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The first Russian order, which was given the name of St Andrew the First-Called, was instituted at the very close of the 17th century. Its insignia consisted of a large silver-embroidered octagonal star bearing the motto "For Faith and Loyalty" and a badge of the order in the form of an X-shaped St Andrew's cross (called so from the tradition that St Andrew was crucified on a cross of this type) covered with blue enamel. In the post-Petrovian times, the badge was supplemented with a background in the shape of the Russian imperial eagle made in black enamel. The cross was pinned to a wide blue ribbon worn over the right shoulder and across the chest or, on ceremonial occasions, it was worn on a gold chain decorated with varicoloured enamels.

The first man to receive the Order of St Andrew the First-Called was Count Fyodor Golovin, a noted personality of the Petrovian period. Peter the Great himself was decorated with this order only in 1703 for a specific feat of arms - the capture of two Swedish warships in the mouth of the Neva River. In all, about forty people were given this order in the reign of Peter the Great. Five men out of this number received it for gallantry displayed during the Battle of Poltava in 1709. The History Museum has on display the order given to General Yakov Bruce, a well-known associate of Peter the Great, for the Battle of Poltava, in which the entire Russian artillery successfully fought under his command.

Another relic carefully preserved in the museum belonged to the famous Russian military leader Pyotr Bagration, a hero of the Patriotic War of 1812, who was a disciple and comrade-in-arms of Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov. This relic is the ribbon of the Order of St Andrew the First-Called which General Bagration was wearing when he was fatally wounded during the Battle of Borodino.

The Order of St Andrew the First-Called had a special class with insignia adorned with cut or uncut diamonds. A set of such insignia is also on show in the History Museum.

Peter the Great contemplated establishing still another order, intended as an exclusively military award and named after the outstanding Russian military leader Prince Alexander Nevsky. However, he died before he had time to confer this order on anyone. Under Catherine, his wife, who succeeded him as head of state after his death, a number of civilians were included among the very first bearers of the Order of St Alexander Nevsky. Thus it happened that this order became one of those Russian decorations which were given both for military and civilian merits.

From the mid-19th century, crossed swords were added to the insignia of the Order of St Alexander Nevsky and other orders awarded for feats of arms.

The idea of instituting an exclusively military award was not abandoned, however, and in 1769 the Order of St George was established, which was to be awarded to officers and generals for deeds of arms. The order could be given, for example, to a commander who, "personally leading his troops, scores a full victory by routing a strong enemy force" or, "personally leading his troops, captures a fortress". This decoration could also be awarded for the seizure of an enemy battle standard, the capture of an enemy commander-in-chief or corps commander, and for other outstanding exploits.

The Order of St George was divided into four classes. The first one to be given was the order of the lowest, fourth class, to be followed, for subsequent heroic deeds, by the order of the third and then the second class, and finally a serviceman who had performed a fourth outstanding act of heroism could be put forward for the Order of St George 1st Class.

How honourable this decoration was can be judged from the fact that while the Order of St Andrew the First-Called, the highest award of the Russian Empire, was given to more than a thousand people, the Order of St George 1st Class was conferred only on 25 persons, among them such noted personalities as General Field Marshal Pyotr Rumyantsev-Zadunaisky, General Field Marshal Grigori Potyomkin-Tavrichesky and the great Russian military leaders Alexander Suvorov an Mikhail Kutuzov.

Directly related to the Order of St George was another award, the so-called "gold-weapon" - a sabre with the inscription "For Gallantry" and a small enamel cross of the Order of St George on the hilt and a sword-knot of the colours of St George's ribbon. Generals and admirals were given "gold weapons" adorned with diamonds and officers, unadorned "gold weapons". From 1807, those awarded gold weapons were regarded as bearers of the Order of St George. In 1913, this award was officially named St George's Weapon.

The section on numismatics of the History Museum keeps a priceless relic - the star and ribbon of the Order of St George 1st Class which Alexander Suvorov wore. He was awarded this decoration for a brilliant victory on the River Rimnic in September 1789 over a Turkish army which vastly outnumbered his corps. For the same action Suvorov received a gold smallsword set with diamonds and inscribed with words of acknowledgement for his heroic deed. An honorary supplement, "Rimniksky", was added to his family name.

There were also special tokens of honour, ranking close to orders, in the form of gold crosses worn on St George's ribbon. They were given to officers who took part in the capture of Ochakov (1788), Izmail (1790), Praga (a Warsaw suburb, 1794) and Bazardz-hik (1810) and in the battle at Preussisch-Eylau (1807).

Only officers and generals were entitled to receive the Order of St George and "gold weapons" with the inscription "For Gallantry". In the early 19th century, special silver St George's cross, which had only one class and was worn on orange-and-black St George's ribbon, was instituted as a decoration for privates and noncommissioned officers. This cross was awarded, in particular, to Nadezhda Durova, the famous "cavalrygirl", who began her military career as a rank-and-file uhlan and later became the first woman officer in the Russian army.

