The Panoptic Gaze and the Panoramic View in and of Late 18th and Early 19th Century Imperial Russia

Tanja Zimmermann
In the Russian Empire, the panoptic gaze and the panoramic view developed and were closely intertwined from the late eighteenth century onward. Both scopic regimes required a specific organisation of space and visibility in order to establish a dual relation between the observers and the observed, as was the case in the cinematograph that emerged later. This article aims to reconstruct their interconnection, starting from the “inspection trip” that Empress Catherine II made to Crimea in 1787 and drawing in descriptions and depictions from contemporary newspapers, travelogues, and paintings. During the early nineteenth century, the newly established public life of the promenades and parks in Saint Petersburg was captured by both viewing regimes; however, the distance between the observers and the observed was reduced. At the same time, a new form of moving panoramas emerged, such as The Promenade to Catherinehof on May 1, 1824-25 by Karl von Hampeln (Karl K. Gampel’n), who introduced various self-reflecting motifs of seeing and observing into his carnivalesque procession. The same visual and spatial phenomena were also described in contemporary city feuilletons about Saint Petersburg, dedicated to early tourist excursions, which were closely linked to the imperial and dynastic memory cultures. The author analyses a feuilleton about the Catherinehof promenade written by the journalist and publisher Fadei (Tadeusz) Bulgarin, who participated in it. After the suppressed Decembrist uprising in 1825, the distance between the observers and the observed again increased, as in the Panorama of Nevskii Prospect by Ivan A. Ivanov from 1830-35. Around 1900, when panoramas began to compete with the early cinematograph, the cinematic Panorama of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the Pavilion of the Russian Provinces at the World’s Fair in Paris conflated the imperial and the tourist gazes, exhibition and self-representation, the panoptic gaze and the panoramic view. Finally, the author traces both the scopic regimes in urban film and cinema trains during the 1920-30s and in Aleksandr Sokurov’s film Russkii kovcheg / Russian Ark (2002, Russia, Germany, Japan, Canada, Finland and Denmark).
Russian Empire; panopticon; panorama; scopic regimes; gaze; view; Potemkin villages; public life; feuilleton; promenade; tourism.


The Panoptic Gaze in Russia

The Panoramic View in Russia





Suggested Citation


During the late 1780s, two forms of scopic regimes began to play an important role in social life – the panoptic gaze and the panoramic view, both associated with the emergence of the new public sphere and its apparatuses for maximised visual capture. Despite their related etymology – pan opticós (παν οπτικός) and pan hórāma (παν όραμα), which both convey the idea of being all-seeing – they were, at first glance, part of two entirely different spheres of life. While the former became the instrument of an emerging disciplinary society that started to employ profound surveillance mechanisms in order to increase efficiency in the areas of hygiene, pedagogy, and work – as Michel Foucault (1995: 195-203) stated in his study Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (1975) – the latter was linked to the increasing mobility of the emerging leisure and travel culture (Schivelbusch 2011: 51-56). The two scopic regimes merged during colonial conquests and imperial expansions that opened up new territories for their use, in both political and economic contexts and in the world of tourism. Despite there being significant differences between the two forms of seeing, Foucault (in a footnote) drew parallels between Jeremy Bentham’s “inspection house” as a panoptic prison and Robert Barker’s monumental circular painting of an urban landscape with its surroundings. He saw these parallels in the binary organisation of observing and being observed (Foucault 1995: 317). The architectural design in both examples stated above – a circular building with a darkened observation tower in the centre and a clearly visible illuminated outer zone – reinforced this asymmetry, he felt:

Imagining this continuous flow of visitors entering the central tower by an underground passage and then observing the circular landscape of the Panopticon, was Bentham aware of the Panoramas that Barker was constructing at exactly the same period (the first seems to have dated from 1787) and in which visitors, occupying the central place, saw unfolding around them a landscape, a city or a battle. The visitors occupied exactly the place of the sovereign gaze. (Foucault 1995: 317)

While Foucault states that anyone who enters the tower in the centre is able to “democratically” seize the sovereign power of omniscience, panorama specialist Stephan Oettermann further specified the spatial conditions for both scopic regimes:

