Libmonster ID: RU-17184
Author(s) of the publication: Vera PARAFONOVA

by Vera PARAFONOVA, journalist

The town of Nikolsk, of the Penza Region, reminds us of many small Russian settlements located far off from big roads. Yet every visitor to the place dreams of going there again. The matter is not so much in its natural beauty, as in its rich historical heritage, kept in one of its cultural centers-Glass and Crystal Museum with 13.5 thousand exhibits. The uniqueness of the museum is in the completeness of its collection, displaying works of talented masters and professional artists of the 18th-21st centuries, made in Nikolsko-Bakhmetev shops of the crystal plant (later on "Krasny Gigant"), catering to the court, the nobility, rich merchants, churches and monasteries, and also to the Persian market.

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Over 300 years ago at the Zasursky camping-ground (today a district of the Penza Region) among impassable forests on the right bank of the Vyrgan river on the lands, granted in 1668 by Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich "for praiseworthy service and heroism during the Russo-Polish war of 1654-1667" to Ivan Bakhmetev, a solicitor, arose the village of Nikolskoye. Thirteen years later on the left bank there emerged a small village of Pestrovo, that got its name after the owner of the lands, a nobleman Kalistrat Pestrov. In 1761, both settlements passed into the hands of their single owner--Bakhmetev's son, retired second-major Alexei Ivanovich, and were named "Nikolskoye, ditto Pestrovo", later on simply Nikolo-Pestrovka. This name had existed for approximately 200 years until it was renamed into the town of Nikolsk in 1954.

Empress Yekaterina IPs order on August 3, 1764, laid foundation to the construction of the plant and allowed Bakhmetev "to acquire... crystal and glass factories in his own summer-cottages, located 700 versts from Moscow."


After receiving Her Majesty's permission, Bakhmetev without a moment's delay started construction simultaneously of three factories: one for pane glass, the other for crystalware production and the third for cut glass. In the wooden buildings "20 sazhen long and 8 sazhen wide" there were placed "six furnaces: two setting ones for tempering wares, three potter's and six warehouses for storing crockery and materials." Such tiny manufactures became a basis for domestic glass plants, which primarily appeared in Penza, Vladimir, Petersburg and some other gubernias.

In 1779, after the death of the founder, Bakhmetev factories, passed to his widow--Agafokleya Ivanovna, and later on to their son--Nikolai Alexeyevich, who greatly contributed to their prosperity.

In October 1800, the State Manufacture Board issued a decree, very beneficial for such private manufacturers: "...due to the production of sufficient amount of glass, mirrors and all kinds of crystal products at Russian plants, we forbid to import such goods from abroad." However, it probably was in force for a short period of time, as in 1805 Bakhmetev again applied for an embargo on import, which could create a serious competition to products made by native private factories. By that time crystal products of his factory stood out for their quality at the general background, that's why with a letter of August 13, 1805, addressed to the Minister of Home Affairs Count Viktor Kochubei, Nikolai Alexeyevich sent "samples of his products, the fineness and refinement of which may be compared to crystalware, imported to Russia from abroad."

Alas, all his efforts were futile (in spite of high customs, import of glass and crystalware continued), but Kochubei was so much impressed by the received samples, that he decided to show them to the Emperor Alexander I. The latter not only presented Bakhmetev with a gift, but also ordered him "various glass items for the court". The manufacturer spent the received government loan exclusively on "extension of his glass and crystal factories ... and improvement of their quality to such a degree of perfection, so that they could significantly contribute to the benefit of the State." It was Nikolai Alexeyevich who initiated creation of a museum collection, which was a very rare practice at other glass factories.

The third owner of the crystal plant, Alexei Nikola-yevich Bakhmetev, who was married to Anna Tolstaya, a relative of the well-known Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, died childless in 1861. In 1884, according to Alexei Nikolayevich's last will, his great-nephew, prince Alexander Obolensky inherited the plants as their rightful owner. Since then the history of the enterprise and cultural development of the village up to the Revolution of 1917 were connected with the name of this manufacturer.

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Without creation of a solid school of masters, Bakhmetev's enterprise could hardly have any future, so its founder asked all villagers to work at his factories. Moreover, every head of a family had not only to master a new trade, but teach his children too. The villagers split into two groups: "factory hands and peasants". Workers had their own houses and kitchen-gardens, and made their living by working at the factories. Peasants used allotted lands according to the common law, but many of them went to the factory, where they engaged in day-labor.

The first to master the new craft were appointed two serfs, Peter and Ivan Vershinins. Was it owing to their industry, typical of tillers of the soil, or owing to natural beauty of these lands, or secret talents, inherent in their simple souls by God, anyway the brothers mastered the secrets of the trade rather quickly and soon began to train worthy craftsmen.

