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The Emperor's Study

1. Fragment of the trunk of a pine tree which, according to legend, was cut down on the very spot where the Kunstkammer building was erected.

According to legend, once, while walking along a wild bank of the Neva River, which at that time was all covered with trees, Peter noticed an unusual pine tree. Its trunk was deformed by a semicircular branch that had grown into it like the handle of a huge barn lock. The tsar, who was fond of oddities of all kinds, could not pass by this sight. «What a monster of a tree!» exclaimed Peter in amazement. He then ordered the tree cut down, had the part of the trunk with the grown-in branch preserved, and decreed that a new building intended to accommodate the future museum be erected in its place.

2. Panoramic view of Vasilievsky Island in 1731.

The newly developed principles of regular, planned city construction were first implemented in St. Petersburg in Vasilievsky Island (at that time it was called Preobrazhensky Island). According to Peter’s vision, the center of St. Petersburg was to be constructed here, built up in such a way as to set an example for the design of the whole city, and in future for other cities as well. According to the account of a foreign visitor, the tsar «felt a great fondness for this place». In 1716 Peter issued a decree that ordered all wealthy people to settle on Vasilievsky Island only and to build their houses in brick or stone. Here, next to government projects, Peter decided to place the Academy of Sciences, the Library and the Museum. The Kunstkammer was the first monumental building of the new city to be erected on the deserted spit of Vasilievsky Island. Even now it is one of the few examples of Russian architecture of the first quarter of the 18th century to have survived in comparatively good condition. Originally the building was called the «Chambers of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Library and Kunstkammer». The overall architectural appearance of the building reflected the style of the Russian baroque.

3. Plaster copy of the death mask of Peter I, made by C. Rastrelli.

The first emperor of Russia, who had ruled the country for 35 years, died at 5:15 in the morning on January 28, 1725. He passed away in his little study (which he called «the little office») on the second floor of the Winter House. This death put an end to the tsar’s intolerable sufferings: Peter died a slow death and was in agonizing pain most of the time. Judging from the evidence of witnesses, «he was in low spirits and showed the fear of death even in small things» and until the very last minute hoped that the Lord’s mercy and his body’s strength would save him from death: indeed, he was only 53 years old. However, the death rate was very high in those days, especially among children, not many of whom lived to reach adulthood. At the age of 40 people were considered old, and even that age was not reached by many.
Peter several times confessed his sins and received the Last Rites. According to established tradition, he ordered all state prisoners pardoned and released and granted an amnesty for all official debts and penalties. He acted out of fear and hoped that the prayers of the pardoned men for the health of their benefactor would be heard by the Lord and his illness would pass, rather than out of real compassion to the unfortunate prisoners.
Peter’s death shocked the whole country. Gentleman-in-waiting Berhgoltz wrote in his diary: «That morning there wasn’t a man who did not weep, or whose eyes were not swollen with tears». Rastrelli made the death mask of Peter the Great immediately upon his death. Later he used this mask to create the visage of the tsar in his wax figure. The face was frightening in its resemblance to the living original.

4. Plaster copy of the imprint of Peter’s palm.

It was widely known that the tsar-artisan «was an eternal worker on the throne», had brilliantly mastered 14 crafts or «handiworks», as they said in those days, and was proud of his callused hands. Sofia, Electress of Hanover, who met with the young tsar on August 11, 1697, in the town of Koppenbrugge later wrote that «the tsar let them touch his hands to feel their roughness from work».

5,6. Peter’s cutting tools for his turning lathes, a wooden cup carved by him, and an iron strip that he forged himself.

Peter’s favorite occupation during his rare minutes of rest was turnery: his turning lathe was constantly in use. He especially liked to carve items from ivory or wood. At first he worked at a lathe that had been manufactured in Amsterdam, but later he acquired a French lathe as well. Several lathes were made by Andrew Nartov, the tsar’s «favorite turner», also known as «the first Russian engineer». Sergeant Nikita Kashin, who described the home life of the tsar, reminisced that Peter, who normally got up two hours before dawn, «would enter the turnery and make things of wood and bone».
Jacob Schtelin remembered an episode when the tsar, having once spent the whole day working in a forgery, received 18 pennies for the forged iron strips he had made (the prices had been set by the owner of the forgery) and said with satisfaction: «Now I shall buy myself new shoes, of which I am in great need». Indeed, Peter bought himself some shoes and later boasted «here are the shoes that I have earned by hard work».