Panopticon and Panorama, two words with identical meanings (all-seeing) for an identical, and yet again not identical thing. [...] And how justified the analogous naming is, is revealed by a comparative look at both buildings so designated […]. Both are circular buildings constructed around an observation platform, whereby these platforms are separated from the periphery by an unbridgeable gap. What is also striking about both buildings is the roof construction of triangular elevation over a circular ground plan. This completely new roof construction, hitherto entirely unusual in architecture, came about through the effort to direct as much light as possible from the inside onto the periphery of the building, but to leave its centre in darkness. [...] The relationships between prisoner and guard, between landscape and visitor to the panorama are radically limited to the purely visual; because all other conceivable and possible contacts between periphery and centre are excluded by the sensual construction of the two buildings, in which the one in the centre alone is reduced to the optical, condemned to seeing and only to seeing. (Oettermann 1980: 35, 36; translated by the author)1

While scholars such as Foucault and Oettermann drew parallels between the panorama and the panopticon, others have instead stressed the differences between them. Peter Otto (2012: 43, 45-63), for example, argues that both apparatuses, although establishing a similar relation between observers and observed, ultimately lead to different results. While the panorama only simulates reality, the panopticon tries to change it through the power of imagination. Citing Jeremy Bentham, Otto argues that prisoners who are under (imagined) observation begin to behave differently, thereby creating a new reality. However, as Otto concludes, Bentham had probably been influenced by Barker’s panorama, as he perceived the panoptic prison as a kind of entertainment for prison inspectors and visitors. Tim Barringer (2020: 83, 84) perceives the panorama as a medium that succeeded in conveying an unprecedented feeling of freedom, in an artistic and commercial sense, and which could be enjoyed by the mobile urban middle class. He therefore disagrees with Oettermann’s panorama metaphor, considering it a “prison of the eye” (alluding, however, to the illusionist and immersive power of the medium) and clearly distinguishing it from the panopticon.

Despite the differences in architecture and purpose between the panoptic gaze and the panoramic view, I will follow Foucault and Oettermann in order to underline both the close interconnectedness of these two apparatuses, as they emerged in the Russian Empire, and their specific, imperial features.

Both observing regimes appeared in the period of 1784–87, during the preparations for the inspection trip of Empress Catherine II to Crimea, recently annexed, both were the outcome of a complex transfer between Russian tradition and Western modernism. In the Russian Empire, neither of the viewing regimes really belonged to the urban middle class, which developed some time later and which was characterised by major social differences. Therefore, both observing regimes remained closely linked to the Emperor and his bureaucracy, and, subsequently, to the Bolshevik regime.2

With their specific lighting and illumination of painted walls, panoramic buildings that served as spaces of mass culture played an important role in the later development of the cinematograph. Huge panoramic images, which the spectators could experience in minute details and, at the same time, synthetic continuum, anticipated the film experience (Engell 1995: 53-55). The invention of the cinema, as Vanessa R. Schwartz (1994: 177-199) argues, should not be understood only as a product of new technologies and a break with the pre-celluloid spectacular culture; its continuities in mass spectatorship, which can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, are also relevant: “The cinematic ‘effect,’like that of the panorama or wax museum, is not simply technologically generated.” (Schwartz 1994: 179). For her, the term “cinematic effect” does not refer only to the specific visual experience of moving images, but also to that of mass communication, which had a predecessor in urban spectacles such as promenades, the illustrated press, morgues, and wax museums. These phenomena of urban culture became “a mass cultural equivalent to universal education,” unifying “a variety of viewing positions: both individual and socially determined.” (Schwartz 1994: 202, 203). At the same time, material culture exhibited for observation was gradually replaced by multisensory experience and reality simulations (Schwartz 1994: 203), a development that can be compared to the progress of digital media and social networks today.

