Some reflections on Buddhist art collecting and collectors in Russia in the 18th – early 20th C. by A.I. Andreyev

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I would like to begin by recalling a monumental exhibition of Buddhist sacred art of Tibet “Wisdom and Compassion” which was organized in 1991 by the Asian Art Museum of San-Francisco in association with Tibet House, New York. I was fortunate to see this exhibition the following year in London where it was hosted by the Royal Academy of Arts. An important part of the exhibits displayed, making altogether over 170 of the finest examples of tangka paintings, sculpture, temple banners and tapestries, was a loan from the State Hermitage in St Petersburg, the possessor of the two largest Buddhist private collections, those of Esper Ukhtomsky and Petr Kozlov.

Both names are familiar to students of Buddhist art. Prince Esper Esperovich Ukhtomsky (1861-1821)[1] was a journalist and poet, newspaper publisher and diplomat, and, on top of that, a successful entrepreneur, president of the Russo-Chinese Bank set up in 1896. But he was also a Buddhist scholar and a passionate lover of Buddhist art who amassed a huge collection of Tibetan and Chinese bronzes and tangka paintings numbering more than 2,000 pieces.

Ukhtomsky became enthralled by Buddhism as a university student and he studied it most thoroughly in his later years. In 1886 – 1890 Ukhtomsky traveled extensively in the East. He visited all the major Buddhist datsans (monasteries) in Transbaikalia, traversed the territory of neighboring Mongolia from Kiahta up to the Great Wall, and landed finally in Peking where he had a chance to survey the sacred relics of the local Lamaist temples. He often interviewed monks and consulted monastic archives which eventually made him one of the biggest experts on the Buddhist doctrine and iconography in Russia as well as an ardent proponent of the Russo-Tibeto-Mongolian rapprochement. His knowledge of Buddhism, its history and especially art, was as good as that of a professional Orientalist.

Ukhtomsky’s collection served as the basis for Albert Grünwedel’s groundbreaking “Mythologie du Buddhism en Tibet et Mongolie basée sur la collection lamaïque du Prince Ukhtomsky” (Leipzig, 1900). The collection was initially displayed at the Alexander III Museum (now the State Russian Museum) and earned him a gold medal when it was shown in the Siberian pavilion of the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris.

What makes this collection so valuable is its size and integrity. From the very start Ukhtomsky was gathering Buddhist art objects systematically, trying to embrace the entire Buddhist pantheon[2]. One won’t find in his collection anything that fell into his hands incidentally, by mere chance, as often happens with amateur collectors. Ukhtomsky was a true connoisseur of Lamaist / Buddhist art and a “zelous man” (revnitel’), according to his biographer Gennady Leonov. He was one of the first among Russian intellectuals who “understood that Lamaist deities are not just exotic “idols” of an alien creed, not just pretty knick-knacks, but cultural relics of the Tibetans, Mongols and Buryats which can be as good for the study of their culture as written texts”. Ukhtomsky knew what items he should take into his collection – he picked up things carefully so as to give the fullest representation, on the one hand, of the Lamaist pantheon, and, on the other hand, of various artistic schools of Tibetan art, in Tibet proper as well as outside the country. “This approach, argues Leonov, allowed him to trace the evolution of one and the same personage and to select groups of stylistically related objects”[3].

Petr Kuzmich Kozlov (1863-1935) was one of Russia’s pioneer explorers of Central Asia, who personally led three major expeditions to these regions, in 1899-1901, 1907-1909 and 1923-1926, under the auspices of the Russian Geographical Society. He brought from his travels in Mongolia, China and Eastern Tibet several ethnographic collections which included inter alia numerous Lamaist iconographic and ritual objects. These collections belonging now to the Chinese holdings of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy (former Kunstkammer) were minutely discussed in an article by the Russian ethnographer Rudolf F. Its[4]. As for Kozlov’s magnificent collection of Khara-Khoto Buddhist antiques, it is now in the possession of the State Hermitage[5].

The Hermitage also owns Kozlov’s private collection of miscellaneous Lamaist artefacts to which I have referred at the beginning of my talk. This collection, mainly of Tibeto-Chinese and Mongolian origin, numbers about 300 pieces[6]. These include the bronze and gilt statuettes (burhans) of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and various Buddhist deities (dokshits, dakinis etc.), some stamped clay images (tsa-tsa), as well as ritual paraphernalia – prayer-wheels (hurde), cone-shaped suburgas, conches, bells, vajras, gabalas, purbas (stakes or daggers), amulet-holders (gau) and wooden rosaries.

