in the playground of the czars – part two

As if to draw this litany of magnificent creation to a close, Catherine commissioned another Italian architect, Giacomo Quarenghi, to build a palace next door, the Alexander Palace, for her favorite grandson, the future Alexander I, the one on whom she founded her greatest hopes.

Here, the principal apartments look over the park and in marked contrast to the almost overbearing baroque of the Catherine Palace, the interiors are relatively simple.  You can actually believe the tales of the czars doing their own accounts in comfort as well as elegance.

At the end of the 19th century, Nicholas II and Alexandra – whose portraits and personal effects hang there once more – chose the Alexander Palace as their principal residence.

Here, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia and the czarevich Alexis grew up in a happy family atmosphere, sadly overshadowed by the czarevitch’s illness, hemophilia.  Here, they spent the spring and summer of 1917 as virtual prisoners of the Bolsheviks.  It is also from here that they  began their journey toward a brutal end at Ekaterinburg.

Closed since the end of World War II, the palace has only recently (and partially) reopened.  Its lack of excess brings its humanity into focus; the scale is more intimate, more reserved.  The displays of photos, clothing, military dress and personal effects of the last czar and his family remind you in a palpable way that not too long ago real people lived here.

It is worth noting that the palace saw an unceasing flow of technological innovation.  In the 1840’s, it was equipped with a heating system and fitted with plumbing.  Russia’s first telegraph system was installed in Nicholas I’s study, linking the palace with St. Petersburg.  During the reign of the last czar, the palace was wired for electricity and furnished with a telephone system.  Even more, a screening room was built to show films for the imperial family.  The palace’s last commandant, Voyeykov, recalled the last screening in his memoirs:  “It was the film ‘Madame DuBarry,’ featuring all the horrors of the French Revolution, the guillotine, the people’s courts, the executions, etc….After this film,” he wrote “I felt an unbelievable weight on my soul.


RESTORATION DRAMA

During World War II – also known here as the Great Patriotic War – the German armies, who spent 900 days trying to capture St. Petersburg, turned on the palaces in defeat, slashing canvases, burning tapestries, looting everything of value.  What they couldn’t carry off, they destroyed.

After the war, the facades and interiors were painstakingly rebuilt and restored by a generation of craftsmen that hadn’t existed ten years earlier.  Most rooms display photographs showing the rooms as they looked before restorations.

Year after year, the work continues.  Right now, one can only imagine the glories of the Palace Chapel, Catherine’s private apartments, the full realization of the Amber Room, and on and on.

That the palaces have been rebuilt seems even more startling that their original construction.  The renovations speak volumes about Russian passion, spirit and national pride.  Peter (the great) would be proud.

WHAT’S IN A NAME

Nothing in Russia has only one name.  Technically, the town is still called by its imperial name, Tsarskoe Selo, though the railway stop is called by its revolutionary name, Detskoi Selo (which means “children’s village,” after a large children’s facility there).  Most people call the place by its post-revolutionary name, Pushkin, which commemorates the poet-laureate, who was schooled and had a dacha there.

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