objects that illustrate Russian history
A race through 12 centuries and the objects that symbolize them

26 objects that illustrate Russian history
A race through 12 centuries and the objects that symbolize them

Can a simple spoon or coin convey the history of decades or even a whole century? We think so.

In collaboration with the State Museum of History, RBTH has compiled a guide to the 12 centuries of Russian history, showing the history of the country through everyday objects.

We have included in our selection unique artifacts that are the only examples of their kind. In this list you will not find Monomakh's Cap or the Tsar Bell. Each object has its own separate story.

But ordinary things that were produced in hundreds, thousands and millions of copies could be found in ordinary people's households at all times. Some of these looked exotic, while others were just plain useful. But all of them were witnesses to how Russians lived and died, what they dreamed of and what they feared throughout their history.

10th century
10th century
The god Thor from the Black Grave
On that large expanse, that clean field
Thirty knights errant assembled,
The fellows are sitting in a white tent;
In a white-canvas tent,
The fellows are sitting, amusing themselves,
Playing checkers-chess

This is how a Russian bylina (epic poem) described the game of chess, an extraordinarily popular pastime in Ancient Rus. The bylina describes how warriors entertained themselves on the eve of a battle. It is possible that they used figurines such as the one seen here. This is a chessboard king piece, made to represent the Scandinavian god of war, Thor. The little statue was found at the excavation of a pagan burial mound, the Black Grave, located in Chernigov (present-day Ukraine). This is one of the most famous pagan burial places from the time of the Kievan Rus, the extensive Ancient Russian state that formed in the 9th century.

The cemetery dates back to the rule of Grand Prince Svyatoslav Igorevich, the last pagan ruler of Kievan Rus, who was famous for his numerous conquests. It was his son Vladimir, however, who would secure his place in Russian history as the prince who converted Rus to Christianity, which is believed to have occurred in 988. At that time, the Kievan Rus renounced its traditional pagan beliefs and the multitude of gods worshiped by the various Slavic, Finno-Ugric and Scandinavian tribes who had been united in this one enormous approximation of a state. Vladimir chose Christianity for his country's new religion and adopted the Byzantine tradition as a result of the strong bond between Kievan Rus and Byzantium.
Vladimir's zlatnik: The gold coin
"He who sits on someone else's horse without permission will pay a fine of three hryvnas"

This statement is, in today's terminology, an article from the criminal code of the Russian Pravda — the first set of laws published in Ancient Rus. Stealing horses was a punishable offense with a fine of three hryvnas. By the 11th century, the hryvna, a silver bar, had become the form of currency in Ancient Rus. But it was under Vladimir's rule, in the 10th century, that Kiev began to mint its first official coins — the zlatnik (golden) and the srebrenik (silver). The zlatniks depicted Jesus Christ on one side and Prince Vladimir on the reverse. They weighed 4.2 grams a piece, resembling the Byzantine solidus.

We do not know what the original zlatnik coins were officially called during the grand prince's reign, however, because historical accounts do not mention them by name. In fact, the word zlatnik comes from an agreement between Prince Igor and Byzantium in 945.

To this day, 11 such coins have been found. It is largely thought that not very many zlatniks were ever minted, and they were only in production for a short period of time. Silver coins from other nations, such as the Arab dirham and the European denarius, were more common in Kievan Rus at the time and were called kuns.

Along with the adoption of Christianity, the ability of a country to mint its own currency demonstrated the power of an influential and sovereign state. These changes acted as indicators that Kievan Rus was on par with the most powerful countries of the time.
11th century
11th century
Svyatoslav's Collection
"A man is an animal whose words are measured."

You can find this phrase written in Svyatoslav's Collection, one of the longest books from Ancient Russian. The multi-page, handwritten, parchment volume on the subject of human nature was finished in 1073 and was meant to serve as a state treasure. However, judging by its content it was also written to be understood by the common inhabitants of Ancient Rus. Work on the volume began during the reign of Izyaslav Yaroslavovich. It was a troubled time, marked by constant fratricidal war and violent executions, and Izyaslav was eventually sent into exile. For several years, he wandered throughout the neighboring countries of Poland and Germany. When completed, the Collection was named after Izyaslav's younger brother, who had seized power.

Today, the manuscript is the second oldest book that remains from Ancient Rus. It was a copy of the Bulgarian King Simeon I's "Code of Laws" which was a translation of a Greek text. In general, the book was a guide to life complete with pictures.