Unlike Ukhtomsky, Kozlov was not a keen expert in Lamaist iconography. His collection is by far less complete and systematic than Ukhtomsky’s; still it is fairly good, having incorporated some fine samples of traditional Lamaist art from the 14th to 19th centuries. These items not only illustrate the contemporaneous state of the faith of the Mongols and Tibetans, its doctrinal and practical aspects, personally witnessed by the traveler, but also shed light on the religion’s historical development and the evolution of iconographic forms. The collection was started, so it seems, from some single burkhans (statuettes) Kozlov occasionally received as gifts from Mongolian lamas and noble men during his first travels in Asia under N.M. Przevalsky and M.V. Pevtsov. One of these was Choibzen-Khutuktu, or Lovsen Tubten Shabzhub-nima, abbot of a small monastery (Choibzen-hid) near Xinin in the Kansu province. This is, for example, what Kozlov wrote after visiting this monastery in late 1908: “In return for the gifts from the Russian Geographical Society the Khutuktu presented me with a bronze image of Manjushri, a crown-wearing Buddha on the diamond throne, a Tibetan book and an excellent “hurde”. By the way, he asked me to pass to the Russian Academy a leaf from the Bod tree in India under which, according to a legend, Gautama had spent time in meditation. On this leaf one can clearly see the golden contours of the Seated Buddha”[7].

With time Kozlov turned into an avid collector of Central Asian Orientalia. Apart from Buddhist statuettes (burhans), he collected Tibetan and Chinese coins, as well as figurines made of jade, the Chinese “magic stone”. The people who visited his apartment on Smolny Prospekt in Petersburg recalled that it looked like an antique shop crammed with all sorts of exotic Oriental items. The most treasured object in Kozlov’s collection was another burhan of the “Buddha on the diamond throne” of gilt bronze, placed on a high wooden stanchion in his study room, a gift he received from the 13th Dalai-lama in Urga in 1905.

The history of Buddhist art collecting in Russia goes back to the 18th C. when Buddhism gained a footing in the country. This occurred after the annexation of the territories of Transbaikalia and the Lower Volga steppes inhabited by two Buddhist peoples, the Buryats and the Kalmyks, to the domain of the tsars. This religion, the “Lamaist creed” (lamaiskaia vera), as it was called then, was little known or cared of by Russians at first; an average European Russian perceived it as something exotic and primitive, a form of idolatry, as compared to Orthodox Christianity. It is no surprise then that the images (burhans) of Buddhist deities and saints, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhats etc., were commonly referred to as “idols” (idoly). They were displayed for the first time amidst other Eastern curios in the first Russian museum, Kunstkammer (Chamber of Curiosities), set up by Peter the Great in his new capital, St Petersburg. These seemingly bizarre objects were a part of various ethnographic collections brought by travelers in Russia’s Buddhist borderlands – Daniil Messerschmidt (1685-1735), Gerard Miller (1705-1783), Peter Pallas (1741-1811) and many more. These travelers were mainly renowned German scholars who joined the newly established Russian Academy of Sciences and eventually became the first explorers of Russia’s vast territories. Sponsored by the Academy, they led several expeditions to various parts of Russia, including Siberia and the Lower Volga area, the former dominion of the powerful Kalmyk Khans, with a view to collecting information about the empire’s indigenous population (inorodsy), their lifestyles, customs and religious cults. G. Miller, for example, brought a collection of Buryat painted icons (tangkas) from Transbaikalia, and P. Pallas that of burkhans he incidentally bought from a Cossack ataman on the Yaik (Ural) river.[8]

This early interest in Buddhism, displayed by a tiny group of Russian academics, markedly increased in the 19th century, having embraced some larger segments of Russian educated public. This was primarily due to scholarly publications along the lines of the incipient Mongolian and Tibetan studies (works on Buddhism by Jacob Schmidt, F.F. Shifner, V.P. Vasiliev and A.M. Pozdneev to name a few) but also, especially in the latter half of the century, because of the Anglo-Russian geopolitical rivalry in Asia, the Great Game. The latter reached its culmination in the 1900s and was largely focused on “the Land of the lamas”, Tibet. Russia’s epoch-making exploration of Central Asia started by Nicholas Przhevalsky in 1870s and continued after his death in 1888 by a host of his enthusiastic followers, such as M.V. Pevtsov, N.G. Potanin and P.K. Kozlov, no doubt reinforced this interest by producing an abundant travelogue literature concentrating on the Lamaist Mongolia and Tibet. The books written by these, as well as Western, travelers were very popular with the Russian reading public of those days, especially the works of Przhevalsky and Sven Hedin.