Besides the huge, circular panoramas, which were generally bound to a specially constructed building, there was another type of panorama: the mechanically moving panorama, which perhaps played an even greater role in the emergence of the cinematic moving image, as Ralph Hyde (1993) and Erkki Huhtamo (2012: 6-15) have argued. While, through Robert Barker’s invention, large circular panoramas with landscape and city views had been introduced all over Europe by the end of the eighteenth century, moving panoramas were developed slightly later, in around 1820, and reached their peak in around 1900. Like the film reels that would emerge later, moving panoramas operated with various rolling mechanisms that were not necessarily bound to a specific place. They could be taken on tours and shown over and over again to a changing audience. These panoramas were usually smaller and could easily be rolled up for transport. Oettermann (1980: 55) distinguishes this new phase in the development of moving images from the static, monumental panoramas in round buildings and includes them in the tradition of courtly processions. In such stripe or length panoramas (German: Streifen- oder Längenpanoramen), he claims, it is not the illusionistic-immersive landscape that plays the central role, but the effects of movement and narration. Hyde (1993) differentiates between peristrephic panoramas with individual images, and continuous, floating panoramas with stretched motifs depicting a travel experience. These panoramas were accompanied by a speaker who explained their narratives in the manner of a travel guide. Huhtamo (2012: 7) perceives both types, monumental and moving panoramas, as part of a common, although pluralist, development: “The moving panoramas were inspired by the circular panorama, but their forms and cultural identity were quite different”. He searches for their precursors in various forms of popular culture, such as peep boxes and the laterna magica, or in artistic imports, such as Egyptian and Asian scrolls, which became popular at this time by way of colonial conquests and discovery voyages (Huhtamo 2012: 29-64). The small moving panoramas that mostly depict boulevards and promenades are sometimes called “picture rolls,” “roll panoramas,” or “scroll panoramas” (Huhtamo 2013); in German they are also called “Zimmerpanoramen” (home panoramas) and “Kleinstpanoramen” (miniature panoramas) (von Plessen 1993: 252, 253). Although such panoramas were not bound to specific space constructions, they developed similar self-reflective motifs of seeing and observing, anticipating the panoramic view and the panoptic gaze, as, for example The Promenade to Catherinehof (Ekateringofskoe gulianie, 1824-25, etching and aquatint, aquarelle and gouache, 1000 x 10 cm) by Karl von Hampeln / Karl Karlovich Gampel´n (1794–1808). In the next section, I use the term “moving panorama” for both those panoramic scrolls and strips which can be unfolded by hand, and for large, mechanically moving panoramas, due to their common characteristic of moving, unrolling, and linear narrating. Further, I link them to the simultaneously emerging city feuilleton about Saint Petersburg, in which both concepts – observing and being observed – also play a central role.

In an interview, published under the title “The Eye of Power,” Foucault (1989: 226-240) further emphasised that the new scopic regime of the panopticon (and of the panorama) was not only bound to a specific monumental architecture but could also be extended to the entire organisation of space for political and economic purposes, and indeed also to geopolitics. It governs different collective aspects of life in space, movement, and accumulation and distributes not only power but also wealth, profit, and consumption. In the following section, I will focus on the spatial aspect of the two forms of observation that played a significant role in shaping Russian public spaces in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was precisely this specific constellation of seeing and observing in space that later enabled the rapid development of film and its use both as a medium of entertainment and a means of surveillance. As several researchers have pointed out, the idea of the panoptic gaze was closely linked to the sojourn of the Bentham brothers in Russia (Anderson 1956; Christie 1993; Werrett 1999; Werrett 2008; Stanziani 2014). This form of control was planned to be exercised for the first time on Prince Potemkin’s estate in Krichev in 1784-87. However, the plans for the manufactories that should have been arranged in circular rays, diverging from a central building with an observatory, from where the workers were to be supervised, were never actually realised (Steadman 2012: 27-29).

Both scopic regimes, the panoptic and the panoramic, could be further developed during Catherine II’s “inspection tour” to Crimea in 1787, where the whole landscape was staged for observing what was also underlined with ephemeral constructions, such as the so-called “Potemkin villages”. In the tradition of that spectacular journey, I would finally like to include the propagandistic cinema trains (kinopoezda) that, during the 1920s and the 1930s, travelled to the remotest parts of the Soviet empire in order to spread communist propaganda and, at the same time, to take pictures of reconstruction work in the provinces. The films that were shown on these trains not only painted the new socialist reality in bright colours; the spectators became actors and had to participate in the movies, thereby showing discipline and the successful process of self-correction (Heftberger 2015; Kirn 2015). Thus both scopic regimes merged again – this time under new technical and media conditions.

The Panoptic Gaze in Russia

As Foucault (1995: 213) observes, the idea of the panopticon had emerged long before Jeremy Bentham first wrote down the idea of an “inspection house” after his stay in Russia in 1787. Among other things, he also points to Catherine the Great’s Great Instruction / Nakaz from 1769, which – in Article 535 of the Supplement – instructs the police to register “everything that happens,” “those things of every moment,” also “unimportant things.” In an interview, Foucault (1989: 226-240) also mentions that Jeremy Bentham considered his younger brother Samuel (1757–1831) to be the real inventor of the panopticon. He had devised the idea while visiting the dormitories at the military academy in Paris. Igor Fedyukin (2016) further investigated this matter and discovered that several measures to monitor the cadets had already been put in place from the time of the founding of the Cadet Corps in Saint Petersburg in 1731, when it was first housed in the Menshikov Palace. Here the cadets were supervised not only by the teaching staff but also by mutual control and self-reporting. The plans for a new panoptic building proposed in 1725 by Field Marshal Burkhard Christoph von Münnich (1683–1767) were, however, never realised, and they have not been preserved. However, the director of the Paris Military Academy, Joseph Pâris-Duverney (1684–1770), did know of these plans and had them in mind when he constructed a new building for the Ecôle Militaire in 1751. Fedyukin has been able to confirm this based on sources held in the Paris National Archives. He linked the surveillance discourse, which had already begun under Peter the Great, to the influence of German Pietism, whose ideas were spread among the Russian military by Field Marshal Münnich and Count Heinrich Johann Friedrich von Ostermann (1686–1747). These ideas also made their way into Archbishop Feofan Prokopovich’s (1681–1736) educational reform of priests. During the reform period of Catherine the Great, the idea of surveillance as an educational method survived but was never implemented in architecture in the form of a panopticon.

