The Duchess of York wore a blue and black top, with a navy-blue belt, over a black, knee-length leather skirt. The female figure which stood before her was wearing a ball gown consisting of a bodice and skirt of pale eau-de-nil panne velvet decorated with vertical stripes of sequins and lace inserts embroidered with jewels; the bodice had a low neckline, short chiffon sleeves, a dipped waist, and a slightly pouched front over a pointed flange in the waistband, while the skirt was flared, pleated in at the back, with a train. In her right hand she held a mother-of-pearl fan, with a silk leaf painted in shades of gray and blue water-color with an overall pattern of butterflies. Yet, everyone’s eyes were on the duchess.
“She is very lovely and so fashionable,” said Madame Olga Zamyatina, whose husband. His Excellency Leonid Mitrofanovich Zamyatin (“Of course you know the Russian Ambassador”), was so helpful in organizing the exhibition. It was in this pleasant atmosphere that “Russian Style: Court and Country Dress 1700-1920 From the Hermitage” opened its doors to the British public on January 28.
On the morning of January 29, with pictures of the duchess (and some of her favorites from among the 120 exhibits) gracing the front pages of the morning papers, there was more good news. Standard advertisements, in the business sections, announced “Russian Compensation” beneath the familiar Dieu Et Mon Droit crest of Her Majesty’s Government: “The Foreign Compensation, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Registration and Determination of Claims.” It read:
A fund of about L46 million will become available for distribution to those who can satisfy the claims of the Order. Claims may be made by . . . original British or Commonwealth claimants or their successors in respect of financial and property claims arising before 1939 which were registered . . . between 1918 and 1951.
With characteristic understatement, which seems to pervade even public announcements, H.M. Government went on:
It is not possible to forecast what percentage of the assessed value of successful claims will be paid.
Nevertheless, in a news article, The Times quoted Mr. Tim Eggar, “a junior minister at the Foreign Office,” who said with satisfaction that “quite a few people will find themselves rather wealthy.” It was further reported that the “settlement” had been negotiated by Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Foreign Secretary, and Mr. Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, in July 1986.
According to The Sunday Telegraph, arrangements for the “Russian Style” exhibition had been made in January 1986. The Barbican Centre’s “ruddycheeked and exhilarated” young curator, quoted by the Telegraph, disclosed in passing that the initiative had come from the Soviet Ministry of Culture. After that, what stood in its way was “a lumbering bureaucracy, rather than sinister tones of Le Carre.” But all that was now behind: The two Ministries of Culture have finally pulled it off, complete with the duchess in leather.
It is quite obvious that Sir Geoffrey Howe’s “Russian Compensation” agreement was meant as a sideshow for the “Russian Style” extravaganza, by every account the social event of the season. The new generation of Soviet public-relations specialists have a complex and colorful agenda of priorities; there is little doubt that high on that list is the directive to emphasize the “Russian” idea as a component of Soviet policy. To communicate with the West—that is, to deceive it—effectively, is it not better to rely on existing Western “perceptions of the Soviet Union” than on their own disinformation, homegrown for export? Western “perceptions” are all there, ready to do the job, in idiomatic English (or French, or German); they are being churned out daily, by professors, alumni, and students at Ivy League universities; they are published by the New York Times and Foreign Affairs; they fill books and speeches. Why invent reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan? Open an eminent Sovietologist’s treatise, and you will see that it has something to do with the ways of the Russian soul. Soviet nuclear superiority? Well, the Russian passion for grandeur, of course. Think of their novels. The contemplated conquest of the rest of Europe? Traditional paranoia.
The exhibition, which closed at the end of April, extended from “Peter the Great to 1920.” Why 1920 and not, say—to pick a year—1917? That, of course, is the whole point, as far as Soviet propaganda is concerned. Nothing’s changed. Let Russia be Russia. Vodka, samovar, ICBM: These are our Russian quirks, and we want to keep them. The press, on the whole, agreed. John Russell Taylor, writing in The Times, did think it “intriguing to consider by what routes these amazing relics arrived in the Hermitage . . . whether from aristocrats who stayed on and changed their ways, or from mountains of the officially confiscated and the privately looted,” yet in the end, perhaps wearied by the unpleasant realization that the distinction between the two was more blurred than he as a decent Englishman could allow himself to suppose, he concluded that it was:
touching as well as paradoxical to see how immaculately they are cared for by the children of a regime which must be diametrically opposed to all that they stand for.
The children of the regime, I am certain, took careful note of Mr. Taylor’s probing, suggestive, cooing “must be.” Opposed? Well, yes, perhaps a wee bit opposed, but certainly not diametrically!
Alas, the conquest of Europe means England, Barbican Centre and all. The thought of the Duchess of York shot in a cellar, perhaps in a remote Sussex village (I wonder if this island has an equivalent of Ekaterinburg), is sad, but not as sad as the thought of seeing that ingenious blue and black costume of hers displayed at the State Museum of Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR under a lending arrangement with the State Hermitage Expert Purchasing Commission. Contrary to Western perceptions, in addition to nuclear superiority, those children of the regime have a sense of humor.