i won’t go there

This isn’t a political blog by any means. It’s a travel blog. Yet it’s difficult to silently stand back and watch what is going on in one of my favorite cities in the world, St. Petersburg, Russia. In less than one week, lawmakers in St. Petersburg could silence millions of people by making it a crime to read, write or even discuss anything involving homosexuality. That’s right, a crime. Calls and letters have rolled in from around the world, but it’s not enough. So with your help, we’re going to hit the Governor of St. Petersburg where it counts: the pocketbook. Russia recently announced that it wants to spend $11 billion dollars over the next few years to attract tourists in concert with the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. We need to let the Governor of Peter the Great’s cosmopolitan “window on the west” know that we won’t go there if he turns the town into a gloomy center of censorship and intolerance. Russia’s second largest city thrives on its artistic reputation to attract tourists from around the world – a reputation that’s impossible to reconcile with a law that will muzzle artists, writers, musicians and ordinary citizens who live in – or visit – the city. Imagine for a moment the new Saint Petersburg, where an empowered “thought police” can fine you for any mention of the well-known fact that famed Russian composer Tchaikovksy, a Saint Petersburg native, was gay. Gogol himself couldn’t have created a more ridiculous mise-en-scene. And yet it is well on the way to becoming reality. Please, take a minute to tell Governor Poltavchenko “I won’t go there” if the bill passes. He holds the power to veto this bill – a law that will not only censor millions but also silence any and all human rights organizations in Russia fighting for equal rights. The great city of Pushkin, Akhmatova, Rastrelli and Brodsky has at times in history been shelled, strangled and besieged. To now silence it would be the cruelest injustice of all.


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.


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.


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.


in the playground of the czars – part one

In search of a pair of imperial Russian palaces, I find myself hopelessly lost amid the wild brambles of Alexander Park.  Someone told me there is a way to enter through the gardens so you come upon the palaces – the Alexander and the Catherine – much the way the czars did, when, fleeing the formality and intrigue of court life at St. Petersburg, they took up residence here.

I’m doing this all backwards, I think as I slog my way past yet another folly/pavilion/victory column/caprice.  Finally, I figure I’m getting close.  Approaching from behind what I recognize as the Chinese Theater, the onion domes of the palace chapel suddenly blaze, golden, in the cloudless sky.  Crossing around and behind the theater brings me out on to the Grand Allee that leads directly into the gilded courtyard of the Catherine Palace, the eyes of the imperial eagle meeting mine.  Caught in its fierce double-headed glare, it’s difficult not to feel like a serf.

Ghosts are everywhere here:  Catherine the Great and her coterie of famous lovers; Rasputin; the poet-laureate Alexander Pushkin; Nicholas and Alexandra and their doomed children.  Different centuries, different times; two palaces:  Tsarkoe Selo, the imperial town.  One cannot help but feel invited, implored even, to enter the picture and touch what still remains, to hear the music and listen to the whispers.

What has become almost overwhelmingly grand started rather simply – or as simple as these things ever are.  In 1710, Peter the Great made a small gift to his wife, Empress Catherine, of an estate south of St. Petersburg, Tsarkoe Selo, or Village of the Czar.  Imperial architects built her a single story palace.

But a residence of such modest scale was not enough to satisfy her daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who took the place over in 1741.  She enlarged the palace twice and named it after her mother, employing the Italian architect Rastrelli to endow it with the outlines and splendor it retains today.

The lavish gilding of the facades was echoed by a precession of state rooms known as the Golden Enfilade, which runs the length of the palace – an astonishing 1,000 feet.  A series of five huge antechambers, now closed for renovations, in which the visitors would wait to be received by the empress, leads into the Great Hall, itself more that 164 feet long and abundantly ornate.  For court balls and masquerades, the room was lit by more than 60,000 candles.  Across the ceiling spans a monumental fresco, the “Triumph of Russia,” glorifying the nations achievements.

There is room after room of opulent moldings, intricate parquets and a vast display of wealth:  the Green and Raspberry Pilaster Rooms, the Portrait Room, the Picture Hall, with some 130 canvases crowding the walls.  The Amber Room, still being refurbished and only partly restored, once housed a spectacular series of amber panels that were looted by the Nazis.

In 1762, the palace came into the hands of Catherine the Great, who was to make it her favorite residence for more than 30 years, arriving every spring in time to celebrate her birthday.

Greatly influenced by the new vogue for “antique” looks, the empress commissioned the Scottish architect Charles Cameron to carry out the decorations.  He produced a decor of great sophistication, covering the walls and ceilings with opaline glass and Lyons silks and sprinkling them with friezes and delicate patterns in bronze gilt.

Walk through the Buffet and you come to the Green Dining Room, Cameron’s first in a suite of salons; the Blue Drawing Room, with its turquoise inlays, blue crystal floor lamps and stellar painted ceiling; the Chinese Blue Drawing Room, walled with hand-painted Chinese landscapes.

Cameron went on to build the adjoining Agate Rooms, which flaunted the natural wealth of the empire, with an abundance of malachite, alabaster, porphyry, jasper, agate, amber and lapis lazuli.

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.


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