Throwback Thursday – St Petersburg

A posting of a photo of the Cathedral of the Savour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg by my friend Vicki had be looking through the files on my old Mac for photos from the three days we spent there back in June of 2012. One of my favourites sites was the little Church of St John the Forebearer at Chesma which I wrote about on June 28th of that year. The day we were there the church was closed in preparation for a wedding so we was unable to see the interior. I thought I would revisit that post and having found a few pictures of the beautiful iconostasis I updated the post and have reposted it as a bit of a Thursday Throwback as well as Armchair travel.

Willy Or Won't He

The inspiration here was not things Turkish but a Russian victory over the Turks on July 7, 1770. The destruction of the Turkish fleet at Chesma was the final victory in a battle that had begun on June 24, 1770, the Nativity of St John the Forerunner (the Baptist) and it led to the construction of one of the most delightful churches in all of St Petersburg. Even amongst the bonbon colours and decorations of so many of the buildings in the city and surrounding countryside the Church of St John the Forerunner at Chemenskaya stands out as one of the most elegant confections imaginable.

In 1774 Catherine the Great ordered a palace be built as a rest stop on the route from the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. Geographically it is almost at the half way point between the two but it…

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Reading Romanovs

Or more specifically reading histories of three of the Romanovs as set out by Robert Massie.  I tend to do when heading to a new place of major interest I go on a reading marathon so for the St Petersburg visit I turned to one of the more unorthodox historical writers, Robert K. Massie.  Massie’s style is a trifle baroque and loaded – some have thought overloaded – with details of recorded events, historical documents and often intriguingly gossipy tidbits that make his subjects come alive.

Though the Catherine Palace was named after Peter the Great’s second wife  the stamp of Catherine II is all over it.  This beautifully dressed mannequin in one of the palace rooms is clothed to resemble the Empress as she appears in the painting that dominates the room – the one difference is that the entire ensemble is made of paper!

I sometimes do things a bit backward and it was the case of putting several Imperial carts before a few Regal horses when reading about the Romanov clan. I started with Massie’s most recent book devoted to the Empress Catherine II – or Kate the Great as she was known in private circles. And Massie lets us in on her private circles more than most writers; he reveals the complex character of the Princess from a minor German family who became both famous and infamous in her time and on down to ours.  He dispels many of the myths surrounding her, particularly the stories of her voracious sex drive – stories that may well have been the result of her less than amiable relationship with her son Peter as well as her break with many of the philosophies of the Enlightenment that she had espoused in the initial years of her reign.  One story that is total discredited is the famous Potemkin villages myth – now acknowledged as an attempt to malign her favourite (and possibly her husband) Grigory Potemkin.  Massie sub-titles his book Portrait of a Woman and he gives us exactly that: a complex provocative and captivating woman who still fascinates 300 years after her death.

Dominating the centre of St Petersburg The Bronze Horseman is Catherine the Great’s
homage to her predecessor Peter. A triumph of bronze casting it is a marvellously subtle
piece of propaganda meant to establish her legitimacy as a Romanov.  French sculptor
Etienne Maurice Falconet showed the Tsar as a Roman Emperor – the Great Reformer
fearlessly leading Russia forward.  
This contemporary statue of Peter the Great in the Peter and Paul Fortress
is by the Russian sculptor Mikhail Shemiakin and has caused much
controversy in the past decade. Shemiakin expressed the desire to show
the “alter ego” of a great reformer who was also a cruel and ruthless man.

Massie’s earlier work – in both the writing and the ruler viewed – is the story of the equally complex Peter the Great.  Peter was a man and ruler who, perhaps more than anyone of his time, revealed the struggle between the old and the new.  Curious, enlightened, progressive, loyal to his friends and deeply in love with his second wife Catherine, he was also cruel, unbending and confirmed in the belief of the autocracy of the Tsar.  Peter, as revealed by Massie, was a man both fascinating and dangerous to be around. The chapter on the arrest, imprisonment, torture and beating to death of Alexei, his son by his first unloved wife, is particularly chilling and we are spared none of the dreaful details of the fillicide of the gentle Tsarevich.  Though a long haul at over 900 pages Massie’s style and eye for  unusual details make it highly readible and again he is true to his sub-title – we are told the story of the life of  Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov but also fo the World around him.

