Among the bevy of cultural baggage that comes with being Russian, the one that perhaps most resembles an inside joke is the nigh-omnipresent Persian carpet on the family room wall. It isn’t the type of thing you’re bound of hearing about outside of more in-the-know circles but, still, go visit grandma, and there it is on the wall, presiding over the living room like a particularly stately religious icon. Its mere presence inspires questions: aren’t Persian carpets usually meant to be used, well, on floors? Don’t tapestries, when hung on walls, usually, depict a scene and not an abstract pattern? But perhaps most prominently: how is it that these carpets have become so ubiquitous on the walls of Russian communities the world over?
The very oldest ‘Persian’ carpets we know of were woven nearly three thousand years ago by a Scythian tribe called the Pazyryk, in areas of what are today Russia and Mongolia. A nomadic people, the Pazyryk used thick, knotted carpets to insulate the floors of their tents and caravans from the sands and steppes of central Asia. Talented tailors – indeed, the oldest extant example of embroidered silk was found at a Pazyryk burial mound – their early accomplishments would go on to shape the textile cultures of Asia and Europe alike, even as their society was dissolved and incorporated into the surrounding empires. By the time of the ancient Greek historians, these woven-pattern carpets had become a popular commodity in the east and began then to be associated in Greece with the burgeoning Persian empire.
By the middle ages, the ‘Turkish knot’ had spread to Europe, which began to produce tapestries in its own tradition with the express purpose of hanging them on walls. The utility of this was twofold: tapestries were a cheap method of insulating a home during the harsh winters of northern Europe and proved a more durable medium for art in an era without many good practices for preserving parchment or canvas. The designs on these tapestries reflected this new intention: unlike the arabesque patterns, tessellations, and Quran verses popular in the east, the Europeans began to produce portraits, landscapes, and mythological or theological scenes in tapestry form. By the mid-1300s, large-scale tapestry workshops had sprung up in Sweden, the Netherlands, and the north of France.
When the Tsars rose to international prominence in the 16th century, the nobility was already well-acquainted with the tapestry cultures of both Europe and Asia from years of warfare and diplomacy. Persian rugs in particular were coveted as wall hangings for their warmth and as a status symbol, as such a luxurious piece would only be available to someone with diplomatic connections to the near East. Peter the Great would eventually establish a tapestry mill in St. Petersburg, making them available to the peasantry and ensuring the uniquely-Russian tradition of hanging Persian-style rugs as tapestries would survive well into the Soviet years. Indeed, the practice experienced something of a revival in this time, as the populace found themselves squeezed into krushchyovki – poorly-insulated concrete-block apartments built quickly and cheaply under the direction of then-chairman Nikita Khrushchev. Most of the old European workshops had long since closed, but Persia – recently revolutionized as Iran – was more than happy to fill this new demand.
Russian culture has a way of seeming peculiar and impenetrable to outsiders: along with speaking a language that most Western Europeans find near-impossible to learn, their people have long occupied a major civilizational crossroads, serving in turns as allies and enemies to both the great Western and Eastern empires that surrounded them. Their cultural output is largely an amalgam of these influences: Tchaikovsky, for instance, made quite a name for himself adapting Slavic dance forms for a Western audience, and Peter the Great specifically founded St. Petersburg to give his empire a ‘Window to Europe’ matching the grandeur of isolated Moscow. Small wonder, then, that the Russians should adopt a thoroughly Eastern style of rug – and hang it on the wall, as a European tapestry.