War Heroes and Empty Frames

28 Nov

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.

31 Responses to “War Heroes and Empty Frames”

  1. Paul Costopoulos November 28, 2010 at 10:05 am #

    Your comment on the gruffy baboushkas reminded me of an anecdote a collegue of mine loved to tell in the early 70s. She was just back from an Intourist all prepaid tourist tour of the USSR. One evening, in Kiev, she was having supper, a five services thing, that outlasted her appetite. When the waiter came with the next plate she said no thank you I can’t eat anything more. The waiter looked at her sternly and said:” You paid, you eat”.

    • jenny November 30, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

      Paul, that is very funny and I’m adding it to my collection.

      Even on this trip, when my brother arrived at the St. Petersburg airport and asked for a cab, he was curtly and simply told: “You will wait.”

  2. Philippe November 28, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    “….neglect to check your coat at the garderob, god forbid……”

    Can I assume that “garderob” is genuinely a Russian word?

    I find it interesting that the word for wardrobe in both French and German is “garderobe”.

    This reminds me of the old definition of a string quartette, which was a Russian symphony orchestra after a tour of the West.

    I doubt that anyone would understand this today.

    • jenny November 30, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

      Garderob is not just a Russian word, it’s a Russian institution. Trust me, you do not want to mess with the garderobshchik or garderobshchitsa.

      I had forgotten how irritated the garderobshchitsa gets when you hand her a coat without a loop (so it can be easily hung on a hook). Oops.

      Your definition of a string quartet still gets a smile from me. 🙂

  3. Man of Roma November 29, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    I understand the heroism of so many Russian soldiers during WWII (20 million died). And I saw many babushkas at the hotel Rossia at the Kremlin (now no more I am told) watching each corridor of this huge (and almost insane) hotel structure.

    I liked many things in Russia. But not these heavy-faced and heavy-built babushkas, I confess, at least the ones I saw in the Rossia hotel. They were inquisitive, corrupted and authoritarian. Some of the babushkas at the museums were not bad though but my memory is weak there, while unfortunately I stayed quite a long at the Rossia.

    • jenny November 30, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

      MoR, I am familiar with the old Rossiya Hotel, but I never was in it. I can well imagine, however, the brand of babushka that ruled there. Hmm.

      Of course you did not like them.

      I did not like them either. But I am very interested in contrasts: the handsome men who fought in the war of 1812, beautifully rendered in portraits for posterity and the not-so-beautiful heavy-faced and heavy-built babushkas who endured god only knows what, perhaps in an equally heroic way.

      I wonder if those Russian officers were inquisitive, corrupted or authoritarian.

  4. Chris December 1, 2010 at 4:15 am #

    Very thought-provoking. At the risk of sounding like a hippie … I think everyone who lives through a war is a casualty; some just survive….

    • jenny December 1, 2010 at 5:29 am #

      Oh,please! It’s no big deal to provoke you to think, Chris. You seem to do it all the time, at the slightest provocation. 😉 What’s up with that?

      • Chris December 1, 2010 at 7:41 am #

        Well let me think about th–

        Ah! Ahhh! You did it again! Damn it all, I can’t stop! It’s not my fault–my brain made me do it!

  5. dafna December 1, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    thank you jenny for the fantastic link to the gallery photographs.

    i can only imagine the time and effort that went into capturing images of women who so aptly reflect the artwork. the composition of these photos is fantastic!

    are you home now? hag sameach!

    • jenny December 2, 2010 at 4:33 am #

      Dafna, I like those photos a lot too. Glad you do. Yes, I am home. You, too, enjoy the holiday. 🙂

  6. Cyberquill December 2, 2010 at 2:46 am #

    Garderob? Funny German loan word. Might be a World War II import.

    The missing portraits were probably stolen, and the Russians don’t want to admit it, so they spun a fancy yarn for public consumption.

    • jenny December 2, 2010 at 4:39 am #

      Don’t you think the Germans borrowed it from the French first, CQ?

      My favorite German loan word in Russian is schlagbaum. I use it in English now, too. Just for fun. Have the Germans imported any Russian words?

      I like the idea that the portraits were stolen! Preferably by a handsome man in a bowler hat.