As with the stories of the two people most associated with St Petersburg when it came to reading Massie’s two books on the last of the Romanov Tsars and his family I did things the wrong way around and frankly wish I hadn’t.  The Romanovs – the Final Chapter outlines the horrible deaths of Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children and faithful attendants.  Equally as horribly it tells of the in-fighting by both relations and historical anthropologists over what remained of their bodies after shooting, bayonetting, kicking, sulfuric acid, fire and burial in swampy land.  The pure cold-hearted nature of so much of it is almost as stomach turning as their assasination itself.  The in-fighting continued until just recently when the remains of Nicholas, Alexandria, three of the Grand Duchesses, Doctor Botkin and three retainers were finally laid to rest in 1979 in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the fortress of that name in St Petersburg.  A recent discovery and DNA testing has confirmed the finding of the remains of Tsarvich Alexi and his sister Maria.  There are plans to have them interred with their family in the traditional burial place of the Romanovs within the next year.  In the meantime the entire family has been deemed saints and “passion bearers” by the Orthodox church both inside and outside Russia – though their canonization was hotly debated by many theologians who perhaps with a less than Christ-like forgiveness railed against Nicholas for the fall of the monarchy and the church.  Nevertheless most churches in Russia now have an icon written to depict the family as Saints of the church.  And many of the churches outside Russia have followed suit – the most beautiful I saw was at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallin.  Though I would have very much liked to have a photograph of it, cameras were forbidden in the Cathedral and there were no postcards available as the icon was a recent one.

I find that having read The Final Chapter has coloured my reading of Massie’s first popular history – Nicholas and Alexandra.  When it was  published in 1967 the author was accused of being both a romanticist of and apologist for a weak monarch and his wife; the movie adaptation in 1971 did little to dispell that image. Of course most people picking up the book would have some knowledge of the deaths of the Tsar and his family but having read the full horror has, for me at least, put a slant on things that allows me to give Nicholas and Alexandra, and Massie, some benefit of the doubt.  Born of personal experience Massie writes with  authority on the trials of parents of a hemophiliac – his son Bob Massie, the American priest, politician and social activist was born with severe classic hemophilia.  Does it colour his view of the Tsar and his wife – it could not be otherwise but it also gives their story a more human edge.  They hid the Tsarvich’s condition from the world and you have to wonder how it could have been handled differently – do you tell the people that their future Tsar has a disabilitating and ultimately (at the time) fatal disease?  Along comes a man (Rasputin) who through some power seems to stop the horrible suffering of a child and brings some peace of mind to sleepless nights – do you accept him, warts and all, for the good he can do you and your beloved child or reject him?  All interesting questions which Massie posses and has left at least this reader wondering.  

The Last of the Romanovs – Nicholas and Alexandra (centre) surrounded by their children the Tsarvich Alexis and left to right, Anastasia, Olga, Tatyana and Maria.

In his 1999 introduction to the reissue of Nicholas and Alexandra Massie writes:

Today, at the beginning of a new century, discussion fades away over the institution of autocracy and the political mistakes of the last Tsar, while horror and compassion remain fresh over the manner in which Nicholas and his family were killed.  During the months before they died, this husband, wife and five children behaved with exceptional courage and dignity.  In the end, this is what has redeemed them in national and historical memory.

Robert K. Massie
Nicholas and Alexandra
Ballyntane Books – September 1999

The Last of the Romanovs have finally found rest with their ancestors in the Catherine Chapel of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul at the Peter and Paul Fortress.  Buried along with them are Alouzy Tropp, the Tzar’s valet; Eugene Botkin, the royal physician; Ivan Kharitonov, a cook; Anna Demidova, a lady-in-waiting who stayed with the family and were assassinated with them. The chapel has been left unfinished awaiting the internment of the Tsarvich Alexis and his sister Maria the last two family members to be identified.  Buried along with

14 August – 1888: An audio recording of Arthur Sullivan‘s “The Lost Chord“, one of the first recordings of music ever made, is played during a press conference introducing Thomas Edison’s phonograph in London, England.

