First, a confession: Until our tour guide corrected me, I was under the impression that the Catherine Palace of Pushkin got its name from the flamboyant empress Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great. Though she did play a role in adding to its grandeur and used it as her favorite summer residence during her reign as the empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, the palace was not built by her. Nor was it named after her. It was built by Peter the Great and named after his wife, Catherine I. Catherine I became the ruler of Russia on her husband’s death in 1725. She died two years later.
Pushkin is one of the charming suburbs of St. Petersburg, about half an hour by bus from the city proper. Its original name was Czarskoye Selo, meaning the czar’s village. The name change took place in 1937, in commemoration of the hundredth death anniversary of the legendary Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin, they say, is to the Russian language what Shakespeare is to the English language.
The palace that Peter the Great built was a modest one. It was rebuilt into the sprawling palace-and-park complex that we see today by his daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth—to repeat what we said earlier—ruled Russia from 1741 to 1762. To do the redesigning and rebuilding of the original palace, she employed her favorite architect, Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, the same person who designed the Winter Palace. Additional works of expansion and embellishment were done by Catherine the Great.
What we see today, however, is a restored version of what Empress Elizabeth built and Catherine the Great embellished. The original one was reduced to a “charred frame” during the Nazi bombings and pillage in World War II. The restoration work began in 1957. It was quite surprising that on the day we visited the place, half a century later, the work was still going on. Politics and paucity of funds halted the work several times, our tour guide told us.
We were received at the palace gate with a song by the palace orchestra. When a few couples from our group started dancing to lovely Russian music, I whispered to a fellow tourist: “Catherine the Great would have loved to dance to this tune with one of her lovers.” (Before we got off the tour bus a few minutes earlier, our guide had refreshed our memory about the empress’s love life. She had many young lovers. The one she was most attached to was only 25 years old, less than half her age.)
He whispered back to me, when some palace employees came around offering to sell CDs and DVDs of Russian songs and dances, “Catherine the Great’s vanity wouldn’t have tolerated this cheap commercialism. She would have given them free.”
The guide took us only through the most important rooms in the labyrinthine palace and showed us only the famous artworks displayed in those rooms. “It will take days for you to tour the whole palace,” she told us. Going through the luxuriously decorated private chambers, gilded ballrooms, and imperial halls that czars and czarinas used—to live, work, grant audiences to subjects, and hold diplomatic receptions and gala balls—every tourist would feel that he was getting his money’s worth. But he would also be reminded of the contrast between the vulgar ostentation in which the rulers of Russia lived in the capital of the country, while the people at large lived in serfdom in the countryside, many of them in poverty.
The Story of the Amber Room
One room that no visitor would want to miss is the famous Amber Room, whose amber panels, gold moldings, and mirrors with candles lit around them, are awe-inspiring. The story of how the Amber Room became part of the Catherine Palace is equally fascinating. It was originally part of the Charlottenburg Palace, the home of Frederick William I, the first king of Prussia. In 1716, he gave all its components as a gift to Peter the Great, cementing a Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden in the Great Northern War. The amber panels and their paraphernalia were shipped to Russia in 18 large crates. Their first home in Russia was the Winter Palace. In 1755, Empress Elizabeth ordered the Amber Room to be moved to the Catherine Palace.
Among the thousands of objects the Nazis looted during World War II were the art treasures of the Amber Room. They justified their action, saying that the Amber Room was made by Germans, for Germans. They carted the amber panels away and recreated the Amber Room in the museum of the Königsberg Castle, on the Baltic Coast. The German territory of Königsberg was seized by the Soviet Union toward the end of World War II. Renamed Kaliningrad in 1946, it is now a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania. I hope to visit the castle at Kaliningrad one day, if only to get a feel of what the original Amber Room—dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World”—looked like.
The Amber Room of the Catherine Palace that visitors see now is a replica, created in 2003, of the original one. It could be an inadvertent omission on her part, our guide did not mention that the stunningly beautiful room we were standing in was a replica. I wonder how many of the five million people who visit the Catherine Palace every year (the number was provided by our guide) can tell the difference, unless they have read about the fate of the original Amber Room beforehand. I couldn’t, because I read about the Nazi loot and Russian repossession of it much later.