The main master of the plant Alexander Vershinin (1765-1828) was also a serf, but it was he who managed to bring the finishing of articles to such a degree of perfection, that the sovereign himself presented him with a golden watch for making a crystal tea set for 70 persons for the tsar's table. The great master of diamond cutting and a remarkable miniaturist, he was a wonderful inventor at that, and made his plant widely known with his main creation, referred to by people as "Vershinin's glass". His secret was in double walls, in the narrow space of which there were placed entire pictures; to be more exact, small landscapes, made of moss, straw, feathers and paper. For many years specialists were excited and puzzled with his capacity to connect glass walls without breaking fragile applique work. Neither during his lifetime, nor after his death, did anyone manage to create similar articles. That is why they were very expensive. One of them with a miniature image of strolling people, country estates, trees, animals and birds, almost for 200 years (from 1802) preserved its primordial form, until this most valuable museum exhibit was stolen.

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The first possessors of the plant thoroughly studied European glass making. Often travelling abroad, they ordered or brought cut glass from the best European factories to let home craftsmen familiarize themselves with advanced achievements in this field. Thus, samples especially complicated in shape, decor and production technology were repeated by local masters. The plant museum carefully keeps ruby bowls, one of which dates back to the 1840s-1850s and is from Bohemia (Czechia), the other one belongs to the first half of the 19th century and is from Nikolo-Pestrovka. They slightly differ by design and size. On another museum shelf there stand also very similar articles: vases--a frosted glass green one, brought from Baccara (France) in 1850s-1860s, and a frosted rosy one, made by Bakhmetev's glass-blowers according to foreign samples in the second half of the 19th century.

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Craftsmen decorated their works with flowers and grass, images of birds, animals and various insects. Subject and ornamental painting was done with enamel, paints, gold and silver. There was no such an artistic glass-work technology in the world, which Penza craftsmen did not use. The famous globe with a flower bed (19th century), for instance, was made in "millefiori" technique (a type of Venetian thread). Ancient colorful filigree, which was widespread at a certain time and brought fame and wealth to Venice, became traditional at Bakhmetev's plant. Resourceful masters decorated articles with wide glass bands and darts of various shades to create spiral or lace-like pattern in the thick of the mass.

To gain multicolored look for their works, glass masters applied various additives. In the shop in the process of preparing furnace charges they used different methods depending on a type of a concrete order. Thus, in

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the 19th century, delicate green articles were highly popular. They were made of glass mixed with uranium. However, from the mid-1940s, this type of glass was no longer made, as it was considered radioactive, but other dye-stuffs were used, varying almost all elements of Mendeleyev's Table. For example, by adding cobalt, masters got blue color, with the help of manganeseviolet, and with chromium--green. Copper with various substances gave turquoise color, red and even jasper shades, and with chromium--emerald-green color. To get frosted glass imitating fine porcelain, bone-meal was added to the fluid glass. Crimson and amber colors were obtained by adding gold and silver (accordingly) into it.

In the 1830s-1840s a major technological novelty was multilayer colored glass. Like crystalware it was decorated with diamond facets, including wide ones. Masters found new applications for colored and colorless materials, reaching an artistic effect by diversity of shapes and shades, employing different methods of refinement in one article. And only dull engraving was not so widespread owing to high labor-intensity. We can find a wonderful example of different techniques used in one object in the museum collection, a tea pair, made in late 19th century of colorless glass with golden ruby shading, goffered, and painted in violet, enamelled with delicate rosy drops stuck to the walls.

Local masters used not only gold painting, but also skilful imitation of gem stones to made opaque vases.

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Example of this technique we can see in a pair of vases displayed there. They are inlaid with the tiny beads, forming a pattern in the form of a grape vine. Nearby on the museum shelf we can see a placer of "gem stones" made of stained glass. Here you can really see items of different shades: imitating marble, jasper and even aventurine.


The first owners of the plant did not seek to organize mass production (though they produced household "trifles"--chandeliers, candelsticks, sconces, garden lamps, elegant kerosene lamps, and fundamental decorations for the interior). For such products there existed bigger enterprises, such as the Gusevsky or Dyatkovsky crystal works. The Bakhmetevs strived to become trendsetters in native glass-making. At that time they got orders on tea sets and other items from the court, the Persian Shah, cathedrals and monasteries. And each implemented order was unique. It was not accidental that in 1836, the Nikolsko-Bakhmetev plant was allowed to decorate its products with a double-headed eagle-the state coat of arms, and to portray it in its catalogues. The enterprise won first prizes at the Russian exhibitions of manufactured articles in 1829 (at that time its founder's son, lieutenant Nikolai Bakhmetev was awarded gold medal for "perfect crystalware"), and also in 1835 and 1843.

