By Simon Werrett

Kunstkamera of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg

Kunstkamera of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg

In the first decades of the eighteenth century, to win a war with Sweden and present Russia as a modern European state, Tsar Peter the Great radically reformed the culture of Muscovite Russia. Besides introducing European dress (smock coats were in and beards were out) and European institutions (a government bureaucracy, a western-styled army and navy), Peter founded a new capital city, St. Petersburg, which was intended to be Russia’s “window on the west.” Peter also imported learned men from France, Switzerland and the Germanies to teach the Russians the new science. Completed in 1727, the Kunstkamera was built on Vasilevskii Island to the north of the city to house the Tsar’s new Imperial Academy of Sciences, which opened shortly after his death in 1725. Designed by Georg Johann Mattarnovy, the European building was baroque in style, and presented a radical contrast to the onion domes typical of Moscow and Russian tradition. The academicians housed inside were also intended to display Europeanness to the Muscovites. Early professors such as the French astronomer Joseph Delisle and Swiss mathematicians Daniel Bernoulli and Leonhard Euler made important contributions to a host of scientific, geographical and mathematical enterprises. But they also served local Russians as role models for appropriate behaviour in Peter’s new Russia. Russians should learn from the polite discourse which academicians were supposed to engage in during public meetings (in fact they argued a lot and had to be hidden from public view). After a precarious start, the Academy blossomed in the reign of Empress Catherine II and remained a profoundly influential center for Russian, and later Soviet science through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Today, the Kunstkamera, whose name is taken from the German Kunstkammer, or “cabinet of art” or curiosities, stands monumentally on the banks of the river Neva, and is home to an ethnographic and anthropological museum and an exhibition on the “first Russian scientist” Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonosov. The bright blue and white painted façade is peeling and the building is time-worn, having seen numerous episodes of decline and restoration in its three-hundred year history. In its original form, the Kunstkamera was a remarkable scientific building, composed of extensive natural history collections housed in the west wing and a very fine library in the east. The central tower included an anatomy theatre, an elegant meeting room for the academicians, and Delisle’s multi-tiered astronomical observatory. Grand public dissections of elephants and other large fauna took place before fascinated audiences inside the anatomy theatre. The space of the anatomy theatre now houses various objects from Peter the Great’s peculiar collections, including teeth drawn by the Tsar himself and the famous monstrous births preserved and decorated by the Dutch anatomist Friedrich Ruysch. Originally intended to stand as momento mori and persuade superstitious Muscovites of the natural causes behind human deformities, the Ruysch exhibits now equally astonish and disconcert tourists and visitors who still come from far and wide to see them. The Kunstkamera is also home to some ageing but fascinating anthropological exhibits. Dummies dressed in ethnic costumes stand in the galleries above the anatomy theatre and look down on Peter’s monsters. Cabinets filled with costumes and utensils of nations from around the world populate a long series of dimly-lit halls. In a city focused on Europe these exhibits remind you of the incredible diversity of peoples and cultures which make up the Eurasian continent. Above the anatomy theatre, in the observatory, you can glimpse another world in one of Peter’s wonders, the Great Globe of Gottorp, a three-meter wide celestial globe, originally given to Peter as a present in 1717. It’s so big that Peter used to entertain diplomats and guests inside it, seating them on a circular bench around a table, as the heavens turned about their heads. Burnt in a fire and restored by the Soviets, the globe still impresses. Finally, in the heart of the Kunstkamera lies the Lomonosov museum, established in 1949 and dedicated to the first Russian to practice modern science, as professor of chemistry at the Academy of Sciences from 1745 until his death twenty years later. Lomonosov has long been eulogized for his great learning in Russia. Pushkin said “He founded our first university. To put it better, he was our first university.” The Soviets adored Lomonosov as the founder of science in Russia, without which scientific Marxism could not have flourished. The museum exhibits include a variety of instruments and artifacts from Lomonosov’s scientific career. The Kunstkamera, then, is a museum that literally encompasses the world. It’s a fascinating blend of old and new, of east and west, of opulence and decay. And it’s the perfect place to begin appreciating the diversity of roles that science has played in Russia’s remarkable history.

Further Reading

Oleg Neverov, ‘‘His Majesty’s Cabinet’ and Peter I’s Kuntskammer.’ in The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe. eds. Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985): 54-61.

Robert Collis, ‪The Petrine Instauration: Religion, Esotericism and Science at the Court of Peter the Great, 1689-1725 (Leiden: Brill, 2011).


Address: 3, University Embankment (Universitetskaia naberezhnaia 3), Vasilevskii Island, 199034 Saint Petersburg, Russia