The plans for a panopticon, which were further developed during the stay of the Bentham brothers in Russia, have been reconstructed by Simon Werrett (1999; 2008). He has also brought to the fore the specific elements in eighteenth century Russian culture that favoured this development. Samuel Bentham, Jeremy’s brother, came to Saint Petersburg in 1780 as a ship’s engineer, where he first worked for an English shipping company. Four years later, he entered the service of Prince Grigorii Potemkin (1739–1791), whom he assisted with his technical knowledge and inventiveness in shipbuilding, manufacturing, and horticulture on Potemkin’s large estate of over 20,000 men in the Krichev district in the province of Mogilev. The huge landholding, in what is now southern Belarus, was annexed by the Russian Empire during the first Polish partition in 1772 and served to supply the Russian navy in the newly built port of Kherson on the Black Sea. Samuel also assisted Potemkin in his preparation for Catherine the Great’s “inspection trip” to Crimea in 1787, which had been in preparation, at huge expense, since the annexation of Crimea in 1783. Jeremy, who was in constant correspondence with his brother Samuel, followed him to Crimea in 1786-87 (Christie 2017). The key objective of the surveillance project was not to supervise the Russian serf peasants, but to observe the lack of discipline among the expensive foremen from England and the tension between different ethnic groups. However, as Potemkin sold his estate in 1787, these plans were never realised. Instead, in 1807 Samuel built a circular Panopticon “School of Arts”, a manufacture, on the Okhta River in Saint Petersburg, for Emperor Alexander I, in order to train craftsmen and shipbuilders. Philip Steadman (2012) discovered this, based on his research of archival sources of the Russian navy and the writings of Samuel’s wife, Mary Sophie Bentham (1765–1858), published in contemporary engineering and architecture periodicals. The school building was made up of a polygonal drum that contained three concentric rings and annular galleries in the centre as well as five radiant wings for the classrooms. Due to some weak points in this concept, such as poor observation possibilities, as Steadman (2012: 18, 19) has pointed out, the panoptic architecture did not spread throughout the Russian Empire. The building burnt down in 1818 and did not find any successors. Perhaps the fact that Siberia was a landscape prison, with its harsh climatic conditions and huge distance from urban life, circumstances which made an escape almost impossible, led to the panopticon being considered redundant. However, panoptic buildings became successful in nineteenth-century prison architecture in Europe and the United States of America, where the panopticon concept was further developed (Steadman 2012: 22-27). The architecture was adapted for academies and schools of art, privileged arena-like spaces where one had to follow the teacher’s instructions, or theatrical stages for observing the models for painting.

Werrett (1999) links the emergence of the panopticon not only to control needs in education and work but also to the theatricality and stage-like performance of courtly society in the age of absolutism. With Catherine’s inspection trip to Crimea in 1787, the culture of spectacle reached a peak when the entire landscape and its people were transformed into a stage on her route. As Andreas Schönle (2001) has pointed out, the aim of the tour was to impress the Empress by showing her the rapid cultivation of the newly conquered territories and to confirm her in her role as enlightened “gardener” in the new Russian Eden. Finally, Werrett derives further impulses for the emergence of the Panopticon from the asymmetry of vision in the relationship between God and the faithful in the Orthodox church space. The iconography of the Orthodox cross-domed churches, which prescribes the depiction of the stern-eyed Christ Pantokrator high up in the central dome, can be compared to the panoptic duality of vision. The horizontal visual axis of observers and observed in the panopticon is here replaced by a vertical one: the observing eye of God at the top of the church and the observed believers standing under the dome. Another similar scopic regime also establishes the iconostasis, which hides the Eucharistic transformation in the bema, the sanctuary, from the eyes of the faithful. However, according to orthodox religious interpretation, the separating architectural element should not be perceived as a visual barrier but rather as a “window in the wall,” through which the saints observe the faithful (Florenskij 1990: 70). The invention of the panopticon can therefore be perceived not only as a Western import to Russia but also as the product of a complex West-Eastern or East-Western transfer.