Much of the text focuses on the Bible and what it means to lead a Christian life. It primarily references authoritative Byzantine theologians such as Basil of Caesarea. However, the book also contains other types of information: astronomy and astrology (drawings with zodiac signs), mathematics, physics, zoology, botany, grammar, ethics, logic and even ideas from the emerging Christian (not Aristotelian) philosophy of the day. In this text, you can find information on what makes a wife "good" or "bad" and lists of books that should be read, as well as those that are "false" and should be ignored. It also describes how the soul, like the body, is essential (while wisdom is merely a coincidence) and describes the result of what happens to a person when he loses his individuality.
12th century
12th century
Writings on birch-bark parchment
"Lord, help your servant Onfim"

Onfim, a six-year-old boy from the large northeastern Rus city of Novgorod, wrote these words almost 800 years ago. He scratched them into birch bark with a pisalo (or stylus), a sharp rod made of metal or bone. In this drawing, the boy depicts himself on a horse, holding a sword in one hand while stabbing an enemy with a lance using the other.

This is not Onfim's only famous drawing. The boy also drew a picture of an animal with an arrow entering its mouth. The drawing is titled: "I am an animal." Archeologists have found a total of 12 of Onfim's birch-bark paper writings, most of them consisting of notes because he was learning how to write. Onfim's notes were discovered in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, archaeologists have found more than 1,100 such examples of writings on birch bark paper with the great majority originating in Novgorod. The writings described common tasks and activities and the daily lives of people living in Ancient Rus. In addition to notes like Onfim's, most were private letters or drafts of business documents such as receipts, bills of sale or wills.

The discovery of these birch writings changed our ideas about written language in Ancient Rus. It turns out that writing was not just a skill for the select few, a narrow circle of noblemen or clergy like earlier thought, but was widespread throughout the classes of Ancient Russian society. It is also worth mentioning that the level of female literacy in Kievan Rus was quite high. Comparing the levels of female literacy from Novgorod and Florence during that period, some researchers say that reading level in Novgorod was greater. The researchers all agree that the level of education among women in Ancient Rus was significant.
The kolt and the ryasna chain
Under her braid, a bright crescent moon shines, her eyebrows are blacker than sable, her eyes are those of a clear-seeing falcon!"

This is how hero Stavr Godinovich, from a bylina, praised his wife when speaking to Kievan Prince Vladimir. In Ancient Rus, women were compared not only to natural objects of beauty but also to exquisite pieces of jewelry. These ornaments made by jewelers were very popular in Kievan Rus and archaeologists often find such pieces from this era. The 12th century is even known as "the dawn of jewelry" in the Ancient Russian state.

This picture shows kolts and the ryasna chain used to fasten them. Kolts are temple rings, and the elegantly decorated hollow or golden kolts were attached to a woman's headdress with the help of a ryasna.

Pagan symbols were often depicted on these pieces of jewelry, despite the fact that Rus had adopted Christianity in the 10th century. It is also common for the kolts to depict birds from the "Tree of Life," a marital symbol where birds symbolize a couple and a tree represents their new life together.

Women's head ornaments also served as charms to protect them from evil forces. Inside the hollow kolts, women were also known to place small pieces of perfumed fabric. All these ornaments are from a treasure chest found in Chernigov, which was a large political and economic center of Kievan Rus (located in present-day Ukraine).
13th century
13th century
The silver mantle
"If anyone finds this path, he will find the Yaroslav treasure trove"

The relentless Tatar-Mongolian invasions of Rus kept the townspeople in a state of constant fear for their lives and property. Invading groups often forced people to hand over their valuables, which were then stashed away in some kind of cache. However, these caches were often abandoned when more invaders arrived and the people, again, rushed to flee their towns and settlements. The places where the descendants of these townspeople would later find their family treasures coincided exactly with the routes traveled by the Tatar-Mongolian cavalry.

The silver mantle, found on a path between Vladimir and Suzdal, was a part of ceremonial princely attire and later became a type of regalia exclusively for royalty. It was decorated with precious stones, pearls, crosses bent like plant stalks, and images of the young and popular martyrs Boris and Gleb, as well as other patron saints.

