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Travel Guides - An Imperial Pleasure Palace

AN IMPERIAL PLEASURE PALACE by Isabel F. Hapgood. Cosmopolitan Magazine, April 1896

by Isabel F. Hapgood.
Cosmopolitan Magazine, April 1896

When the young Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, was married, he was not able to take a wedding trip, like ordinary mortals.  Not only was he in deep mourning for his  beloved father, but he was overwhelmed by the accumulation of public business incident to the beginning of a new reign, and could not go out of easy reach of his ministers.

Therefore, he went from time to time with his young bride to one of the most famous of the imperial county-seats in the vicinity of St. Petersburg - Tzarskoe Selo.  Tsarskoe is by rail about sixteen miles from the capital.  Here the young Emperor and Empress passed much time during the winter, driving about in their little sledge, seeing no one, not even the Empress's lady in waiting, and receiving only ministers on business.
Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia
While we were in Tzarskoe Selo, the Court was not there, but at Peterhof, about twenty miles from St. Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland.  Despite the absence of the Court, we were not deprived of opportunities to judge what the imperial village would look like when the sun of royal favor shone upon it.  Royalties of every rank were in residence for a longer or shorter period; even emperors came there on occasion.  Best of all were the famous palaces which form the heart of the place.  The pale green and white of the old palace, whose seven hundred and sixty feet of length is perfect from a picturesque and theatrical point of view, harmonize agreeably with the verdure of the park and with the brazen wash that now covers the vases, caryatids, pillar capitals and ornaments.   These, as well as the roof were originally plated with solid gold to the value of three million ducats, if one my credit the traditions of the last century.

Of the long suites of apartments, it seemed to us that few differed materially from those we had seen elsewhere.  The church was decorated in a peculiar dark yet vivid shade of blue, mingled with rococo gold ornaments, and the immense ball room in gold.  One room was paneled on walls and ceiling with pure amber in a bewildering variety of shades.  It was adorned with cabinets of carved objects in these same material, all the gift of Frederick the Great to the Empress Elizabeth in return for a present of thirty gigantic soldiers such as he loved to have in his guard.    Famous also is the room whose walls are inlaid with lapis lazuli and whose ebony floor is inlaid with mother of pearl.  We did not greatly admire the rooms of Catherine II, overlooking the private garden, which are paneled with milky glass and decorated with glass pillars of a distressing bluish purple hue, but appreciated the Russian national taste which had placed a mechanical organ in the modern dining room, to grind out music, during meals in true Russian tractor, or restaurant fashion.  Plainer but more interesting were the private apartments of Emperor Alexander II, on the ground floor,, where, among other curiosities, is preserved the iron shod silver staff with which Ivan the Terrible pinned to the earth the feet of a bearer to Moscow of ill-tidings.  With it he also slew his eldest son, an act which cost Russia dear in blood and treasure and brought about a change of dynasty.
in front of the Alexander Palace

Annual festival of the Sharpshooters' Regiment, ceremony in front of the Alexander Palace, Tzarskoe Selo

The park surrounding this old palace is laid out in compartments surrounded by acacia hedges and intersected by stately avenues, in stiff, ancient style.  Hidden among the trees in various places are monuments to ennui, in the shape of pavilions, grottoes, a hermitage larger and handsomer than that of Peter the Great at Peterhof, where the plates descend throughout the table with the guest's orders, ascend with the food, and vanish, in company with the tables, through the floor, in preparation for the dance of the "hermits".  There is the cold bath, to which entrance is not difficult; the hot bath (with a Russian bathroom reserved for the use of royalty) for access to whose delights and good attendance very special influence is required.  There are gates, columns, and monuments to the glory of the Orloffs who helped to her throne the grateful Catherine II, of whom Tzarskoe is redolent to this day.  There are  mock ruins at which the great Empress's courtiers were wont, justly to smile, and fanciful arches over the highway to the new garden - in short, all the restless fantasies of a century which doted on intangible sentiments accompanied by very tangible actions and boredom solidified in very material forms.

