In its infancy, the Imperial Life Guard Hussars was a prestigious, ceremonial regiment that performed reconnaissance and lifeguarding missions, but did not go into battle. After the Napoleonic Wars this changed and the Hussars began acquiring their almost mythical military status. Pushkin was fascinated by Hussars and wrote of his friend and poet P.P. Kaverin: “To friends he is a faithful friend, to women’s hearts a faithful torment, / And everywhere he goes—a Hussar.” Prince P.A. Vyazemsky, who was a leading figure of Russian Romanticism, said Hussarism was defined by “valour and a kind of autonomous Cossack mentality”. Literary critic V.G. Belinsky viewed the Hussar as a representative of the “truly Russian soul—ample, raw, potent, sprawling,” where “dashing revelries, a love of noisy feasts and the colourful life” were coupled with “a depth of feeling and dignity in thought and action”.
Count Vladimir Alexandrovich Stenbock-Fermor (1847-1896) formed part of the Imperial Life Guard Hussars; it was three dozen of his military friends and colleagues who awarded him the present lot in 1892. His brother Aleksei (1835-1916) was a highly-decorated officer in the same regiment, attaining the rank of lieutenant-general (Vladimir rose to colonel). Their father, Alexander Ivanovich Stenbock-Fermor (1809-1852), married the exceptionally wealthy Nadezhda Alekseevna Yakovleva and purchased property in central St Petersburg, as well as a town house north-west of the city. Backed by the Yakovlev millions, the Stenbock-Fermors became famous among St Petersburg’s aristocracy for throwing decadent balls and lively musical performances. Their historical footprint is strongest in Lakhta, outside the Russian ex-capital, where in the 1890s rose the grand house known as Beliy Zamok (The White Castle).
Despite the long inscription, comprised of eight panels, the reason for the gift from the Imperial Life Guard Hussars to one of their own remains unknown. Vladimir had fought in the Russo-Turkish War, but resigned from the army in 1879. Perhaps the occasion was his forty-fifth birthday. In the same year the candelabra were presented, Stenbock-Fermor began the construction of the Church of St Peter in Lakhta, for which he donated the land as well as twenty thousand roubles, which may have occasioned the gift. Along with Beliy Zamok, this church comprises the family’s greatest patrimony to their land. It commemorates the spot where Peter the Great was said to put his life at risk to save drowning soldiers.
Vladimir Stenbock-Fermor was buried in Tsarskoye Selo—the home of the Imperial Life Guard Hussars. His son Alexander managed to spoil the family’s finances in record time. The historian Igor Bogdanov uncovered a letter from the Countess, Nadezhda Alekseevna, to Emperor Nicolas II, dated 29 October 1903, where she bewails that her son has ruined the family: “From a capital of two million he has two hundred thousand left.” The Countess implored the Emperor to take financial custody of Alexander. The fact that this custody was granted on the following day attests to the close relationship the Stenbock-Fermors held with the court because of their history within the Imperial Life Guard Hussars.
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