It is not unheard of to find as many as 400 jewels in one such hidden cache. Many hidden stockpiles of valuables have been found, and they often contain things like clay pots, boxes, wax chambers and scrolls made of animal hide or birch bark. Chests containing valuables were hidden in the walls of houses (often in special places created when the houses were built), monastery hedges, ceremonial mounds or just buried in the ground. The burial of such treasures was almost always accompanied by a certain mystical rite — a spell was cast on the buried item. For example, to cast off a certain spell, one might need to fast for seven days and then dig the chest up by hand during a new moon. People believed that the treasure could not be claimed by a person who did not know the correct ritual to lift the spell. This explains why some very strange treasures have been found: one with an ax stuck into it, one covered with an object resembling a frying pan and one pierced by three swords, to name a few.
An ax, arrowheads and spears
"Was it you who brought this filthy strife and turmoil to Rus? Since then we have had no life because of this cursed Polovtsin land!"

According to documented legends and chronicles, the greatest misfortune in medieval Rus was the constant state of civil war that took place as a result of the feuds between the royal children, uncles and brothers. Their lives were full of intrigue and conspiracy, especially regarding the issue of succession (and who had the right to the throne), which was not clearly defined or even necessarily the result of natural deaths. The most intense battles were waged over the throne in Kiev, the religious center of Ancient Rus. Throughout the course of these wars, Kiev changed leadership often and was constantly being looted attacked. Even more destructive, however, was the situation throughout the Russian territories because the local princes who sought power and independence were not always eager to defend each other from the raids of foreign invaders from the steppe. As a result, Rus soon became the target of many devastating expeditions. The nomadic Polovtsi people were always ready to fight and loot (and princes from Rus even recruited them to fight in their civil wars), and Swedes and crusader knights from the Baltic lands also regularly carried out raids. However, it was the punitive raids by the Tatar-Mongols that were the largest and most severe. Because of the tireless and ongoing infighting already happening, the serious threat of the Tatar-Mongols to Rus was not noticed soon enough and the situation eventually deteriorated. The last Kievan prince, Mikhail Vsevolodovich, fled to Hungary on the eve of the Mongol invasion, abandoning the city without a ruler. His fate was rather tragic — several years later the Golden Horde would execute Mikhail for refusing to worship pagan idols.
14th century
14th century
"In the summer of 1240, Batu came to Kiev with a great force, with an enormous power… And his warriors surrounded the city, you could not hear because of the all the wagons screeching, because of the braying of his camels, because of the neighing of his herds of horses. And all of Russia was filled with military men."

This is how an Ancient Russian chronicle describes the way Kiev was seized by Mongolian troops led by Batu Khan. Once the center of the powerful Kievan Rus, Kiev had now been looted and destroyed. Only about 200 yards of the formerly vast city remained standing. Several years earlier, cities in northeastern Rus had suffered a similar fate. Yet, after Kiev's decline in the middle of the 12th century, it was to that region that the center of the Ancient Russian state shifted.

After the Mongol invasions, Russian territories were left dependent on the newly created state, the Golden Horde. The Rus had to pay tribute to the Horde and send warriors to join the Mongol troops. The Horde chose who would become the leader from among the Russian princes and who would receive the title Grand Prince of Vladimir (the northeastern city that had replaced Kiev as the new political center in Rus). The princes needed to receive the khan's official stamp to have the right to rule in Vladimir. In addition to the stamps, there were also special tablets that signified authority — the paizas. They were made of various materials and were awarded by the khans to their representatives as a sign of power. Demands made by owners of the paizas had to be carried out by members of the civilian population, under penalty of death. This silver paiza contains the engraved writing: "Given by the Great Khan from the Eternal Sky. People not loyal to the Mongols will lose their life."
Icon of Saints Boris and Gleb
"When the devil, the primordial enemy of everything good in people, saw that Saint Boris had placed all his hope in the hands of God, he began scheming. And, as in the ancient times of Cain — who committed fratricide, ensnared Svyatopolk in his plans."

This is how The Lives of Boris and Gleb describes the reason why Svyatopolk, nicknamed the Accursed, decided to kill his brothers — first Boris, and then Gleb. As sons of Vladimir, the baptizer of Rus, Boris and Gleb became the first Russian saints and were incredibly popular in Russia. They are venerated as patrons saints of warriors and protectors of the Russian land. Their faces are often depicted in icons. In Ancient Rus, icon paintings were the principal form of visual art and their mastery led to the development of other fine arts. The Saints Boris and Gleb icon was initially painted for the Novgorod monastery, built in the 12th century. The icon itself is dated from the 14th century. Icon painting continued to evolve in Rus despite the destructiveness of the Mongolian invasions. However, some specialists do note a Mongolian influence on ancient Russian icon paintings: after the invasion, Russian icons began to lack the harmony that had been characteristic of Byzantine art, and methods of writing slowed in their evolution and were simplified.
The treasure of the Golden Horde
"[Batu Khan] stormed the city of Pereyaslavl and killed all of the people, destroyed the Church of Archangel Michael, seized the golden church vessels, the countless precious stones and killed Bishop Simeon."

