Porcelain Sculptures of Kurds In the Russian Porcelain Collection In the State Hermitage Museum

Porcelain Sculptures of Kurds In the Russian Porcelain Collection In the State Hermitage Museum



Latif Mammad


At the beginning of the 20th century, the famous Russian sculptor P. Kamensky (1858–1923),  on request of the imperial family, performed in porcelain sculptures of representatives of different nationalities living in Russia. Among the figures there are paired figures of a Kurd and a Kurdish women. It is noteworthy that in this series, in addition to the Kurds, there are a couple of Persian figures, figures of Armenians, Georgian and Avar woman, but no Azerbaijani Turks (in pre-revolutionary Russia they were known as “Azerbaijani Tatars”), which indicates that special role and importance which the imperial court alloted to the Kurds.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the famous Russian sculptor P. Kamensky (1858–1923),  on request of the imperial family, performed in porcelain sculptures of representatives of different nationalities living in Russia. Among the figures there are paired figures of a Kurd and a Kurdish women. It is noteworthy that in this series, in addition to the Kurds, there are a couple of Persian figures, figures of Armenians, Georgian and Avar woman, but no Azerbaijani Turks (in pre-revolutionary Russia they were known as “Azerbaijani Tatars”), which indicates that special role and importance which the imperial court alloted to the Kurds.




The first porcelain enterprise in Russia, the Imperial Porcelain Factory (IPF) [1], was founded in St. Petersburg in 1744. The plant worked for the needs of the royal court, created unique works. With the accession of Catherine II (1762-1796). The manufactory receives the name “Imperial Porcelain Factory” (1765).

Apparently, illustrated editions of Russian and European researchers and travelers in the XVIII-XIX centuries contributed to the popularization of the ideas of cultural and ethnic diversity. Publication of the famous scientist and traveler, academician I.G. Georgi (1729 – 1802) – “Description of the peoples living in the Russian state, as well as their everyday rituals, faiths, habits, dwellings, clothes and other dignified memorabilia” served as the basis for the creation of the first series of the “Nationalities of Russia” performed at the Imperial Porcelain Factory during the reign of Catherine the Great. These figures in bright national costumes convey the occupation and lifestyle of representatives of different nations. These figures were intended for decoration of the tables during special events, their height was approximately 25 cm.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the development of folk themes for the Imperial Porcelain Factory products in St. Petersburg became traditional. And in 1907-1917, to the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov, by the Imperial order of Emperor Nicholas II, a series of figures “The Nationalities of Russia” was made at the IPF: three series of porcelain figures in national costumes of the nationalities of Russia were made. The order for the performance of the porcelain series “The Nationalities of Russia” was initiated personally by Emperor Nicholas II in early 1907, according to him the ideological significance of this collection was to demonstrate the greatness and power of the Russian empire in the vast expanses of Eurasia.

In the XVIII century, there were only rare books, illustrated with drawings and engravings depicting representatives of different nationalities, whereas in the early XX century access to such drawings became publicly available for almost all citizens – replicated pictures were printed in periodical magazines and newspapers, and even on cigarette packs. Figures from “ethnographic rarity”, “exotic depicted characters” have become, if not the closest neighbors, but at least easily recognizable residents of different regions of Russia.

But not be limited to, Nicholas II  requested the famous Russian photographer, chemist (Mendeleev’s student), inventor, publisher, teacher and public figure, member of the Imperial Russian geographical, Imperial Russian technical and Russian photographic societies Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944) to create a collection of photos of the Russian Empire. In 1909–1912, traveling for six years across the expanses of Russia, Prokudin-Gorsky made various photographs reflecting landscape and architectural views, as well as people inhabiting the most remote corners of the country — so the emperor could see his Russia. Numerous research expeditions also pursued the goal of studying and compiling an ethnographic picture of remote regions of Russia. As a result of these expeditions in art and literature of pre-revolutionary Russia, Kurdish theme appeared.

