Although the sun was shining there was a keen wind blowing in over the cold waters of the Gulf of Finland and we shivered as we queued for entrance to the Grand Palace and fended off the attention of the opportunist souvenir sellers.
Thankfully it was only a short line so we soon passed through the doors and the security and were inside where we were obliged to but plastic slippers over our shoes so that we wouldn’t damage the parquet floors that we were about to walk over.
Sometime during the late seventeenth century Peter the Great visited western Europe and whilst in France he was so impressed with the Palace that Louis XIV had built for himself that he returned to Russia with plans to build one for himself and at this site thirty kilometres from Saint-Petersburg he began the construction of what was to become known as the ‘Russian Versailles’.
The tour began by climbing the ceremonial staircase which led to the restored state rooms on the first floor and then quickly to the lavishly gilded Ballroom and the splendid turquoise and white Throne Room. Everything was pristine and there is a good reason for this because the restoration is only recently completed.
During the Second-World-War German soldiers destroyed the Palace, looting the rooms and using whatever would burn for firewood to keep themselves warm in the bitterly cold winters. Anna reminded us of this several times but neglected to tell us that apparently some of the damage was also done by the Soviet Air Force when it bombed the place to try and remove the uninvited guests!
After the Throne Room there were more rooms to follow and as we passed through Anna expertly distinguished between originals and reproductions. The Germans were famous for what they called ‘Blitzkrieg’ which translates as ‘lightening war’ and when they invaded somewhere they didn’t hang about and after beginning the campaign at the end of June it took them only a couple of months or so to reach this place so the curators didn’t have a great deal of time to do the packing. They knew also that Hitler’s team of archaeologists and historians, the Ahnenerbe Organisation, would soon drop to catalogue and steal the precious exhibits and take them back to Berlin.
By now most of the men were at the battle front so the work of removing the works of art, the furniture and the ornaments fell to the women who had to make heartbreaking choices about what should be saved and transported west to the Ural Mountains for safe keeping knowing that what they couldn’t take would be certainly looted.
All this thieving was a two way thing of course and among the Red Army troops who entered Berlin in 1945 were experts sent to establish “trophy commissions.” Their official mission was to look for Russian cultural property stolen by the Nazis when they had invaded the Soviet Union but Red Army officers started removing the large art collections and treasures that had been stored in bunkers and railway depots during the war and transported them home.
In 1992, after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the German and Russian governments made an agreement of cultural cooperation and Germany has started to return to Russia paintings and other items plundered by German soldiers from 1941 to 1944. In 1997 they started giving back one of the most prized possessions stolen by the Nazis, the Amber Room, an ornate chamber of mosaics and gold taken from the Palace of Catherine The Great at Pushkin near Saint-Petersburg.
The guided tour took us through a succession of rooms each as lavish and extravagant as the one before it – the Blue Drawing Room, the Picture Room, The Divan Room, the White Drawing Room, the Audience Room, the Tsar’s Bedroom, and Peter The Great’s Oak Study. There were galleries and chapels, music rooms and libraries each with its own special treasures to show off, some genuine, others perfect replicas but all heavily guarded by a watchful security guard in each room.
They had two principle duties, first to make sure no one shoved a priceless antique up their jumper and made off with it and second to make sure no one took photographs and that explains why I have had to use scanned images here rather than any photographs of my own.
Something that surprised in all this was the interest in and reverence of the Romanovs and the Royal Family, I had always assumed that there would be an anti-monarchist presentation in the historical sites but here as elsewhere there was no mention of Lenin and the Revolution and the rooms were full to overflowing with royalist paintings and mementos and I was drawn to the conclusion that Royalty must be better for tourism than the Bolsheviks.
It took just over an hour to walk through the rooms of the Palace and in future years it will probably take a lot longer because the restoration is only about half-way complete. At the end we emerged into the inevitable souvenir shop and then down the back stairs and out through a door into the magnificent gardens beyond.
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