Czar Attractions

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By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2001

The thought hit me first just after I passed from the oak-paneled chamber where conspirators suffocated Paul I until his body went limp, and into a rare exhibition of glowing portraits of Empress Elizabeth and other Russian rulers. It struck me again when I peered up from a plate of suckling pig at a posh new restaurant to see a performer dolled up as none other than Peter the Great. But only after stopping into the recently restored Church on the Spilled Blood -- centered on a gleaming marble statue of Alexander II -- did it all become perfectly clear.

The czars have returned to St. Petersburg.

During a visit to Russia's former imperial capital last month -- a decade after the Soviet government was replaced by a democratic regime -- I found that doors had opened to long-closed prerevolutionary venues, including the eerie palace where the last ruling Russian monarchs had holed up during the Bolshevik Revolution. The access, in turn, offered glimpses into some of the most intriguing chapters in the country's tumultuous history.

To be sure, the imperial city is cracking open the gates to its czarist past ever so gingerly -- displaying prerevolutionary relics and refurbishing 18th- and 19th-century mansions rather than staging elaborate celebrations. In a place where even acknowledging the existence of the last imperial rulers was taboo just a few years ago, the heightened profile given to fallen monarchs marks a thrilling new epoch.

A newly installed show in Catherine the Great's Summer Palace featuring portraits, gowns, uniforms and household relics of the Romanovs, the clan that ruled Russia from the early 1600s to 1917, is a good example. Here hung life-size paintings of Nicholas II and Alexandra, the czar and czarina toppled in the Revolution, dressed in full regalia. There was the crib where Alexei, their infant son, slept.

"Not so long ago, we were not even allowed to utter the names of the Romanovs," explained Tatyana Jarkova, a museum guide, as she walked me through the exhibition. "Now we're displaying everything about them, right down to the clothes they wore. As well we should. It's an important part of our past."

Then there was the Lomonosov Porcelian factory, founded 2 1/2 centuries ago to manufacture fine china for the imperial family, accessible only by special written permission until a year ago. Douglas Boyce, the Illinois-born director, guided me through the workrooms, explaining along the way how the factory has styled and decorated its famous crockery since 1744, and dishing out anecdotes about how royal tastes in dinnerware changed over the years.

But I didn't have to venture that far to behold the city's imperial force. After an hour's promenade along Nevsky Prospect, the main boulevard, past grandiose baroque and rococo mansions and finely sculpted statutes of poets and philosophers, I felt I was in a wonderland dreamed up by a czar.

And no wonder. Following an extensive trip through Western Europe in the late 1600s, Peter the Great made a blueprint for a Russian capital with French grandeur and Italian flair.

Nearly three centuries later, St. Petersburg is still centered on a network of tree-lined canals as romantic as Venice's, ornate facades as stately as Florence's and vast parks remindful of Paris's Luxembourg Gardens. Spires that rise majestically across the horizon and cathedrals topped with colorful onion-shape domes and other uniquely Slavic features give the city a distinctly Russian character.

Okay, the streets of contemporary St. Petersburg, with its 5 million inhabitants, sometimes strike visitors as more the handiwork of Stalin or Brezhnev than Peter the Great. They are often jammed with cars, rumbling trucks and pedestrians. The smell of tobacco permeates the air. And drab concrete Soviet-style apartment complexes mar some neighborhoods, particularly along the city's outer edges.

But under the leadership of Vladimir Yakovlev, an ambitious politician reelected governor for a second term last spring, the city seems to have stepped up a restoration campaign. In the stormy years following the revolution, many 18th- and 19th-century palaces and gardens constructed by Catherine the Great and other rulers fell into decay or were closed to the public. The much publicized reburial of the remains of Nicholas II and Alexandra here three years ago (they were killed and buried in the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg) apparently accelerated the restoration and reopening of these monuments.

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© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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