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
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