Following the first weeks since the start of hostilities during the Great Patriotic War the main task of the State Tretyakov Gallery’s staff was to save and preserve the unique memorial of national culture. The front line was moving closer. The enemy was bombing Moscow.
The preparations for the evacuation began under the supervision of the Committee for Art (under the auspices of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR) the agency responsible for the Gallery. Within several days the Gallery staff, led by its director A.I. Zamoshkin, chief guardian E.V. Silversvan and the head of the restoration department E.V. Kudryavtsev, started the process of transfering the exhibition for the entire museum. The paintings were taken off the walls, removed from their frames and their canvas stretchers. Initially "first category" art, the most valuable, was packed. People worked from early in the morning until late at night.
The main burden of the loading work was carried out by the restoration experts, and required both their knowledge and resourcefulness. The painting by I.E. Repin, entitled "Ivan the Terrible and His Son on 16 November 1581", which was in poor condition, layers of paint often flaked off, was placed between two sheets of plywood covered with thick flannel and fixed in a container using shock absorbers. Small and medium sized paintings were protected using a "cassette" technique during packing. Large canvases were rolled on spools which were placed into galvanized iron cylinders and packed into containers. Paintings by A.A. Ivanov, V.I. Surikov, A.M. and V.M. Vasnetsov were packed using this method. Early in July the Gallery’s lower floors were crammed with hundreds of marked and stamped crates which were packed together with an inventory detailing each piece of art in every container.
The order from the Chairman of the Evacuation Council, under the auspices of the Council of the People’s Commissars of the USSR, N.M. Shvernik to commence the rail transportation of art from the State Tretyakov Gallery and other major museums in the Russian capital was issued on 13 July. Covered trucks created a moving line from Lavrushinsky Pereulok to Kazan Station. A day later a train (17 wagons) transported 235 crates containing the Gallery’s exhibits away from the front. They were accompanied by 603 crates, which contained works from the State Museum of New Western Art, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Oriental Culture. The valuable cargo was transported under the supervision of museum staff; the head of the Gallery’s restoration department, E.V. Kudryavtsev and restoration artist K.A. Fyodorov and others. The director at the Tretyakov Gallery A.I. Zamoshkin had overall responsibility for the transportation of the art work.
Late in July the cargo arrived in Novosibirsk, its final destination. Eleven people, assisted by Red Army soldiers, carried the crates into the Opera Theatre’s still incomplete building. Initially the huge circular halls on the first and second floors were used to store the museum’s art. The crates were stacked in rows dependent on the museum of origin and the category of art. They were placed side by side, sometimes on two or three levels. The temporary storage rooms housed the Gallery’s icons by Andrei Rublev and Dionysius, as well as paintings by I.E. Repin, V.I. Surikov, V.M. Vasnetsov, Rubens, Rembrandt, Matisse, engravings by Hokusai, Oriental masks and rare musical instruments named in honour of the favourite national museum, a filial of the Tretyakov Gallery. A.I. Zamoshkin was appointed to the post of director.
The first days on the Siberian soil saw the start of a period of extreme labour by the restoration experts and guardians. They organised round the clock duty in the store rooms and carried out night patrols and spot checks of the crates.
In Moscow, on the night of 11-12 August 1941 German aircraft dropped two high-explosive bombs, which hit the Tretyakov Gallery building. They damaged the glass roof in several places. The floor above hall 6 at the top and 49 below was destroyed. The main entrance was damaged. The cloakroom floors in the basement were demolished. The heating and ventilation systems stopped functioning. Several months later on the evening of 12-13 November another high explosive bomb hit the Gallery premises. A two-storey apartment block was destroyed. Six members of the Gallery staff and their families were made homeless and the Gallery’s garage was damaged.
Just the day before the August bombing the Gallery staff had managed to dismantle and pack the stained glass illustration entitled, "The Knight" produced by M.A. Vrubel, which had been mounted in the window of hall 29 on the lower floor. The first bombing raid that hit the Gallery led to an increase in the rate of works of art that were transported away. A huge barge constructed in 1913 left the Moscow pier from the River Station in mid August. Its dry hold contained 84 crates (40 of which contained art from the Gallery’s main collection, the other 44 held work by I.I. Brodsky). It also transported crates from other museums in Moscow. The load was accompanied by the Gallery’s senior research assistant, M.M. Kolpakchi, and restoration expert I.V. Ovchinnikov.