When capturing the Russian lands, the Mongols were extremely cruel to the people they conquered. No exception was made for the clergy: churches were burnt and priests were killed. The above excerpt details the conquest of Pereyaslavl (a city located slightly to the south of Kiev) and is proof of this. However, the Mongol attitude towards the church eventually changed and land belonging to the church and clergy was exempted from taxes imposed by the Russian princedoms. The church itself was also exempt from taxes. The khan of the Horde also issued stamps, like those given to the secular princes, to church officials as a way to recognize the inviolability of the Orthodox faith, churches and church property.

While invading Rus, the Mongols had been pagan, but in the beginning of the 14th century, they adopted Islam. The items depicted here all part of the so-called "Simferopol treasure" that was discovered in Crimea in the mid-20th century. Among them is a case for Islamic prayer books. The treasure chest also contained many extraordinary pieces of jewelry made by the Golden Horde. It contains 328 objects made of gold and silver, adorned with many precious and semi-precious stones. It is likely that these objects belonged to a Crimean nobleman, perhaps someone working for the Golden Horde's administration for the governor of Crimea.
15th century
15th century
The shroud
"I laid a hryvna onto it, the woventaffeta shroud, on which an image of the Blessed Virgin was sewn, I bedecked with gold and stones and pearls"

After being accused of a conspiracy against the czar, Princess Evdokia was forced to become a nun and sent to live in a monastery. She spent her entire life praying to God for humility and patience until she was drowned on orders from the czar. Just like the disgraced princess, many well-to-do petitioners made similar appeals to the church in the early 15th century.

The shroud had a special role as a religious object. It was used to wrap the bodies of the deceased, for religious services and was also given as donation for the absolution of sins.

This Zaprestolnaya Shroud, according to the records, was a donation from a person named Ogrofena Konstantinovna to the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in Suzdal. Konstantinovna was praying for a child. The shroud was made according to the design of an icon painter associated with the school of Andrei Rublev (the author of the famous Holy Trinity). A depiction of the Holy Communion of Christ's Apostles was woven into the fabric, as well as images of evangelists and scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary along the hem.

At the time, despite the oppression of the Mongolian occupation, the Christian faith within Rus strengthened and was widely spread through art. Basically, all art was dedicated to religion. It is not a surprise that it was during this period that the first heretics also appeared. Nevertheless, the unified Christian teachings served to unite the disparate Russian princedoms, which helped the country to finally liberate itself from Mongolian exploitation, once and for all.
16th century
16th century
Gingerbread boards
"You need to walk seven versts for the sweet pryaniki"

This is how a Russian proverb goes. Pryaniki, a Russian pastry equivalent to English gingerbread has been decorating tables during festive occasions for centuries. To prepare them, people in Russia used special pryaniki boards — wooden molds designed to stamp specific images onto the cookies. They usually they depicted various cities, patterns from Western European and imported Oriental fabrics or images of heraldic eagles and mythological birds called sirins. The boards were made from pear, apple and lime trees.

The word pryaniki comes from a form of the ancient Russian word perets, meaning pepper or spice. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Russian pryaniki were made with spices that were exotic in those days: black pepper, coriander, vanilla and ginger.

But pryaniki were not only a delicacy, loved by both children and adults. They were also an important part of household traditions and religious feasts. They were given out at weddings and funerals and were often gifted to relatives and guests. Even the czar was frequently served pryaniki. These baked offerings sometimes weighed more than a kilogram. One account even states that the pryaniki of the royalty weighed several poods (a pood weighing approximately 16 kilograms) and required special sleighs to transport them. By the 16th century, with the development of cities, towns had developed their own special bakeries with entire teams of craftsmen dedicated to the preparation of pryaniki.
The printing press
"And this reached the czar's ear. He began thinking of how to improve book printing, to bring it to the level of the Greeks, the Venetians, the Italians and other peoples."

