Mining Museum during the Siege of Leningrad
In 1918, the Soviet government relocated from Petrograd to Moscow. Subsequently, some of the Mining Museum's most valuable objects were transferred to the Diamond Fund, which did not, however, stop the natural-scientific repository from replenishing its collections. By early 1941, the Museum had accumulated 130,014 exhibits, of which 25,540 were on display - samples of minerals, rocks and fossils, models and prototypes of mining and metallurgical equipment. The Mining Museum was highly popular at the time, by no means inferior to the Hermitage or Tsarskoye Selo. It offered guided tours, which were given every day, and arranged new exhibitions.
Although the city's cultural institutions worked as was usual, the People's Commissariat of Education (Narkompros) approved its final plans for the evacuation of the museums five years before the start of the Great Patriotic War. Museum workers, concerned over it, wrote numerous letters to Narkompros, asking it to reconsider the strategy. It was not at all clear what to save first, and most importantly, how to do it. For example, as per the plans, some large museums were allocated only one wagon each. The senders' requests were never considered, nonetheless. All they had in return was accusations of alarmism.
When the war began, a directive was sent to the museums: "Upon evacuation, the valuables are to be split into three parts". Yet, the criteria for the division were not specified. Perplexed by having to make decisions at their own risk, the Mining Museum's executives separated the items according to their value and defined the evacuation procedure. They became, in the end, solely responsible for the safety of the museum heritage. Director of the Museum Gavriil Sokratov wrote in his memoirs about what was being done to save the most valuable exhibits:
"One particular challenge was to find a way to move items stored in the Museum's safe box (platinum, gold and silver nuggets; diamonds, etc.), as their value was immeasurable. Attempts to enlist the help of some city organisations failed. It was strongly suggested that the exhibits be evacuated and kept safe without outside help. Given the difficulty of their transportation and protection, it was decided that the best solution would be to keep the location of the safe-deposit boxes a closely guarded secret".
The mission of rescuing museum treasures took place amid great secrecy. There were only three people privy to knowing about it - Dmitry Yemelyanov, Director of the Mining Institute, Rodionov, Head of the Special Department, and Sokratov himself. Sokratov personally put the nuggets in a safe, which he then placed in a large box with the other exhibits.
He covered them with samples of various crystals and inscribed the lid with "Collection of natural crystals". Alongside the other part of the collection, the box was fitted into 59 containers, weighing over four tons in total, and sent to Sverdlovsk in early July 1941.
The objects brought over from Leningrad were accommodated at Sverdlovsk Mining Institute. Amongst the evacuated valuables were: specimens of precious metals and rock samples, a collection of edged weapons, items of particular mineralogical value, and artistic objects made of stone and metal.
Following the first consignment, the second one was supposed to take place shortly. For this purpose, the mineral samples were carefully packed, crated and lowered into the underground vaults, where they remained throughout the war. Resuming their transportation was no longer possible, as by then, the siege of Leningrad had begun.
The largest and heaviest exhibits, together with the items with special storage requirements, were confined in the Museum's halls. There was no other choice but to keep mining machinery, a one-and-a-half-ton block of Ural malachite, samples of salts and skeletons of large animals inside the repository. Throughout the war, their safety was guarded by three female employees. One of them, Marina Steinhausen, witnessed a shell hit the Museum's Hall of Columns on April 2, 1942. Six months later, two shells exploded on the roof of the same hall during an artillery bombardment of the city.
The outcome was a torn roof, damaged trusses, attic joists, stucco moulding of the cornice, and several column capitals supporting the choir balcony. The worst damage was seen by the ceiling along with plasterwork. The plafond of Giovanni Battista Scotti, a painter whose works adorned many palaces of St. Petersburg, was partially destroyed.
It was essential to retain the possibility of restoring the damaged plafond in the future; hence, copies of the surviving fragments were needed. This work was done by Shcherbakov, an artist at the commission for the protection of monuments. He had to take advantage of the rare moments of calm occurring in between bombardments. He used to work in a frost-bound cold hall on temporary scaffolding. Nevertheless, he managed to make copies of the hardest-hit parts of the plafond. After that, a significant fragment of the painting fell off. Shcherbakov's drawings on tracing paper and cardboard helped reconstruct the plafond after the war in a brief time.
The exhibits that had not been removed from the Museum's halls suffered the most during the war. The collection of mineral salts was lost entirely. They dissolved since the building had not been heated for almost a year, and there was only a temporary roof above it. A unique one-and-a-half-metre-long crystal of beryl did not survive either.
The blockade was lifted in 1944. In the summer, Gavriil Sokratov oversaw the return of the Mining Museum's exhibits; he escorted the freight cars with valuable cargo all the way from Cheremkhovo to Leningrad. In commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the Mining Institute, three years after the war had ended, the Museum finally reopened. It took ten more years to complete the refurbishment and re-create expositions.
St. Petersburg Mining Museum has marked the 76th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War by opening a new exhibition. It is dedicated to the most significant scientific developments and research breakthroughs of the Mining Institute over that period.
One of the most notable inventions is Sinal - AK, an unrivalled explosive substance manufactured for the Leningrad Front. Altogether, more than 330 thousand hand grenades and several dozens of thousands of bombs were made at the educational institution throughout the war. So-called 'defence metals' were produced - molybdenum, nickel, copper, cobalt and platinoids.