When this park was first created, one of the greatest difficulties from the sanitary point of view, as well as from that of the landscape gardner, was the lack of water.  This was conquered in the course of time, and the numerous canals and streams are now supplied from two sources.  The water which was conducted from the Duderhoff Hills by General Bauer, Catherine II's engineer, is so pure and healthy that it is sold in the capital and is drunk exclusively by people who are made ill by the Neva water.  The Empress Catherine was so proud of this stream, which is generally known under the plain and suitable name of "the Bauer canal" that she insisted on dubbing it a "river."  One morning a man was found drowned in it.  The Empress, on being informed, turned triumphantly to a foreign diplomat who had never been willing to acknowledge the claim of the canal to its lofty title and said: "There now! Will you deny any longer that it is a river?" "Your Majesty," replied the diplomat, "the man seems to have been a very clever courtier."

In the adjoining park surrounding the Alexander Palace, nature is less trammeled. The palace which belongs to the Czarevich, and was always used by the late Emperor, Alexander III, on his visits to the town, even after his accession to the throne, is a gracefully proportioned structure, with a more home-like aspect without, and within than most buildings of the sort posseses.  Here Nicholas II spent his honeymoon, receiving no one but his ministers, and driving himself and his wife about the lovely parks in a low sledge.  The Empress had but one lady in attendance, and that lady saw very little of her.  Here the Grand Duke George, brother to the Emperor was born.  I remember attending a beautiful service in the blue and gold church connected with the old palace on St. Peter and St. Paul's day.  The imperial choir and priests had been brought down from the Winter Palace, and the present Emperor came over from the great camp at Krasnoe Selo, where he was learning his military duties in the Praeobrazhinsky infantry regiment, under his uncle (now brother in law, also) Grand Duke Sergius.  I remember, also, that he scandalized the ultra-aristocrats by standing for his photograph in the ranks of his regiment alongside of "commoners."

The Alexander Palace is a charming, home like place.  In the extensive library, which a few of the townspeople and visitors were permitted to use, there exists a curious set of models representing the Russian army early in the present century.  A farm, with house and appurtenances, a Chinese theater, and a Chinese village (so called because the roofs were designed in Chinese style to satisfy a whim of the Empress Catherine II) and other establishments, are included in this park;  but none of them are so interesting as the little palace Babalovo, whither Alexander I was wont to retire in the fits of melancholy and meditation to which he was inclined.  A great slice of this park has recently been enclosed and added to the "private garden" for the use of the imperial family, which denotes their intention to make Tzarskoe a regular resort.  Just outside the gate near Bablovo Palace lies the Finnish village of the same name, the home of some of my market-women friends, which does not differ materially, except in the type of inhabitants, from a Russian village.

Tzarskoe is a beautifully clean, well kept town, but its present state is not to be compared, say old residents, with that during the reign of a certain prefect, who lies buried in the cathedral.  He rests beneath a slab inscribed with the high opinion of his fellow citizens or subjects, who contributed to it possibly with joy in some cases.  This martinet would not permit the Emperor to drive in his own park after a rain, so tradition alleges, until the roads were thoroughly dry.  He feared lest they should be injured, and he was, in the habit of locking the gates to enforce his mandate.  He governed the town streets with equal vigor.  One day espying an orange peel which had been flung into the road by a woman seated at her window, he ordered a policeman to throw it back "whence it came." 

The population of the "village" is about seventeen thousand, including the garrison of ten thousand, and the houses vary greatly according as they are intended to serve merely as summer villas, or for steady residence.  The summer dacha, called expressly "cold" houses are often decorated with the wood-carving which is a characteristic of North Russian architecture.  The plank walls are thin, facilities for heating are absent or inadequate, so that the occupants in the beginning of September leave them as a rule.   Warm log cottages accommodate the resident poorer classes.  Stone houses, ie houses of rubble or brick, covered with cement, washed in delicate hues and provided with the usual thick walls, shelter the state offices, officials and well to do permanent inhabitants.  Every one tries to have a bit of garden, or, at least, a covered veranda, with awnings of white linen bound with red cotton, wherein to sit and eat.  But space was precious in the palmy days of the late Court's residence, and the verandas are sometimes fairly on the street exposed to the dust and glances of passers by.

