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Treasures in Tsarskoye Selo

Article provided by:"Diplomat" magazine

1 May 2003
Treasures in Tsarskoye Selo

Palatial and park complexes surround the great city on the Neva like a precious necklace. They are five: Petrodvorets (Peterhof), Lomonosov (Oranienbaum), Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo), Gatchina, and Pavlovsk. We will tell you about Pushkin that has become one of the magnets of the jubilee festivities.


The town of Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo) got its present name in 1937 when the 100th anniversary of the poet's tragic death was commemorated. The name is fully justified: Pushkin spent the prime of his youth there. He glorified the Lyceum building, the lanes and park sculptures in his inspired stanzas. Nowadays, Tsarskoye Selo, the town's original name, is mentioned on a par with the present one. Over two centuries, Tsarskoye Selo was the main residence of Russian sovereigns.


In the early 18th century when the first buildings of the future capital were raised in the Neva mouth, the so-called Saar hamlet (derived from the Finnish word "high spot") stood there: a small peasant hut and a modest orchard. On June 24, 1710, Peter the Great presented it to his would-be spouse Yekaterina Alexeyevna (future Catherine I). This marked the birth date of no longer Sarskoye, but already Tsarskoye Selo: the Russianized pronunciation corresponded more accurately to the actual reality.


Centuries passed by. Tsarskoye Selo was widened, enlarged and reconstructed. Yet the township itself with its Cathedral Square, arcade, watchtower, and cozy small houses where courtiers, retired dignitaries and generals lived was just an appendage of its sprawling (over 600 hectares) park area. There were a lot of parks there, the principal ones being Yekaterininsky and Alexandrovsky that accommodated two grandiose royal palaces, Yekaterininsky and Alexandrovsky, respectively. Separated by several hundred meters and a mere 40 years, they represent two different epochs of Russian history and culture, the first being the mid-18th century, the heyday of "Russian baroque," the second representing the end of the same century with its austere classicism. Various smaller structures---pavilions, services, and summerhouses---"gravitate" around this or that palace accentuating the peculiarities of the epoch style and reflecting fleeting passions of the time: "Chinese," "Antique," "Gothic," "Romantic," and so on and so forth. Beginning with 1718, they were created by brilliant architects and park designers: I. Braunstein, M. Zemtsov, A. Kvasov, S. Chevakinsky, B. Rastrelli, Ch. Cameron, G. Quarenghi, V. Stasov, and others.


The Yekaterininsky Palace, Rastrelli's great creation, is the biggest miracle of all the numerous wonders of Tsarskoye Selo. The radical remodeling of the palace he supervised since 1748 required immense funds and labor input: work was going on the year round. By 1756, the palace (later named Yekaterininsky in honor of Catherine I) literally dazzled the contemporaries by the magnificence of its baroque interior. The wooden balustrade above the cornice, the vases, statues, and palace chapel domes were covered with pure gold; the white sheet iron roofing had a silver glance: the snow-white columns against a bright-turquoise background and other decorative details produced a remarkable effect. One foreign diplomat said, not without reason, about the palace that such a pearl lacked only a case.


The splendor of the palace corresponded to the abundance of gold in its interiors. Especially splendid is the suite of rooms on the second floor, which was dubbed "golden": the walls and doors were adorned with gilded carvings. The suite connected in a single chain the Antichambers, the palace chapel, the dining halls called Kavalersky, Main, Small White, and Chinese. The Great Hall where the most pompous ceremonies were held stood out for gilt carved figures of "Ladies and Cupids" with their unusual sizes. The Picture Hall featured a valuable collection of paintings, and the Amber Room staggered the visitors by the fantastic beauty of amber mosaics. We will tell you its strange and sad story later on. The Yekaterininsky Park adjacent to the palace had a strictly regular layout in the 18th century. Like Versailles, it was cut through by precisely drawn geometric lanes, it shone with bronze statues and mirrored the baroque-style pavilions erected by Rastrelli in the oval water of the man-made ponds. Inexhaustible in her ideas, Elizabeth, Peter the Great's daughter, was especially fond of the Hermitage, a two-storied octagonal structure located on an artificial island and looking like a gilded toy. She wanted the lovely Grotto to look like a sea cave decorated with shells. When Catherine II (the Great) became the proprietress of the Yekaterinsky Palace and Russia's ruler, she turned the Grotto into a study where she sorted out diplomatic mail in the morning and had coffee. Incidentally, she was in no small measure involved in designing parks in Tsarskoye Selo: she developed landscapes and drew up intricate structures---classical summerhouses, romantic ruins, and Chinese bridges. Here fantasies were executed by Yu. Felten, A. Rinaldi, G. Quarenghi and Ch. Cameron. What is more, imitating the ancients, Catherine the Great wished to immortalize the Russian victories in the 1768-1774 wars with Turkey. Slender obelisks crowned with bronze eagles and adorned with bas-reliefs and rostrums (prows of enemy ships) reminding of heroic deeds proudly hover over the smooth surface of ponds, the green of lawns and coppices.


