One of the more pernicious habits of blinkered historical thinking is to imagine that all exotic lands exist in isolation from each other, and have substance only in relation to our frame of reference. The Smithsonian’s The Tsars and the East, which opened on May 9th at the Sackler Gallery, is a delightful confrontation with that bad habit. Early in the exhibition is a map showing the trade routes that connected Russia, during the days of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy and the early Tsars, to the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran. Lines of commerce trace across the Caspian Sea through Astrakhan and Baku, and down the Dnieper and the Don, to the Black Sea and Istanbul.
This is not the Russia we think of when learning about Peter’s Window on the West. This is not the Iran (or Persia) that comes to mind when remembering the battle of Salamis or Alexander’s conquests. And it’s not the Ottoman empire that creaks and groans through First World War. All of those places are connected by direct lines to the Western imagination, but not to each other.
But here’s the material proof of their complex, long and rich interaction: Chain mail and helmets covered in lacy traces of gold and Koranic inscriptions, sitting in the treasury of the Tsars; a Russian-made surplice of silk, gold, silver, precious gems and pearls, many of its constituent parts brought from Turkey; and a luxurious caparison (a covering for horses) made in 17th century Iran, brought as an ambassadorial present to the ruler of Russia. The show brings to Washington dazzling treasures from the Armory of the Moscow Kremlin.
These sort of “treasures” exhibitions are often just a lot of bling without much historical context. But for opera lovers, especially, this is a thrilling show. Because while we may all too often think of these faraway places in isolation from each other, there is an embedded memory of their interconnection in the great tradition of Russian opera. As you walk through the exhibition, you feel as if you’re in the costume shop of a well-funded opera house preparing for a production of “Boris Godunov,” or Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sadko.”
Even the handiwork seems strangely like costume jewelry. The settings of emeralds and sapphires and rubies are strikingly crude. Their effect, on sword hilts and horse bridles, was calculated for its impact at a distance. Up close, the work is blunt. In the sun, from a safe remove, it must have been brilliant and blinding. It’s theatrical production.
You realize, looking at the over abundance of riches here, how much Western discomfort with the Tsar’s theatricality and display was a second-order response to the age-old fear of the same things in the more familiar East of Xerxes and co. It was a backdoor for “Orientalist” anxieties about luxury and tyranny and excess. Mussorgsky’s Coronation Scene, in “Boris,” is a memory of these connections, between Russia and the East, at a time when Russia (and Russian composers) were increasingly turning to the West. Its thrill, its menacing power, its grand racket of noise, is an aural imagining of the world that The Tsars and the East makes visually manifest.