The gardens are tiny, and very little attention is paid to ornamentation or even to neatness in the majority of cases.  There are trees and something green; what matters if that green be grass or weeds- if it be long and unkempt and the bushes struggling?  The verdure is all the more refreshing if not trimming be done.  Owing also to the great value of every inch of ground, one finds villas tucked away in the oddest corners imaginable, usurping what were formally really pretty and extensive gardens in the rear of houses on the street.  But why repine at the lack of space around a house so long as one has room for a samovar in the open air?  That is the Russian idea.  The real villa style recalls old prints of houses in St. Petersburg of the period when Peter the Great had carried architectural ambition beyond the first state of log huts (among his unwilling colonists from the higher classes).  The chief rooms lie close to the ground, and two or three spare chambers are contrived in the middle of the roofs or at the ends, forming a partial second story known as a "mezzanine".

About two miles beyond Tzarskoe Selo lis another famous park and palace - Pavlovsk, -named from the Emperor Paul I who spent here most of the time when he was not engaged at Gatschina during his mother's long reign.  Through the park winds the Slavyanka river which with the natural variations of the ground, render it more diversified and beautiful even than the Tzarskoe parks.  A long strip of parl land connects it with the latter, but public vehicles are not permitted to use the road through it without special permission from the prefect, although free access is granted them once arrived in Pavlovsk by the highway.  There only the private garden and the palace courtyard are withheld from the use of the public.  The palace, like everything else there, owes its existence to the Emperor Paul and his wife, the much admired and beloved Maria Feodorovna but it was rebuilt and improved in 1803, after a conflagration.  While not very striking outwardly, the interior is very attractive.  The curving galleries which connected the main buildings with the pavilions enclosing the semicircular courtyard, have been covered in since the olden days when the courtiers candles spluttered and went out, as, exposed to all weathers, they hurried to their apartments.
Cameron Galleryin Tsarskoe Selo

Catherine II's apartments, breakfast gallery and terrace at the old palace

We were taken over the palace by a friend of the family, twenty four hours after the Duchess Alexandra Iosefevna had left with her daughter the Queen of Greece.  I refrain from describing its beauties and will mention only an incident which will appeal to housekeepers of every rank in life.  When we came to the Grand Duchess's boudoir, we found the palace superintendent occupying it with his family.  A huge fire was roaring in the fireplace; the furniture, screens and ornaments looked as if they had been stirred up with a pitchfork.  The white satin lounges and ottomans, embroidered in delicate designs and colors were being put to uses which the owner certainly never contemplated.  The superintendent, on seeing the friend of the family who was with us, stammered out something about being "engaged in putting things in order," and remained respectfully though he was evidently anxious to have us go.  He banged the door after us, and locked it with a crash, that his labors might not be further disturbed.  What further play the mice indulged in when the cat had been gone a little longer does not appear.

Among its ever changing views, the park is full of pavilions, thatched cottages, monuments to sentiment and to dead relatives of Paul I, and to Paul himself.  In the beginning of this century, when there were no railways, Pavlovsk must have seemed very far off to Petersburgers who frequented it for their outings.   The Empress Marie Feodorovna encouraged themto come by providing a free lunch from her dairy.  If the visitors would only come, and would refrain from walking on the grass -"that hurt her as much as though they had trod on her: she told them - they were welcome to do whatever they liked, and she was happy in their enjoyment.  She established a farm to instruct the neighboring peasants in improved methods of dairy work, and to improve their stock.  To the deserving among them, the Empress gave presents of blooded calves.  Her farm still supplies breakfasts of dairy products to all who desire, but not gratis.  It is a favorite resort.  Are there not cowbells attuned to melodious chimes? Are there not bears to play with, peacocks to screech warning of rain and pigeons to walk familiarly into one's plate in truly rustic fashion?  A museum of the Empress's china, dairy, utensils and letters is preserved in a building at the farm, under the charge of the inevitable old soldier, who is rich in yarns of the Emperor Nicholas, like every Russian veteran who respects himself and knows what is expected of him.
The Empress Alexandra of Russia

