Amber Room: Manifold Memory

The Amber Room: More Than Russian Royalist Revival.  A dazzling, almost otherworldly room decorated entirely in amber mosaic, the Amber Room intensifies the feeling of exorbitant, unabashedly luxuriant wealth found within its larger setting of Catherine’s Palace. Located just outside of St. Petersburg in the suburb of Pushkin, Catherine’s Palace houses what was termed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World,’ attracting hordes of international visitors to what was once a sight only for friends of the aristocracy.  While merely a replica of the original Amber Room, the recently restored Amber Room features thousands of pieces of amber of all different shapes, sizes, and colors, covering an impressive one hundred and fifty square meters of wall space (Nalley, 48-54) A gift to Peter the Great from Frederick William I of Prussia in 1716, the amber panels of the Amber Room were originally fashioned for the Prussian Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, and presented to the Czar after reports of his admiration of the room reached royal ears (Ross, 30). Later, the Amber Room formed the focus of the Nazis’ international art looting campaign because of its German origins and world-renowned beauty. Physically removed from Catherine’s Palace in 1941, the original amber panels were shipped off to Königsberg and last seen at a public showing in 1943 (Ross, 30). Ironically, the project of restoring this czarist masterpiece began in the 1980s under the guidance of the Soviet Union, which held little hope of recovering the original panels. The Soviet Union, which officially subscribed to Communism up until its dissolution in 1991, revived the artisanship and craftsmanship of the imperial era in deciding to replicate the Amber Room. This revival of imperial era art and shameless indulgence hinted at latent royalist interests in Russia, and speaks to a continuing nationalist fervor as related to material and human losses during World War II.

During the course of the twenty-five year restoration, eighteenth century techniques in working with amber were revived, effectively resurrecting the amber guild and imperial period craftsmanship. Craftsmen gifted with the knowledge of working with mosaics, gilding, wood carving, fresco painting and bronze casting had all died before the Amber Room reconstruction began, forcing the Soviets to scramble to relearn these techniques (Nalley, 48-54). Most importantly, methods of working with amber—including “processes for coloring amber by heating it or boiling it with various organic dyes—needed to be reinvented” (Nalley, 48-54). Working from black-and-white photographs of the original, Director of the Amber Room Workshop Boris Igdalov and his team worked for years perfecting techniques that had been lost to the ages, taking pride in their decided movement back in time, working mainly with tools hearkening back to the 1700s. The only modern tool used by the craftsmen is an electric cutting machine (Varoli), once again speaking in a pride of sorts in old-school imperialist artisanship. Even the method of affixing the amber mosaic panels to the walls of the Amber Room dates back to the imperial period, as Igdalov eschewed modern glues for the original mixture of pine resin and beeswax (Nalley, 48-54).

The original Amber Room was used as a “private meditation chamber for Czarina Elizabeth, a gathering room for Catherine the Great’s intimate circle, [and] a prize cabinet for amber connoisseur Alexander II,” purposes decidedly removed from the massively impoverished general population (Nalley, 48-54). Seen by relatively few in its original form, the Amber Room’s modern reincarnation as major tourist attractions rings as both ironic and historically significant. The communist regime’s extensive restoration of this private chamber of the monarchy, and its reincarnation from private space to public viewing is ironic indeed, but still leaves fundamental questions as to the place of such lavish, beautiful, yet arguably purposeless monuments to a long-dead imperial line. One cannot imagine a truly effective Marxist-Leninist defense of such an undertaking—which cost the Russian government nine and a half million dollars, a price tag made possible through wage-controlled labor, and an amber trade under the supervision of the Soviet Union.

What were the aims of such a massive restoration in the wake of governmental breakdown? Some claim the Amber Room was an essential piece of history, and represented the massive Russian losses of World War II. Others view it as a more territorial struggle, and a part of the larger international effort to recover looted art. Either way, the ultimate decision to funnel government funds into a project that brought little benefit to industry or social welfare is significant, and raises questions of essential Russian identity and culture. The selective forgetting of the Soviet period, which effectively sought to erase the legacy of the royal family and physically dismantled reminders of an imperialist past, made a decided turn in the restoration of the Amber Room, embracing all that was antithetical to the Communist doctrine and reviving ancient Russian tradition in the process. Amber itself represented more than pure luxury and wealth to Russians, as the Slavs treasured the semi-precious stone, and thought it was formed “from the tears of the people shed over the tombs of fallen heroes” (Massie, 58). Taken in the context of the massive loss of life, livelihood, and memory experienced by the Russians during World War II, the project to restore the Amber Room reads less as a superficial bid for increased tourism and more as a type of healing: a monument to collective losses.