This is how Russia's first printer, Ivan Fyodorov, describes Czar Ivan the Terrible's decision to introduce printing presses to the country. The printing press that Fyodorov used has not been preserved, but it resembled the one shown here. With the support of the czar and the city, Fyodorov established the first printing press in Moscow, the Moscow Printing Court, in the middle of the 16th century. It was located near the Kremlin, and the Russian monarch generously allotted funds for the new project. The first book that Fyodor published was Apostle, and the second was The Breviary. Both books were of a religious nature.

After the publication of The Breviary, Fyodorov suddenly left Moscow and moved to Lithuania, where he continued his printing. According to one theory, his press had been set on fire by the scribes of ecclesiastical books who feared the competition from the new technology. However, after Fyodorov's departure, the Moscow printing press continued to function. For decades it was headed a pupil of Fyodorov who continued to publish liturgical books.
A sailor's kaftan
We cannot be afraid of death;

We've accomplished our feat;

The czar has conquered Siberia,

And we - did not live idly in the world!

During the 16th century, Russia incorporated enormous swaths of territory to its east. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible, Moscow conquered the Kazan and Astrakhan khanates, while Russian pioneers crossed the Ural mountain range and began the conquest of Siberia. The fight against the Siberian khanate and the Tatars of western Siberia was led by the Cossack ataman Yermak, with the support of the merchants and the state. He dealt the khanate several significant blows but was ultimately killed by the Tatars, which is referenced in the lines above.

However, the exploration of Siberia did not only happen on land. Russian seamen explored the Arctic coast, carrying out numerous expeditions for both trade and industry. The remnants of winter quarters, constructed by a shipwrecked crew, were found in Taimyr — a peninsula on the northernmost part of the Eurasian continent.

While excavating the shelters, which are dated from the end of the 16th century, archaeologists found fragments of a ship, navigation devices and hunting equipment. Other items such as jewels, pieces of silk and wool clothing, animal furs and many Russian coins were also found. Fragments of homespun cloth allowed experts to create a reproduction of the type of kaftan that would have belonged to one of these sailors. Today, it is exhibited at the State Museum of History.
17th century
17th century
Pozharsky's sword
"Your heads and your life will be preserved. I will be responsible for this and will ask the warriors for agreement."

This was what Prince Dmitri Pozharsky said to the weary and hungry Polish invaders as they stood outside the Kremlin walls.

The main event of the 17th century was the replacement of the dynasty that had ruled Russia since the 9th century. After the death of Ivan the Terrible's sons (Fyodor, who suffered from dementia, and Dmitri, who according to the official version stabbed himself) the Rurik dynasty came to an end and power was seized, by a succession of boyars and imposters. The remaining boyars did not have the people's trust and could not make decisions about who among them should rule. In the end, they invited the Polish Prince Vsevolod to reign over the country.

The prince was a Catholic, however, and was not willing to convert to Orthodox Christianity. The boyars finally suggested that the prince come and take a "tour" of Russia. The prince agreed, but when he came with his troops he seized the Kremlin.

A civil war broke out in the country. The seven boyars sent out letters calling on the people to take an oath against the invaders, but this was met with resistance by the lower classes. By 1611, a people's liberation militia had formed to liberate the country (although it was not successful on its first attempt), and Pozharsky was appointed the military leader. The militia restored order to the cities, raised funds and recruited new members. According to legend, this richly-decorated sword with stone inlays was gifted to Pozharsky by the grateful Muscovites as a gift for restoring Russia to the throne, which now belonged to the Romanov dynasty.
The first textbook for children
Children must be taught with fear: punish your son from youth."

So advised the Domostroi, a collection of advice and instructions on all aspects of 16th-century Russian life. But merely a century later, people in the Russian Empire believed that fear was not the only thing that children should be taught.

It all began with the czar's children. The renowned court poet, teacher and editor of the Moscow Printing Court, Karion Istomin, prepared the best reading and writing textbook of the time for the royal children. Made for the son of the czar, Alexei Romanov, the first hand-written manuscript was decorated with gold and include color illustrations. Later, all 44 pages were engraved on copper plates because the printing techniques needed were beyond the abilities that the printing press currently offered.

