The man who saved Russia’s imperial treasures

Items rescued by Dmitry Ivanov—who met his death on a Moscow railway line—are on show in London

LONDON. New research has revealed that a former director of the Kremlin Museums in Moscow helped save several precious items formerly owned by the Tsars—but his efforts culminated in his death on a Moscow railway line in 1930. Several works recovered by Dmitry Ivanov, which might otherwise have been destroyed following the 1917 Russian Revolution, are currently on show in “Magnificence of the Tsars” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A, until 29 March).

Ivanov, director of the Kremlin Museums from 1922 to 1929, later became an opponent of the newly formed, post-1917 Soviet state. The Kremlin was captured by Bolshevik fighters who then took control of the Armoury Chamber (constructed in 1851) which housed ancient state paraphernalia and Russian Orthodox church vestments, among other items.

Many of these regalia and crown diamonds, which date back to the time of Peter I (who ruled 1682-1725), were later transferred to the Gokhran (state storage of treasures), established in Moscow in 1920. But museum officials, led by Ivanov, persuaded the government to leave over 6,000 works from the Armoury within the museum collection (several thousand items were eventually transferred to the Gokhran).

During the early 1920s, the structure of the Kremlin Museums changed to reflect the Soviets’ developing policies. In 1922, the Kremlin Museums were forced to change their name to “The Armoury Chamber State Museum of Decorative Art” in line with new government regulations.

Dr Tatiana Tutova, a curator at the Kremlin Museums, recently wrote an article in the Russian Journal called “The Keeper of the Kremlin” on Ivanov’s key role in recovering imperial heritage. She told The Art Newspaper that during this period, “Ivanov was committed to return any outstanding works to the museum. He succeeded in securing more then 1,500 pieces, among them 24 Fabergé eggs.”

Other rescued items, which were likely to have been sold overseas, include 18th-century porcelain and gold snuff boxes and 18th-century ceremonial dress accessories (buckles inlaid with precious stones, for instance), examples of which are on show at the V&A.

Ivanov continued to oppose any moves to expropriate the Armoury collection following the election of Stalin to the leadership of the Communist party in 1924. A museum directors’ campaign group established by Ivanov in the late 1920s protested against what it saw as a national plundering of state treasures.

But on 1 December 1929, Ivanov was dismissed from his post. On 13 January 1930, he was found with a serious head injury on an isolated Moscow train track. Dr Tutova says that a suicide note was later discovered in his office safe which stated: “I did not sell, embezzle or hide the national treasury.” The note has only now been published.

Dr Tutova adds: “Ivanov was not accused of selling objects. He was a member of a government committee [charged with transferring objects from the Armoury for later sale abroad]. He was, of course, against the move and tried, on the contrary, to save objects within the Armoury collection. But he was not able to counteract the government’s rulings. At the same time, he did not want to be a part of this process.”

“Magnificence of the Tsars” is showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 29 March

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20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


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