Catherine Palace

Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

One of the grandest royal residences in the world, the Catherine Palace is a stunning reminder of the pomp and grandeur of the Russian Romanov dynasty. Almost completely destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, over more than fifty years it was stunningly and authentically restored to all its former glory.

Located in the village of Tsarskoye Selo (now Pushkin) about 25km south of St Petersburg, the Catherine Palace was originally commissioned in 1717 by Catherine I, second wife of Peter I (Peter the Great), Tsar of Russia and founder of St Petersburg. Following Peter’s death, Catherine reigned as Empress of Russia until her death in 1727. Only the imperial rulers of Russia could not only forge a new national capital out of a swamp (as Peter I did at St Petersburg), but also decree nearby a summer pleasure palace with an entire village to service it (Tsarskoye Selo means “Tsar’s village”), by ordering their starving farming peasant population into action.

Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

The Grand Ballroom, Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

Initially designed by German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein, it was substantially extended by subsequent rulers, most notably by Catherine’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth. She commissioned famed Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to remodel the old structure and front it with a much grander edifice. The new style of the palace, known as Rococo, was popular in Russia at the time, and much of St Petersburg mirrors it.

The imposing main facade is tall and broad, but surprisingly narrow (only one room from front to back). Many hectares of impressive gardens and outbuildings surround the palace, including a huge ornamental lake. The gardens to the north are shared with the later Alexander Palace, the favourite residence of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. The grand entrance is flanked by two large “circumferences”, also in the Rococo style, creating an enormous enclosed carriage courtyard.

Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

The Hermitage Pavilion, Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

Throughout the extensive gardens are numerous impressive buildings, any one of which would be a significant landmark in its own right in any other setting. One of the most impressive of these is the Hermitage Pavilion, which sits in the middle of a large manicured forest directly opposite the centre of the palace.

The Pavilion was often used as a venue for highly sensitive diplomatic meetings and dinners. To ensure not even the serving staff could overhear the confidential negotiations, the Pavilion was equipped with a complex and sophisticated dumb-waiter system of levers, pulleys and moving trays that could deliver hot meals directly to each diner from the floor below – without the serving staff ever needing to enter the dining room. The apparatus is still in place and working.

Catherine II (Catherine the Great), for whom the name of the palace is often mistakenly thought to honour, enjoyed staying at the palace even though she thought it old-fashioned and disliked the extravagance. She had private apartments and a special wing built in a neoclassical style for her succession of lovers. Here they could enjoy many uninterrupted hours away from the rest of the court.

A number of other buildings and features throughout the gardens were commission by Catherine II and remain today. Following Catherine’s death in 1796 the Catherine Palace was all but abandoned in favour of nearby Pavlovsk Palace, and later, the Alexander Palace, both smaller and less grand.

Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

More than a hundred historical monuments are scattered across the Catherine and Alexander Parks that have a joint area of 300 hectares: there are grand palaces and intimate pavilions, bridges and marble monuments, and also exotic structures imitating Gothic, Turkish and Chinese architecture that invest little corners of the parks with a romantic atmosphere.

After the October Revolution of 1917 the palace became a museum and the best buildings in the villa became institutes of health and education for children. At that time the village was renamed Detskoye Selo – “Children’s Village”. In 1937, on the 100th anniversary of the death of Alexander Pushkin, the town was renamed in his honour.

It is difficult to imagine that at the end of World War II (known to Russians as the Great Patriotic War) the entire palace complex, including the gardens and outbuildings, was almost completely razed. At the end of their unsuccessful siege of St Petersburg, the Germans bombed and burned the palace and grounds until barely a shell remained, very nearly wiping out hundreds of years of Russian imperial history.

Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

Fortunately for posterity, the Russians were a wily lot. Knowing the Germans were on their way, and that there was little the Russian army could do to stop them, and knowing the enemy’s passion for war loot and foreign art, the locals buried many of the greatest statues, artworks and valuables in the extensive gardens surrounding the palace. They were never found by the Germans, and so once the nazis had left the priceless artefacts were unearthed again.

After the war, the communist regime under Stalin was surprisingly sympathetic to the history represented by the palace. Despite the obvious costs involved Stalin demanded that the palace be completely restored to its former glory. Original drawings were obtained to ensure authenticity and used alongside the records of significant archivist’s audits undertaken before the war. Artisans from across Europe were called in to assist.

Possibly the most surprising outcome of the restoration was the ceiling of the Grand Ballroom (also called the Grand Hall). The fresco that adorns the ceiling today is the original, which was discovered stored in St Petersburg after the war. It had been removed from the ballroom by a Tsar who did not like it and replaced it with something of his own. Thus, the second fresco was destroyed by the Germans, and the original has been returned.

For the next fifty to sixty years the restoration continued, and while there is still work to be done the palace complex today is as grand as it ever was under the Romanovs. The Tsarskoye Selo palace and park ensemble is a superb monument of world-ranking architecture and garden-and-park design.

In 2001, Elton John gave an exclusive performance to a small, elite audience in the Grand Ballroom.

Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

Catherine Palace, Pushkinskiy

4 Responses to Catherine Palace

  1. […] Salón de baile en el Palacio de Catalina, Tsárskoye Seló, Rusia. […]

  2. scryde says:

    How easy was it to get to the palace via public transport? I am travelling alone and was going to make by own way to the palace via public transport, but everyone keeps saying this is difficult as no one speaks English. Are there ticket machines in English?

  3. Teddy says:

    Teddy was lucky enough to use private transport to get to the palace. I’m afraid you’ll need to check with local authorities for info on public transport. However, I found the number of English speakers in St Petersburg and Pushkin to be quite high, especially among younger people. As English is now a compulsory subject in all secondary schools, this isn’t surprising.

  4. Bernado Small says:

    It’s not my first time to go to see this web page, i am browsing this
    website dailly and get pleasant data from here daily.

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