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Prominent Russians: Nikolay Yusupov

October 26, 1750 – July 27, 1831
Painting by unknown artist (Image from shkolazhizni.ru) Painting by unknown artist
(Image from shkolazhizni.ru)

A statesman and diplomat, Prince Nikolay Borisovich Yusupov was one of the most remarkable figures and grandees of his time - and one of the richest.

Having chosen to quit a military career in favor of public service, during his life he filled various posts including Kremlin Armory Chamber First Director, Imperial Theaters Director (1791-1799), Hermitage Director (1797), head of all Russian porcelain- and glass-producing plants, Senator, State Councilor (1796), Regions Department Minister (1800-1816) and Member of the State Council.

A connoisseur and patron of art, he is also known as the creator of one of the largest art collections in Russia. He personally knew many significant writers and artists of the time, both from Russia and abroad.

By the end of his career Nikolay Yusupov had the highest rank of First Class Actual Private Councilor and has been awarded every possible decoration of the Russian Empire and many foreign ones as well. When there were no other awards left, a pearl epaulette was designed especially for him. The prince wore it on his right shoulder and no one else was allowed this honor.

The distinguished Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky described Prince Nikolay Borisovich Yusupov as “the most remarkable person of his epoch.”

Prince Nikolay was born into an old and fabulously wealthy Russian family, whose origins date back to a sixteenth-century Muslim khan named Youssouf. Some sources say that he was the descendant of Mohammad, others, of Tamerlane (Timur-i-leng) or that his great-great-grandfather Edigey Mangit was a commander in Tamerlane’s army. Youssouf was in good relations with Russia and Tzar Ivan IV and sent both his sons to Moscow, where they were met with honors and granted many lands and riches. In the 17th century their descendants converted to Russian Orthodoxy, adopted the name Yusupov (until the 18th century - Yusupovo-Knyazhevy), and received the title of Prince. Thereafter many Yusupovs played significant roles in Russian history, the last time being in December 1916, when Prince Nikolay Yusupov’s great-grandson Feliks (1887-1962) became one of the key plotters of Rasputin’s death.

Prince Nikolay entered the Life Guards in early childhood, a common practice at that time. In 1771 he was appointed gentleman of the Emperor's bedchamber, but that same year he quit the military to go to Europe. He wanted to get an education like other young men from aristocratic Russian families. Prince Nikolay studied state law, philosophy, ancient languages, physics and anatomy at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He was an eager student and later, those who had the pleasure to talk to him, described him as a very erudite man. Nikolay Yusupov fluently spoke five languages, which helped him in his travels around Europe and in his diplomatic career. His education ended in 1781 and at the age of 31 he returned to Russia where he was appointed chamberlain.

Unknown artist, a copy of I.Lampi Unknown artist, a copy of I.Lampi

However, Nikolay Yusupov was soon to continue his journeys, now as a statesman and diplomat. He returned to Europe in 1782, when he escorted the crown prince of the Russian Empire Pavel Petrovich (the future Paul I) and his wife on their trip around the continent (the pair traveled under the name of the Severnys Counts).

Then, after a short stay in Russia, he began his diplomatic career. Beginning in 1783 he was sent on missions throughout Europe by Catherine II. In Rome he achieved an agreement on restraints on the roman-catholic influence in Russia. In Venice he had to deal with English and Austrian intrigues against Russia. As a diplomat Prince Nikolay visited France and Versailles, where he met Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; Germany and Prussia, where he met Frederick the Great; Austria, where he met Emperor Joseph II; the United Kingdom and Spain. In 1804, Nikolay Yusupov traveled to Paris and several times met Napoleon I, who presented him with a gift of three large tapestries. During his trips around Europe, Prince Nikolay also made acquaintance with many brilliant minds of his time - Voltaire, Diderot and Beaumarchais, who dedicated a lyrical poem to him.

Frequent journeys to the cultural centers of Europe allowed Nikolay Yusupov to reveal his spirit of a true art amateur. The future great collector of titles first became a great collector of art. Recognizing his connoisseurship, Catherine II recruited Prince Nikolay to buy vast amounts of European art for her ever-expanding Hermitage museum. In 1797 her son Paul I would make Yusupov the administrator of the Hermitage collection.