It is in this context that one should regard the hobby of collecting Buddhist art objects in Russia at the end of the 19th and especially in the early 20th C. The collectors themselves were for the most part individuals who either traveled much or resided for a lengthy period of time as traders, government officials and diplomats in Siberia (Transbaikalia), Kalmykia and other Buddhist lands, such as Mongolia, China and Siam (Thailand). These people showed keen interest in Buddhism, its history and artwork, which eventually encouraged them to collect Buddhist artefacts.

One of the 19th century’s earliest collectors was a Russian Decembrist (a participant of the December 1825 republican uprising in St Petersburg) Nikolai Aleksandrovich Bestuzhev (1791-1855). He was exiled to East Siberia in 1839 and lived until his death in Selenginsk. Living side by side with Buryats Bestuzhev quite naturally got interested in their lifestyle and religion and consequently began to collect the Buryat burhans, most of which were of Mongolian and Tibetan manufacture.

Bestuzhev’s contemporary Elena Pavlovna Fadeeva, born princess Dolgorukova (1789-1860) was also a passionate Buddhist art collector. Fadeeva was known as one of the most learned women of her day, who corresponded actively with some eminent European and Russian scholars such as Roderic Murchison (President of the Royal Geographical Society and member of the St Petersburg Academy), Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Behr. This lady incidentally was the grandmother of Elena Gan, later to become the famous HPB, Helen Blavatsky.

Elena Fadeeva’s interest in Buddhism seems to have originated during the period when she lived in Astrakhan together with her husband Andrei Mikhailovich Fadeev, who in 1835-1841 served as Chief administrator (popechitel) of the uluses of the Kalmyk steppes. After the couple moved to Saratov, Fadeeva continued to replenish her collection with new items. Thus, according to I. Borisenko, her husband once received a parcel from Astrakhan which contained a great variety of miniature burkhans of excellent manufacture. These were brought from Tibet by some Kalmyk pilgrims and were specially intended for Fadeev and his wife’s collection[9]. After Elena Fadeeva’s death this collection was inherited by her daughter Nadezhda.

Russian travelers in Central Asia, mainly in Mongolia and China, were also known as Buddhist art collectors, such as archeologist and ethnographer Dmitry Aleksandrovich Klements (1848-1914) and Grigorii Nikolaevich Potanin (1835-1920), one of the biggest names among Russia’s explorers of the Asian Heartland. D. Klemens was the man who laid the foundations of the Ethnographic Museum in St Petersburg (now the Russian Ethnographic Museum or REM for short) in 1902 and he donated lavishly many of his acquisitions to the latter, especially those illustrating the traditional way of life of ethnic minorities in Siberia and their Mongol neighbors. Thus in 1906 he sent to the museum 32 ethnographic items dealing with the Mongolian culture, including a full dress of a lama.

Grigorii Potanin, another brilliant ethnographer, was collecting Buddhist objects, like Klements, mainly for scientific reasons as illustrations to his works on East and West cultural links. At the same time he regularly purchased things for the Museum of regional studies in Irkutsk (Irkurskii kraevedcheskii muzei) which emerged in the late 19th century under the auspices of the local branch of the Russian geographical society (SORGO – Sibirskoe otdelenie Russkogo geograficheskogo obsthchestva)[10]. It was Potanin who organized, in December 1888, in the premises of the Irkutsk museum a grandiose Buddhist exhibition of objects of the “exterior surroundings of the life of lamas”, numbering 560 pieces[11]. This exhibition was an absolutely unparalleled event not only for Siberia, but for the whole of Russia of those days. Interestingly, Dmitry Pershin in his review of the exhibit in “Vostochnoe obozrenie” underscored that “a legion of Western scholars” were currently studying Buddhism, whose adepts in Asia were half as many again as the number of followers of other world religions and three times as many as the number of Christians. The reviewer also noted that this Asian religion had become a “topical issue” (modnii vopros) in European society[12].

The Buddhist items exhibited at the Irkutsk museum were provided by a host of Buddhist collectors from Siberia, one of whom was a Buryat Nikolai (Naidan) Gomboev (1898-1905), the younger brother of the Bandida Khambo-lama Dempil Gomboev and a relative of the Decembrist Nikolai Bestuzhev. (Gomboev was married to Bestuzhev’s daughter Yekaterina Dmitrievna Startseva, who was adopted and raised after her father’s premature death by Dmitry Startsev, a thriving merchant from Tientsin in North-East China and incidentally another Buddhist collector[13]). This Nikolai Gomboev was quite a remarkable person, having served for over 30 years as director of the Russian post office in Peking attached to the Imperial Russian Legation in China. Gomboev while living in Peking amassed a very good Buddhist collection. Grigoryi Potanin had a chance to examine it, when he came to Peking in 1893, and he briefly described it in a special article published in the Transactions of the East-Siberian branch of the Russian Geographical Society[14].

