‘The Russian Imperial Award System 1894-1917’ by Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm

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One of the perks of my job over the past 25 years, is that I receive a copy of each new book published on the Romanovs and Imperial Russia. This is just one reason why my personal library is as large as it is – over 2,000 volumes.

One of the gems of my collection is The Russian Imperial Award System 1894-1917 by Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm, published by the Finnish Antiquarian Society in Helsinki (2005)

It is a massive heavy book: it measures 8-1/2” x 11″ x 1-1/2” in diameter, weighs over 2 kg., 566 pages, more than 160 colour and black & white photos, with extensive notes and bibliography. Text is in ENGLISH!

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Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm

Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm, Ph.D., is the great-granddaughter of the St. Petersburg goldsmith Alexander Tillander, a leading supplier to the Imperial Russian Court of Nicholas II. She has been researching the oeuvre of Russian jewellers for many years. Her doctoral dissertation was on the labrinthe and intriguing award system of Imperial Russia. Her work takes her around the world: lecturing, consulting for art exhibitions and writing in exhibition catalogues and for art publications. She has published several books on her speciality, the art of the jewellers of Imperial St. Petersburg.

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Arja-Leena Paavola offers the following review of this book in the Spring 2006 issue of Universitas Helsingiensis the quarterly of the University of Helsinki:

The practice of rewarding citizens for good work and loyalty proved an efficient way of strengthening the bonds between subject and monarch. In many respects the system was defined by the service hierarchy created by Peter the Great known as the Table of Ranks. Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm, Ph.D., who defended her doctoral dissertation in the field of art history in October, examined the Russian imperial award system during the reign of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II.

“A decree of 1898 defined twelve award categories, over half of which were decorations, titles, expression of the emperor’s favour, grants of money, and gifts made of precious materials. For over one hundred years, the system was also in use in the Grand Duchy of Finland, whose subjects were entitled to the same honours as any other individual in the service of the empire,” says Tillander-Godenhielm.

Subsequent generations have often created an image of a system of unsurpassed luxury and opulence that catered exclusively to the elite of the country. In reality, the value of an award could not exceed an individual’s yearly salary. In addition, there were many awards designed specifically for the lower echelons, including factory workers. Each of the twelve categories had an internal hierarchy. A young man who started his career at the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder, through diligent service, could earn for himself the highest honours the empire had to offer.

Tillander-Godenhielm points out that the gift items bestowed were not merely symbolic tokens but were in fact a subtle means of remuneration. These gifts were luxurious and often quite elaborate. While they did speak of one’s importance and position within Russia’s service hierarchy – which consisted of fourteen classes, or ranks – they also were a means of augmenting an individual’s wages, which were frequently low. A general, for example, could not always support the lifestyle his position demanded on his official salary. If this was the case, he had the option of returning his gift to the Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty for its full value in cash. In fact, over sixty percent of gifts presented to ranks five and lower were sold back in this way. The widows or children of the original recipients could also return them; thus, they served as a kind of pension or life insurance.

“A fine silver or gold pocket watch was a typical gift. When travelling by sea to Finland, the Russian emperors would present watches to the pilot boat captains, and when travelling by train, every station manager along the way would receive one, as would the policemen responsible for the safety of the imperial family.”

Tillander-Godenhielm is herself a fourth generation member of a goldsmith family with Russian connections. Several Finnish goldsmiths were employed as suppliers by the Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty, and Tillander-Godenhielm’s grandfather was one of them. While working in the family business, she became interested in Russian gold and silver objects, many of which have remained in Finland, some still in the possession of the original recipient’s family.

Sometimes orders for multiples of the same gift item were placed. “Archival research has revealed account books showing requests for ten silver cigarette cases decorated with a double-headed eagle of a specific design, or twelve rings set with specific gemstones. This type of gift was destined for lower-ranking servitors. The more valuable gifts intended for higher ranking officials were all unique in design.”

Coveted investments

The Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty had inspectors to ensure that the gold and silver objects it received were of the highest quality. Many of these items were bestowed upon foreign dignitaries and thus served as a means of showcasing the skill of Russian craftsmen. During state visits, these valuable gifts were written about in papers and put on public display.

These award items – especially those with a known provenance – have increased steadily in value since the Revolution and nowadays can fetch astronomical sums. For example, a table portrait of Nicholas II presented to the French prime minister René Viviani in 1914 sold at Sotheby’s last year for £350,000. As a result, however, they have become the object of numerous forgeries.

A substantial number of the surviving objects made for the Russian imperial award system are today in museums or in the private collections of various European monarchs and American millionaires. In the 1930s, Stalin had many of these items sold in the West in order to obtain much needed foreign currency.

Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm has had the privilege of personally handling many of the items she discusses in her dissertation. “You cannot really study objects such as these without examining them up close.

A known provenance of course greatly in-creases the interest of an object. Those pieces really make my heart skip a beat. Fortunately, Russian archives have now been opened up to researchers and it has become possible to trace the origins of many of these items.”

The real story uncovered

In the 1930s, all kinds of stories were concocted in order to increase the value of these objects and boost sales. “The empress gave her obstetrician, Professor Ott, a monogrammed snuffbox for every child he helped deliver. Many of these have been sold in the United States as gifts from the emperor to the empress. “But who would seriously believe that a man would give a snuffbox to his wife for giving birth to their baby?” Tillander-Godenhielm chuckles. “I think true stories about the real officials and servitors of the time are much more interesting.”

It is not, after all, that long ago. While in St Petersburg, Tillander-Godenhielm discovered that a hospital built by Dr. Ott was still in operation. “When visiting the hospital, I was asked if I would like to meet the great-granddaughter of the good doctor, who as chance would have it works as an obstetrician there. I met this young woman who told me a great deal about her great-grandfather. The family no longer possessed any of the awards he had been given, so she was delighted when I showed her pictures of two of the thirteen snuffboxes Dr. Ott had received for his services.”

Tillander-Godenhielm’s study has raised interest all over the world, and for once, a dissertation has proved to be a “best seller”, but only 1,200 copies of her book were published.

“A great deal has been written about the Russian nobility and Russian orders and decorations in isolation. My study examines these subjects within the context of the larger system of which they were but one part.”

© Arja-Leena Paavola & Paul Gilbert. 24 August 2019

 

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