There were rumors that Yusupov and Catherine II had been lovers in his youth. Indeed, one of the portraits in Nikolay Yusupov’s personal collection features them as Apollo and Venus. Later Emperor Paul I would order this picture hidden.

Choosing works of art for Catherine II, and then Paul I, the prince built up personal contacts with many celebrated European masters of art. Thus, Yusupov’s collection was assembled from the same sources as the Imperial one. Paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt hung quite prosaically in his living rooms.

Meanwhile, Yusupov’s career progressed to greater heights. In 1788 Prince Nikolay was promoted to Actual Private Councilor and became a Senator.

In 1791 he was appointed Imperial Theaters Director, taking up his duties with enthusiasm. It was Prince Nikolay who first ordered that rows and seats in theatres be numbered (before that guests had occupied seats by chance) and introduced state control over theatrical receipts and expenses on staging. At the same time he became the President of the Collegium of Manufacturing (“Manufaktur-kollegiya” precursor to the Ministry of Industry) and took over the management of imperial porcelain and glass plants.

As a great honor for his service Prince Nikolay was placed in charge of the coronation ceremonies of three Russian Emperors. First, he was appointed Supreme Marshal of Coronation and Chairman of the Coronation Committee (Chief Master of Ceremonies) for the enthronement of the Emperor Paul I. On the coronation day he was also awarded the Order of St. Andrew I (the first and the highest order of chivalry of the Russian Empire). Then, in 1801 Prince Nikolay performed the same duties for the coronation of Alexander I and was awarded the insignia “with diamonds” for his Order of St. Andrew the First (as a special distinction). Finally, he presided over the coronation of Nikolay I in 1826.

When in Russia, Nikolay Yusupov preferred to live in Moscow, in his 17th century chambers on Kharitonyevsky Side Street, 21, which Peter I granted to Nikolay’s grandfather, Grigory Yusupov, for distinguished service. However, with time this house could not hold his art collection, which had grown to an enormous size - more than 600 paintings and sculptures, over 20 thousand books, porcelain, and much more. Prince Nikolay wanted to find a proper place for the major part of his collection.

RT Photo / Tina Berejnaya RT Photo / Tina Berejnaya

In 1810 Nikolay Yusupov bought Arkhangelskoe Estate near Moscow from the widow of Prince Golitsyn. Prince Nikolay, who said that he bought the residence "for amusement, not gain" planned to make Arkhangelskoe a perfect place for his collection and an exceptional example of garden art. Alterations to Arkhangelskoe were well underway in 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia. Like many other country estates, the house was ravaged. After the war the Prince had to repair the damage.

At the same time, Prince Yusupov had to oversee the reconstruction of the Moscow Kremlin, which was also damaged during Napoleon’s invasion, as he had been appointed the head of the Kremlin Buildings Expedition (“Ekspeditsiya Kremlevskih Stroeny,” a state body which managed construction works at the Kremlin). It was one of Prince’s last official posts. In 1814, he opened a public museum in the Armory Chamber.

Very soon Arkhangelskoe became a fashionable residence, popularly called the “Versailles near Moscow.” Aleksandr Herzen (1812-1870) said that Yusupov "was really gifted with artistic taste. To convince oneself of this it is enough to visit Arkhangelskoye and look at his galleries." The residence boasted not only Yusupov’s great collection but also his own serf theater. Prince Nikolay hosted the monarchs Alexander I and Nicholas I and members of the Royal family, as well as many famous Russian literary and cultural figures, the most well known being Aleksandr Pushkin.

It is remarkable that Prince Nikolay first met Pushkin when the future poet was only three years old. Pushkin’s family had hired apartments in the left wing of the Yusupov’s house on Kharitonyevsky Side Street in 1801-1803. The house was surrounded by “Yusupov Garden,” which Pushkin mentions in his autobiography. In the garden there was an oak, entwined with gilded chain, along which a huge toy cat constructed by a Dutch craftsmen went up and down. This construction was brought back by Prince Nikolay from one of his journeys. The toy cat also spoke, but in Dutch. Little Pushkin walked in the garden with his nanny Arina Rodionovna or grandmother Mariya Alekseevna and promised to translate the cat’s tales into Russian. The prologue to Pushkin’s poem “Ruslan and Lyudmila” features that very cat in Yusupov’s garden.

