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Treasure of the Last Czar

It is being called a cultural coup for downtown St. Petersburg.

A planned exhibition of 400 imperial items _ many of them never before displayed _ from the reign of Russia's last czar and czarina could draw national attention and hundreds of thousands of visitors.

"It's going to be a hot item," said Edward Kasinec, chief of the Baltic and Slavic division of the New York Public Library. "The interest specifically in Nicholas and Alexandra always has been extremely keen given the tragic circumstances of their execution."

The agreement in principle, signed last week by a group of St. Petersburg civic leaders, would bring the items from Russia's State Hermitage Museum to Florida for four months beginning in December 1993. The Hermitage is housed in what used to be the imperial Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is among the world's premier museums.

The Florida group toured the storage rooms of the museum last week to see the royal clothes, jewelry, portraits and porcelain kept in storage rooms after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. They marveled over tiny jeweled compacts, a necklace of miniature Faberge eggs, gowns beaded with tiny seed pearls, a huge double-headed imperial golden eagle, religious icons used in worship by the czar and czarina, and portraits of the royal family.

Nicholas and Alexandra presided over a world of lavish balls and opulent palaces at the turn of the century. After they and their children were executed by revolutionaries in 1918, mention of them was taboo for decades.

The Hermitage items _ and the mystery and legend surrounding the last Romanovs _ are expected to open a window to a chapter of Russian history.

"You're going to get a chance to see the life of the last czar," said Robert Barylski, a University of South Florida associate professor who specializes in Russian studies. "It's important. It's been hidden away. It will be a historic first."

Alla Rosenfelt, a Russian art consultant for the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, N.J., said she would be interested in seeing the exhibition herself. She is a former resident of St. Petersburg, Russia, who has studied art from that era. The exhibition is something the Communists never would have allowed, she said.

"They didn't want to promote anything related to the czar and his family," she said. "When they showed anything related to the czar, they displayed it in a negative way."

Florida Cultural Exhibitions, a private non-profit group of city civic and business leaders, is underwriting the exhibition, which is expected to cost $5.5-million to transport, insure and display. The 32 St. Petersburg residents, including six City Council members, who traveled to Russia last week paid their own expenses. The city does not plan to use taxpayers' money for the exhibition.

Local corporations, including the Times, are contemplating putting up the seed money to bring the display to the city. Organizers hope to draw about 600,000 people at about $10 each (less for children) to pay for the cost of the exhibition. Those estimates are based on a series of similar exhibitions in Memphis, Tenn.

The old Maas Brothers department store building downtown would be renovated and used for the exhibition, organizers said.

Roland Kennedy, chairman of Barnett Bank of Pinellas and a member of the exhibition committee, stressed last week that exhibit investors are hoping only to break even and will not profit from the venture. Anything beyond expenses would go into a fund to bring other such exhibits to the city.

Organizers hope the exhibit will inject some activity into the city's sagging downtown. St. Petersburg is patterning its effort after the Memphis venture. An exhibition from the reign of Catherine the Great, created an economic impact of $85-million, said Jim Broughton, who organized the effort in Memphis and has offered advice to St. Petersburg.

"It was the biggest tourist event the city had ever had," Broughton said.

Memphis has successfully held several such events, including an exhibition of items from Turkey's most prized national treasures and another of 3,000-year-old items belonging to Egyptian king Ramses II.

The Memphis series is called "Wonders: the Memphis International Cultural Series" and has succeeded by marketing to middle America the lavish treasures of royalty.

In St. Petersburg, the plan is similar. Hundreds of volunteers will be recruited. Corporate donations for restoration of specific items will be sought. And organizers will contact the school system to incorporate a trip to the exhibition into schoolchildren's history studies.

The group also is hoping that other, related events will be arranged. For example, a group of Russian artists approached city officials during their Russia trip and asked if an exhibit of their collection could be arranged at the same time the Nicholas and Alexandra exhibit is held.

Organizers hope the exhibit will be the first step in a cultural exchange between the two countries. A century ago, Peter Demens named the Florida city St. Petersburg for his hometown in Russia.

City officials are working on striking up a twin city relationship between the cities. And organizers hope that other efforts will follow: student exchanges, more Russian history in schools and perhaps a small, permanent exhibit of Russian culture and history at one of the local museums.

The tentative agreement to bring the exhibit to the city, expected to be finished by February, is the first step.

"This is a cultural coup for St. Petersburg," said Mayor David Fischer, who arranged the trip. "It is an exhibit that will be noted around the world."