Legends of silent gallery

The Military History Museum named after Bagration in Volkovysk is experiencing his second birth in the year of its 70th anniversary
The headquarters of the 2nd Russian army commanded by legendary Bagration were stationed in this old house 200 years ago. The museum underwent a major overhaul, which lasted over 2 years. The renewed building now has a unique collection of rare engravings of the early 19th century.

She. Slim as a china statue. A wonderful colour of the face, snow-white skin, wavy locks, mysterious expression of enormous eyes. The first lady of St Petersburg Princess Skavronskaya. They said in her 30s she looked like a 16-year-old girl. She looks at us with ease.

He. Absolutely grey at the age of 35, with an enormous Georgian nose and large sad eyes. The look is noble and soft. According to his contemporaries, the legendary Bagration was horribly ugly.

Two portraits — two destinies united in one by a sad legend.

Since 1798 a jaeger regiment from Volkovysk was part of Bagration’s vanguard. The general practically settled down at the newly recovered Russian border after another division of Rzeczpospolita. From here he frequented St Petersburg. During one of such trips at a royal ball he saw an 18-year-old nymph — Princess Skavronskaya. Decorated with practically every state award, he could not dare talk to her. While the young maid of honour, who’d learnt mincing manners from her childhood, was in love with another man. She had no plans for the new admirer. But the destiny has its ways.

To be exact, Emperor Pavel I had his ways, when he learnt about the suffering of the favourite general. The Emperor sent a dispatch to Yekaterina Pavlovna’s mother, which ordered her to dress the daughter in white and bring her to the royal palace in Gatchina. A wedding ceremony took place on September 2, 1800 in the church of Gatchina palace. The wedding surprised both the bride and the fiancй.

The newly-weds spent only the honeymoon in St Petersburg. Bagration had to return to the active duty, but the spoiled wife told him: “I will not go to the middle of nowhere!” He left for Volkovysk, she went to Vienna.
Bagration’s battle and life way went through the Alps, Friedland, Preusisch Eylau (Eastern Prussia), Volkovysk, and Smolensk to the field of Borodino.

Alas, it never came across balls and fashionable European resorts, where his young wife preferred spending time, light-mindedly spending the enormous fortune of her husband. Letters “to sweet Katenka with love” flew from Volkovysk to Vienna and in return the wife asked only for more money. Bagration tried hard for a long time to get his wife back to Russia.

He took the family quarrel very hard. At the same time general’s salary could not cover the needs of the prodigal beauty and the magnanimous general started selling real estate and borrowing money to pay the bills of Princess Bagration. The wedding in the royal palace did not bring happiness to the couple.

It is known, Bagration was wounded during the battle of Borodino. He died for 16 days. After his death a small oval portrait of a girl with a mysterious expression in her eyes was found. The general always had it on him.

Among new museum relics there are unique engravings of war heroes of 1812, including heroes of the battle near Volkovysk: general Konovnitsyn, Sivers, Vasilchikov, Galitsyn. The collection includes a rare exhibit: a sword-knot with a written instruction and a seal and signature by Barklai de Tolli.
Another historic couple depicted by an artist in the 19th century — Napoleon and Josefina on the coronation day. In another picture the French emperor shows a portrait of his son born in the wedlock with Maria-Luisa to soldiers on the eve of Borodino battle. In the next room there is a portrait of Russian emperor Alexander I, by the way, depicted by a French.

When I visited the museum, preparations for guarding the expensive exhibits were underway. Not every district-level collection can pride itself on having genuine rarities. They appeared in Volkovysk thanks to Georgi Pekh, a man with a unique destiny. In the early 20th century the young Petersburg native was assigned the job of the telegraph station head in Volkovysk. Here he found his real passion — archaeology and history. Georgi Iosifovich organised excavations, collected ancient objects and coins. When he learnt about the famous battle of Volkovysk, which took place in November 1812, he started digging for any threads from the past. Since 1925 he cooperated with Grodno Regional Museum and opened a museum of his own ten years after. Before the Great Patriotic War the enthusiast managed to convince the authorities to open a state museum based on his private collections. During the fascist occupation the collections were ravaged, the building was destroyed. It took several post-war years to restore the historical museum.

In 1953 the director managed to prove the special significance of Volkovysk in the war against Napoleon and the museum was named after Bagration. The founder desperately looked for rare exhibits throughout the Soviet Union. It is unknown how he managed to obtain the collection of engravings and many other precious things, including weapons and ammunition.

“He was very determined”, recalls senior scientific officer of the museum Alla Suyeta. “Pekh could not live without constant search. He organised excavations, painted pictures and made wonderful historical sculptures of plasticine. In 1967 Georgi Iosifovich retired and soon after that he died”.

The re-opened museum got pictures and amazing plasticine soldiers made by man who once happened to come to Volkovysk, but managed to implant love for history of the small town to many people.

by Natalia Zenchenko
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