Despite their age difference, Prince Nikolay and Aleksandr Pushkin made friends and were on close terms. Pushkin hungrily listened to the Prince’s stories about the epoch of Catherine II and his journeys throughout Europe and Asia. When Aleksandr Pushkin and his friend Sergey Sobolevsky were planning a trip abroad in 1827, they went straight to Arkhangelskoe to Prince Nikolay, who was known as a great expert on Europe and owner of a unique traveling album with notes from each and every trip. However, Pushkin was not let out of the country.

In 1830 he wrote the epistle “To the Grandee” (“K velmozhe”) celebrating the life of Prince Nikolay. It is believed that several lines describe Arkhangelskoe:

The moment the airy zephyr breathes on the fields,
Liberating the world from its Northern fetters,
The moment the first lime-tree shows green,
Before you, welcoming descendant of Aristippus,
Before you I shall appear; and I shall see that place
Where the architect’s compasses, the palette and the chisel
Have submitted to your learned whim,
And, bewitched, competed to enchant us.

As soon as the poem was published the public burst with criticism, accusing Pushkin of “licking the boots” of the wealthy grandee.

Nikolay Yusupov, indeed, was fabulously wealthy by that time. There was no province in Russia where he did not own property; he had 31 thousand serfs (not counting women). Some were peasant farmers, others artisans and some were highly skilled artists and craftsmen. Plants and crafts brought him 1.5 million rubles of pure income a year.

It is said that it was this criticism that made Prince Nikolay meet with Aleksandr Pushkin more frequently. Later the poet wrote: “After I came back from Arzrum, I wrote the epistle to Prince Yusupov. In society it was immediately noticed and many were… dissatisfied… This made the grandee call me to come for dinner every Thursday.” Prince Nikolay was 79 years old then. When he died the next year, Pushkin wrote in a letter, “my Yusupov died.”

The Yusupov family life was plagued by a belief in an old curse that stated that only one male heir in every generation would live for more than 26 years. It was believed that a Muslim sorceress from the Horde cursed the family in the 17th century when she found out that the descendants of Youssouf, the founder of the Yusupovs line, had embraced Russian Orthodoxy. Indeed, the prophecy always seemed to fulfill itself and Prince Nikolay Yusupov, like his ancestors in Russia, was the only son in the family.

Image from www.rodoslovia.ru Image from www.rodoslovia.ru

In 1793 Nikolay married Tatyana Vasilyevna von Engelhardt (1769 - 1841), one of Prince Grigory Potemkin's nieces. The next year they had their first son, Boris. Later Tatyana had another son, Nikolay, who, however, died in infancy.

As soon as Arkhangelskoe was fit to live in, the family moved there. Later Tatyana decided to live separately from her husband in the “Caprice” palace and run the Kupavinskaya textile plant, one of Prince Nikolay’s properties. The reason for this split was the Prince’s exceptional love for women. In his cabinets, first in the Moscow house and then in Arkhangelskoe, one could see around 300 portraits of women who were said to have been his mistresses at different periods of his life.

In 1831 Prince Nikolay died at the age of 80 in Arkhangelskoe, not from old age, but from cholera. There had been an outbreak in the Moscow suburbs. Given his high rank, Nikolay Yusupov could have been buried in Novodevichye Cemetery in Moscow or in Aleksandro-Nevskaya Lavra in Saint Petersburg, but he preferred to lie near his mother’s tomb in the family vault in the Church of the Holy Savior in Spasskoe-Kotovo village.

Nikolay Yusupov was succeeded by his son Boris (1794 - 1849), whose own son, named after his grandfather, is believed to be the last true Yusupov. However, by the highest order of the Emperor the eldest son of Prince Nikolay’s great-granddaughter was allowed to hold the princely title and the name of Yusupov. But the prophecy seems to have worked again - Zinaida Yusupova had two sons, the eldest of whom was killed at the age of 25 in a duel.

After the 1917 Revolution Arkhangelskoe and other Yusupov estates were nationalized. His great art collection was divided and can now be seen in the State Hermitage Museum, the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the Arkhangelskoe Estate Museum.

Written by Darya Lunina, RT

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