7. One of the sets of surgical instruments that belong to Peter the Great; part of the collection of teeth extracted by Peter; anatomical models of a human eye and ear carved by Peter in ivory.

The Russian tsar greatly respected medicine, and especially surgery, and he even had a passion for the latter.
This love was often a source or distress for his courtiers, since Peter constantly offered them his services: he always carried a case with surgical instruments on him and carefully stored extracted teeth in a special sack. Having observed some surgical operations, Peter got the idea that he was also a great expert in this area and could successfully operate on people himself. Sometimes he extracted healthy teeth instead of rotten ones. In 1724 our friend Berhgoltz wrote in his diary that Peter’s niece was «frightened to death that the emperor will soon start treating her bad leg: everybody knows that he considers himself a great surgeon and is always ready to perform all sorts of operations on the sick».
The risk rate and Peter’s skill could only be evaluated by his patients, though sometimes by the end of the operation the patient was no longer able to feel anything. However, if an operation turned out unfavorably (we would say «fatally»), Peter dissected the corpse in the anatomical theater showing equal enthusiasm and skill: he was a rather good at performing autopsies and was interested in anatomy.

8. Measuring instruments of Peter the Great

Peter took interest in many spheres of knowledge, but always gave preference to the exact sciences, especially those which could be applied practically. We would call him a typical technocrat. It was fashionable in those days to collect instruments, and the tsar gladly abandoned himself to his passion. Looking at his instruments one can imagine the ardor with which he measured everything in sight! This corresponded to the unrestrained optimism of his epoch, when the human mind, for the first time in the history of mankind, realized its superiority over the forces of nature and reveled in this knowledge. English poet Alexander Pope, a contemporary of Isaac Newton, wrote the following lines demonstrating the glorification of the human mind typical of those days:

«Weigh the air, proudly aiming for more,
Having measured the earth, start measuring seas...»

9. Peter’s uniform

Peter fought old Russian customs, which he had hated since early childhood, by introducing «regularity» into all aspects of Russian life, including clothing. At the very beginning of 1700 he issued a decree ordering everyone to «wear Hungarian dresses or caftans: the overgarments should be knee long, the tunics a bit shorter, but cut in the some fashion...» The beard-shaving decree must also have been passed at the same time. Ankle-long caftans, old-fashioned clothes and beards were becoming a thing of the past. A contemporary engraving depicts a man on his knees on the ground, and a soldier cutting the folds of the forbidden caftan with sheep-shears.
Peter himself was always rushing somewhere, with his famous walking stick in hand, in an old caftan, worn shoes and stockings mended by his royal spouse, Catherine, who jokingly called herself «an old mending woman». The tsar’s simple appearance and democratic manner of conversing with people from different classes and estates amazed all those who were close to him. One of his contemporaries wrote: «His majesty usually wears such simple dress, that if one did not know him, one would never believe that he is a great sovereign».

10. Skeleton of Bourgeois

«The huge skeleton that was once a Frenchman...» This line is taken from a poem by Johann Tremer of Danzig, called «Farewell to St. Petersburg». It refers to the skeleton of Bourgeois, which is still on display in the Kunstkammer. In those days collecting dwarfs and giants was fashionable in Europe. According to the dictates of fashion, the former were kept as motley fools for entertainment, while the latter were in great demand as servants or bodyguards. Following this fashion, Peter in 1717 hired and brought from abroad a giant named Bourgeois, whom he had seen at a fair in the city of Calais in France. Bourgeois was of a gigantic height; an amazing 2 meters 27 centimeters. Peter greatly enjoyed placing Bourgeois at the footboard of his carriage. Seven years later Bourgeois died. After his death the corpse was dissected, the bones boiled down and fixed to form a skeleton. However, the scull was later replaced since the original one had been destroyed in the fire of 1747.