In the mid-19th century, St George's cross was divided into four classes (1st and 2nd class crosses were of gold and 3rd and 4th class crosses, of silver) and began to be given in the same manner as the Order of St George was: first, the 4th class cross was given, to be followed by the 3rd, 2nd and, lastly, 1st class cross.

The History Museum has a large collection of St George's crosses, including those conferred on Russian soldiers, heroes of the Patriotic War of 1812, of the defence of Sevastopol in the Crimean War of 1853-1856, of the Battle of Shipka in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, and a number of other actions. The museum also has a number of complete sets - so-called "full bowknots" - of St George's crosses of all the four classes.

In 1782, the Order of St Vladimir of four classes was instituted. Starting from the 18th century, the Order of St Vladimir 4th Class awarded for deeds of arms was supplemented with an additional adornment in the form of a bowknot of the colours of St Vladimir's ribbon. The first Order of St Vladimir 4th Class with a bowknot was given to the outstanding Russian naval commander D.N. Senyavin for a successful operation against the Turks in the autumn of 1788.

From 1855, crossed swords began to be added to the badges and stars of orders awarded for feats of arms, with the exception of the military Order of St George. In 1828-1874, an imperial crown was added to the stars and badges of certain orders as a special mark of distinction. After 1845, the state emblem of the Russian Empire, the double-headed eagle, was substituted for representations and monograms of saints on badges and stars given to non-Christians.

Some of the orders of the Russian Empire had foreign awards as their prototypes, but in the course of time they became exclusively Russian decorations.

In 1735, Duke Karl Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp instituted the Order of St Anne in commemoration of his wife Anna Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great, who had died shortly before. From the early 1740s, when Crown Prince Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein, the future Emperor Peter III of Russia, came to Russia, the order began to be presented to Russian subjects as well.

The Order of St Anne was officially introduced into the Russian award system by Paul I in 1797. Badges of the lowest class of this order were fixed to cold steel, informally referred to as St Anne's weapons. From 1829, the inscription "For Gallantry" was made on such weapons in addition to a badge of the Order of St Anne if the award was given to an officer for gallantry displayed in action.

The Order of the White Eagle and the Order of St Stanislaus came into the Russian system of orders from Poland. From 1815, after the Kingdom of Poland was annexed to Russia, these orders began to be awarded, on behalf of Emperor Alexander I, to persons of Polish extraction and in 1831 they were incorporated in the Russian national award system. In the early 1855, Admiral Pavel Nakhimov was awarded the Order of the White Eagle for the exceptional part he played as commander in the defence of Sevastopol.

Still another order, the Order of St John of Jerusalem or the Order of the Knights of Malta, had a short existence in Russia. In 1797, a Grand Priorate of the Order of St John of Jerusalem was established in Russia, and in 1798 Paul I was elected Grand Master of that order and began conferring it on Russian subjects. After the death of Paul I, the awarding of the Order of the Knights of Malta was stopped in Russia and soon Russian subjects were forbidden to wear it.

The badges (crosses) of Russian orders of the 1st class were pinned to a wide ribbon of the corresponding colour worn over the shoulder and across the chest and the stars were worn on the left side of the chest (the star of the Order of St Anne was worn on the right side of the chest). Badges of the 2nd class were worn on a neck ribbon (with stars, in the case of the orders of St George and St Vladimir). The badges of the orders of St George and St Vladimir 3rd Class were also worn on a neck ribbon, but without stars. The badges of the orders of St George and St Vladimir 4th Class, the lowest class, and also those of the orders of St Anne and St Stanislaus 3rd Class, in the form of small crosses, were worn on the chest. The badge of the Order of St Anne 4th Class was worn on cold steel of the type appropriate to the combatant branch of the military forces in which the person awarded the order served.

Before 1870, persons awarded a higher-class order no longer wore the same order of a lower class. To show that they were bearers of a lower-class order won in action, crossed swords were added to the insignia of a higher-class order received for noncombat merit; however, they did not pass across the centre of the badge, but instead were placed on the upper ray of the cross and in the upper part of the star. After 1870, all orders with swords, regardless of their class, were worn. Later on, this came to apply to all orders of any class, including those awarded for noncombat merit.

Before 1826, a Russian order of any class gave its bearer the right to a hereditary noble rank. In the mid-19th century, this right was restricted to bearers of the orders of St George and St Vladimir of any class or of any other order of the 1st class. Subsequently, the possibility of being granted a hereditary or nonhereditary noble rank together with an order was further reduced.

After the February bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1917, the Provisional Government retained all the tsarist orders, removing only the crowns from the double-headed eagle and leaving it to the soldiers to decide who were to be awarded St George's crosses.

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© Alexey S. Zlygostev, 2013-2018
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