All work to implement the imperial order for the fulfilment of the figures of the “Nationalities of Russia” fell on the plant’s director, Baron N. B. Wolf, who was to appoint the chief sculptor, coordinate the work of the sculptural and artistic workshops, and involve outside organizations competent in ethnography and anthropology to compile a list of figures and sources for their correct reproduction.

Wolf himself did not have the necessary knowledge of ethnography and anthropology, so he turned for help directly to the Courtyard Cabinet. According to archival sources in February and March 1907, Wolf also personally sent letters to academic institutions and museums with a request to assist not only in finding new ways to implement the “Nationalities of Russia” series, but also to help draw up a list of nationalities living in Russia at the beginning of XX century.

The next stage was the search for authentic costumes, masks and mannequins. To this end, he addressed the director of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, academician, an outstanding  orientalist-turcologist of German origin, V. V. Radlov. Radlov said that the sculptors and artists from the plant will be provided with unimpeded access to the collections, the museum is ready to provide comfortable and spacious work areas, where they can work freely, having a circular access for reviewing dummies.

At the same time, Radlov volunteered not only to personally monitor the accuracy of the figures, but also to correct the list of figures for fulfillment. Neither Kamensky, nor Wolf could determine exactly which figures and in which composition were supposed to present a unified series of “The Nationalities of Russia”. Radlov came to their aid, and suggested using the results of the General Census of Population as a criterion for selecting figures. The census of 1897 was the first and only general census of the population of the Russian Empire. It was carried out on January 28, 1897 by a direct survey of the entire population on the same date, in accordance with the Nicholas’s decree of 1895.


The Kurds of Russia


The Kurds first appeared in the Russian borders after the Gulustan Treaty with Persia in 1813 (actually after the victories of Tsitsianov in 1804-1805), when Russia conquered the territory of Elizavetapol Governorate (now Ganja with Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan) and southern borders of the Russian Empire stretched far south. As a result of the Treaty of Turkmenchay [2] of 1828, the Erivan Kurds [3] moved away from Persia to Russia and, finally, in 1878 the number of representatives of this nationality in Russia increased by their Kars and Ardahan tribesmen and the Avadzhik Khanate – the only place where the Turks (the Ayrumly tribe), moreover, the later migrants, interrupt a continuous strip of Kurds [4]. The Russian subjects became first of all, the Kurds of Erivan, Nakhichevan and Caucasian Kurdistan, covering a large part of Nagorno-Karabakh – the object of the current Armenian-Azerbaijani discord.

In March 1828, the Armenian region was formed from the territories of the Erivan and Nakhichevan khanates, where Armenians from Iran and Turkey were allowed to resettle, some of them took an advantage of this permission and, under the patronage of royal Russia, moved to the territory of the newly formed region. So, before moving to the present territory of Armenia, the majority of the population were Kurds and Turks (current Azerbaijanis).

In Russia, the Kurds as a whole lived in “parts of the Erivan province that are adjacent to Ararat, some areas in the Ardagan and Kagyzmansk districts of the Kars region, in the Zangezursk and Dzhevanshirsk districts (partly in the Areshsk and Dzhibrailsk districts) of the Elysavetpolsk province. These last Kurds, by some strange chance, were not divided into a special group by the last census, and in 1910, the Erivan and Kars Kurds were estimated at 125,000 people, out of which there were 25,000 Yezidis”[5]. The census of 1897 recorded almost 100 thousand Kurds in the Russian Empire (53,012 men and 46,937 women, a total of 99,949 people) [6].

Russian historian N.A. Khalfin wrote: “With the end of the Russian – Iranian war (1804-1813) and the transition to the Russian empire (as part of other lands) of the Karabakh khanate, among the nationalities of the empire appeared the populated this khanate Kurds” [7].


Therefore, it is quite natural that Emperor Nicholas II chose and approved the models of his subjects, including the Kurds, who turned out to be in the territories conquered by Russia, for who these territories have been their habitat since time immemorial.