Each letter had initially been drawn by hand and depicted a human figure, whose pose resembled a letter. Words beginning with the letter followed and were accompanied by pictures, often of creatures from folklore or Greek mythology. For example, the letter A was illustrated by the first man, Adam, and the aspid — a winged snake capable of breathing fire (like a dragon), while the letter E was represented by a unicorn (edinorog in Russian). Next to the Russian letters, there were also Polish, Greek and Latin letters.

In 1694, Istomin republished the unique textbook. This time the book was targeted at children from a variety of social classes and had a circulation of 106 copies. By that time, more than 200 children were studying at the Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy.
18th century
18th century
A snuffbox in the form of a Turk's head
"So, for example, if a fly is put in a snuffbox, then it will die, probably from a nervous breakdown."

This is what Anton Chekhov's protagonist Ivan Nyuknin gleans from a lecture on the harmfulness of tobacco. Tobacco was viewed suspiciously in Russia before the era of Peter the Great. In the 17th century, Czar Mikhail Romanov had officially prohibited tobacco. Tobacco merchants and people who used tobacco were fined and subjected to corporal punishment. In the following years, with the support of the church, which was against the sale of the "ungodly potion," tobacco lovers sometimes even paid with their lives for this offense. "Russian people or foreigners who dare carry or trade in tobacco will suffer merciless punishment, even capital punishment," says a Russian code of laws from the 17th century.

Everything changed with the reforms of Peter the Great, who had "carved a window to Europe" and adopted a number of foreign innovations. He legalized the tobacco trade and introduced a state monopoly on its sale. During his rule, two factories were established to produce tobacco, one in St. Petersburg and one in Ukraine. By the middle of the century, using tobacco had become popular among the aristocracy. Not one gathering of the Russian nobility went by without the presence of tobacco. At the time, however, people preferred snuff (which was inhaled) to smoking tobacco.

The creator of the snuffbox chose to shape the box in the form of a Turk, a country which was Russia's main enemy at the time. Starting at the end of the 17th century and continuing until the early 19th century, endless wars were waged between the two nations. During the 18th century, that Russia had a number of successful campaigns over Turkey, and one result was that Crimea became part of the Russian Empire.
Traditional women's attire: The sarafan and the kokoshnik
"Bless the Holy Mother of God! Cover my victorious head with a pearl kokoshnik, with a golden cuff on the nape!"

This is how young ladies would pray to the Virgin Mary to provide them with husbands. This was a tradition on the Day of the Intercession of the Theotokos, an important religious feast celebrated in Russia on October 1, at the beginning of the wedding season. The kokoshnik is mentioned because this special headdress was an essential part of women's traditional dress for the wedding ritual. Before Peter the Great, the kokoshnik, and the type of sundress shown here, the sarafan, were worn by both common folk and noblewomen. However, the reformer czar issued a decree prohibiting young ladies from high society from wearing the kokoshnik at social gatherings. The headdress did see a resurgence in the second half of the 18th when Catherine the Great created a fashion celebrating all things Russian.

The large-scale Westernization of Russia initiated by Peter the Great mostly affected the upper classes and lead to a divided society. Various thinkers would later blame Peter the Great for this division. The czar had a huge influence on attire and the aristocracy and city dwellers, borrowing the European way of life, dressed accordingly. Meanwhile, the peasants in the majority of the country preserved traditional dress and lifestyle. In the villages, women continued wearing the sarafan and, for important celebrations, donned the kokoshnik.

Like in the West at the time, the upper classes in Russia were also gaining more and more freedoms. The government issued a manifesto about the rights of the aristocracy and abolished mandatory military service. But the peasants lived in a different situation, and their bondage to the landowners did not weaken. The reaction against serfdom led to the most powerful peasant movement of the century — the revolt lead by Cossack Emilyan Pugachev, which, because of its scale, is sometimes called the Peasant War. The revolt was brutally suppressed by the Russian army on the orders of Catherine the Great, and Pugachev was executed.
19th century
19th century
A dueling set with flint pistols
"Tomorrow we have a duel. You can say that it is foolish and ridiculous, that the duel has outlived its time, that the aristocratic duel is not any different from a drunken brawl in a tavern, but in the end that will not stop us."

At the end of the 19th century, the frequency of duels among officers and aristocrats reached its peak. This is what Anton Chekhov's protagonists are talking about in the novella, The Duel. This method of restoring one's tarnished honor became not only legal but, in a certain sense, mandatory. Declining a duel meant being branded a coward. Offenses could by caused be a misplaced gesture, a bad joke, cheating during a game of cards or flirting with a lady. And for some, this turned into a dangerous "sport." It is known that the poet Alexander Pushkin was challenged to 29 different duels, some of which were carried out and others that were not.

