Fad­ing tsar lights up city

There’s no bet­ter way to ex­plore the ma­jes­tic sights of St Peters­burg than to fol­low in the foot­steps of its tragic last tsar, Ni­cholas II, writes Brian John­ston

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - HISTORIC ST PETERSBURG -

ST PETERS­BURG was a city con­ceived by the vi­sion and en­ergy of one em­peror, Peter the Great.

Youmight say it was a cap­i­tal lost by the stub­born­ness and blun­ders of an­other, Ni­cholas II.

Fol­low the un­for­tu­nate tsar through St Peters­burg and you’ll not only see some of its best sights but learn about the fi­nal days of im­pe­rial Rus­sia, strug­gle against tsarist rule and rea­sons for the rev­o­lu­tion that fol­lowed.

There’s no bet­ter place to start than in the mid­dle of Palace Square un­der the gi­gan­tic col­umn that cel­e­brates Alexan­der II’S vic­tory over Napoleon.

This was the heart of Rus­sian rule. The square is presided over by the im­pe­rial min­istries of fi­nance and for­eign af­fairs, Gen­eral Staff Build­ing and the or­nate Win­ter Palace, seat of power and home to the im­pe­rial fam­ily. The square would also be­come the fo­cus of dis­con­tent, protests and work­ers’ strikes that led to rev­o­lu­tion.

Its sheer size gives a good im­pres­sion of the weight that fell on the shoul­ders of the young, shy Ni­cholas when he be­came tsar in 1894. The in­te­rior of the Win­ter Palace is daz­zling, if some­what over the top for modern tastes. Baroque gild­ing, stucco work, gilt and chan­de­liers are ev­ery­where.

Now part of the State Hermitage Mu­seum, there are also enough can­vases by Rem­brandt and Pi­casso to take up en­tire rooms.

There are sur­pris­ingly few por­traits of the im­pe­rial fam­ily, but it’s worth seek­ing out Lau­rits Tuxen’s can­vas of the coro­na­tion of Ni­cholas and Alexan­dra, cap­tur­ing them at their daz­zling height.

The Win­ter Palace was one of many royal res­i­dences. Out­side the city at Tsarskoye Selo, the im­pe­rial fam­ily and aris­toc­racy built sump­tu­ous sum­mer es­tates on a gar­gan­tuan scale.

The Cather­ine Palace is the epit­ome of Rus­sian baroque in gold, turquoise and am­ber. It lays claim to be­ing the world’s long­est palace, with a fa­cade that runs for 300m.

Many vis­i­tors over­look Alexan­der Palace, named af­ter the fu­ture Alexan­der I, who was given it as a wed­ding present by his grand­mother Cather­ine the Great. It’s a must-see if you’re on the trail of Ni­cholas II, since this grace­ful neo-classical build­ing was his favourite res­i­dence.

He re­dec­o­rated one of the wings and lived here for most of the last 13 years of his reign.

A project to re­store the palace to the way it was dur­ing the tsar’s last days is still un­der way and three of the state rooms have been com­pleted.

Other rooms have been trans­formed into a mu­seum about the last of the Ro­manovs, in­clud­ing per­sonal ef­fects and pho­tos. A paint­ing by Pavel Ryzhenko shows Ni­cholas and a de­spair­ing-look­ing Alexan­dra un­der house ar­rest at the palace.

It was in this gilded coun­try cage that Ni­cholas II be­came in­creas­ingly di­vorced from what was hap­pen­ing in his own city and coun­try.

FINE RIDE: A horse car­riage on Palace Square, with the Gen­eral Staff Build­ing in the back­ground.Pic­tures: Brian John­ston

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