When I arrive in the Promenade bar of the Dorchester Hotel, Russian Professor Andrey Khazin is waiting eagerly for our interview. He sits on the edge of his chair from beginning to end talking with what can only be described as the “zeal of a collector.” This is exactly what Andrey Khazin is: a collector. He is a former Russian senator, an author, but most importantly, he has one of the largest and most complete collections of medals anywhere in the world. Far from being just a run of the mill memorabilia collection, Andrey’s medals are worth a fortune, and not just because they span back to Edward III in 1348, and unite every major European monarchy right up to the present. As Andrey shows me over the course of our interview, his collection of medals have been, and continue to be, a vital tool in the art of creating and maintaining foreign relations.
His collection started when he was still just a child, albeit to all accounts a prodigious one. “My interest started when I was just 4 years old,” he tells me, “I remember the exact day, 7th November, which in Russia is the commemoration of the Socialist Revolution.” It is also Andrey’s grandfather’s birthday. In 1973 many of his grandfather’s friends came to a birthday wearing their uniforms and medals. Andrey recognized one friend in particular who “played cards with my grandfather every Saturday.”
“He was wearing three Hero of the Soviet Union stars,” Andrey says, “Brezhnev, who was one of the most important people in Russia, only had two, and aged four, I couldn’t understand how Brezhnev could only have two but, my grandfather’s friend had three.”
By the age of 7 this fascination had evolved into passion. Although he was just starting school, Andrey explains “I already knew all of the ribbons and all of the Soviet medals.”
“It was very funny,” he tells me chuckling, “my Grandfather was taking me to school and I happened to see a man with a very rare order on his badge.” Even today Andrey can remember that it was an Order of Kutuzov 2nd Class. “I said to my Grandfather ‘Look it’s so rare’ and he was shocked,” Andrey says smiling, “he couldn’t understand how at 7 years old I knew what it meant.”
As an adult, his collection has grown to be one of the biggest and most complete in the world. Among the approximately 2,000 medals in his collection are 580 full European orders of merit, including representation from almost every European monarchy and government.
“The most interesting awarding system in the world, for me, is the British because it’s the oldest one, and because it is still working uninterrupted without a revolution” since 1348 when Edward III created the Order of the Garter.
Also, for Russia the “British system was very important” Andrey tells me, “when Peter the Great visited London during the Great Embassy, he saw the Order of the Garter awarded at a ceremony in Windsor.” As it was his first introduction to the awarding of orders, Peter mistakenly believed that the Order of Thistle had had died out in Britain because it was instituted by James VII of Scotland. As St Andrew was the patron saint of both Scotland and Russia, in 1698 Peter decided to restore the great order for Russia. “In this instance the British awarding system is the parent of the Russian one,” Andrey says proudly.
Moreover, Andrey believes that now more than ever: “we need to remember that during the last two ages, throughout all the European wars from the Napoleonic, the Great War, and finally World War 2, we were together.”
In February at the Moscow Kremlin Museums a ceremony took place opening the European Orders of Knighthood exhibition. Over 90% of the medals in the exhibition are from Khazin’s collection. But one, in particular has a rather intriguing story.
“I had a Royal Victorian Chain in my collection,” Andrey says, but “when I bought the chain at an auction in London, it was listed as having belonged to Abbas II of Egypt.”
When Khazin and Director of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, Yelena Gagarina, contacted the Royal Collection to verify the owner of the chain, the collection’s Head of Information Management, Stephen Patterson, offered to check the number printed on the chain against the register of owners. While other European Orders did not usually have numbers, British orders are a rare example that keep extensive records of where medals are sent.
“We said we knew that the owner was Abbas II of Egypt,” but Mr. Patterson offered to validate it anyway. By a strange twist of fate, the chain “actually belonged to Tsar Nicholas II.”
Andrey explains how such a valuable item could have been misplaced: “Anything of worth was sold by the Bolsheviks when they took over in the 1920s, and what they couldn’t sell was melted down for gold. Only 4 of the Royal chains were returned to the Kremlin Museums in the 60s, all the rest were lost.” The statutes of the Royal Chains state that they are returnable to Britain after the recipient dies by the rest of the family and or state.
The tragic story of the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in a basement in the Alexander Palace needs no explanation here. However, needless to say, the fall of the house of Romanov meant that the chains could not be returned to the British Monarchy.
It is a testament to his honourable personality that when Andrey realised that he had the chain of Nicholas II in his possession he wrote to the Queen and “I asked her Royal Majesty to take the chain back, as is the custom.”
“I received a letter from the Private Secretary of the Queen” Andrey tells me, “saying that while the Queen could take the chain, she would much rather that it was put on display in the Russian museums for people to see.”
Andrey’s medals are a reminder that we should be looking more closely at our relations around the world, and really looking at how we come to the present. Far more than just fragments of aristocracy and monarchy, the medals are a tangible remnant of diplomacy, democracy, and nation building. If the story of the Queen’s gift of the Victorian Chain of Nicholas II isn’t enough of a reminder of the importance of our friendship with Russia we only have to look at the past. If ever we have had a “special relationship”, it was never with America, but with Russia.
On 18th June 1812, America declared war on Britain. Just 5 days later, Napoleon’s France launched an invasion of Britain’s ally Russia. Many now believe that the decisions were linked. After his defeat in Russia, Napoleon returned to the Western continent where he was resolutely beaten by the British in Waterloo, auspiciously, on 18th June 1815. Russians stood with the British throughout the Napoleonic wars, the Great War, and right up to when we occupied Berlin at the end of WW2.To most people, medals are just the military artefacts in our devastating history of
To most people, medals are just the military artefacts in our devastating history of war in Europe. But Andrey recognises that they are actually a reminder of the importance of non-military diplomacy, and proof that often what some people might call a ‘symbolic gesture’ is actually worth far more than it’s weight in gold.