On Sunday morning of our trip, we headed out of St. Petersburg and off to Pushkin, a town about a half hour outside of the city. The area was originally known as Tsarskoe Selo (“Tsar’s Village”), but renamed first in 1918 to “Children’s Village”, and then in the late 1930s to Pushkin, commemorating the famous author, who lived and studied there. Our first stop, and the topic of this blog post, was The Catherine Palace, originally constructed by Catherine I, but then completely redone by her daughter Elizabeth. Rastrelli, an architect whom Elizabeth particularly favored, designed this second version of the palace, and his lavish, baroque works can be seen all around St. Petersburg,
The first thing I noticed upon arriving at the palace was the bright, robin’s egg blue color—another trademark of Rastrelli—along with the gleaming gold decorations that surrounded each of the many windows. Once we turned the corner of the palace, however, and saw the full length of its façade, the impact of the vibrant colors was completely overshadowed the palace’s quite literally awesome size. The Catherine Palace stands at 325 meters long; as we waited to go inside, I noticed that I had to turn my head fully from left to right to see either end. And my sense of astonishment did not fade for a minute inside the building. We walked around rooms covered in gilded decorations on the walls, pristine parquet wood floors, and elaborately painted ceilings. We passed Dutch tile ovens that almost touched the high ceilings and sets of china, one designed specifically to match the interior of one dining room, and another that was made for high-ranking army officers (with their specific medals on the pattern of their respective plates). We marveled, along with a mass of other tourists, at the Amber Room, the walls of which are covered with panels of mosaics of amber stones of various golds, oranges, and reds. It was clear that no expense was spared to impress guests of the tsars and empresses of the 18th century, and that an incredible amount of work went into each and every detail of the palace.
It is here that I should point out what is perhaps the strangest, yet also perhaps the most impressive feature of the Catherine Palace: it has all been rebuilt in the last half century. During WWII, the Nazis intentionally destroyed the palace, bombing it and leaving it as a shell of what it once was, without even a roof to keep the snow out. A few of its pieces were put in storage before the Nazis arrived, but the restorers who continue to work on the palace base their renovations on photos that had been taken of the original rooms. This means that each room can be restored to more or less and identical copy of what stood there originally, which is incredibly lucky for visitors like myself on the one hand, but at the same time, left me with a bit of an eerie feeling. All the detailing and work that went into the original palace has been put into the renovations, so much so that it’s easy to forget that the décor is not actually from the 1700s. In a way, it’s like getting to see two different eras at once: the 18th century, when the Empress first built this lavish palace, and the 20th century, when the modern government set out to preserve this decadent period in history.