By that time, Russian researchers had accumulated enough material about the Kurds, who in the pre-revolutionary literature were called “Kurtins”.

Models for the porcelain figures of the imperial order were served by the mannequins of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), ethnographic department of  the Russian Museum of His Imperial Majesty Alexander III.

In the late XIX – early XX century ethnographers and anthropologists worked on developing a precise definition of “nationality” and “ethnicity.” Radlov suggested to start from cultural anthropology, which deals with the study of human behavior and the results of its activities, as well as language affiliation. Thus it will be much easier to define the criteria for creating figures. According to the collected information, such nationalities turned out to be 150. In a report to the Minister of the Court, Wolf informed that “if men and women figures were performed for each nation, the total number of figures to be made would be 400 pcs. Taking into account, however, that some of the figures have common clothes and differ slightly in type, 73 national figures, i.e. 146 individual figures, are currently scheduled for fulfillment. Of course, the lists of “nationalities” were coordinated with the cabinet of the Court, for which, in addition to ethnographic and anthropological accuracy, a political issue was no less important.

The composition of the figures indirectly reflected the priorities of the Customer in this matter.

Kurdish woman from Surmali, Northern Kurdistan


Sketches and models of figures were created by a graduate of the Imperial Academy of Arts, the famous sculptor P.P. Kamensky (1858-1923). The series was devoted to 73 nationalities and national types and consisted of 146 individual figures with great care reproducing the characteristic features of anthropological types and details of clothing decorations. In the period from 1907 to 1917, P.P. Kamensky created about 150 models (large and small version). A total of 146 casting molds were created.

The largest collection of these figures is currently kept in the Hermitage, the collection of the Russian Ethnographic Museum has 47 figures. The presented figures from the large series “The Nationalities of Russia” were made in 1908 – 1914 by moulders A. Lukin, P. Shmakov, K. Zakharov, A. Dietrich, I. Zotov and painted by artist M. Gertsik.

On the outer side of the bases, the sculptor’s facsimile and date are usually stamped. Signatures on the inner surface refer to the fulfillment of a specific copy. Here the name of the model is scratched by hand. A chrome-handwritten stamp — Nicholas II’s pressmark under the crown — is usually accompanied by a date indicating the year the copy was executed. Above it there are handwritten initials or the full name of the sculptor of the moulder, stamped or written by hand.

In contrast to the series of figures of Catherine’s time, the sculptor Kamensky, when creating this series, did not use a common, “collective” image, but precisely identified each figure. The sculptor used the latest results of historical, ethnographic knowledge. Passing certain features of each nationality in china, Kamensky, with the help of specialists from the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography and The State Russian Museum, “spoke the porcelain language” about the traditions and characteristics of each nationality of the Russian Empire as a dialectical phenomenon, connected not only with the past, but with the present and, if possible, the future.

Each figure was separately discussed and approved for execution, moreover, both from the point of view of accuracy in the transfer of sculptural elements, and in the selection of the correct color range. Artists of the porcelain factory paid special attention to the “coloristic accuracy.” Their tasks included not only the correct selection of colors for coloring national costumes, but also paint for skin color. Equally important was the transfer of the correct shape and color of hair. The correct color of the iris pigmentation was also been followed.

Thus, among the figures approved by the Russian emperor and performed by Kamensky, there also appeared figures of the Kurd man and the Kurdish woman. Judging by the clothes, you can try to localize their habitat – this is the Transcaucasus, the neighborhood of Van, Kars, Surmali and Ardahan. In the Ethnographic Museum of Tbilisi, Georgia, there are valuable materials on the material culture of the Kurds – photographs, drawings, household items and clothing of the Kurds. Among them are also contained photographs that were probably used in the creation of sculptures, since in style and coloring, especially for women, they are very similar to the clothes shown on the figures.


Porcelain sculpture of a Kurdish man


Kurdish male clothes


A male Kurdish national costume consists of the following elements: on the man’s head is Klav (kolav) – a fixing felt hubcap (cap) with a bright head scarf mshki (meshki) wrapped around it.


