Saturday, October 31, 2009

Go Ahead! Touch It!

In all the excitement of play practice and Skittles' rentrée, I forgot to tell you about the visit to the State Archives yesterday.

By now, I have become quite a fan of the Fabulous Larissa. So when she wrote an email saying we would "visit State Archives with Tzar's Romanovs belongings! This is the place where you can touch history, which changed the world." I had no idea she meant literally touch history.

I didn't really have any idea what to expect on this outing, but with Larissa, it's usually entertaining. Skittles was still at Sports Camp, so I dragged Baboo with me.

The group was, by design, small. We found ourselves seated around a small conference table with Larissa and an archivist (coincidentally, also named Larissa). 

Archivist Larissa is talking in Russian (although she spent her formative years in New York and her English is flawless) and opening large file folders and passing around what looks like a bunch of very old, handwritten documents. I catch "Catherine the Great" before Tour Guide Larissa begins to translate. By now the document is sitting in front of me.

Me, carefully putting the cap back on my waterproof/fade-proof uni-ball and setting the pen in my lap lest I twitch suddenly and drop it, cap off, onto the file: "Um, excuse me . . . these are written by Catherine the Great?"

Both Larissas: "Yes."


And so it went. She trotted out and passed around a lot of things, no doubt intended to give us a sense of the depth and breadth of the Archives' holdings including
  • A letter signed by Napoleon before he started referring to himself, like Cher and Madonna, by just his first name. We tried to figure out the date, but Baboo was able to tell us that in Napoleon's time, they had different names for the months. Further, she knew that they tended to say things like "in the 23rd year of the 1st Republic . . ." which is, indeed, how the letter was dated.
  • The original constitution of Poland (also in French). The Russians gave it back to Poland at one point, but the Germans took it during WWII and then swapped it back to the Russians in exchange for something else. Me: "Um, doesn't Poland kinda want this?" Russian Dude Sitting Next to Me, with a shrug: "Meh. It doesn't hurt to want."
  • Commemorative handkerchiefs from 1912 featuring the Czar's image. Apparently once everyone figured out that the hankies could actually be used, it was quite the scandal.
  • A hat that may or may not have belonged to Nicholas I. Archivist Larissa thought it was only of-the-period.
  • A letter from Franz Schubert dated 1828.
  • A letter from Charles Dickens.
  • A letter from Dostoevsky dated 1872.
  • The personal photo albums of the Czar's family, hand-decorated by the Czarina. Here they are in front of the house. Here they are on the side of the house, but you can see the front of the house. Here they are in front of the tree. And so on.
  • English-language books belonging to the Czar's daughter, Olga. One was Tennyson. Her mother had decorated the flyleaf. Olga was known for being sort of a couch potato and liked nothing better than spending the afternoon lying on the sofa with a book. Like Baboo.
  • And, finally, everyone's favorite, a letter written to Anastasia in 1914 by some 11-year-old kid in Kansas City who went on and on about her favorite classes in school and details about her town including the number of various businesses and denominations of the local churches. She included a photo ("This isn't me, but it sort of looks like me.") and a lock of her own hair. 
I kept thinking, "What if I sneeze a juicy sneeze all over these papers/photos/textiles?" It's the sort of thing that would happen to me. However, the Archives house over 6 million files. I suppose if I had sneezed or had some sort of small seizure involving my pen, there's plenty more where these came from.


      Tina in CT said...

      Really, really interesting for you and Baboo. I'm surprised that they the average person in to see and touch these things.

      How did you hook up with Larissa?

      valentina said...

      Very and Totally Cool! xov

      Anonymous said...

      You are going places!
      Your Larissa is a pure gem!
      And get yourself a large old fashioned Russian handkerchief, just in case. It will make you feel better.

      Mrs. Smith said...

      I love this kind of stuff! How cool that you actually got to touch it!?!?

      MoscowMom said...

      That is AMAZING. Wow. You are so lucky to have found that Larissa! It's one adventure after another!

      Ex-Expatress said...

      Sorry to be a crank, but I"m sorry they Russians treat their art and archival material in such a shabby fashion. In the Hermitage, you saw priceless Impressionist paintings in room filled with natural light and with windows open! The Pushkin isn't much better, but at least the windows were closed.

      I find it very sad how they treat their precious historical materials.