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Rescuing of Armory’s treasures from the French invaders in 1812: a concealed story amid a horrible war

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This week marked the 200th anniversary of Russian troops march into Paris and victory over Napoleon. St. Petersburg has numerous monuments dedicated to the 1812 war: the Alexandrovskaya column – a monument to the victorious Tzar, the Kazanskiy cathedral and, finally, the unique collection – war gallery at the Zimniy Palace.

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 329 portraits of generals, painted by British painter George Dawe and his Russian assistants. The fallen heroes were painted on the basis of older portraits. However, the look of 13 generals will forever remain unknown. Alexey Mikhalev reports on how treasures of the Armory were saved from the French invaders in 1812. 

Alexey Mikhalev, reporter: “It could seem that 342 people is not that much for a report. And we’re not talking of unknown soldiers, but of war generals. Nevertheless, even on that list there are 13 unknown men. 13 gaps to fill. The 1812 war is often seen as very schematic. Borodino-Moscow, Berezina-Paris. Like its all very obvious. But even in this easy scheme there are many mysteries and barely known facts”

One of those – is rescuing of Russia’s state regalia. Literally, in the very last moment – from under Napoleon’s nose. For 4 days the country knew nothing about the invasion and lived peacefully, while the French army of more than 600 thousand soldiers had already crossed the Neman River and was marching towards Moscow. Purely coincidentally, the Kremlin was holding a listing of the Armory’s treasures. This difficult work was headed by experienced statesman Pyotr Valuev.

Alla Petukhova, head of written, printed and graphic funds of the Moscow Kremlin’s Musueums: “Without him and his efforts, the Armory would not have survived. We wouldn’t have had what we have in the Museum”

For almost a century from 1711 the Russian army had not lost a battle. A century long spell of Russian victories was stopped by Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz and Fridland. All European states – apart from Russia and Britain – were occupied by the French emperor, or voluntarily sworn in to his allegiance. The great army seemed impossible to defeat. The emperor came to Moscow to make a rallying call to his compatriots. The jubilant crowd literally carried him out from the Uspenskiy Cathderal of the Moscow Kremlin.

On July 16th the French troops captured Vitebsk and entered the road to Smolensk, which led to Moscow. Understanding it was only a matter of days, Alexander the 1st personally inspected the Armory. Peter the Great’s scepter and ball, the Hat of Monomakh – invaluable relics for any Russian, symbols of monarchy and its millennium-long history. Even a thought that these could find themselves in the hands of the enemy was unbearable.

Vasiliy Novosyolov, head researcher of Moscow Kremlin’s Museums: “What would that have meant if state relics of Russia found themselves in Napoleon’s hands? National humiliation.

Moscow’s governor at the time Fyodor Rostopchin was not afraid of the war at all. He wanted to crush Napoleon’s army by means of a gigantic balloon. Valuev regarded such carelessness as criminal. The Armory was doomed. Not only Napoleon was a talented general, but also a professional robber. He had particular passion about expanding Le Louvre’s collection

Alla Petukhova, head of written, printed and graphic funds of the Moscow Kremlin’s Musueums: “Rostopchin decided that he would not evacuate the Armory until the French reach the Vyazma. But when the French got there, he still didn’t make such decision”

Valuev lost patience and, having violated subordination, asked Rostopchin for horses, a carriage and money – to take the treasury out of the city. On the evening of August 22nd 150 convoy-protected carriages left Moscow for Kolomna

Vasiliy Novosyolov, head researcher of Moscow Kremlin’s Museums: “18 employees of the Armory, headed by Polivanov, 20 soldiers, two high officers and one officer left together with the treasures. They moved undercover – their story was that they were carrying ammunitions”

On August 27th the priceless cargo reached Kolomna on the Oka River, where 3 ships had been waiting. The long road to Nizhniy Novgorod lay ahead.

Alla Petukhova, head of written, printed and graphic funds of the Moscow Kremlin’s Musueums: “There’s a tale that they saw the French horse troops on the banks of the river”

Vasiliy Novosyolov, head researcher of Moscow Kremlin’s Museums: “So the boats left Kolomna – and on the next day the French were there to intercept boats”

Moscow was set on fire only few hours after Bonaparte entered the Kremlin. 7 days of hell, during which the manuscripts of “Prince Igor tale” and the Troitskaya chronicle were destroyed. The French troops plundered burnt Moscow. Napoleon himself wrote “the army has found many treasures of different sort, as everyone is involved in plundering during this mess”. Soldiers of the Young Guard visited the burial site of the Tzars inside the Moscow Kremlin. On September 15th they were replaced by soldiers of the Old Guard.

Elena Gagarina, general director of State Museums of the Moscow Kremlin: "The French were looking for state relics. But thanks to courageous actions of the Armory’s staff, they didn’t manage to get their hands on a single item there”

Less than two years later, Russian troops – as part of anti-Napoleon’s coalition – marched into Paris. Ataman Platov’s Cossacks at the Champs Elysees. Up until 1818, Russian troops were stationed in France. No acts of revenge for plundered Moscow, no acts of violence or vandalism were registered. The Armory’s treasures were safely returned from Nizhniy Novgorod to Moscow. 

Elena Gagarina, general director of State Museums of the Moscow Kremlin: “No-one had any experience in evacuating works of art then. The decision had to be made quickly. Everything was evacuated in an ideal manner and returned back just as well”

Having barely completed him mission, Pyotr Valuev died on June 4th 1814, aged 73. His employees carried his coffin into the Novodevichiy temple’s cemetery, where he was buried. After Valuev was gone, his work lived on. The treasury moved into a new building, built by Konstantin Ton. During the Great Patriotic War, it will go through a second evacuation – into the Urals. Having gathered unique works of Russia’s artists, masterpieces of weaponry, rarity collection of antique carriages, samples of ancient Russian clothes, state relics and military medals – the Armory became one of the World’s most renowned museums.

Alexey Mikhalev, reporter: “All this would have been impossible if not for a unique operation, conducted by a small group of people in August 1812. Back then it was a concealed event during a horrible war”

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