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During WWI, Instead of Silly Eggs, Faberge Made Bullets, Pots, and Pans - Hermitage Exhibit

Famous for bejeweled bric-a-brac which to generations of socialists epitomized Tsarist decadence and impracticality, the emperor's renowned jewelers, Faberge, spent WWI making everyday hardware, instruments, and munitions.  A huge amount of the latter.

Our correspondent visited a new Hermitage exhibit in St. Petersburg and sends this report.

The exhibit reflects a broad revisionist trend in Russia of re-examining WWI, which so profoundly determined the nation's fate.  The general gist of the revisionism is to see the war as a great heroic endeavour against foreign invaders, rich with parallels to WWII.  

This departs from the previous, socialist interpretation of the war as morally disgraceful, fought by sinister capitalists and imperialists who sacrificed the lives of millions in their inexorable, self-destructive march towards the "ashheap of history"

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The jewelry of Carl Fabergé was a hallmark of the Russian monarchy.  In 1885,  Alexander III conferred on the house of Fabergé the title of ‘ goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial crown’.

For 30 years, the court jewelers fabricated jewelry, diplomatic gifts and personal items for the nobility.

Faberge’s name was and remains synonymous with refined taste and high quality workmanship. " Based on what one finds in “The Memorial Rooms of of Carl Fabergé ,’ a new exhibition which opened on December 29 in the State Hermitage Museum, we can say that it is also synonymous with patriotism.

The Fabergé family lived in the center of St. Petersburg, on Malaya Morskaya Street, where they kept their workshops and their main store in the Russian Empire. In addition, the firm had branches in several Russian cities, including Moscow. The company grew and prospered with the empire and the royal family. It produced its last items at the end of the 1917.  

A few months later the company was nationalized and the owners, one by one, escaped the country when the fire of revolution swept Russia. The treasures kept  in the store and in the workshops  were confiscated, and the company was closed down in Russia.

Everyone in the world knows about the Fabergé Easter eggs. The firm produced a total of 54 eggs, out of which 42 survived, while the rest either perished or have been hidden away in private collections.

The Easter eggs are enveloped in legends. They became the subject of films and entertaining stories. But the clearest example of their existence and enduring attraction is the permanent collection which recently opened in St. Petersburg  - the Fabergé Museum, where nine of them are on display along with other objects.

In the newly opened Hermitage exhibition, one does not see Easter eggs. The Hermitage itself possesses none. But in three Memorial Rooms one can see other things no less interesting.

In two halls allocated for permanent exhibition there are 110 objects; in the third hall, the first temporary exhibition has just opened - ‘Faberge and the Great War.’

The Hermitage has several iconic works of the company, including copies of Russian imperial regalia, a monumental silver clock which was an anniversary wedding gift to Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna. Here one also finds the Rothschild egg watch, a gift from Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark the 250 anniversary of the Hermitage. Now these pieces are part of the permanent exhibition in the Memorial rooms.

The three rooms illustrate the last 20 years of the Russian Empire, when, in addition to luxury items of social importance, such as medals and decorations which the tsar gave out to loyal employees and soldiers, and diplomatic gifts that were sent to different countries, the firm produced numerous items for the troops fighting on the European front during the First World War.

That little known side of the Fabergé production is most interesting.

The rooms also feature a collection of drawings by Agathon Fabergé, the younger brother of Carl, who was considered the creative engine of the company.

In the hall "Fabergé and the Great War" samples of the company’s production from the war years demonstrate the enormous variety and scope of items related to the army needs.  These even include weapons, grenades and ammunition! 

On the eve of 1914, the workshop of Carl Fabergé in St. Petersburg employed 600 people. The outbreak of the War reduced luxury goods production, but the company adapted to the needs of war time and began to produce material for the front. The exhibition displays copper and brass samovars and field kettles, pots and sinks, lighters, cups and mugs.

The firm made syringes and containers for their sterilization.  One of the items is of particular historical value - a pan for sterilizing syringes with the inscription "The Infirmary named after Heir and Grand Duke Alexei Nikolaevich in the Winter Palace." This bears the monogram of  Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, who served as nurses in the hospital established in the state rooms of the Winter Palace.

Another such basin bears the inscription "Field military hospital train №143 named after Her Imperial Majesty Empress Alexandra Feodorovna."

After receiving military commissions, the Fabergé workshops began to produce handsets, grenades, shells. The Fabergé Moscow factory was renamed the Moscow Mechanical Plant. At this time Carl Fabergé reported to the Military department. 

A letter from Carl to Minister of Justice Kerensky dated March 23, 1917 explains that this factory was currently completing a first order for 6.5 million units of hand grenades.  He also wrote that his factory had accepted ‘’a large order from the Main Artillery Directorate for 2,000,000 artillery brass bushings type 1915." The military department repeatedly praised Fabergé products for their precision and thoroughness of manufacture.

At the same time, of course, the Fabergé firm continued to execute the commissions of the royal family. Shortly before the war, on Easter, April 6, 1914, the firm manufactured a silver Easter egg decorated with the monogram of Emperor Nicholas II and Alexandra, which was the gift of the Empress to her husband. The last Easter egg was made in late 1917. Its fate remains a mystery.

There is one more noteworthy feature of the exhibition.  It is in line with the present national policy of commemorating those who died on the battlefields of World War One.  This was begun in 2014, when a museum dedicated to the war opened in Pushkin.

Both the Fabergé Museum and the Fabergé memorial halls in the Hermitage forever link the name Fabergé with the city where Carl Faberge was born and where his business was established and prospered, a short walk from the imperial palace.

The exhibition "Faberge and the Great War" is located in the General Staff building, and it will run until June 26, 2016.  For more images from the exhibit, see here.

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