The Panoramic View in Russia

Catherine’s six-month inspection tour, between January and July 1787, which she undertook together with her court and foreign statesmen, from Tsarskoe selo via Polotsk (Belorusian: Polatsk), Mogilev (Belorusian: Mohilev), Kyiv, and along the Dnipro River to Crimea was not only intended to satisfy her curiosity or meant as a political triumphal procession. It also had the character traits of a pleasure trip (Brückner 1873; Adamczyk 1930; Jobst 2012). The Empress and her companions were led along a precise route, which was described in the brochure The Journey of Her Imperial Highness to the Southern Part of the Country, undertaken in 1787 / Puteshestvie Eia Imperatorskago Velichestva v poludennyi krai Rossii, predpriemlemoe v 1787 godu that had already been published in 1786. It can be understood as an early travel guide that provided information on geographical locations, their history, or the ethnic groups living there, such as Crimean Tatars, “Little Russians” (Ukrainians and Poles), German colonists, Cossacks, Jews, and many others (Lehtonen 1907: 609, 610). It also supplied background information on economic aspects as well as on interesting sights and buildings. Following all this information, the exact distance between two stations was specified so that the travellers could plan stops and horse changes, and arrange for food supply – exactly as one would do when on a tourist trip. People who travelled through the festively staged countryside with its newly built or rebuilt old palaces to the plans of Charles Cameron (1743–1812) and William Hastie (Russian: Vasilii Geste) (1753–1832) (Brett 2005: 22-50) and the English-style landscape gardens designed by William Gould (1735–1812) and James Meader (1760–1790s) (Werrett 2008: 56), obeyed a precise spatio-temporal direction as one would when in a theatre or on an organised travel tour.

Count Louis Philippe de Ségur (1753-1830), the French envoy to Russia, and Prince Josephe de Ligne (1735–1814), a diplomat in the Austrian service, reported on the tour in their memoirs and correspondence (Montefiore 2000: 293, 364-367, 370-379). Their assessment was strongly oriented towards their respective political camps: the former orientalised and the latter romanticised Crimea (Jobst 2001). To demonstrate the dimension of media and the echo of this event, which lasted several months, I would like to add two further sources. The anonymous travelogue Taurian Journey of Empress of Russia Catherine II / Taurische Reise der Kaiserin von Russland Katharina II), translated, in 1799, from an unnamed English source into German and published in Koblenz, gives further insights into the trip. The author, who himself participated in the journey as far as Kherson, describes the spectacles on the monumental landscape stage, such as musical parades, dances, and banquets, ceremonial receptions and the exchange of gifts, the display of galleys, cavalry, and the ethnic groups living there. The entire process seems to have resembled the later established World’s Fairs that demonstrated Imperial power and technical progress. Along the route, wide streets were laid out; ramparts, walls, gates, and palisades were erected (Anon. 1799: 123). At an entrance gate in Kherson, the inscription “through this gate goes the road to Byzantium” had been carved, which placed the journey in the context of the “Greek project” – political plans coined together with the Habsburg empire for the future conquest of Constantinople (Anon.: 123). Prior to Catherine’s arrival, fields had been ploughed at great speed to create the impression of a cultivated landscape (Anon.: 142, 143). Travellers moved as if they were following a painted panorama, impressively staged not only by natural light but also by artificial lighting such as fireworks. The riverbanks of the Dnipro were particularly suitable for the spectacle. While travellers moved along the dark river, the high banks were brightly illuminated. This was reported by the Vienna newspaper Wiener Zeitung which attentively followed the journey, since Emperor Joseph II also took part in it. In Kanev (Ukrainian: Kaniv; Polish: Kaniów) on the Dnipro, which was at that time on the Russian-Polish border, Catherine was received by her former favourite and now King of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski, who organised a spectacular firework display:

A great column with a thousand lamps showed the Empress’s name from three sides, and the mountain was cut with furrows, from which pine wood and other inflammable material blazed up in flames. On the shore were carriages for the king and all who came with him; as they drove into the castle, cannons were fired, and then great fireworks were set off (Wiener Zeitung 42, 1787: 1260).3

The illumination reflected in the water enhanced the magnificent glow (Wiener Zeitung 50, 1787: 1502, 1503).4 This moment was captured by the Polish court painter of Saxonian origin, Jan Bogumił Plersch (1731–1818), the son of the sculptor Jan Jerzy Plersch (Kaczmarzyk 1972: 60, 66), in a veduta (Fig. 1).

