel Teapot and Silver Napkin Ring with Imperial MonogramIt was not until late in the nineteenth century that tea became a national beverage consumed by all classes. By this time, the cost of tea had decreased by half, and thus more widely accessible. Also by this time, Russian tea, and its customs and material culture, became associated with national identity thanks to the work of the country’s most revered writers. Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Checkov wrote about tea as a part of everyday life, celebrating the samovar in particular as a symbol of Russianness.

Pictured left: Gilded silver and cloisonné enamel teapot. Moscow, ca. 1900

Some scholars speculate that the samovar is actually an English invention, as both the English and Dutch made the earliest vessels for brewing tea and coffee in the late seventeenth century. The first samovar likely came to Russia in the early eighteenth century, taken by Peter the Great as one of many aspects of western culture he hoped to emulate to modernize Russia. The technology of the samovar better suited a Russian home, which was heated with a large stove, instead of an open fireplace to easily boil water. It is not the samovar itself that makes Russian tea. Rather, the samovar dispenses boiled water for diluting the concentrated tea, which is brewed in a small teapot, or zavarka, as shown in the introductory illustration.

By the turn-of-the-century, the invented tradition of Russian tea was an integral part of Russian identity. For Russians, the day began and ended with tea. In the morning it was enjoyed with sweet buns, plain rolls, or bread with butter and maybe a little cheese. A few hours after dinner was vecherny tchai, or evening tea consumed with various cold cuts, cheeses, small cakes and candied fruits.

Tea was enjoyed inside and out of the home. In the nineteenth century men congregated in teahouses according to their class – ones for wealthy merchants and others for their carriage drivers. The gendering of Russian tea culture was delineated by these establishments and also by objects. Men drank their tea from a glass set in an elaborately ornamented metal holder, like the one picture below, while women drank their tea from a cup.

Antique Russian Enamel Tea Glass Holder

Pictured: Gilded silver and cloisonné enamel tea glass holder. By the 11th Artel, Moscow, ca. 1910.

Regardless of how much Russian tea customs are the product of nineteenth-century nationalism, beautiful works of art, like the tea glass holder and teapots illustrated in this post, attest to the significance of tea in Russian culture, past and present…even if that past is not so long ago.

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Cobb, James F.  “Russian Tea-houses and Tea-drinkers.” Chatterbox. London, 1867.

Hardie, Anne-Marie. “Exploring the Origins of Russian Tea Culture.” The Daily Tea. August 6, 2015. Accessed August 12, 2015.

Jones, Catherine Cheremeteff. A Year of Russian Feasts. Bethesda, Md: Jellyroll Press, 2002.

Papashivily, Helen and George. The Cooking of Russia. New York: Time-Life Books, 1972.

Yoder, Audra Jo. “Myth and Memory in Russian Tea Culture.” Studies in Slavic Cultures. August 8, 2009.

Hidden Histories: Mark Antokolsky’s Portal to Prominence


In mid-nineteenth-century Russia in the town of Vilna, there lived a boy named Mordekhai, but everyone called him Motke. He loved working with his hands, filling makeshift sketchbooks and any available surface with scenes and figures, including walls, tables, and chairs. Even his family’s tavern door was not free of his hand, where he drew a fully armed soldier to frighten away drunkards.

Motke was called leimene hand (clay hands) or leimener geilom (clay statue) for his clumsiness when helping with the family business. Little did anyone know how much these pejorative nicknames prophesized, as those clay hands would one day breathe life not only in clay, but also wood, marble, and bronze.  Art history knows him not as Motke or Mordekhai, but Mark Antokolsky (1843-1902), the most famous Russian sculptor of the nineteenth century.

Antokolski by Repin 1914

By Ilya Repin, 1914
From Wikimedia Commons

Antokolsky was one of a very few successful Jewish artists in Russia from the nineteenth century. In Russia it was more difficult for Jews to achieve artistic success than in other countries. Artistic pursuits were also not welcomed within the Jewish community. Intellectual training was traditionally revered, unlike art, and all handwork trades, which were looked down upon.

Art was considered frivolous, and figure drawing in particular was taboo. Antokolsky’s parents tried to discourage his artistic inclination, which they regarded as sinful, and his father often beat him for making “idols.” Eventually they relented, and his father arranged for him to apprentice with various artisans. The young sculptor was unhappy with all of them, until he became the pupil of the wood carver Stassel’krout, remaining his apprentice for three years.

His work so impressed the wife of Vilna’s governor-general that she helped him travel to St. Petersburg to receive a stipend from Baron Horace Ginzberg to attend the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1862 he was the first Jewish student to be accepted at the Imperial Academy of Arts, but only as a volnoslushatel, meaning someone who can attend class but not be put on the official student list.