Unlike the European tradition of dueling, Russian duels were particularly gruesome. People liked to shoot their pistols and were often at point blank range. The standard distance between the duelists in other parts of the world was 7-10 meters. Meanwhile, the Russian version of this tradition sometimes had contenders standing practically with their pistol against their opponent's forehead, respecting a formal distance of only 5-8 steps.

Special dueling sets were used: the two pistols were absolutely identical and, most importantly, had never been used. At dawn, in a secluded area, the opponents would draw lots to see whose set of weapons would be used (obviously there were possibilities to gain an advantage). And it wasn't only men who fought duels — women were no strangers to the ritual and the 19th century saw a record number of female deaths by dueling.
The page
"The women always sit separately from the men… when no one is dancing, they just sit like they are deaf and dumb, just looking at each other."

The nobleman Friedrich Berholtz kept a detailed diary of his life in the Russian empire at the end of Peter the Great's reign, an epoch that set the tone for many decades to come. For example, prior to the time of Peter the Great, Russians did not have a tradition of formal balls, but by the middle of the 19th century, a thousand balls were held in the country each year, varying in terms of scale, the status of the guests and expenses. At one ball during the winter, guests were treated to peaches, strawberries and wines from all over the world, while at another you'd find just modest champagne.

Ballroom etiquette remained unchanged. For men, it was inappropriate to speak to unmarried women during dance intermissions (the dances could last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours) or to come wearing spurs, which often tore the ladies' dresses. For women, it was improper to come without flowers or to forget who they had promised the next dance to. It was even more unacceptable to trip over the train of your dress or to drag it along through the mud.

The trains of dresses were often carried by boy servants, called pages. However, not every lady had a page. This is why a special device bearing the same name, the page was developed, in the form of a clothespin on a string. It was used to adjust a hem without bending over, or to grab and hold up the train of a dress while walking outside.
A peasant's armyak and belt
"I am ordered to bring everything, but there is nowhere to take it from…There is much bread in the fields that has not been collected because of the peasants' disobedience"

These are the words of a police captain, uttered in 1812, upon seeing fields that were ready to harvest but had been left untouched or set on fire. The peasants had decided that they preferred to burn the fields, the storehouses and even their own homes rather than let them fall into the hands of Napoleon's army.

In the year of the French invasion of Russia, peasant volunteer units created significant difficulties for the French. Armed with scythes, pitchforks and weapons seized during the fighting or received from the Russian government, they defended their villages and counties. They did not give the French the opportunity to profit from their land and instead preferred to escape into the forests with nothing at all.

At the end of the war, the rural populations who had participated in these battles were not rewarded for their efforts, despite the fact that without their help Russia likely would not have won the war. Emancipation from serfdom did not follow. At first, Alexander I issued a decree allowing peasants to bear arms, but only five months later he ordered them to disarm themselves. The weapons were returned to the state and the peasants remained in the hands of the landowners for another half century.
Alexander II's quill
"It would have been better if this had happened from above, not from below."

Emperor Alexander II understood very well that it was more difficult to suppress a Russian revolt than to prevent one. By the mid-19th century, the peasants were becoming more and more intolerant of their oppression and rebellions breaking out all over the empire. However, there were aristocratic landowners who were annoyed by any plans to emancipate their "property."

Torn between these contradictions, the emperor reached a solution in 1861. With this quill, he signed the journal of the session of the General Assembly of the State Council (the empire's highest legislative body) and abolished serfdom, according to the law.

In reality, however, the abolishment of serfdom was delayed for decades and was carried out in less-than-ideal conditions. The peasants (and there were 23 million of them, more than two-thirds of the total population) were no longer called "serfs," but were now called "temporarily obliged" and "redeemed." In exchange for freedom, a former peasant was now required to buy land and at prices, according to accounts from the period, that were two or more times higher than normal. As a result, most peasants could not afford to leave their plots and were required to pay obrok (quitrent) for another 45 years.
20th century
20th century
The Sputnik vase
"He said, 'Let's go!' and waved his hand"

These are the lyrics of a Soviet song about the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. And this was not the first triumph of the Soviet cosmonauts. Four years earlier, in 1957, the USSR had proved its advantage in the space race with the US by launching the first man-made satellite.

