The most ostentatious and infamous building project was the Pyramid of Giza in Egypt built as a tomb for the Pharaoh Khufu. New information about the pyramids reveals thousands of crafts people as well as their families were housed as Egyptians were put to work and paid for the 20-year duration. European emperors, however, gave the pharaohs a run for their money in terms of ostentatious shows of wealth. One of the most notorious, or forward thinking depending on one’s point of view, was Catherine the Great of Russia. Among her many architectural projects including the City of St. Petersburg, was the Prussian built Amber Room as a symbol of artistic achievement—or was it a pretentious affectation of wealth and Russian preeminence by preserving great art?
Catherine the Great
Yekaterina Alexeyevna or Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, was the most renowned and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning for 34 years from 1762 until her death in 1796. Accounts of her reign are replete with rumor, gossip and stories—many true, but many false—of her life as wife of Peter the Great and later her solitary rule that included a collection of lovers to whom she was loyal and generous—even when they parted.
But for the purposes of this discussion, the focus is on her achievements as Empress of Russia and a woman of the Enlightenment. She delighted in correspondence with the French philosopher Voltaire. She was a patron of the arts; the world famous Hermitage Museum opened during her reign, which initially contained her personal art collection.
Successful as well as a military ruler, her forces conquered much of the territory we know as Russia today. Her singular failure was keeping the system of serfdom, which would ultimately end in a revolt.
Under her influence, Russian aristocracy adopted western European philosophies and culture emerging as a global power, which Jay Winik chronicled in “The Great Upheaval.” World-altering 18th century events were occurring simultaneously in America, France and especially in Catherine the Great’s Russia, Winik writes. Poland was an absolute monarch first and less of an enlightened state. Catherine defined the era under the influence of philosophers like Montesquieu and Voltaire who called her reign “benevolent despotism.” When revolution in Poland threatened, she suppressed it mercilessly. As a result Poland was obliterated by its neighbors, as Russia, Austria and Prussia apportioned the country among themselves.
Russia’s greatest female ruler won territory, but not the heart of mother Russia. She was a patron of science, the arts and trade, all of which flourished. New buildings not only contained great art, but also were establishments for education and research. The Russian Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Fine Arts and the first Public Library (now the Russian National Library) were constructed and the large Gostiny Dvor trading complex was opened on Nevsky Prospekt. All of her accomplishments were geared to present Russian culture, governance and cities as modern and enlightened.
Even though Catherine enjoyed a luxurious, and by some definitions, a decadent court life, she is credited with bringing Russia out of the shadows of other European countries as a major power and is considered one of Europe’s most progressive, enlightened monarchs.
The Empress’ power and reach seemed to be limitless, but like so many dictators, she had a fatal flaw. Catherine either underestimated or turned a blind eye to what was happening to Russian citizens. At the end of the 16th century, serfs or indebted peasants were prohibited from leaving their land, and set the country on a path to eventual revolution. Rich landowners were given a free reign to treat their workers as they wished, and Catherine ignored the needs of citizens, as she focused or foreign policy and rebuilding select Russian infrastructure. Peasants had little choice but to carry on in their employ, or leave and suffer a potentially worse fate.
The long history of the amber room
For centuries, the Amber Room was a symbol of Tsarist prestige and even survived the Bolshevik revolution. Nazis looted the Russian treasure during World War II called “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” In the final months of the WWII, the amber panels, which had been packed away in crates, disappeared. A replica was completed in 2003, but the contents of the original have been lost for decades until recent murmurs of a new discovery.
Construction of the Amber Room first took place around 1701 in Prussia by King Fredrick William I to be given to Tsar Peter the Great long before Catherine—then called Sofia—would be married off to Peter the Great in 1745 at the age of 14. The room was designed by sculptor Andreas Schlüter and Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram. Schlüter and Wolfram worked on the room until 1707, when work was continued by amber masters Gottfried Turau and Ernst Schacht from Danzig. The amber cabinet was given to the Russian Tsar 1716. In Russia, the room was later expanded and after several renovations, it covered more than 590 sq ft and contained over 6 tons of amber for the tsar’s young wife.
What can we learn from the Amber Room and the WPA?
Unlike Catherine the Greats greatest mistake, Franklin D. Roosevelt surveyed the United States through the prism of the country’s worker—or the ravages of the Great Depression as millions of unemployed workers needed executive action to escape poverty.
To his credit Roosevelt saw degradation and turned it into opportunity to focus on the best Americans could offer in addition to building dams, bridges and roads. Music, building theaters, theater actors, playwrights, writers, and artists were included in the WPA leaving a legacy of incomparable treasures created by the people of the era.
The Amber Room, like all international monuments and architectural sites, are coveted as the remains of past civilizations--even as excessive as the room of amber appears. Indeed, the Amber Room is a conspicuous show of wealth, but it is also a reminder of what happens when leaders focus on serving themselves through the acquisition and maintenance of symbols, rather than the tribulations of people. Imperial Russia in all its greatness fell because it failed to listen to its people.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”
The United States is at a similar intersection in time. Will leaders recognize the road “less traveled” by confronting income inequality and a disappearing Middle Class and follow the lead of Roosevelt? Or choose focusing on preeminence internationally as the country weakens internally from the “undergrowth”?
Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.” 1920
is retired and lives in Clearlake, California. She has three grown
children and one grandson and a Bachelor’s degree in Health Services
Administration from St. Mary’s College in Moraga California. On the
home front Dava enjoys time with her family, reading, gardening, cooking