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Rebuilding History in St. Petersburg

May 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm
By Ben Hellerstein

Catherine’s Palace in the village of Pushkin (formerly Tsarskoe Selo) was the first stop on our Sunday tour of the royal residences in the St. Petersburg outskirts. We unfolded ourselves from our van and struggled to keep up with our guide, Valery, as he bounded towards the palace entrance. We approached the palace from one end, its long blue and white façade stretching out before us into the distance, reflecting the brilliance of a nearly cloudless sky (that would all too soon turn to rain). Every column capital and crevice of the façade was adorned with gold-colored Baroque ornamentation: leaves and flowers, cherub heads and muscular human figures. Though we were still shaking off the drowsiness of an early start to the day, it was impossible not to be delighted by the vision of the mid-eighteenth-century palace’s architect, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

On entering the palace, Valery took us first through a series of formal reception rooms. These enormous halls, their floors covered in intricate parquet patterns and ceilings painted with celestial murals, were packed with gold ornamentation similar to that on the façade. Only here, the gold leaf was real, and the rooms seemed to glow in the daylight streaming in through the large windows on either side. Valery directed our attention to a pair of cherubs in one corner of the room, whose gold leaf was notably darker, sootier, than the rest. These, he explained, were the only part of that hall’s ornamentation to survive World War II. Everything else we saw in that hall was a reconstruction of the past two or three decades.

The Germans and their allies occupied many of the former royal residences on the outskirts of St. Petersburg during their long 900-day siege of the city. Catherine’s Palace remained in fairly good condition throughout the occupation. But as Russian forces were poised to retake the village of Pushkin, the Germans, preparing for retreat, set the palace on fire. The extent of the damage varied from room to room, but some halls were burned all the way down to the bricks.

Restoration began in the 1980s, and though it has not yet been completed, most of the rooms of the palace are now open to visitors, looking exactly as they did in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even the legendary Amber Room, whose wall panels were stolen by the retreating German army and subsequently disappeared from the face of the earth, has been faithfully created, one piece of amber at a time. Prior to the German occupation, the Soviet government meticulously photographed the palace’s furnishings and ornamentation as part of the process of converting former royal residences into public buildings. Thus, the museum’s staff has a wealth of documentation to consult as they work to restore the palace to its former state.

But no matter how accurate the restoration, the fact remains that the palace we visited was (at least in part) not a real 18th-century palace, but a late-20th-century recreation of an 18th-century palace. The halls we walked through were not the same halls in which the tsars ate and slept and entertained guests, but a replica, a scale model.

What was the purpose of rebuilding this palace from its burnt-out shell? Of recreating this monument to the excesses of Russia’s royalty, who lived in unimaginable splendor, building palace after palace after palace through the centuries, while the vast majority of their subjects seemed to grow only poorer and more miserable with the passing of the years?

The palace is, without a doubt, beautiful. It is a major monument of Russian Baroque architecture, and as with all architecture, it can only be fully appreciated in person – not by studying the floor plans or photographs. It makes sense to preserve historic buildings so that they can be studied and appreciated by scholars and ordinary visitors. But to spend millions upon millions of rubles to wholly rebuild them? Surely, in the Soviet Union of the 1980s and Russia of the 1990s, there must have been other uses for all of that money.

In a sense, St. Petersburg as a city has preserved its historic character through the 20th century to a far greater extent than Moscow. St. Petersburg was a meticulously planned city, built around a series of wide prospects that offered easy access from the outskirts to the center. Moscow’s center, on the other hand, was a dense network of narrow streets that grew up gradually through the centuries, without a plan – and were thus poorly suited to carry the automobile traffic of a modern city. Moscow also suffered from being Russia’s capital following the 1917 Revolution. It was the favorite site for Soviet planners’ urban renewal projects, while in St. Petersburg, there never seemed to be enough money to realize those grand schemes.

However, if Moscow suffered from bulldozers, St. Petersburg suffered from bombs. In the siege of 1941-1944, Valery informed us, half of the city’s buildings were damaged, and a third were fully destroyed. The Soviet government compromised the city’s historic fabric as well, through the demolition of churches and through simple neglect and deferred maintenance.

Today, walking along some of the city’s canals, you can feel, at times, that you are still living in the St. Petersburg of the late 19th century. Tsarist statues have been cast in bronze once again and reinstalled atop their former pedestals, and historic buildings are being cleaned and patched up. Like Catherine’s Palace, the city is being rebuilt according to its former design, but the question of what, exactly, is being recreated, and why, remains open.