St. Petersburg is one of the world’s most northernmost cities. Russians love winter and wish, or possibly pray, for cold weather. Snow throws a white blanket over everything and softens the look of the imposing pastel palaces, and under its bright blanket of snow St. Petersburg seems less melancholy, less like a faded grande dame. Snow dusting the cupolas of Orthodox churches, and ice floes in the Neva contribute mightily to the legendary charm of the city.
St. Petersburg is less crowded in the winter so the lines at Pavlovsk and Catherine’s Palace, in Pushkin, and at art exhibitions and museums-especially the Hermitage-are much shorter, and it is easier to get tickets for the operas and the ballets.
For travelers who make the quick, twenty-six-kilometer journey into the countryside south of St. Petersburg, the reward is Pavlovsk. Built by the grand duchess Maria Fyodorovna for her husband, the grand duke Paul (later Czar Paul I), the gold-and-white palace stands in the middle of its 1,500 acre, birch-filled park, looking today just as it did almost two centuries ago.
Other edifices may be grander, but within imperial Russia, connoisseurs of architecture invariably single out Pavlovsk. It is a masterpiece of neo-Palladian perfection, with its graceful semi-circular wings, its Corinthian facade, and, above, its majestic columned rotunda.
"I will tell you some of its story," says Natalia, our hostess, and, as Russians are inclined to do, makes the simplest narrative sound like a Pushkin romance.
“Pavlovsk was not, like many other great palaces, a symbol of Russian imperial might. At the Hermitage the monarchs held court, ambassadors presented credentials, and royal balls were given on a scale surpassing anything yet seen in the West. At Petrodvorets, the many palaces, the landscaped gardens, the breathtaking fountains and cascades were created by Peter the Great, Elizabeth I, and Catherine II as a glorious background for spectacular state occasions. Tsarskoye Selo, where Elizabeth I built the celebrated baroque great palace named after her mother, Empress Catherine I, was the official summer residence of the royal family and thus a seat of government and court protocol.”
"But Pavlovsk was conceived as a home: its rooms are small by palace standards, exquisite, more intimate; the contents, precious and personal. The estate that Catherine the Great gave to her son and heir, Paul, and his wife, Maria Fyodorovna, to celebrate the birth of her grandson, the future Czar Alexander I, was then rolling countryside. The only buildings were two rustic hunters' cottages, 'Krik' and 'Krak.' At the beginning Their Highnesses were the ecstatic new residents of Krik."
“The palace's first architect was Charles Cameron, a Scot who had been heavily influenced by Palladio and who was winning Catherine's favor with his work at Tsarskoye Selo and other imperial buildings. But Maria Fyodorovna did not share Catherine's taste for the baroque, and she resented interference. ‘Cameron is so slow,’ she wrote to the foreman. ‘Beg him, in God's name, to hurry up and take care not to add arabesque ornaments to our bedroom ceiling.’ It was not long before she had replaced Cameron with his compliant assistant Vincenzo Brenna.”
“The palace that was finally completed in 1824 was the genial realization of the designs of most of the distinguished masters working in Russia at the time, the masters who were also creating historical St. Petersburg. The private and state apartments of Pavlovsk consist of some forty-five rooms and halls, divided between the ground floor, where the royal couple spent much of their leisure time, and the upper floor, or piano nobile, where ceremonies took place.”
Although Pavlovsk appears miraculously untouched by the ravages of history, it is in fact a replica. Pavlovsk was not a military objective, yet the enemy left only a ruin.
“Before leaving, in January 1944, the Nazis set fire to the palace and park pavilions, blew up the bridges, destroyed about 70,000 trees and 30,000 shrubs, and placed more than 10,000 mines in the gardens.”
Under the supervision of the Russian architects Fyodor Oleinik and Sofia Popova-Gunich and the decorator Anatoly Treskin, teams of highly skilled artisans have labored to restore Leningrad to its eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century glory. At Pavlovsk, they worked from descriptions carefully recorded by the onetime royal owners and from thousands of photographic negatives and prints, plans, and archival material.
“By late June of 1941, the staff had evacuated the greatest paintings, porcelain, and tapestries. When there was insufficient space to transport the bulkier objects, they took one or two chairs, a table, a cabinet, a bed, or a couch out of each set of precious furniture, to copy later. Pieces of marble and marquetry and swatches of every kind of textile used in the draperies and upholstery were collected as samples. These treasures were sent to Siberia, where they were stored in a local opera house. Many heavy statues and marble busts were buried in the grounds of the park, with the spots identified on maps. Other things were bricked up in the walls of the palace basement. And workers took many of the smaller objects to Leningrad.”
More than 60,000 trees have been planted in the park. The walls and columns are up, the contents back in place, the draperies hanging as Maria Fyodorovna planned.
Pavlovsk as we see it today looks forward and backward in time. The palace stands as proof of Russian genius, of Russia’s pride in the accomplishments of its past. Rising from the ashes of war, Pavlovsk is one of Russia’s finest architectural monument.
for Ms. Edna, much love Mona, Felix and Anja.