Tucked away on the second floor of St Petersburg’s Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology is Peter the Great’s stunning array of medical curiosities. Everything from the encephalitis-swollen skulls to the specimen tumors was documented meticulously by the Tsar, who ordered the creation of this first state museum in 1714.
Tourists might be motivated by morbid interest, but the collection was never intended to be a freak show. As part of Peter’s broader push to modernize Russia, the collection was started in an attempt to reduce superstition. It was hoped that cataloging malformed infants and debilitating diseases as quirks of nature would quell superstitious beliefs that blamed misfortune on demons and monsters. Peter issued an edict that the bodies of deformed infants should be relinquished to the collection.
Peter the Great is even said to have encouraged Russian citizens to visit with offers of free alcohol. Following an afternoon peering at genitalia floating in formaldehyde and Siamese twin skeletons, modern visitors might also be in need of a stiff drink.