Jan Bogumił Plersch, Fireworks at Kanev (Kaniów) in honour of Catherine II, 1787, oil painting, 45,2 x 115 cm, Lviv, National Art Gallery,

The fireworks not only illuminated the obelisk with Catherine’s emblem high up on the hill but also cast the light far into the surrounding area, the villages on the high banks of the Dnipro as well as onto the crowd of spectators gathered in a circle around the fireworks on land and in sloops on water. Although this was not yet a panoptic division of views, some elements nevertheless anticipated this constellation. The brightly shining obelisk with Catherine’s emblem in the middle was the source of light, following the traditional ruler iconography. From the 17th century onwards, nocturnal fireworks and chiaroscuro effects were regularly used in political spectacles at the European courts, especially in Versailles, Dresden and Saint Petersburg (Fähler 1977; Salatino 1997; Koslovsky 2007; Werrett 2010: 103-131). As an allegory of battle, victory, and triumph, they were closely connected to military demonstrations of power and to the glorification of the ruler. In Russia, even the Academy of Sciences participated in composing allegorical narratives in which fireworks and illuminations served as their main requisites (Werrett 2010: 103-131). The rulers themselves remained hidden in the darkness of the night and were thus able to observe their illuminated subjects in the landscape without being disturbed. Such spectacles that used the contrast between dark and light anticipated the panorama and the panopticon.

As early as during her post-Coronation celebrations in Moscow in 1762, Catherine II stepped out on the Red Stairs incognito to admire the illumination and to show popular approval, as Wortman (2006: 65) describes. For a moment, she was not at the centre of the spectacle anymore but mingled among her spectators – and thus she reversed the scopic regimes and the spatial organisation between observers and observed. In her autobiographical writings, as Monica Greenleaf (2004) stresses, she also reflected upon herself and her leadership from different narrative and gender perspectives.

As in theatre or in later temporary world exhibitions, scenery and stages were quickly erected and dismantled, drawing on the experience of traditional Russian wooden buildings and shipbuilding. In the afore-mentioned anonymous travelogue, the author observes the provisional, ephemeral character of some buildings, such as in Kremenchuk, where the spectacular journey reached one of its climaxes: “On the river, the newly built governor’s house presented itself like a palace, which had two roundabouts on each side and then the great gate of honour. In front of this house, the entrance from the river was erected in the form of a theatre, but everything was built in such a way that it had mostly collapsed again in four weeks” (Anonymous 1799: 103). As the author reports, a large glass hall specially furnished for Catherine and a flat with columns were also set up only six weeks before her arrival. Some of the buildings were thus deliberately erected as ephemeral, temporary architecture. The construction was carried out by the sutler, the Lieutenant Colonel Faleev, who, in addition to the palace for Catherine in Kremenchuk, also built numerous villages within four weeks (ibid.: 115). A decorator named Hampel was responsible for wallpapering, furnishing, and even tree planting (ibid.: 119, 120). The author observes that the travellers guided around in pomp “never get to see their country as it really is, but as you want them to see it” (ibid.: 123). At the same time, he tries to convey the darker sides behind the beautiful façades, such as the suffering of ordinary soldiers, the spread of diseases, or censorship, which actually went so far as to forbid the locals to speak to the travellers or to report on grievances (ibid.: 134, 146, 147). Due to the existence of negative Russian stereotypes, the staging was later interpreted as a dishonest, deceptive dazzle by Prince Potemkin and even found its way into phraseology. This change in reception was initiated by the writings by the legation council of the Saxon embassy in Saint Petersburg, Georg Adolf Wilhelm Helbig (1757–1813) (Jobst 2001: 135, 136).

As early as 1797–1801, an anonymous author, who can be identified as Helbig, published a reputation-damaging 36-part sequel about Prince Potemkin in the journal Minerva: Ein Journal historischen und politischen Inhalts / Minerva: A Journal of Historical and Political Content, edited by Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz in Berlin and Hamburg (Anonymous 1797). In the preface, the author claims to be a German who had the “very rare opportunity to acquire expertise on the subjects dealt with here” (ibid.: 1). Later in the sequel, he sometimes adds his initials G. H. (Georg Helbig). Potemkin is portrayed as a tyrant for whom human life is of no value. The author describes him as a political schemer, a voluptuous spendthrift and a deceiver with a penchant for carrying out tasks mechanically, who managed to dazzle even the Empress. In his “theatrical work” in Crimea, he had even tried to fake the truth (Anonymous 1798: 160). The river Dnipro, as the author argues, was particularly suitable for “setting the theatrical machinery in motion” (ibid.: 299). He describes the sudden transformation of the villages, which later went down in history as “Potemkin’s villages”, upon the arrival of the Empress, and of the goods which were exhibited to be observed.