"That night, when Sputnik was making its first path into the sky, I (…) gazed up and thought of the predetermined path of the future. That small flame, rapidly moving from edge to edge of the sky, was the future of all humanity," Ray Bradbury said about the launch of Sputnik.

In 1965, the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first man to walk in space. The first female cosmonaut was Valentina Tereshkova, also from the USSR. And the Soviet Union became the first country to launch an orbital station, the Salyut-1, in 1971. A decade and a half later the Mir Station replaced the Salyuts, which would become the prototype for the International Space Station.

The subject of space was incredibly popular in the USSR. There were cigarettes called Cosmos, a perfume called Vostok (in honor of the Gagarin's spaceship) and even vases with depictions of satellites.
School uniform
"An illiterate child is shameful for his mother"

Or so it says in the text from a propaganda poster made in the first decades of the Soviet Union. When the Bolsheviks came to power as a result of the 1917 October Revolution, only a third of the population of millions could read and write.

The Bolsheviks introduced free and mandatory education for children up to the age of 16. In 1920, they established a special committee to eliminate illiteracy — the Likbez. All illiterate people between the ages of 16 and 50 were required to learn to read and write, either in their native language or in Russian. By 1936, about 40 million people were being taught grammar. According to a 1939 census, by that time 90 percent of Soviet citizens between the ages of 16 and 50 could read and write.

The right to a free education at all levels was written into the 1977 Soviet constitution. The Soviet education system achieved great results. In terms of the number of students in higher education, by the mid-1970s the USSR was ahead of such Western countries as West Germany and the UK. In fact, US President John Kennedy is credited with saying that the USSR won the space race in the classroom. In the USSR, male and female students wore special uniforms to school. The girls wore the type of uniform seen here.
Tiles from the war
"It's been two years now that I've been in this pit in Germany, since I was taken away from my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, separated from them, and I am tormented here by hunger and cold."

This is from the diary of Lena Mudruk, a girl who was taken to a forced labor camp during the Great Patriotic War (WWII). She worked at a brick factory that also made roofing tiles. On a piece of unfired tile, the girl wrote a message home. She knew that the tile was supposed to be sent to Nazi-occupied Ukraine. But she never had a chance to send the message — Soviet troops had entered Germany. One of the Soviet soldiers found this tile and sent it to the Historical Museum.

During the war, Nazis took more than five million people from the Soviet Union to work in forced labor camps. The overwhelming majority of these people were adolescents. The death rate was high among the Soviet citizens who were transported out of the country.
21st century
21th century
"Taking back our right to privacy"

Pavel Durov used this slogan when launching his app Telegram to international users. It went on to become one of the top ten messaging services in the world and is regarded as one of the most secure messaging services available.

Having finding himself unable to defend user security on the Vkontake social network, Durov left the company and emigrated from Russia before launching Telegram in 2013. One of the messaging service's special features is "secret chats," the contents of which are not accessible even to the security services, and messages that self-destruct some time after reading. The feature first gained popularity among users in Saudi Arabia and was later copied by competitors WhatsApp and Viber. The popular Arab blogger Khaled wrote about the appearance of the messaging service in the App Store. A year later 20 million users in Iran were using it, largely as a result of Iran's ban of Viber. After its launch in Europe, Telegram picked up more than 35 million users within just a few months, earning the status of the fastest growing startup. Currently, more than 100 million people around the world use the service.

But in Russia, despite being an international success created by a Russian, the app became involved in a scandal. The government claimed terrorists use the messaging service, and that the security services do not have access to the chats. For a some time Telegram faced the threat of being blocked because Durov did not want to provide the Russian Register of Organizers of Information Diffusion with information about the service, fearing it would lose its independence. Meanwhile, state television was telling viewers that Durov was valuing his own freedom over the potential threat of terrorism.

In the end Telegram, was added to the register. However, no one is able to buy or invest in the project except Durov himself. Meanwhile its servers are located in five countries.
Text by Yekaterina Sinelschikova, Alexey Timofeychev
Edited by Maxim Korshunov
Images credits: State Historical Museum, Olga Golovko/RIA Novosti, The State Russian Museum, Sevastopol Art Museum of M.P. Kroshitsky, The State Tretyakov Gallery
Producer: Natalya Grebenyuk
Design and layout by Anastasiya Karagodina
© 2017 All Right Reserved.
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