Kurdish sword Shamshir


The shawl is a 4-square on the edges, with or without a fringe, about a meter and a half in length. The famous kurdologist V. Nikitin wrote: “They wear a wide silk scarf on their heads — red, white, and blue — trimmed with the fringe and elegantly tied on a red yarmulke. The broad folds of the shawl, gathered in a baldric, and the long fringe fall in a fantastic mess. They have purely Saracenic lineament, and black shiny eyes sparkle with some special shine under such a headdress ”[8]. Outerwear is something like a jacket or raincoat made of a Venetian raspberry-colored fabric with a beautiful gold pattern, a sleeveless jacket is a vest (salta) on a caftan with wide sleeves, wide pants, and around the waist is repeatedly wrapped a wool or cotton belt (pesht) up to 3 m long.


Kurdish Handjar (Dagger)


The armament consists of a pistol tucked into a wide belt, a Kurdish handjar (dagger) engraved or inlaid with silver; sword (Şemşîr “Shamshir”) and a shield hung on a belt over the shoulder (mertel). At the man’s feet – high red boots, emphasizing his belonging to the highest Kurdish nobility.


Kurdish Shield Mertal



This is how the writer H. Abovyan, the founder of modern Armenian literature, describes a Kurdish man:

A Kurd can be distinguished at first glance by a courageous, significant and total expression of posture, inspiring at the same time involuntary fear; by its gigantic growth, broad chest, powerful shoulders. In addition, distinguishing features of a Kurdish man are: big fiery eyes, thick eyebrows, high forehead, a long bent eagle nose, a firm gait, in short, all the accessories of ancient heroes.


Kurdish woman clothes


Porcelain sculpture of a Kurdish woman



Details on the sculpture also reflect the clothing of a Kurdish woman of the early 20th century: on the woman’s head, the main attribute of a married woman – a headdress (kofi, fino), wrapped in green, yellow and red fabrics (scarves) – in traditional national colors, like men ones, and on top is a white shawl. Kurdish women wear headscarves regardless of religious affiliation. “The veil among the Kurds is not known, women never cover their faces” [9].

According to the ancient Iranian-Kurdish traditions, we can assume that three colors are mandatory for all Kurds in accordance with the sacred Zoroastrian number, which reflects the essence and content of this doctrine: “pure thoughts → pious intention → noble deeds”, which were marked with corresponding colors. This symbolism of colors in accordance with the division of society into classes (royal or military class (since the king is necessarily a warrior and comes from the military class) corresponded to gold and red, and to priests – silver and white. The class of free congregations initially corresponded to green) still retained its reflection in the views of the Kurds, according to which: the red color symbolizes the blood of the fallen during the national liberation movement for independence (warriors), the green color – the beauty of the landscape and scenery (farmers and cattlemen) of Kurdistan, white – purity and holiness (priests, clergy) and the crown of it all is a life-asserting sun (yellow color).

The same colors are reflected in all versions of the Kurdish flag, where “The colors of the flag mean: white is a sign of the pure heart of the Kurds, red is the blood of the perished, green is the nature of Kurdistan” [10].

The famous Kurdish writer Moussa Antar wrote that “The white color of the flag means peace, red means blood and revolution, green is the wealth of Kurdistan and Mesopotamia, and the sun is a symbol of the ancient faith of the Kurds – Zardasht” [11].

Despite the loss of national independence, the Kurds cherish and honor the symbols of their ancient beliefs and traditions. The ancient Hurrian (proto-Kurdish) belief in the triune God (Tesshub (Bull, Thunderer), Hepat (Cow – Hebu, Hebatu) and Tilla (calf – Kumarve), which is reflected in the sacred Zoroastrian triune number, reveals its essence and content (“pure thoughts → pious intention → noble deeds”), marked with appropriate colors, preserved in the culture and life of the Kurdish people. Kurdish women for thousands of years wear scarves with three colors, known as Hev(t)reng (“Rainbow”, versicoloured in red, yellow and green) [12]. These three colors are on women clothing and carpets are dominant. The main attribute of Kurdish women and men clothing is a wide belt woven from wool (piştî, men’s white (gray), women’s decorated in one of three colors or all three colors), which is wrapped in three turns on top of all clothes. A greeting during the meeting of the guest (guests) must be heard three times: “Du (Hun) ser çeva hatiy (hatine)! Du (Hun) ser sera hatiy (hatine)! Du (Hun) xêyr hatiy (hatine)!” [13]. The oath must be repeated three times. In superstitions, sneezing three times was considered luck.