The room itself, while physically beautiful and mesmerizing, reminds one not only of the unrestrained luxury of the Russian royal family, but also the utter destruction wreaked by the Nazis, as photos of a devastated Amber Room are featured alongside beautifully restored, intricate amber paneling.  Immediately following a tour of the “Golden Hallway” of Catherine’s Palace, one is ushered into a series of rooms decidedly different from all the rest. Mirrors, gilding, and amber give way to plain white walls and simple wooden frames commemorating both the destruction and rebuilding of Catherine’s Palace. Housing photos of the destruction of the palace during World War II, the extensive restoration process, and the numerous ceremonies celebrating the reopening of Catherine’s Palace and the finished Amber Room, this plain hallway forces viewers to place the grand surroundings of the town of Pushkin in a peculiar setting that straddles both the past and the present. One must acknowledge the loss of the original while admiring the beguiling beauty of the replica. Dazzled by the sheer amount of amber decorating the walls of the Amber Room, it would be all too easy to forget that the original panels perished in the Allied bombing of Germany, remain locked in a still undiscovered bunker, or were looted and destroyed by the Red Army, depending on your source. Here, the purpose of the unadorned shrine to the rebuilding of one of Russia’s great architectural gems remains undeniably clear. Regardless of the fate of the original, the decision to emphasize the replica status of the new Amber Room and Catherine’s Palace as a whole builds upon the painful memory of Russian cultural losses during World War II.

On June 22, 1941, then-Leningrad was ordered by LenGorIsPolKom (Leningradskii gorodskoi ispolnitel’nyi komitet) —the city’s executive committee, acting on orders from Moscow—to pack up its greatest treasures in preparation for Nazi attack (Levy and Scott-Clark, 18). Scrambling to pack and ship countless fragile artifacts and priceless pieces of art without adequate time, manpower, or equipment, curators were forced to wrap valuable objects in the equally valuable dresses of the former czarinas (Levy and Scott-Clark, 8), and leave the Amber Room panels affixed to the walls of Catherine’s Palace. Anatoly Kuchumov—chief curator at the time—kept in close communication with Moscow regarding the evacuation of priceless Russian art, working with lists of precious works to be moved in case of emergency composed as early as 1936 (Levy and Scott-Clark, 21). However, Kuchumov could not remove the amber panels without significant damage to the amber, and instead covered the panels in cloth and muslin, hoping the Nazis might overlook the Amber Room. The fact that the party concerned itself with the successful evacuation of imperialist art in the face of the inexorable Nazi enemy speaks to the national character of art in Russia. The Great Patriotic War—as World War II is known in Russia—was framed in the context of Russian national character, and the fascist threat from the West. Imperial artworks gained an added significance during the war, as they were actively sought by a foreign enemy who dared tread upon Russian soil and steal Russian cultural artifacts. Collections of Russian icons, politically insignificant to a regime that officially espoused atheism, also became invested with a wartime nationalist character. The Red Army also gained an important distinction, memorialized in Moscow’s Great Patriotic War Museum’s Hall of Glory as nationalist heroes as well as liberators of distinctly Russian works of art within cultural history. The immediate post war period found the Communist Party with a newfound nationalistic purpose, displaying “‘no servility before the West.’ Emancipation meant recouping everything Soviet … Soviet losses and the ability to endure were brought to the force: the battle of Stalingrad, the 900 days of siege, the desecration and rebuilding of the Leningrad palaces” (Levy and Scott-Clark, 124).

In 1947, the Cominform, or Communist Information Bureau, was formed as an umbrella organization for international Communist Party affiliates. Media regarding the effort to find and relocate Russian treasures displaced during the war would be filtered through the Cominform, once again linking nationalism through art to the aims of the Communist party in distinguishing itself from the defeated Fascist enemy. Conveniently placed in the political framework of communist ideology versus fascist—and even Western—ideology, the reasserted importance of Russian imperial and religious culture was pursued through both searches for and recreations of priceless Russian antiquities with all of the political and material backing of the Communist Party in Moscow. Indeed, Kuchumov—the head curator of Catherine’s Palace at the time of its evacuation—led the search for the Amber Room in tandem with Communist authorities in both Russia and East Germany. He received orders from the Department of Reparations and Supplies, which “supervised the tracking and return of Soviet art works plundered by the Nazis,” and supplied him with the means to travel in search of the Amber Room among other Leningrad treasures (Levy and Scott-Clark, 128).