In his article Potanin claims that Gomboev’s collection was the largest of the three best collections he saw in Peking, the other two belonging to a certain Grot and to Baron Sternburg, the secretary of the German Embassy. It consisted “most exclusively of the items from Lamaist temples” as Gomboev “bought little from the Chinese Buddhist monasteries”.

According to E.V. Darevskaia, both Gomboev and Startsev lost their collections in 1900, at the time of the violent Boxer Rising in China. Some single items of these however may still be found in the Hermitage and the Irkutsk Museum.

Some Russian diplomats, who, like Gomboev, remained for many years in Mongolia and China, are also known as Buddhist art collectors. One of them was Nikolai Feodorovich Petrovsky (1837-1908), the Russian consul general in Kashgar (from 1882-1902), who was collecting antiques from the vicinity of Khotan, one of the foremost Buddhist oases in Chinese Turkestan[15]. The bulk of his huge collection numbering about 3000 pieces consisted of terracotta objects found in Yotkan (Borazan). Petrovsky obtained these, mainly through agents, from local inhabitants. Some of his acquisitions (terracottas, bronzes, manuscripts etc.) he dispatched to Petersburg to another collector Baron Viktor Romanovich Rosen (1849-1908), an outstanding Orientalist specializing in Islamic culture. Petrovsky’s most valuable collection presently makes part of the Oriental holdings of the Hermitage. Yakov Parfenievich Shishmariov (1833-1915) was in charge of the Russian consulate in Urga (now Ulan-Bator), the capital of Mongolia, for half a century (in 1865 – 1911). He showed some genuine interest in the traditional culture of Mongols, having published several essays on the then little known “land of Chinggis Khan” in various Russian magazines and newspapers[16]. Shishmarev’s unique collection of the Tsam deities (Tsam is a Lamaist mystery performance), numbering 76 wooden statuettes, belongs to the Ethnographic Museum. After his death, his friend Petr Kozlov donated to the Kutskammer Shishmariov’s great relic – the amulet holder (gau), presented to the Russian diplomat by the 8th Bogdo-gegen.

Another valuable Buddhist collection is that of Georgyi Antonovich Planson (1859 – after 1938), Russian ambassador in Siam (now Thailand), Bangkok, in 1910-1914. This collection includes about 300 Thai bronzes[17]. It was Planson who in 1914 presented the bronze statue of the Standing Shakyamuni Buddha (“Buddha, Calming the Ocean”) to the newly-built Buddhist temple in St Petersburg.

Curiously enough, a Russian top military commander general A.V. Vereshchagin, brother of the well-known painter of battle pieces V.V. Vereshchagin, was also a collector of Buddhist artefacts. He came to China in 1900 to take part in the suppression of the Boxer rising and remained there for two years[18]. It was during this time that he built up his Buddhist collection which consisted of items he obtained from the Chinese as well as from Russian soldiers.

The beginning of the 20th C., known as the “Silver Age” or cultural renaissance in Russia, was a time that stirred up a great passion for the Orient and Orientalia among Russian intelligentsia. Buddhism has become one of their intellectual attractions, especially in St Petersburg, where a group of Buddhist believers emerged from amidst ethnic Russians and where a Buddhist temple was constructed shortly before World War I. Among those who attended services therein was Agathon Karlovich Faberge (son of the world-renowned jeweler Carl Faberge) who, incidentally, was a collector of Buddhist art objects. Agathon is known to have traveled in Siam in connection with his family business (i.e. jewelry) and that was how he, like Planson, got fascinated with Buddhism and began to collect Buddhist statuettes. After the Bolshevik revolution, Agathon Faberge was arrested by the Cheka and while he was in jail, in 1919-1920, his various collections, including the Buddhist one, consisting of 136 pieces, were all confiscated and taken to the Chief Museum Fund (Glavmuzei Fond) based at the Winter Palace (the Hermitage)[19]. Yet this collection is no longer located there and one can only speculate about its fate and present whereabouts.

The Buddhist collections mentioned in this paper belong to the three largest museums in St Petersburg – the State Hermitage, the Russian Ethnographic Museum and the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkammer). However there are many more collections of Buddhist art objects to be found in Petersburg, Moscow and other Russian cities such as Irkutsk, Kiahta and Elista. Each of them has a fascinating story to tell about Asian Buddhist art and traditions as well as about the tireless efforts of their owners, the men who spent years in searching for, putting together and preserving their unique acquisitions.


