One of the many interest I have is too look at cities who have gone through calamities of war or natural disasters and see how they re-built or re-imagined their cities. Europe some 75 years ago saw the end of the Second World War leaving behind millions of dead, shattered lives and countries, refugees looking for a new start like in Canada and ruined cities now under the grip of new political masters.
Russia in 1917 went through the social upheaval of a disastrous engagement into the First World War and falling into the hands of murderous politicians who in 70 years of rule manage to kill 40 million of its own citizens through repression. A way of life was scrubbed out completely. Since 1999 and the assent to power of Vladimir Putin, a movement has been in full swing to bring back the past of Tsarist Russia for commercial and tourist reasons. It also helps to promote Nationalism in Russia by bringing back old symbols and monuments.
Just 30 Km outside of St-Petersburg is the royal settlement of Tsarkoye Selo (Tsar’s village) a collection of palaces, cathedrals, train station, academies and barracks devoted to creating a place for Russian royalty to live and play far from the hoi polloi, it event has its own gate in Pharaonic Style on the main road from St-Petersburg.
Built in 1827 by Adam Adamovich Menelaws in egyptian revival style.
At the end of the Second World War the German army had inflicted massive damage to Tsarkoye Selo, burning down palaces and destroying parks, what the Russian government could not take away before the German advanced on the area was either stolen and brought back to Germany or simply vandalized. When visiting St-Petersburg and Tsarkoye Selo today has been re-built and renovated by an army of artists and artisans doing meticulous work in re-creating palaces of the 17th century. Luckily voluminous archives existed to help in this work. Fragments also survived sometimes surprising the restorers. Most if not all the Palaces in Tsarkoye Selo where built by Italian architects who brought with them that style of architecture so coveted by the Russian Aristocracy.
One palace which is being re-built since 2005 is the Alexander palace which stands in a vast park across the street from the Great Catherine Palace most visitors are more familiar with.
The Alexander Palace (New Tsarskoselsky) was presented as a gift by Catherine II to her eldest grandson, the future Emperor Alexander I, on the occasion of his marriage to Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexeevna. According to the idea of Catherine II, the palace had to be similar to the château at Ferney, where the great thinker of that time – Voltaire – lived. But in 1792 the architect Giacomo Quarenghi presented another project to the Empress and convinced her of its advantage. The palace construction was completed in May of 1796, and in June the then Grand Duke Alexander, his spouse Elizabeth and his Court moved into the New Palace.
The Alexander Palace in the classical style is considered to be the pearl among all the creations of Giacomo Quarenghi.
The Alexander Palace was a summer home for the Imperial Family in the 19th century, but it became a real home for the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra during the last 13 years of their reign. From this palace the family of Nicholas II was arrested and sent into exile in Tobolsk and ultimately to their deaths in July 1917.
In 1918 the Alexander Palace was opened to visitors as a state museum. The display included the historic interiors in the central part of the building and the living apartments of the Romanov family in the east wing of the palace.
Later the left wing was turned into a rest home for the Secret Police NKVD, while on the second floor of the right wing the former rooms of Nicholas II’s children became an orphanage named the “Young Communards”.
In the first months prior to the Nazi invasion chandeliers, carpets, some items of furniture, eighteenth-century marble and porcelain articles were evacuated from the Alexander Palace. Most of the palace furnishings remained in the halls.
During the occupation the palace housed the German army staff and the Gestapo. The cellars became a prison and the square in front of the palace a cemetery for members of the SS. In 1951 a Soviet government decision handed the Alexander Palace to the Naval Department of the USSR, while the palace’s surviving furniture went to the Pavlosk Palace nearby where much of the collections remain to this day. In late 2009, the palace recovered its museum status and restoration work started and continues to this day, it is to be completed in 2021. It will then be a memorial to Tsar Nicholas II his wife Alexandra and 5 children, a rather sad place knowing their fate.
Here are some recent photos of the work in progress, it is truly remarkable, careful and meticulous work.
An old photo of the Palace in 1945 after the German retreat. The Palace is heavily damaged and the park surrounding it destroyed.
The reconstructed and redecorated Imperial Bed Chamber of Nicholas and Alexandra. All this fabric was reproduced from original supplies saved and stored at Pavlosk Palace and Gatchina Palace in 1939 by the then Curators of the palace. You can see the view from the bed looking straight out towards the windows. You also have to remember that when the reconstruction of the Palace started the walls were bare and damaged nothing else existed. Russian television was filming for the news broadcast.
Here is the Palisandre or Rose wood drawing room of Her Majesty. Again recreation of this room was done from many photographs prior to 1914 when the Imperial Family lived in the Palace. Everything had to be rebuilt, the rose wood paneling, the fireplace, the silk wallpaper, the curtains, floors and all the ceiling decoration.
The study of the Tsar, rebuilt completely and not quite finished an exact replica of the original. Still the furniture that was salvaged and evacuated for safe keeping in 1939 can be brought back to the palace. The Chandelier will be reproduced and re-installed.
The Mauve boudoir of Her Majesty, reproduced including the furniture from photographs and archive material. Missing at the moment the fireplace which will be re-installed.
One of the more fascinating room of the Palace, the Turkish Bathroom of the Tsar. The room was destroyed during the war and only a few tiles survived. With the fragments artists reproduced them all, including the re-built fireplace in front of which is a huge pool filled with sea water and the beautiful wood work.
Close-up look of the fireplace with the bronze covering, a work of art.
this photo shows what the palace looked like prior to 2005 when little had been done. These rooms are not part of the imperial suite and will be rebuilt but probably used as office space for the curators of the palace.
Detail of the curtains made for the mauve drawing room. The original fabric was saved in parts in the archives. Incredible amount of work has gone into reproducing original material.
The ceiling area with its original decorations reproduced by artisans.
the Maple Drawing-Room’s wooden decoration elements! Behold, the finial of the newel post (and the beginnings of the staircase) that will be installed for the room’s Entresol (Mezzanine) and staircase. All hand carved.
The Maple Drawing-room is probably one of the more famous rooms of the palace and was photographed many times while the Imperial family still lived in the Palace and again after 1919 when the palace became a museum. The room was completely destroyed during the war, nothing survived except for some small pieces of furniture and objects which had been taken away by the curators for safe keeping.
One of the few surviving pieces of furniture from the Her Majesty’s apartments. This chair in particular, comes from the shared Bedchambre of Their Majesties. It still sports its original chintz upholstery which is damaged, the pink ribbon has all but faded but the wreathes are still there. You can see the damaged, white enameled woodwork as well. It’s amazing to know that even after the War, things like this were somehow saved.
Photo by Andrei Zeest taken in 1917 before the Imperial family was arrested and exiled of the Maple Drawing room. The room was totally destroyed and in currently under reconstruction and will by 2021 look again as it does in this old photo. Recently the metal box containing the plants and made of copper re-surfaced, it was kept with other objects at Pavlosk Palace.
Today still under reconstruction the Maple Drawing room. The plaster work of rose vines all around the ceiling and other decorative elements being recreated is a huge task.
An artist here working on the plaster work in the Maple Drawing room, delicate painstaking work.
Soviet staff visiting the palace after the war, damage is apparent in this room. It will be interesting to visit the Alexander Palace in 2021 when all the restoration work is complete. It will in all likely hood be a huge draw given how popular the tragic figures of the Tsar and his family have become in Russia and elsewhere. Now acknowledge by the State as victims of Bolchevik terror and canonized as Holy Martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church, the Alexander Palace could become a pilgrimage site like other sites in Russia where the family was imprisoned and killed.