While Kuchumov and his successors—the search for the Amber Room continued off and on well into the eighties (Levy and Scott-Clark)—uncovered numerous valuable pieces of art belonging to Russia, the Amber Room in its entirety was never found. A single panel of the original remains, and was embroiled in a complicated dispute between Russian and German authorities (Hochfield). Russia was ready to bemoan the loss of countless Russian works of art, while glossing over the loss of priceless pieces of art belonging to Germany. On the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg in 2003, Russian authorities excitedly awaited the unveiling of the replica Amber Room, while simultaneously issuing the “Summary Catalog of the Cultural Valuables Stolen and Lost During the Second World War. Volume I. The Tsarskoe Selo State Museum Zone. The Catherine Palace.,” (Levy and Scott-Clark, 348) which featured a photograph of the Amber Room on its cover. The foreword of this catalog, written by Deputy Minister of Culture P.V. Khoroshilov held that “the West and especially Germany prefers to keep silent about Russia’s cultural losses. Nevertheless everybody is interested in finding out how many German … objects of decorative art … still remain in Russia” (Levy and Scott-Clark 348-9). Once again, the unique position of the Amber Room replica—as both a feat of Russian artisanship and a constant reminder of the irrevocable cultural losses of World War II—is emphasized.

Russia’s sensitivity to its own losses, however, did not extend to the West, as exemplified by the complications in retrieving the Amber Room mosaic from Germany. In 1991, art historians discovered a collection of priceless paintings belonging to the Bremen Kunsthalle locked in secret storerooms. The collection of 101 paintings were moved to the German Embassy in Moscow, where they were held safely in the ambassador’s office until Russia and Germany could come to some agreement regarding the repatriation of the works of art. Indeed, the language surrounding these works of art at first reads as rather overblown and silly. One would imagine that Russia and Germany were anxiously trying to defuse a hostage situation, rather than ship several hundred canvases. However, this very specific way of speaking about lost art reveals in a sense the cultural significance of such art, and the patriotic tone adopted in speaking about lost, stolen, or destroyed artworks. Once stolen, Old Master paintings belonging to a Bremen museum were no longer paintings, but instead extensions of German national character, reflecting not only a pride in German artisanship, but also a pride in German aesthetics. Similarly, the Amber Room became the focus of Russian aesthetics, and its rebuilding an experiment in Russian resilience as well as a nationalistic type of artistic skill.

In 1997, an amber mosaic panel was offered for sale in Bremen, and immediately seized by police once it was identified as a piece of the Amber Room. The German government now had a valuable bargaining tool with which to retrieve the Bremen masterpieces. Diplomats from Bremen and Moscow began talks, and agreed to “two separate, parallel actions,” (Hochfield) with the German Embassy granted permission to legally move the paintings back to Bremen, and Bremen authorities allowing the amber mosaic to be sent back to Russia. Breakdown in the actual workings of this plan caused a stall in relations until 2000, when the items were finally returned to each respective country. While only a microcosm of the complicated process of art repatriation, this anecdote reflects accurately the many conflicting interests and sensitivities related to precious works of art. If both countries had only been interested in retrieving these well-known pieces of art, a breakdown in relations would have been an easily surmountable obstacle. Items could have been secretly—albeit illegally—shipped across borders in order to achieve the desired ends. However, this political tangle required an acknowledgement of wrongs rather than a shipment of goods. The Russians sought acknowledgement of malicious destruction of quintessentially Russian cultural symbols and later obstruction of reconstruction, as did the Germans, weary of one-way accusations and blame.

Essentially, the Amber Room can be characterized as a symbol of losses and bittersweet remembrance. The stubborn insistence upon its replica status paired with the understated hall of destruction and restoration following it highlight the room’s unique position within the memory of a country and the world. Both a revival of old-world artisanship and a feat of modern technology and diplomacy, the room hearkens to a long lost past. A reminder of the Russian royalist past—dismantled by Russians themselves—as well as the purposeful, systematic destruction of Russia’s greatest works of art perpetrated by foreigners, the memories stirred by the Amber Room and Catherine’s Palace are complex to say the least. Even casual visitors to Catherine’s Palace leave with a sense of the horror, indignity, and violence associated with the Nazi invasions. Photos of a palace reduced to rubble and the bare, charred walls of the Amber Room inspire sympathy and indignation, and provide contrast to the almost surreal grandiosity of the room.


Works Cited