The guide did go into many other details of the Amber Room, though. One of them aroused my curiosity. While stating an obvious fact that “the candles lit around mirrors gave an illusion of space,” she also mentioned the total number of candles in the room: 696. She didn’t know, nor have I succeeded in finding out yet, the significance of 696.
Our next destination was Peterhof, another gift to posterity from Peter the Great.
Peterhof: More Grandiose than Versailles?
Peterhof—meaning Peter’s court—was founded in 1714. Peter the Great’s original plan was to build a summer palace overlooking the Gulf of Finland. The plan he envisaged was a grand one. The palace, according to the plan, would be surrounded by a large park dotted with numerous fountains, cascades, and statues. His plan became more ambitious when he visited France in 1717 and got carried away by the Versailles Palace. He decided to make Peterhof more grandiose than Versailles.
True, it did not attain that stature during his lifetime. But it did, however, say some historians, once the monarchs who followed him—especially empresses Elizabeth and Catherine II—expanded and modified it.
The Nazis, after their invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II, made Peterhof their headquarters. Once they lost the war, while retreating from Peterhof, they destroyed everything in their path. The palace and most of the objets d’art in the vast complex were left in ruins. Their restoration was ordered right away. But it took more than six decades’ work, interrupted now and then by politicians’ other priorities, for Peterhof to be brought back to the level of attraction it enjoyed in czarist days. Today, it is one of the greatest tourist attractions in St. Petersburg.
By the time our tour bus reached the parking lot of Peterhof, it was 2:00 p.m. We had only three hours to explore whatever we fancied. “You can either follow me around or be on your own,” the guide said. “The bus will leave at five p.m. sharp.”
I thought it prudent to follow her. Unless you are guided, you could easily be lost in the 1,000-hectare complex, consisting of palaces; eleven parks with more than 200 fountains in them; 150 statues of Roman and Greek gods, goddesses, and heroes; and so on.
The first place we visited was the main palace, also known as the Great Palace. The largest room in it is the Throne Room, magnificently decorated during the reign of Catherine the Great. The stairways leading to this room and several other State Rooms are adorned with gilded statues. As we did a quick tour of the important rooms in the palace, the guide gave their names: the picture hall, the ballroom, the audience hall, the drawing room, the dining room, two Chinese study rooms, and the study that was used by Peter the Great. When the palace was reconstructed by Empress Elizabeth, she took care to restore her father’s study to the exact form in which he had left it.
When we came out of the palace, we were warned by our guide to be prepared for a long walk in the park. “We’ll try to cover as much as we can within the limited time we have,” she told us.
The park has three sections: the Upper Park, the Lower Park, and the Alexandria Park. The last one was Czar Nicholas I’s contribution, built in memory of his wife, Alexandria. The Lower Park, stretching up to the Gulf of Finland, is the most attractive area. What makes it so are the Great Cascade, linked to the Upper Park and its Great Palace by terraces adorned with over 40 sculptures; the Monplaisir (meaning “My [Peter the Great’s] Pleasure”) Palace with the Chessboard Hill; the Pyramid Fountain consisting of 505 water jets; the Orangery; the Hermitage Pavilion; the Marly Palace with the Golden Hill Cascade; and the greenery that stretches as far as the eye can see.
The most attractive waterworks in the entire complex is the Great Cascade. It was also Peter the Great’s favorite cascade, we were told. It runs from the foot of the Great Palace to the Grand Canal. The canal goes all the way up to, and empties into, the Gulf of Finland. The cascade is decorated with 39 gilded bronze statues and 75 fountains. At the center of the Great Cascade is the Samson Fountain. It shows water spouting from the mouth of a lion, whose jaws are opened by Samson, the biblical hero. It is a symbolic representation of Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. The 17 steps from the foot of the palace to the Grand Canal are decorated with gilded statues of Roman and Greek gods and heroes.
While wandering through Peterhof and enjoying the beauty of everything around, the thought did cross my mind: “If this is the outcome of Peter the Great’s megalomaniacal personality and extravagant lifestyle, I don’t think we should be overly critical of them.”
It was close to 5:00 p.m., and I heard the guide shout from a distance: “It’s time to go.” I followed her, vowing to return to Peterhof again – and again.