MOSCOW, September 5, 2009 -- The only western nation ever to incorporate a major rug producing region of the east within its borders is Russia.
In fact, Russia incorporated two: the Caucasus and Central Asia. And the experience had not only a dramatic effect on the international rug market and Russian culture but a nearly fatal effect on the carpet producing cultures themselves.
The first region to be incorporated was the Caucasus.
The photo at the top of the page is a detail from an antique Shirvan carpet from the Caucasus. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
In the 1700s, the Russian Empire began moving into the Caucasus and by 1830, after wars with Turkey and Iran, it was in control of ‘Transcaucasia’ -- the area on the other side of the Caucasus mountain chain from Russia (today's Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia).
The conquest of the North Caucasus -- directly bordering Russia proper and including Chechnya and Daghestan -- took considerably longer. It involved continual battles and suppressions known in Russia as the Caucasian Wars, which lasted from 1817 to 1864. Unlike in Transcaucasia, it also involved the mass expulsion of peoples – hundreds of thousands of Circassians – to Turkey to clear the way for Russian settlement.
By a strange coincidence of history, Russia’s move into this ancient and mountainous region, with its myriad cultures, happened at a time when Romanticism was at its height in Europe. So, despite the grim realities of subjugating fiercely independent peoples, the experience set off a wave of “Orientalist” Romanticism in Russia not unlike that epitomized by Byron in Britain.
What did Russian “Orientalism” look like?
A good summary is provided by Russian researcher Oleg Semenov in an article entitled “Oriental Carpets and Russian Interiors in the 19th Century” ('Oriental Carpet & Textile Studies,' Part 1, 1987).
He notes that “to Russians, the Caucasus was a mysterious country, the symbol of a free and natural life, dear to the young and romantic. One recalls the heroes of Pushkin, Lermontov, or even of Tolstoy’s 'Cossacks.'”
The new fascination with the east could be seen in everything from literature to interior decorating. The Caucasus offered a new, larger-than-life stage for young Russians and they seized the opportunity to break with the restrained fashion of their parents – Classicism – and idealize spontaneity, instead.
At home, the French Classicist style of spacious interiors with highly polished floors, symmetrically arranged furniture, and European Savonnerie carpets, was out. The new look, making heavy use of the Caucasian carpets and other art objects flowing back as war booty, was restive, tousled, and exuberant.
“Now the oriental carpet draped the wall or served to display weapons,” writes Semonov.
“Often there was a special divan, smoking room or a bathroom in the men’s part of the house, in which all furnishings were oriental in style. Here it was possible to hang a large carpet on the walls, and to use one to cover a wide ‘Turkish’ divan. Caucasian weapons, hookahs, chibouks (wooden pipes), brass jugs, and low tables with engraved trays embellished the furnishings. The international character of Classicism gave way to a choice of items which created a stylistically solid ‘Oriental’ image for a specific room.”
The displays of carpets and weapons from the Caucasus went along with a cult of gallantry that idealized the individual bravery of Eastern warriors in battle compared to the already ruthlessly efficient organization of Western armies. The cult itself was a holdover from the Napoleonic wars, when officers still sought to distinguish themselves as a warrior class from the growing use of masses of conscripts that marks the beginning of modern warfare.
The model of romantic gallantry, along with the knowledge that it was doomed in the modern age, was exemplified by the book 'A Hero of Our Time' in 1839 by Mikhail Lermontov (shown here).
The hero of the story, a duelist and an immoralist was, in fact, an anti-hero in the full sense of the word who outraged the literary critics of the day. But he was Byronic in his fierce individualism, and he saved his contempt not for the mountain warriors, whom he fought but admired, but for modern society around him. (Lermontov himself, dubbed the “poet of the Caucasus,’ was killed in a duel shortly after his only novel was published. He was 27.)
All this may help explain how the carpets and other material culture of the Caucasus could come into Russian homes on equal terms with Western furnishings even as the people who made them were being subjugated.
This 1894 picture of “Horsemen of the Caucasus” is by Russian artist Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud (1856 - 1928), who was famous for panoramic paintings.
Carpets from the Caucasus remained largely unknown in Western European homes until much later: almost the end of the 19th century.
The reason was the Russian Empire’s protectionist policy of favoring domestic trade over foreign trade.
At one point, merchants trying to export carpets and other goods through Russia’s main Black Sea port of Odessa were required to deposit with authorities a sum double that of the product’s estimated value. The sum would only be reimbursed once the contents of the bales were verified at the port. That imposed impossible capital requirements on the would-be exporters.
At another point, Moscow required that all products for export from the Caucasus be routed first to Tbilisi for customs clearance and tax assessment, whether or not it was the shortest route to market. That too, discouraged foreign trade. (These measures were noted by the French traveler Xavier Hommaire De Hell, who visited the region in 1847.)