In the vicinity around the Stalin Automotive Plant (Likhachov Plant today) they found themselves in the middle of a bombing raid. Nevertheless they safely reached the city of Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod today) where they were able to repair the barge’s roof and load onboard art from the State Russian Museum. Moving further upstream along the Kama River they reached the city of Molotov (Perm today). Until the end of the period of temporary transfer M.M. Kolpakchi and I.V. Ovchinnikov were personally responsible for the Gallery’s collection in Molotov, although they were regarded as guardian for the Novosibirsk Gallery branch.
In Moscow on Lavrushinsky Pereulok, following the departure of the Gallery’s second cargo of art, the packaging and transfer to safer premises (bomb shelters, storage facilities) continued. By 20 September 1941 an additional 338 crates were ready for transportation, although the numbers of Gallery staff had significantly diminished. During the initial stages in the hostilities many workers enlisted in the army or the voluntary home guard. When the winter of 1942 arrived came, the staff at the Gallery were reduced due to evacuation, less than 30 people were left. It was cold in the Gallery halls, there was no heating, a biting wind blew everywhere and snow found its way in through the cracks in the walls. It was extremely difficult to protect exhibits in these conditions. On 26 November the third art transfer stage from the Gallery occurred. Another load of 109 crates was sent to Novosibirsk.
By late 1941 - early 1942 the Opera Theatre in Novosibirsk contained a huge quantity of art and cultural exhibits on a world scale. Exhibits from Leningrad museums (on a republican level) arrived there together with collections from Gorky, Smolensk and Suma museums. The stores accepted valuable exhibits from Ukrainian museums which had previously been transported to Abakan. September 1942 saw the fourth and the final stage in the transfer of art works from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. However, the Gallery’s operations on Lavrushinsky Pereulok continued. A small staff headed by the Gallery’s acting director S.I. Pronin continued the work of preserving more than 26,000 exhibits which were left in the Gallery’s store rooms. These were mainly graphic art, icons and furniture, including 12 crates of packed works. A huge amount of work registering and storing the several thousand frames and canvas stretchers belonging to the transported paintings was carried out from 1941-1943.
The Gallery staff at the Novosibirsk filial, who were responsible for the storage of the collection, faced some really unexpected dangers. They battled with moths, rats, mice, cement dust, water leaks and daily fires in the rooms belonging to their careless neighbours. They detained unknown people trespassing in the storage facilities. The most unexpected challenge came in March 1942 when Novosibirsk authorities decided to house the Belarus Opera in the building where museum property was stored. A number of storerooms needed to be emptied, orders were issued which enforced strict discipline. Theatre performances were later cancelled, however, in 1943 the building also housed staff from a theatre that had not been completed, as well as from the: Association for Concert Tours, Theatre Institute, Tonfilm storage facilities, storage facilities for the South Electricity Repairs group, Main Aviation Supplies, Mechanical Farriers No. 5. These neighbours created additional difficulties for the stores located on all the building’s floors.
The protection and transportation from the Tretyakov Gallery and the storage of exhibits at its branch were accompanied by intense educational work. From the first days of the war the Gallery staff gave lectures and talks in propaganda centres at railway stations, military units, hospitals and schools. The lectures, broadcasts and talks were not only delivered in Moscow, but also in Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Solikamsk, Krasnoyarsk and Molotov. During the transportation period the staff at the Gallery’s filial gave approximately 1,500 lectures on Russian art which were attended by more than 80,000 people. Later, in addition to lectures, they used photographs and reproductions to hold travelling exhibitions which were immensely popular.
Despite the damage inflicted by the bombing, the Tretyakov Gallery held exhibitions in Moscow. As soon as the intense cold of 1941 ended, they began to make preparations for an exhibition entitled, "Work by Moscow Artists during the Great Patriotic War" producing a catalogue for it. The exhibition took place from 15 July to 15 September 1942, in the halls at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.
In 1942 they began renovating the Gallery’s building. By the autumn of the same year they had installed glass in all the roof lights and windows, repaired the parquet floor in 13 halls, painted the walls and repaired the heating and ventilation systems. On 7 November the newly renovated halls housed the All-Union Art exhibition entitled, The Great Patriotic War.
During 1942-1943 and in early 1944 the Gallery staff continued its work to repair the building. At the same period the Gallery organised nine art exhibitions. The most remarkable of them was the All-Union Art Exhibition entitled, The Heroic Front and Rear which took place in Moscow from November 1943 to October 1944. From 1943 until 1944 the Gallery’s halls held a number of personal exhibitions by Soviet artists. Almost all of them issued catalogues to accompany them. In the summer of 1944 the Gallery celebrated the 100th anniversary of I.E. Repin’s birthday.