      • Man of Roma December 2, 2010 at 8:33 am #

        According to etymonline.com garderobe was a French word that started to be used in English in the early 14c. Possibly the Germans took it from the French too.

      • Cyberquill December 2, 2010 at 6:01 pm #

        Lots of French loan words in German, particularly 19th century Viennese.

        I grew up in a little town called Pressbaum. Not sure what a Schlagbaum is. I’ve never heard that whipped cream grows on trees.

        The portraits may have been stolen by a handsome man wearing several ski masks. (It’s cold in Russia.)

      • jenny December 3, 2010 at 7:07 am #

        CQ, I refuse to believe that whipped cream does not grow on trees in Vienna.

        I want to gaze out at the whipped cream trees as I make my toast to champagne with all those charming folks in Fledermaus.


      • jenny December 3, 2010 at 7:10 am #

        MoR: I’m leaving the theme of Russia, you’ll be glad to hear. Thinking next about Gianni Schicchi, a happier subject!

  7. Geraldine December 2, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    I wonder if any of the Babushkas took part in helping to move and hide the artwork during WWII, together with the Russian soldiers and curators. Tremendous sacrifices were made by the workers under desperate conditions.

    The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is also known as the “Little Hermitage” because the KGB sold masterpieces to western collections.

    • jenny December 3, 2010 at 6:55 am #

      It’s a good thought, Geraldine. I imagine that some of them did. Workers made tremendous sacrifices under desperate conditions over and over in the Soviet Union. It fascinates me that it turned out to be such a little blip in history.

      It’s funny. We were just talking with a museum guide about the sale of art during those years. Evidently, the prevailing thought was that the world revolution would come and all of the art would return to the state anyway…or something like that.

  8. Cheri December 3, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    As with tough and stoic little old women and men of those days in history, no matter how squat or tall or thin or wide their bodies be–they each have a painful story to tell. Curiously, most babushkas, I suspect, will take their stories to their graves.

    Strangely impressive in our tell-all Hollywood culture.

    • jenny December 4, 2010 at 6:29 am #


      Those babushkas usually take their stories to the grave.

      But we won’t. 🙂

  9. Man of Roma December 3, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    MoR: I’m leaving the theme of Russia, you’ll be glad to hear. Thinking next about Gianni Schicchi, a happier subject!

    I’m not disturbed at all by your Russian theme, quite the contrary. It just brought back the memory of Rossia and all that happened in that over the top hotel.

    You mean Dante’s Gianni Schicchi or Puccini’s? “Oh mio babbino caro” is one of my favourite Italian arias.

    • jenny December 4, 2010 at 6:33 am #

      MoR — Puccini’s, of course! Yes, yes, yes to “Oh mio babbino”, and I also adore “Lauretta mia” at the end. Just gotta figure out how to write something worthy of it.

      Since my children were small, we have used the threat (metaphorical, of course) of being exiled from Florence with amputated fingers for all manner of transgressions.

  10. Man of Roma December 4, 2010 at 6:51 am #

    Transgressions …. just wondering what kind of secrets you and Cheri are NOT taking to the grave. Pls tell us here: at your blog or over at Cheri’s.
    Just a silly idea, one out of many … 😉

    • Cheri December 4, 2010 at 10:30 am #

      Let’s see, MoR.

      How about the time I was such a smartie pants with my mother, that she let me out on the freeway to walk home?

      Or…how about the time that…

      • Man of Roma December 4, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

        Dots .. dots … I am eager for more Cheri 😉

    • jenny December 4, 2010 at 10:07 pm #

      Man of Roma — all of my transgressions are metaphorical only. You, yourself, told me that it is safer that way. Metafore! Metafore!

      • Man of Roma December 5, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

        Of course, much safer, and I’m much of a joker, so my words must be taken with a grain of salt 🙂

  11. Thomas Stazyk December 31, 2010 at 1:01 am #

    Well said–the ladies deserve to be remembered for what they must have endured.

  12. sledpress January 4, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

    On finding this I felt called on to repost it here. Madam Demyanchenko seems like a proud babushka and she cares for Guardians of the Hermitage, as well.

    • jenny January 5, 2011 at 8:33 pm #


      Lav eeet!

      Best part:

      Q: Now, I have to ask you, have any of the cats ever made it up here to the galleries?
      A: No, of course not. Only occasionally.

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