The Kurdish woman has a nasal decoration (kerefil), and on the sides of the face two strands of hair are lowered — guli (quli), as befits a married Kurdish woman. The woolen belt (bene peshte, pshteni) 3-4 meters long, made of light fragile fabric, is twisted counterclockwise; the traditional complex includes: shirt (kras), bloomers (hevalkras), vest (elek), skirt (navdeere, tuman), wrist sleeves (davzang), woolen stockings (gore), shoes.


Traditional Kurdish colors: Kurdish kilim


“Finally, one single feature seems common to all Kurds – this is their manner of dressing and wearing shoes, as well as the richness and variety of colors. Kurdish clothing is never monochrome, dull. It always amazes the eye with the contrast of it shades. It is possible that the surrounding nature with its green pastures, strewn with flowers, blue transparent sky, waterfalls — this whole rich ensemble of living colors developed in the Kurds the taste of the artist, which is constantly manifested in theirs clothes and in many household items: carpets, large felt mats, pillows, partitions and so on. The social significance of clothing should also not elude the reader’s attention,” wrote V. Niktin [14].





  1. After the revolution, from 1917 to 1925, it became known as the “State Porcelain Factory”, from 1925 to 1936 – “The State Porcelain Factory named after Lomonosov” and from 1936 – “Leningrad Porcelain Factory named after Lomonosov.”
  2. On February 10, 1828, according to the Turkmenchay peace treaty, the Persian shah transferred the Khanate “in full ownership” of the Russian Empire.
  3. On October 5, 1827, Erivan, where Sardar (local ruler) was a Kurd, was taken by General Paskevich, who received the title of Count Erivan
  4. V.F. Minorsky. The Kurds. Notes and impressions (with the map attached). Petrograd, 1915. (Separate reprint from the ” News of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”, 1915, No. 3). P.2.
  5. V.F. Minorsky, acc. cit., p.2.
  6. First General Census of the Russian Empire in 1897, ed. N.A.Troyinitsky. V.II. Imperial General Summary of the results of the development of data from the First General Population Census, produced on January 28, 1897. St. Petersburg, 1905. Table XIII. Distribution of population by native language.
  7. Khalfin N. A. The fight for Kurdistan. P. 39. M., 1963.
  8. V. Nikitin. The Kurds. Translation from French by I.O. Farizov. Publishing house “Progress”. Moscow 1964 P.161.
  9. V. Nikitin, acc. cit., p. 161.
  10. Hawar (kowaga kurdi – Kurdish magazine). Sham (Damascus), 1932, No. 11 (10.11.1932). Prym E. and Sosin A. Kirdische Sammlungon. St. Peterburg, 1887. P. 64.
  11. Мusа Аnter. Hatiralarim. R.61-62. Doz Yayinlari. Istanbol, 1990.
  12. For details on the symbolism of colors, see the Kurdish flag. http://www.kurdist.ru/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=331
  13. Literally, “You to our eyes, came to our heads and came to good arrived (came)!” (Which means: “You came as a light to our eyes, as a royal person, and to goodness you arrived (came) to our house!”
  14. V. Nikitin. The Kurds. Translation from French by I.O. Farizov. Publishing house “Progress”. Moscow 1964 P.161.

P.S. In writing this article, Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya, the Keeper of the Russian Porcelain Department of Russian Art of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, has greatly helped me, for which I am overly grateful for the materials provided.


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