The exhibition work in Novosibirsk had one specific feature. The Opera Theatre lacked sufficient space, and exhibitions had to be organised in different rooms. Restoration experts monitored the temperature and humidity in these rooms. The Gallery’s research staff were divided into those on duty and consulting guides.
The first and the most important exhibition, entitled, The Best Works of Soviet Art was opened at the Convention Hall at the Novosibirsk Municipal Council in May 1942.
In the autumn after having moved crates in one of the storage rooms to make space the filial at the Novosibirsk Opera Theatre finally opened an exhibition entitled, "Russian Realistic Art of the 18th-20th Century". It was the first exhibition featuring works from the Tretyakov Gallery’s main collection ever held in Siberia. Its visitors admired the masterpieces by V.L. Borovikovsky, I.E. Repin, V.I. Surikov, V.M. Vasnetsov and F.I. Shubin. In 1942 the Gallery’s Novosibirsk filial together with Siberian artists organised a documentary exhibition entitled, "Siberian Artists During the Great Patriotic War".
From late 1941 to autumn 1944 around 20 exhibitions were held which were visited by more than 500,000 people. Many exhibitions were accompanied by catalogues printed on crude grey paper.
In 1942 the Gallery celebrated its first big anniversary: 50 years since P.M. Tretyakov bequeathed his collection to the city of Moscow. An album of reproductions of work in the Gallery collection was published to mark the event.
During the 30 months spent divided across Moscow, Novosibirsk and Molotov, the Gallery staff did not stop their research work. Gallery workers pursued their individual subjects, some of them defended their thesis during the war. Restoration experts at the Gallery’s filial solved problems regarding the lengthy preservation of painting and sculpture. From 1943-1944, when the battle front moved towards the West, a new type of work emerged: estimating the damage inflicted by war on art across the Soviet Union and other countries.
This work required tremendous concentration. Cold, hunger and poor housing conditions (sometimes two families had to share one room in Novosibirsk) were the background to this labour work. Forced work at timber felling and peat production sites was a sign of the times.
In 1943 an order was issued to create an inventory and registration of transferred museum art in preparation for their return. When they were able to return to Moscow depended on the condition of the Gallery building. Although, just 40 of the 52 halls at the Gallery were repaired by 1944, construction engineers examined the building and decided that the collection could be transported back. The re-transportation order was issued on 9 October 1944. On 30 October, thirty members of staff at the Gallery’s filial received passes which permitted them to enter Moscow.
In November 41 crates arrived at the Kazan Station from Molotov. Two weeks later 572 crates containing precious works from the Russian national treasury of art arrived in Moscow as well.
Several days before the collection arrived the temperature in the Gallery’s building was lowered to 5 degrees Celsius. Crates remained unpacked for several days to avoid dramatic gaps in the temperature and allow the art to adapt to the climate. The collection had come to dry warm rooms from the cold and damp climate of the Russian autumn. Finally, the crates were opened and the spools containing the paintings were unrolled. The committee comprising representatives from the Committee for Art, leading restoration specialists and art experts from Moscow found that the exhibits had remained in an excellent condition. Nothing was damaged, even I.E. Repin’s painting "Ivan the Terrible and his Son on 16 November 1581". While crates were unpacked, the Gallery halls were repaired, walls were plastered, floors were laid and lanterns and roof lights were glazed.
When the plans were drawn up for the new exposition, it was decided not to revive the pre-war exhibition. The new exposition mainly followed the chronological sections of Russian art and the principle of monographic presentation.
Hundreds of restored paintings were put on canvas stretchers and set in the renewed, bronzed frames. The most difficult task was hanging the huge canvas by A.A. Ivanov entitled The Appearance of Christ to the People and by V.I. Surikov entitled Boyarynya Morozova. Each of them was lifted and fixed to the wall with the help of almost 30 people.
On 17 May 1945 the State Tretyakov Gallery was one of the first museums to get up and running and open its doors to a grateful public. From early in the morning a huge number of visitors filled Lavrushinsky Pereulok. Representatives from the diplomatic corps, military personnel, leading scientists, writers, actors and artists were invited to witness the impressive ceremony. At 1 p.m. in the V.I. Surikov hall the grand opening began. Pride and joy filled the hearts of the participants. I.E. Grabar expressed the common feeling in his speech: "The opening of the Tretyakov Gallery is a true triumph for Soviet art. Its opening is a joy for all working people, intellectuals and artists who need it as they need air to breathe and for all art lovers".