The Empress in Court Dress

Pavlovsk belonged to the late Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevitch.  His daughter the Queen of Greece, had been spending the summer there, and there a son had been  born to her.  The day for the christening was appointed, and it was publicly announced in the newspapers that the Emperor and Empress would be present.  People embrace eagerly every opportunity to see the royal couple, and crowds assembled early in Pavlovsk Park.  A friend of the family at Pavlovsk invited me to go and took me into the palace.  We hovered between the veranda and the vestibule at the grand entrance to see the royal guests arrive.  By degrees the great circular courtyard, with its central flower beds surrounding a bronze statue of the Emperor Paul, its sides draped with growing vines and plants, and with special decorations for the occasion, became filled with the equipages of all the grand dukes and duchesses in the neighborhood.  Many of these were troikas, recognizable by their harness tassels of the livery colors of the different courts.  The hot sun of an August noon lay on the grand avenue of lindens leading from the courtyard, and on the throngs of spectators, who greeted with hearty shouts the Empress and Grand Duke Sergius as they drove up together.  The Empress's equipage was like that of any noble save that her chamber kazak was on the box as usual, in his livery of dark green and blue, laced with the gold and imperial eagles, and a kepi to match.  Another great welcome greeted the Emperor when he arrived, unescorted as usual, in a plain calash, with grooms, coachman and liveries in the English style.  He had driven from a railway station beyond Tzarskoe, through the parks, and had breakfasted at the Alexander Palace along the way.  Many people had calculated which of the numerous routes through the vast park he would take, and the hour, and had assembled to see him pass.  It is always easy to calculate where to see him if one reads the newspapers and knows the customs.

The Duchess Constantine, her daughter-in-law, the King of Greece, and others were waiting in the vestibule to receive their visitors.  The duchesses were in full court dress, with bare necks and arms, with superb jeweled kokoshniki (coronets), veils and gems.
Carriage in front of the Alexander Palace

The Emperor's Troika

After the Emperor arrived, we went upstairs to inspect the breakfast room.  As it was the fast of the Assumption, there was no meat; only preparations of fish and fasting food were provided.  When the christening procession filed through the breakfast room, on the way to the palace church, we stood with the ladies of the household to see it pass.  The floor of the small palace church is always open to the public during divine service on ordinary days, while the gallery serves for the family of the Grand Duke.  On this occasion, however, owing to the lack of space, no one was present at the actual ceremony except the Emperor and Empress who where the godparents for their little nephew, a number of grand dukes and duchesses, some of their children, a representative lady in waiting from the Imperial Court and from each of the Ducal Courts, the ladies and gentlemen in waiting on the Queen of Greece and the Danish ambassador and his daughters. The father and mother of the baby were not present.  The church law does not permit it.  The Empress, with her fresh complexion, dark hair, and splendid eyes, looked no more than twenty five years of age in the full daylight, as she does by evening light.  Her dress was particularly becoming, being all of white satin, richly embroidered in gold.  A diamond kokoshnik, veil of priceless lace and magnificent jewels gleaming from her bare arms and shoulders, completed her costume.  As this was a royal baptism, full court dress was the order of the day.  A gown of cloth of silver, with tablier and train heavily embroidered in silver until they have resembled repousse metal, would have been very trying to anyone less fair and graceful than the Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna.  The Duchess Marie Pavlovna was radiant in rose pink faille embroidered in silver.  The men were all gorgeous in parade uniforms and stars of their orders, as usual, and all who owned the Greek Order of the Savior wore the collar.

The baby was borne on a velvet cushion by the queen's lady in waiting.  She was in Grecian Court dress, and the nurse was resplendent in red velvet and a jeweled kokoshnik of the same shape as those of the Empress and duchesses.  All nurses wear this head dress.  The jewels were probably of glass, but they were as effective as the real article, and the woman evidently enjoyed having us inspect her in detail after the ceremony.  The princeling received the name of Christopher and together with that and his first little shirt and his baptismal cross, the Order of St. Andrew the First.  It is customary for godparents to give the baby's mother a present.  In the lower walks of life it usually consists of the material for a new gown and this uncut stuff is used as a cushion for the baby during the ceremony.  In higher circles, other gifts are substituted and on this occasion theta offering consisted of diamonds.

This full-page illustration from the fairy-tale of memory did not, however escape on or two touches of modern prose.  One of the bestirred and beribboned officers was taking snap shots with a detective camera at everything and everybody and employing the intervals by explaining to us the detailed reasons for all his past mishaps in photography, after the regulation style; and a couple of newspaper reporters who had been invited down from the leading St. Petersburg journals, tried to interview me in the most approved American fashion, about the personages in the royal procession and the material of the Court ladies' gowns.

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