<references / >
  1. On him see: Г.А. Леонов. Э.Э. Ухтомский. К истории ламаистского собрания Государственного Эрмитажа // Буддизм и литературно-художественное творчество народов Центральной Азии. Новосибирск, «Наука», 1985. С. 101-115. G. Leonov briefly describes Ukhtomsky’s collection in the exhibition catalogue: M.M. Rhie, R.A.F. Thurman, Wisom and Compassion: The sacred Art of Tibet, New York, 1991, p. 85. See also a chapter on Ukhtomsky in: D. Schimmelpenninck van der Oye. Toward the Rising Sun: Russian Ideologies of Empire and the Path to War with Japan. Northern Illinois University Press, 2002, pp. 42-60.
  2. He failed to achieve his purpose though. The entire Lamaist pantheon would include no less than 5000 images. Apart from the Hermitage, separate Buddhist items belonging to Ukhtomsky can be found in the Russian Ethnographic museum (REM), the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (MAE) and probably elsewhere.
  3. G. Leonov. Ibid. P. 109-110.
  4. Р.Ф. Итс. Китайские коллекции Петра Кузьмича Козлова в собраниях МАЭ // Сборник МАЭ. Т. XX. М.-Л., 1961. С. 5- 28.
  5. See: К.Ф. Самосюк. Буддийская живопись из Хара-Хото XII – XIV веков: между Китаем и Тибетом. Коллекция П.К. Козлова. СПб., 2006.
  6. Kozlov’s private collection was presented to the Hermitage by Elizabeth Kozlova (Kozlov’s wife) in three batches, in 1935, 1939 and 1971.
  7. П.К. Козлов. Монголия и Амдо и мёртвый город Хара-Хото. Москва: ОГИЗ, 1948. С. 226.
  8. On these early collections see: Д.В. Иванов. Буддийские коллекции Кунсткамеры XVIII в. // Сборник МАЭ. 2009; он же. Буддийские культовые предметы из собрания Г.Ф. Миллера и Й. Иерига в коллекциях МАЭ РАН // Этнографическое обозрение. М., 2009 (4). С. 172-180.
  9. И. Борисенко. Первый попечитель калмыков // Известия Калмыкии, № 112. 12 ноября 1992.
  10. See: Е.П. Стужина. Восточные коллекции Иркутского и Кяхтинского краеведческих музеев // Советская этнография. 1971 (4). С. 121-126.
  11. See the catalogue of the exhibition: И. Подгорбунский, Г. Потанин. Каталог выставки предметов внешней обстановки жизни лам. Иркутск, 1888.
  12. Д. П-н. Выставка предметов буддийского культа в Иркутске. // Восточное Обозрение. 1889, # 1. С. 9-10.
  13. On him see: Е.М. Даревская. Несколько дополнений и уточнений о дочери Н.А. Бестужева и её семье. // Сибирь. 1983 (4). С. 115-127.
  14. Г.Н. Потанин. Коллекция буддийских храмовых предметов в Пекине // Известия ВСО РГО. Т. XXIV (1). С. 43-50.
  15. On Petrovsky’s collection see: Н.В. Дьяконова, С.С. Сорокина. Хотанские древности. М., 1960; Julia Elikhina. Some Buddhist finds from Khotan: Materials in the Collections of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, in: The Silk Road, Summer 2008, Vol. 6 (1), pp. 29-36.
  16. On Shishmariov see: Ю.В. Кузьмин. Я.П. Шишмарёв – генеральный консул России в Монголии, 1861 – 1911 гг. // The IAMS News Information on Mongol Studies. Bulletin. Ulaanbaatar, 1997, # 2(20), 1998, # 1(21); А.И. Андреев. Я.П. Шишмарёв – дипломат, путешественник, исследователь Монголии // Mongolica VI (сост. И.В. Кульганек). СПб., 2003. С. 118-123. The latter article includes the list of Shishmariov’s publications on Mongolia.
  17. See: Сиамское искусство XIV – XIX в. в Эрмитаже. СПб., 1997; О.П. Дешпанде, Б.Н. Мельниченко. История создания коллекций буддийской скульптуры Таиланда из собрания Государственного Эрмитажа // Историография и источниковедение истории стран Азии и Африки. 1995. Т. XV. С. 84-98.
  18. A.V. Vereshchagin is also known as the author of war memoirs and short stories, see: А.В. Верещагин. По Маньчжурии. Воспоминания и рассказы. 1901-1902; Он же. В Китае. Воспоминания и рассказы. 1901-1902.СПб., 1903.
  19. See: В.А. Толмацкий, В.В. Скурлов, А.Н. Иванов. Антикварно-художественный рынок Петербурга. СПб., 2008. С. 293.