Nikolai Ivanovich Khardzhiev (1903, Kachovka, Ukraine – 1996, Amsterdam) was a writer, art and literary historian and art collector. He grew up and spent most of his life in the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. He studied law in Odessa, and worked there until the late 1920s, before moving first to Leningrad and later to Moscow. His roots, however, lay elsewhere, as his father was Armenian and his mother Greek.
Throughout his life, Khardzhiev was primarily known as a renowned and distinctive literary and cultural historian. From the 1990s, he also gained international attention as a collector of manuscripts and visual art. His legacy consists of a famous collection of Russian avant-garde art and a rich accumulation of historical material and manuscripts by artists, writers and poets. It is thanks to this collection and archive that Khardzhiev continues to be well-known in the art world.
The Khardzhiev collection features many big names, such as Kazimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and El Lissitzky. His archive also includes crucial manuscripts by literary giants, such as Osip Mandelstam and Velimir Chlebnikov. Khardzhiev ran great personal risks to collect these works: under Stalin, support for the avant-garde (referred to with the code word ‘formalism’) could be regarded as an ‘anti-revolutionary deed’, but even after Stalin’s death, collecting valuable art and historical materials could lead to a conviction for ‘speculation’ – a serious offence in Soviet Russia.
Even before his collection took shape, Khardzhiev was a familiar figure on the Russian cultural scene. As a student he delved into the world of art and literature, and was already publishing articles in influential magazines by the age of eighteen. He knew many Russian avant-garde artists and futurists personally. He maintained a warm relationship with both Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin – another key figure of the Russian avant-garde – which had to be concealed due to the ongoing conflict between the two artists.
The Khardzhiev collection would have been inconceivable without this network of avant-gardists (and their descendants). Khardzhiev regularly acquired work from artists with whom he was friendly and the collection also includes personal gifts. Because he had to operate in secret, the amassing of the collection provided a fertile breeding ground for rumours that Khardzhiev had acquired works in an unlawful manner*. There have, however, been no claims, and the veracity of these rumours can no longer be established.
In the 1950s, Khardzhiev met his second wife, the ballerina, doll-maker and artist Lidia Vasil’evna Chaga (1912-1995). Much later, they were to emigrate to the Netherlands together. The reason for their move was that the couple no longer felt safe in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The wildest rumours were circulating about the value of Khardzhiev’s collection and his apartment was not guarded, so he decided to flee to the West, taking a large part of his collection with him. Taking up an invitation from the University of Amsterdam via Willem Weststeijn, professor of Slavic literature, he eventually opted for Amsterdam, and in 1993, the 90-year-old Khardzhiev moved there with Chaga. Khardzhiev and Chaga remained in Amsterdam until their deaths, and are buried in Zorgvlied cemetery.
The preservation and management of the collection came under threat in the period following Khardzhiev’s death, as it was still part of Khardzhiev’s undivided estate, and the removal of several important works from the collection was an irreparable loss. This dark period came to an end in 1998, when the Khardzhiev Foundation was finally able to accept ownership of the collection, and the remaining artworks could be housed in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. You can read more here about this turbulent, painful period and how it came to an end.
The art collection is still currently on loan to the Stedelijk Museum. On the foundation’s initiative, the collection of literary and cultural-historical manuscripts was transferred to the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art (RGALI) in Moscow. Amsterdam kept a digital copy of the entire archive, and this can be viewed at the Stedelijk Museum and the University of Amsterdam.
* These rumours were discussed by art historian Aleksandra Sjatskich in Meesters, marodeurs and by artist Sergey Sigal in The Russian avant-garde (see here for more information on both sources).