As Richard E Wright and John T Wertime, note in their 1995 book ‘Caucasian Carpets & Covers,’ even as late as 1852 the number of rugs and related textiles exported from the Russian Empire was negligible.
But that situation changed in the following decades, as new political and social changes swept Russia.
This time a major part of the story was the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The freed serfs, who represented slightly less than half of all peasants, were allocated land but in fact often did not get not enough to make ends meet. So, the government launched a program dubbed “Kustar” (Russian for ‘Artisan’) to encourage peasants across the empire to produce handicrafts to supplement their agricultural earnings.
In the Caucasus, the Kustar program sought to dramatically boost home weaving by providing villagers with wool and patterns and taking care of sales. The target was the booming market for Caucasian carpets in Russia and then, as Tsarist officials began encouraging foreign trade, exports to the two great carpet trading centers of the time: Istanbul and London.
The export efforts got a further, huge boost in the 1880s with the completion of the Trans-Caucasus railroad and soon tons of carpets were moving toward Russia’s Black Sea ports.
By the beginning of the 1880s, Europe began to be aware of Caucasian carpets, say Wright and Wertime. The carpets got full exposure at the Paris World Fair (Exposition Universelle) in 1878 and they became a popular addition to Victorian-era homes.
Semenov offers some figures to show how suddenly exports of carpets from Russia exploded.
“Carpet making, which had been a craft, in the second half of the 19th century developed into a marketable branch of manufacture,” he writes.
“Russia became not only one of the most important consumer countries but also a major exporter of Oriental carpets. In 1873 carpet exports from the Russian Empire amounted to 12,914 puds (1 pud = 16 kg) valued at 922,917 rubles; by 1874 they had grown to 17,781 puds at a value of 964,675 rubles.”
He continues: “The volume of exported carpets continued to increase until the outbreak of World War I. The major proportion exported – 90 to 94 percent – was of the more expensive Caucasian carpets, while cheaper Central Asian rugs were mostly brought in for the home market.”
Unfortunately, the story does not end there.
With the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Russian civil war, and the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922, Russian society again changed on an epic scale. And the effects were nearly fatal for the carpet producers at both the village and manufactory level.
White Russians poured out of the country after losing the civil war and many of them brought their valuables, including carpets, with them for sale. Istanbul’s grand bazaar was suddenly overloaded with the same carpets that had furnished Russia's 'Orientalist' interiors of the Tsarist era and many of these now flowed West in a booming business.
But in now communist Russia, the carpet market was finished. Luxury goods were to be despised, even if they were secretly collected, and interior design styles conformed to the new rules.
Semenov, writing during the last decade of the Soviet Union, describes the new mood as a return to more austere and rational style. And perhaps reflecting his times, he approvingly contrasts modernism with the luxurious disorder of the 19th century, when people “scattered carpets over the divans, arms-chairs, walls, and floors."
“Such an abundance of carpets exerted an aggressive influence on the interior’s creator, leaving him no room to think or speak. The carpets, as it were, ‘swaddled’ him, ‘wrapped him up’ from all sides. Their bright colors, unhurried rhythms of design, and originality of texture allowed him only a limited emotional range of somewhat passive, lethargic, stylistically ‘Oriental,’ moods. On one level, harmony between the house owner and his actions gave way to languor and comfort, but beneath the surface subjected him to stress and drama; an intrinsic conflict between the individualistic, subjective man and the habitat he had created. The carpet was no longer a treasure, but a luxury object and this resulted in economic, aesthetic, psychological and even moral and ethical consequences.”
Soviet officials may have had little use for the Tsarist era's love of carpets, but they did not put an immediate end to the Kustar program. The state continued to support carpet weaving as an export commodity.
However, the support shifted from helping weavers who worked at home, and mostly used patterns traditional to their areas, to funding of manufactories receiving and fulfilling orders on a central-planning basis.
The result was that orders for rug with patterns long identified with one region of the Caucasus were routinely given to weaving centers in other regions with very different local traditions. The weavers made mistakes. And over time the sense of unique origin and local lineages that gave Caucasian rugs a special cachet in the Western market eroded away.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Western interest in the region’s weaving has revived. But it is still an open question whether carpet making in the Caucasus -- after so many decades of neglect -- can eventually return to its once famous heights. (For more, read: Can Caucasian Carpets Make A Comeback In The Caucasus?)
(Photos top to bottom: Detail of Shirvan carpet, late 19th C; Lithograph of Mt. Elberus, the highest peak in the Caucasus range; Russian interior, men’s study, 1880s; Mikhail Lermontov, portrait; "Horsemen of the Caucasus" by F.A. Roubaud; Kustar pattern for Derbent rug, 19th C; Russian Pavilion, Paris World’s Fair 1878; Bolshevik poster “You … Have you signed up as a volunteer?”; Intourist travel poster for Caucasus.)
RETURN TO HOME