In 1884, Obolensky invested large sums of money in his enterprise, which allowed to modernize production and to increase product quality. In 1896, after receiving deserved recognition at the Moscow exhibition, the plant again justified the right to portray the royal coat of arms on the glass. In 1900, at the World Fair in Paris, its products--two unique sets for liqueur and the third for beer, and also several glasses (today they are exhibited at the museum)-- were awarded a Big Gold medal. And by the decision of the authoritative commission the authors of the articles--Nikanor Protasov (Alexander Vershinin's great grandson), Ivan Vertuzayev, Vasily Rogov and Pyotr Kulikov-were also awarded bronze medals for craftsmanship.

It must be acknowledged that workmen of Nikolo-Pestrovka respected their bosses--owners of the plant. And that was justified. By the way, it was Obolensky who first in Russia introduced constant skilled training in artistic glass-making, and invited Adel Jakobson, a final-year student of St. Petersburg Art School of Baron Alexander Stiglitz in 1903. Before taking the job, she visited France, Germany, Austria and only in 1906 began to work in Nikolsk and stayed there till 1921. Yakobson established an art school in the town, where studied future famous masters. Dozens of glass-making dynasties were brought up at the Nikolsko-Bakhmetev institution during its more than two-century history.


After the Revolution of 1917, the plant changed its name into Crystal Plant No. 1, and became national property. Repeated attempts to destroy the plant and its museum collection were suppressed by the workers of the plant, who organized guard forces of 300 men. But even the church of the Resurrection of the Christ, one of the most beautiful churches in Penza gubemiya, built by Bakhmetev in early 19th century, rich and refined in appointments (even its floor was made of blue glass plates), was impossible to guard against pillage. Its magnificence seemed to be too excessive. Thus, on the ruins of the past started a new life.

The change of the signboard into Krasny Gigant did not bring any alterations into the daily routine of the plant: it continued to produce plenty of high-quality glassware, not forgetting anyway about top artistic orders. A new chapter in the plant history was opened in the late 1930s, when there started a close creative cooperation of the plant with a national artist of the USSR and outstanding sculptor Vera Mukhina. Their partnership lasted for several decades. Her participation in the creation of many experimental works and applied art

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objects invigorated the plant. In 1938-1939 according to her design there was made a crystal set Kremlevsky.

Creation of a true masterpiece--a unique vase-fountain, by the painter Joseph Chaikov (1888-1979) for the International Fair in New York (1939) refers to the same period of time. According to the sketch it was 4.2 m high and 2.5 m wide. No plant accepted an offer to make it, until Academician Nikolai Kachalov (1883-1961), a renowned person in glass production, advised the painter to send it to Nikolsk. "They will do it by grandfather's method," he reasoned. So, Chaikov went to Penza region together with an engineer-technologist Fyodor Entelis from Leningrad (1907-1995). Nikolsk craftsmen not only fulfilled the order, but also added their own inventiveness and sharpness. They decorated the foundation of the fountain with eleven multi-colored national carpets, using melted glass of seven colors, and placed oval crystal medallions named after Union Republics in the native languages of the USSR peoples.

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In the history of artistic glass there was no exhibit that could be compared to it: the weight of the bowl made up 450 kg, and the weight of some of its parts--from 80 to 90 kg. While creating them, glass into the pipe was taken on 14 times. The fountain was crowned with a sheaf of 250 spikes with water gushing out from them (nowadays its location is unknown).

During the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, the painter Anna Lipskaya together with the masters of the enterprise, made a series of "order cups", which emphasized the subject of heroism. Historians of applied arts consider them to be prototypes of subsequent glass works, created in post-war years in memory of this or that remarkable event. This theme, however, is not new. During the Patriotic War of 1812, master Vershinin made at Bakhmetev's plant various cups, tall wine glasses, glasses, mugs and goblets with medallions and inscriptions under the paintings: "Triumph, Moscow, the Russians are in Paris, taken on March 19, 1814."

Today the museum is located in a new, specially built building, and is constantly enriched with ancient and modern exhibits. It is often visited by descendents of the celebrated masters--to get acquainted with their works, to appreciate their ancestors. Though in the stories of keepers and collectors from time to time there appear sad overtones. The matter is that Krasny Gigant was auctioned off in 2010, four years prior to its 250th anniversary, leaving behind the Museum of Glass and Crystal, a diamond in the Russian crown. Witnesses of the highest professionalism and artistic taste of Nikolsk's masters, beginning with the first factory-made articles, presently are also exhibited in the halls of the St. Petersburg Hermitage, Russian Museum, Pavlovsky Palace and State Historical Museum (Moscow).


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