One thought one could see villages in the distance, but the houses and church towers were only painted on boards. Other nearby villages had only just been built and appeared to be inhabited. The inhabitants had often been driven 40 miles to get here. In the evening, they had to leave their homes, and at night, they had to hurry to other villages, which they then again inhabited only for a few hours, and only until the Empress had passed by. It goes without saying that these people were promised compensation, and it is hard to imagine that they were given nothing. And yet it was so. Many of them became prey to despair and all physical plagues. Herds of cattle were driven from one place to another at night, and often the monarch admired them five to six times.

The roads, especially in Crimea, were excellent, but they had only been completed a few days before, and the great haste with which they had been made was the reason why they could not last. In the towns through which the monarch passed, Potemkin had the cheek to show her around, and to show her warehouses where the grain sacks were filled with sand. The houses where the Empress stopped had the most precious household utensils. The necessities for this had been brought from far away. They had been taken from merchants on the understanding that they would receive them again after use and that the damaged pieces would be bought from them. But no one really considered compensating these people as they had been promised, or only giving them back the least of the things they had borrowed. (ibid.: 300, 301)5

Since the sequel also addresses the Empress’s poor treatment of her son Pavel I, who was not allowed to take part in the journey and in government business, it can be assumed that he might have supported the publication. The timing when the sequel appeared in Minerva corresponded with the reign of Pavel I, from late 1796 until his assassination in 1801.

A few years later, Helbig published two books on Russian favourites. The first, dedicated to Potemkin, repeats the accusations made in his sequel published in Minerva (Helbig 1804: 115, 126): “Thus one thought to see villages in the distance; but the houses and church towers were only made of boards.” He also observed that the local population appeared in several different places, as if they were acting in a play: “In the evening they had to leave their homes, and at night in a great hurry they reached other villages, which they again inhabited only for a few hours and until the Empress had passed by” (ibid.: 115). Flocks and herds were also driven from one place to the next. The roads were excellent but had only been completed just before Catherine’s arrival, so they were not made to last (ibid.: 116). The landscape and its inhabitants were not only staged but had to act according to the director’s instructions. In his second book, Russian Favourites / Russische Günstlinge, Helbig directly refers to his own sequel that he had published earlier (Helbig 1809: 386). Therefore, he only briefly summarises the main anecdotes of Potemkin’s life in three pages (ibid.: 386-389).

Although none of the participants of the journey describes exactly what the painted boards looked like, one can imagine that they had been designed by means of perspective, illusion, and immersion – like contemporary movable stage scenery in triumphs, theatre, and opera (Schnapper 1982; Naroditskaya 2011; Korndorf 2017). Such requisites of space illusion were also part of traditional courtly processions and decorated with special design elements such as triumphal arches, gates, stages and props (cf. Hartmann 1976: 7-10). As they were usually created for one-off occasions, they were not intended for permanent use and thus not made of durable materials. Painted boards and goods arranged for exhibition were made to transform the landscape into a spectacular stage scenery resembling earlier court processions. However, the panoramic staging of the landscape and its settlements already anticipated new forms of popular urban spectacle for broad masses like dioramas and panoramas.

As staging and performance in Crimea during the sojourn of the Empress surpassed all known courtly processions in duration, monumentality, and number of participants, Helbig (1898: 302) strongly rejected the event and even spoke of “the Asiatic pomp of the Russian court”. Another, less critical, opinion was expressed by Marie Guthrie (Russian: Gatri) who visited Crimea in 1795-96. She was married to the Scot Matthew Guthrie (1743–1807), a medical doctor who later became chief medical officer of the Corps of Noble Cadets in Saint Petersburg and who was a member of several philosophical and royal societies (Pampmehl 1969). She sent letters to him during her trip which he edited and published in 1802. Madame Guthrie observed that only a few buildings had survived, including a beautiful pink palace on the bank of the Karasu (Euphrates) river imitating the Tatar style. However, she interpreted the ephemeral buildings not as a deception but as a “surprise present” for the Empress in the “ancient style of Russian gallantry”, which had already been popular during the reign of Elizabeth I 1741-62 (Guthrie 1802: 204, 206). She reports an anecdote about how Elizabeth, upon returning from a church service, once found her residence completely refurnished – and compares it to Potemkin’s staging of a Crimean landscape. In the landscape, Guthrie could still recognise the grounds laid out by the British imperial gardener William Gould.