Charles Cameron, a Scotsman, who was a talented architect and passionate admirer of antiquity, created for Catherine, who also revered antiquity, a whole series of antique-style constructions, among which the Cameron Gallery (1783-1786) ins the most renowned. Meant for the empress's walk in inclement weather, it was turned by the architect into a temple that merged nature with hand-made creations.


The 1789-1791 period witnessed the construction of an austere and plain four-storied palace wing (architect I. Neyolov). Later, in another epoch, that of Alexander I, it was handed over to the Tsarskoselsky Lyceum, a special educational establishment that had to train society elite: civil servants, diplomats, and philosophers. In effect, a chancellor and foreign minister, A. Gorchakov, Decembrists I. Pushchin and V. Kuchelbecker as well as the seafarer Admiral F. Matyushkin---they all were its graduates. Aleksandr Pushkin, a graduate of the very first enrollment, became Russia's greatest gift. Today, the Lyceum building serves as a museum featuring the auditorium, the corridor with students' "cells" and classrooms.


In the western part the Yekaterininsky Park turns into the Alexandrovsky Park. Everything here is different, first of all, the landscape that is no longer a regular, but rather a "scenery" one that is allegedly untouched, although all those winding paths, picturesque tree clusters, and lawns are artfully put together. The designers were gifted architects V. Neyolov, I. Busch, and others. Instead of antique statues and pavilions, we see Gothic turrets and picturesque "ruins." The Alexandrovsky Palace, put up on Catherine the Great's orders in 1792-1795 by G. Quarenghi for her favorite grandson Alexander Pavlovich (future Tsar Alexander II), presents the sharpest contrast to the baroque half of the century. All here is utterly simple and strict, as was dictated by classicism, yet the superb double Corinthian colonnade connecting the building wings and forming a patio looks very solemn. Two rows of snow-white columns make up the main gallery full of light and joy. The interior decoration is far from the splendor of Rastrelli's halls and chambers. Widely using artificial marble and very tactfully applying decorative details, the architect attained the effect of austere and tranquil magnificence. Russian tsars liked staying there. The last tsar, Nicholas II (by the way, a native of Tsarskoye Selo), turned the palace into his permanent residence and lived there with his family from 1905 to 1917. Ministers came here to report to the tsar as well as the odious "Elder" Grigory Rasputin. A modest bust (sculptor V. Zayko) put up in 1993 near the Fyodorovsky Royal Cathedral so ardently loved by Nicholas II's family reminds of the palace's last dweller.


The 20th century added gloomy pages to Tsarskoye Selo's story. During World War II, from September 1941 to January 1944, Tsarskoye Selo was occupied by Nazi invaders. When they were thrown away, the town, its palaces, parks, and pavilions lay in ruins. Restoration started right after the liberation and is still going on. Thanks to huge efforts of restorers and builders, the greater part of the historic structures is reconstituted and, looking at their stunning beauty, one can hardly believe that once there was nothing there but charred ruins whose photos were shown at the Nuremberg trials.


The distinguished guests of the jubilee celebrations will be the first in the world to admire the famous Amber Room, "the eighth wonder of the world" restored to its full beauty. Its fate remains one of the unresolved riddles of the 20th century. In 1717, the Prussian king Friedrich-Wilhelm presented an "amber cabinet" to Peter the Great. It adorned one of the rooms of the old Winter Palace for some time. Later on, it was withdrawn from there. Elizabeth Petrovna ordered the precious panel mounted in the Yekaterininsky Palace, and the brilliant architect Rastrelli created the Amber Room that the world admired for two centuries. During World War II when the retreating Nazi troops were fleeing Pushkin under the onslaught of Soviet troops, they mined the palace and took away the chamber interior. Its trace was glimpsed fleetingly in Konigsberg (now Kalinigrad) in 1943: part of the jewels was shown at the Royal Castle. The lost treasure was never found since then. Since 1979, the government decided to begin work designed to restore the Amber Chamber. A lot was done in 24 years: the amber panel, the picturesque plafond, the inlaid parquet floors, carvings, gilding, and Florentine mosaics are restored now. The restorers promised to complete work by the 300th anniversary of the Northern Capital. And they delivered on their promise!


Oleg Torchinsky


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