In a room full of portraits, I look at empty frames.
This is the War Gallery of 1812 in the Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum in Sankt-Peterburg.
Here’s the story:
Alexander I commissioned portraits of some three hundred military heroes who achieved the rank of general in the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon.
English artist George Dawe, with a couple of Russian assistants, completed portraits of all but thirteen, who (I have been told) died before any likeness of them had been preserved. For each of the thirteen faceless generals hangs a canvas covered with green silk, framed, and bearing the general’s name.
The whole of Russia knew the names of those whose portraits were placed in the War Gallery of 1812.
One could write a heroic ode to each of them.
So says the Hermitage website.
Now, if you’ve ever gone to a Russian museum, you know that a Russian babushka (an old–frequently, very old–woman) militantly guards each exhibit.
I dare you to put your dirty boots on that velvet-covered bench. Or sneak a picture with a flash. Ha! Or forget to check your coat at the garderob, god forbid.
That is nekul’turno. And babushkas will tell you about it. Forcefully. The whole of Russia knows that they are in charge.
I swear, one could write a heroic ode to each of them.
More than twenty years have passed since my first visit to the Hermitage, and the babushka brigade is unchanged. Still wrinkled, stern, frumpy, and often barrel-shaped.
Except that the brigade has totally changed.
My Hermitage babushkas have long since retired; most, I suspect, are dead.
They were the Greatest Generation of babushkas.
Forget the Patriotic War of 1812, our 1980s babushkas had lived through the Great Patriotic War, the one we call (prosaically and impersonally) World War II.
They had survived the blockade of their city. For nearly three years, Leningrad was under siege. No public transportation. Often, no heat, no water, no electricity. Mass starvation. Rumors of cannibalism. Countless deaths.
Real war heroes.
I’m sorry to say that the babushka pictured above is more recent, part of a terrific photography project called The Guardians of Russian Art Museums. I love what the photographer has done.
But, he was too late to capture the likenesses of the women I try to remember.