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Russia Rebuilds: Restoring St. Petersburg's Imperial Past

Catherine-Palace-375.jpgNo visit to St. Petersburg, Russia is complete without touring at least one of the Imperial Palaces, which encircle the city's environs like dazzling gemstones on a necklace. In the summertime, during peak season, long lines snake past the brilliant Baroque facades as visitors wait patiently to visit the richly decorated interiors. When they emerge, however, one of the more lasting impressions is the magnitude of the restoration work that has gone into rebuilding these palaces after World War II.

Conceived by Peter the Great (1682 – 1725), the dazzling palaces at Peterhof and the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo ("The Tsar's Village") were greatly enlarged and embellished by Peter's daughter, the extravagant Empress Elizabeth (1741 – 1761) and her favorite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Elizabeth's successor, Catherine the Great (1761 – 1796), enhanced the number of suburban palaces for her son Paul's growing family; the heir made his home at Pavlovsk, a stately and elegant neoclassical palace down the road from Tsarskoye Selo. The Alexander Palace, next door to the Catherine Palace was built for Catherine's grandson, Alexander, who defeated Napoleon. The Alexander Palace later became the primary residence of the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II. Catherine gave her former lover, Grigory Orlov, a magnificent break-up gift in the suburban palace of Gatchina, only to purchase it back from Orlov's heirs after his death. Alexander III (1881 - 1894) moved his family to Gatchina after the assassination of his father, Alexander II (1855 - 1881) gave rise to heightened concerns over the security of the Imperial family.

The palaces provided a glittering backdrop to the sumptuous lives of the Romanovs. Summers were spent in Peterhof, which rivaled Versailles with its famous fountains, including the Grand Cascade, which gushed from the palace down to the Gulf of Finland, a massive golden statue of Samson at its heart. The Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo boasted the legendary Amber Room, known as "the eighth wonder of the world." Grand Duke Constantine and his descendants filled Pavlovsk with priceless works of art and expanded the Augustian-style gardens.

The rarified world of the tsars was shattered by the Russian Revolution of 1917, after which the Bolsheviks threw open the gates of the Imperial palaces and declared them "the property of the people." Ordinary Russians flocked to gape at the exquisite interiors, gilded ornamentation, and precious artifacts. They were encouraged by a government anxious to justify its seizure of power and later keen to promote Stalin's return to "traditional patriotic values" and reverence of Russia's military might in previous centuries.

Intense patriotism was the watchword of the 1940s as the Soviets took on the might of the Wehrmacht Army after the surprise attack in June of 1941, which launched Hitler's Operation Barbarossa. As the Germans advanced, museum curators in Leningrad and its environs scrambled to crate up the treasures of the palaces and send them by train deep into the interior of the country. But some of the palaces' most prized artifacts — notably Samson and the Amber Room— were far too large to be moved, and had to be left behind, hastily concealed.

The Germans reached the outskirts of Leningrad later that summer and were stopped just outside the city's limits. The brutal 872-day Siege of Leningrad ensued, during which more than a million Leningraders perished, most from starvation. But the lines held. In Tsarskoye Selo, Peterhof, Pavlovsk, and Gatchina, however, the Germans immediately occupied the palaces. They began a systematic program of looting, pillaging, and wanton destruction, sanctioned by Hitler himself, as part of his efforts to eradicate Moscow and St. Petersburg, Bolshevik ideals, and Slavic culture from the map. The precious amber panels were immediately located and shipped to Konigsberg, where they were put on triumphant display. They have not been seen since. Samson was similarly dispatched and has disappeared without a trace. Occupying armies are seldom remembered for their fastidiousness, but the Nazi soldiers went to extraordinary lengths to deface the palaces: using priceless paintings and marble busts for target practice and exquisite furniture as fuel during the brutal Russians winters.

The ensuing three years of war were devastating for both sides, with millions of soldiers and civilians dying in the fierce Battles of Kursk, Sebastopol, Moscow, and Stalingrad. Leningraders braved freezing temperatures and starvation rations, sustained only by provisions brought in along the ice road on Lake Ladoga, but somehow managed to keep the Germans from entering the city. By early 1944, the Germans were in retreat, and the siege was lifted.

Museum curators raced to the Imperial Palaces and were dismayed by what they found. In retreat, the Germans had done the maximum damage they could, finishing the destruction of the palaces. Gatchina and Pavlovsk were set on fire and burned for days, Peterhof and the Catherine Palace were both dynamited, and little of their interiors remained. Everywhere was smoke, ash, and rubble.

Rebuilding seemed impossible, but the very fact of the Nazi attempt to destroy Russia's heritage and history galvanized preservationists, politicians, and the Soviet populace, a rare consensus in the Soviet Century. "The stones of Peterhof call for revenge!" declared one newspaper. Many modern-day visitors wonder at the dedication of a socialist nation to restore the opulence of the very authoritarian rulers they overthrew, but for Russians, the need to restore was clear: the victory over the Nazis would not be complete until the palaces embodying the history and heritage they had tried to destroy were rebuilt and allowed to stand as testimony to the resilience of the nation.

The Herculean task began in later 1944, after female bomb squads disarmed German explosives, finding a staggering 3 tons of unexploded devices in the basement of Peterhof. Volunteers from Leningrad came to clear the palace parks of rubble and detritus. Worried that enthusiasm for the project might wane, the team decided to restore the fountains of Peterhof first, correctly calculating that when the Grand Cascade was gushing once more, restoring the palace would be deemed essential to complete the famous architectural ensemble.

So much had been lost that restorers had to build most of the iconic rooms from scratch. Fragments of parquet floor, Italian tiles, and French china were collected, each providing a vital clue for the restorers. A ceiling painting in Peterhof, entirely destroyed by the explosion, was repainted after artists traveled to Venice for pigments and to see original works by the same artists. Work had actually begun during the siege; curators and preservationists scoured Leningrad's archives for drawings, architectural plans, and photographs of the palaces they feared would be destroyed by the occupying forces.

Work continued through the 1940s, though it suffered somewhat during the "Leningrad Affair," one of Stalin's final paranoid campaigns of persecution of municipal officials. After Stalin's death, men and materials became easier to dispatch to the project. More than 5,000 artisans worked on the palaces, many of them multi-generational families of plasterers, gilders, and carpenters who passed their expertise on to the next generation. Their efforts paid off handsomely, and the entire nation celebrated the triumphant reopening of Pavlovsk in 1957, the Catherine Palace in 1959, Peterhof in 1964, and Gatchina in 1985. Each palace tour includes a suite of rooms dedicated to the restoration work, which provide a fascinating look at the monumental task the Soviet people undertook to restore the Imperial palaces and their place in Russia's history. Work continues today at each palace, and Romanov fans eagerly await the reopening of the Alexander Palace in 2020 and the restored family quarters of Nicholas II and his family.

Join Alexander + Roberts for a unique — and uncrowded — visit to Peterhof on our new itinerary, Visions of Russia by Small Ship: an unforgettable cruise on the Volga. Speak to one of our knowledgeable reservation agents about this voyage of discovery.

Blog post authored by Jennifer Eremeeva

Posted: 1/3/2020 10:46:39 AM by Alexander + Roberts