A combination of such luck and talent laid the foundation for Antokolsky’s success. Starting in the 1860s, a relaxation of restrictive laws, among other factors, made it easier for Jews to acquire artistic training in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At last, artistic portrayals of Russian-Jewish life would no longer be confined to the ethnographic domain, as Jews appropriated their own image.

Antokolsky had one foot in the Russian and European art world and another in the Pale of Settlement, which was a world in and of itself. Though he deviated from tradition in pursuit of art, he would not sacrifice his strong Jewish identity for success. He remained observant by not working on the Sabbath and enthusiastically attended High Holiday services. His Jewish heritage inspired much of his work. In 1864 he received a silver medal for his wood carving Jewish Tailor. This honor was a significant turning point in the representation of Jews in art, as this was the first time in Russian sculpture that an image of a Jew was presented in a dignified manner and not conforming to stereotypes. The prominent art critic Vladimir Stasov praised the work, saying it represented “a launching of the new and true sculpture,” also remarking, “Before Antokolsky, not a single sculptor in the whole of Europe had endeavored to portray scenes of Jewish national life and to become an explorer of these innovative landscapes.”

One Jewish subject depicted by Antokolsky is the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). This portrait, on view here at A La Vieille Russie, was part of a project called the Friends of Mankind, a group of historical and biblical figures Antokolsky admired for their devotion to truth and kindness. Ever devoted to historical accuracy, Antokolsky meticulously researched his subjects and Spinoza was no exception. He pieced together every little biographical detail he could find and was frustrated with the discrepancies encountered in many portraits.  He also went on a trip to Amsterdam to “peep in the environment where Spinoza came from and to breathe in the air there.”

Marble portrait of Baruch Spinoza by Mark Antokolsky

Antokolsky felt a strong inner bond between Spinoza and himself, as Spinoza’s dual identity paralleled his own: they both challenged tradition, becoming outsiders within and outside of their communities. A descendent of marranos (Jews who converted during the Spanish Inquisition but practiced Judaism secretly or later returned to it), Spinoza was raised in a deeply religious household and educated to become a rabbi. However, he became drawn to secular subjects, particularly philosophy, and began to question aspects of his faith. Accused of betraying Judaism and becoming an atheist, he was excommunicated in 1656 at 24 years old, and later exiled from Amsterdam. Although he never abandoned Judaism and changed religions, his unconventional views were threatening to a Jewish community still recovering from the Spanish Inquisition and concerned with reviving and maintaining traditions.

Ivan the Terrible by Mark AntokolskyAntokolsky’s portraits of important figures in Russian history are also highly regarded, two of which are for sale here at A La Vieille Russie. One such portrait is a ceramic bust of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was produced in a variety of media, including marble, plaster, and silver. Majolica was a rare medium for Antokolsky. Originally executed in bronze in 1871, the portrait won Antokolsky many honors, and he became famous overnight. To become so renowned in one’s own lifetime is a significant accomplishment for any artist, and accompanying this instant fame was a gold medal and the title of  Academician. The portrait impressed Tsar Alexander II so much that he commissioned a copy for the Hermitage, now in the Russian State Museum. As with all his works, Antokolsky meticulously researched Ivan’s life and character, also spending four months in the Kremlin Armory studying designs for the throne and costume.

Another notable historical portrait in our collection is a bronze of Nestor the Chronicler, the eleventh century Kievan monk credited as the author of Primary Chronicle, or Tale of Bygone Years, the only written record of Russia’s early history. Antokolsky thoroughly read the Chronicle as he worked on the portrait, and the plain wooden table, clothing, and Nestor the Chronicler by Mark Antokolskyother features reflect his loyalty to historical accuracy. The first version of Nestor was made in bronze in 1890 and was over five feet tall. It was originally in the Hermitage and moved to the Russian Museum in 1897.

Due to a combination of health problems and anti-Semitic aggression, Antokolsky moved abroad, first to Rome in 1871 and then Paris in 1877, but his heart remained in Russia and he returned periodically. He continued to receive honors, including a gold medal at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, and again in 1900. In 1893 he was named a full member of the Imperial Academy of Arts. He died at the age of sixty-one in 1902, at last returning to the land of his birth, and is buried in St. Petersburg. The young clay hands who once left his mark on his family home, grew up to leave his mark on the world.

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Ambromowicz, Hirsz, et al. Profiles of a Lost World: Memoirs of East European Jewish Life Before World War II. Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Glants, Musya. Where Is My Home?  The Art and Life of the Russian Jewish Sculptor Mark Antokolsky. 1843-1902. Lexington Books, 2010.

Goodman, Susan Tumarkin, ed. Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change 1890-1990. Prestel-Verlag/Jewish Museum, 1995.