Date of Award

1997

Document Type

Thesis

Department

History

First Advisor

Dr. Tom Auffenberg

Second Advisor

Dr. G. Everett Slavens

Third Advisor

Dr. Raouf Halaby

Abstract

The Hermitage Museum rises from the banks of the Neva River in the center of St. Petersburg, the former capital of Russia. The complex, existing of five buildings constructed over a period of about two hundred years, houses one of the greatest art collections in the world. Although the Hermitage is best known for its collection of great paintings, including works by Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Picasso, the museum also holds great archeological exhibits. Scholars from throughout the world conduct research in the extensive Numismatics Department, the Gothic Library, and the Department of Far Eastern Culture.

...

Throughout its history, the museum staff evacuated the collections of the Hermitage three times. The first occurred in 1812 as Napoleon was invading Russia and the second took place during World War I. In retrospect, neither of these evacuations proved to be necessary, the invading armies did not advance no St. Petersburg. The third evacuation, however, probably saved the collections from great damage. This evacuation took place in June and July, 1941. Nazi Germany invaded Russia in June of that year and its armies had surrounded St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, by early September. Hitler's forces laid siege to Leningrad for almost nine hundred days. Throughout the blockade, German artillery units indiscriminately fired shells into the city; thirty of these shells hit the Hermitage museum.

The siege put the Hermitage and its staff under great strain. Although most of the great paintings were evacuated, many of the collections remained. Two freight trains carrying art items escaped Leningrad, a third was being loaded when the Germans cut off the last remaining rail line. The director of the museum, Joseph Orbeli, and his staff had to make numerous decisions on how to best preserve what remained in the Hermitage and how to protect the buildings of the museum complex. To exacerbate the problems, more than two thousand Leningraders, mostly from the academic and cultural community, made their home in the basement of the Hermitage throughout the blockade.

Some of the orders handed down from Orbeli and his staff were minor, such as where to store certain art items or how best to clean antique furniture stained by water leaking from frozen pipes. Others, such as Orbeli's decision to prepare for the evacuation despite a lack of orders from Moscow, were more memorable.

The Hermitage ultimately survived the siege, but not without damage. The staff living in the basements of the museum were responsible for the protection of the buildings and their content. It might be argued that, in light of the terrible plight of the city under siege, the staff deserves nothing other than praise for its actions -- the Hermitage stands today, with great collections and worldwide reputation. On the other hand, much was lost. Precious items of artistic and historic significance are gone forever due to German artillery shelling. Moreover, the Hermitage buildings suffered from neglect during the siege. One could claim that some of the damage was preventable. These arguments might be resolved through a detailed analysis of the decisions made during the siege by Orbeli and his staff.

 
 

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