The panoramic view had its precursors not only in stages for courtly processions, which resembled theatre and opera decorations, but also in veduta painting. The first long, panoramic vedutas of Saint Petersburg were created as early as in the beginning of the eighteenth century, such as Aleksei Zubov’s folded panorama of Saint Petersburg from 1716 (75.6 x 234.5 cm, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage) (Kaganov 1991).6 The etching with line engraving printed from eight blocks showed the city at the Neva banks during the time of Peter the Great and observed from the Vyborg side. Later, in the mid-eighteenth century, Mikhail Makhaev documented the rebuilding and the expansion of the city under Elizabeth I in his vedutas, showing various picturesque parts of the city from different vantage points (Korshunova 1993: 3), which, however, were not connected to each other to make up a cohesive, panoramic view. Only the ten panoramic views of Saint Petersburg from 1820 (51 x 656 cm, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg) showing the city along the Neva with the buildings representing imperial power and glory – the Winter Palace, the Admiralty, the Isaakievskii Bridge, the Twelve Colleges, the Stock Exchange (built by Alexander I) and one of the Rostral Columns aligning with the tower of Saint Peter and Paul Church in the Fortress which can be seen in the background (Fig. 2) – were unified by a common, raised vantage point from the observatory at the top of the Kunstkammer on Vasil´evskii Island.7 Although the sheets had not been glued together, they formed a coherent, continuous panoramic view. They were created between 1817 and 1820 by the painter and theatre decorator Angelo Toselli (1765/70–1827?) from Bologna who also worked on decorations in Roman and Gothic styles for the imperial theatre in Saint Petersburg, as M. Korshunova (1993: 4, 7) discovered from reading the contracts. He transferred the idea of the modern panoramic view to the Russian Empire. The view from high above the roofs of Saint Petersburg reminds us of Robert Barker’s Panorama of London (1790), documented by Frederick Birnie in six aquatint sheets as A View of London Taken from the Top of Albion Mills, Blackfriars (1792, Guildhall Library, London), based on the drawings by Barker’s son, Henry Aston Barker (1774–1856).8 In both panoramic views, the rivers Thames and Neva, as main transport routes, defined the shape of the city. While London was observed from the Albion Mills, the steam-powered flour mill representing the beginnings of the industrial revolution in Great Britain, Saint Petersburg was shown from the Kunstkammer, representing the enlightened, encyclopaedic efforts of the Petrine Era, and which was thus closely linked to the Tsar’s family. As Peter Otto (2012: 35, 41) claims, panoramic paintings evoking the presence either of a landscape or a city were, at that time, perceived as sublime. The panorama of Saint Petersburg embodies the idea of Imperial sublimeness – of a capital and trading city erected and supervised by the Tsar.

Angelo Toselli: Panorama of Saint Petersburg in 1820, 9th sheet with one of the Rostral Columns in the foreground and the Saint Peter and Pavel Fortress in the background, aquarelle and gouache, pen and ink, 51 x 65 cm, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg,,_1820#/media/File:Toselli_-_Panorama_of_StPetersburg,_1820_-_(9).jpg

At almost the same time, the first moving panorama in the Russian empire, Ekateringofskoe gulianie was made in 1824-25 by Karl von Hampeln [Karl K. Gampel’n] (1794–1808), a Russian artist of Austrian origin (Princeva 1990c: 281, 282; Antonova 2019). An etching (eau-forte) and aquatint, it consists of twelve individual sheets glued together to a length of almost 10 metres. It shows the festive procession on the promenade to Catherinehof on May 1, which had been introduced by Peter the Great and revived under Alexander I in the early nineteenth century (Savel´eva 2000: 126). In a poem by Count Khvostov (1757–1835) on the May Day walk in 1824, dedicated to its organiser Governor-General Miloradovich, the poet says that, during the celebration, even the Nevskii Perspective – as the Nevskii Prospect was also called at that time – fell completely silent as if no one lived there (Khvostov 1824: 4). Instead, the crowd that moved from Saint Petersburg to Catherinehof transformed the park into a city surrounded by green. Hampeln narrates the event continuously along the road; individual stations are connected by the flow of people (Fig. 3).