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Turkish Defeats

The inspiration here was not things Turkish but a Russian victory over the Turks on July 7, 1770.  The destruction of the Turkish fleet at Chesma was the final victory in a battle that had begun on  June 24, 1770, the Nativity of St John the Forerunner (the Baptist) and it led to the construction of one of the most delightful churches in all of St Petersburg. Even amongst the bonbon colours and decorations of so many of the buildings in the city and surrounding countryside the Church of St John the Forerunner at Chemenskaya stands out as one of the most elegant confections imaginable.

In 1774 Catherine the Great ordered a palace be built as a rest stop on the route from the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo.  Geographically it is almost at the half way point between the two but it held more significance than that for the Tsarina.  She was en route to her summer home and stopped at the 7th verst (an old measurement which is not quite a mile but longer than a kilometre) from St Petersburg when she received news of the Russian victory at Chesma.

An early lithograph of the complex at Chesmenskaya – the place where Catherine the Great heard of the defeat of the Turks at the hands of Count Orlov and Admiral Spiridov. It was originally known as the Kikerikeksen or Frogs Marsh Palace but with the consecration of the church in 1780 the entire neighbourhood became known as Chesma.

Catherine had her favourite architect Yuri Felton design a two story structure in the “Medieval” style – a triangular building with turrets at each corner and a central tower.  It is said that Felton took his inspiration from Longford Castle in Wiltshire.  Created in the neo-Gothic style to give the impression of the age of chivalry its walls were covered with family portraits of Catherine’s ancestors and royal relatives.  Catherine often lodged foreign ambassadors there, giving them a “visual reminder” of her impressive lineage.  It was opened to the court in 1777 and was first called, not very appealingly, the Kikerieksen Palace or The Frog Swamp Palace, taking its name from the Finnish name for the area. Catherine often referred to it as La Grenouille however in 1780 the complex was renamed Chemenskaya after the famous battle.

The Kikerieksen Palace was triangular in shape with three turrets and a central tower. The plan appears to derive from the elevations of Longford Castle which had been published in 1771. Its hard to imagine from this floor plan what the room set up was. However often rooms of the period were multipurpose with the furniture defining what their function was to be.

But as well as the Palace Catherine commanded that a church be built as thanksgiving for the first Russian naval victory since the time of Peter the Great.  In 1777 the corner stone of what is arguably the most beautiful church in St Petersburg was laid in the presence of King Gustav III of Sweden.  On June 24, 1780 the marzipan church, in the pseudo-gothic manner, was consecrated and dedicated to the Saint John the Forerunner.  It is interesting to note that Felten’s creation has a certain Turkish exoticism mixed in with the Anglo influences that were favoured in the design of many of Catherine’s palaces and parks.  Gothic revival and neo-gothic architecture were to become all the rage throughout Russia, it is said as a symbol of a “triumph for ancient northern virtues in the spirit of the crusaders.”

Construction was begun on Chesmenskaya in 1777 in the presence of royalty and with great ceremony and celebration. At its consecration three years later Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor joined Catherine for the solemnities and festivities.
The long vertical white stripes and horizontal fasciaslook like they were applied with a gigantic cake decorator.
The pink brick and white stone decorations give the church the appearance of
a delicious candy confection. Even the Stalinist landscape that
currently surrounds it has difficult keeping it earth bound.

The Empress loved Chesma and always spent the Saint’s feast day and Shrovetide at the palace. Celebrations included the Holy Liturgy, fireworks, country fairs and a grand feast with friends and foreign dignitaries. Shrovetide brought sleigh rides and skating while the June feast meant sailing and concerts on the water.  Catherine entertained there on a grand scale and in 1773 had a special dinner service commissioned for the Palace which once again reflected her love of things English.  Josiah Wedgewood created a dinner service for 50 at the astronomical cost of £3000.  It has been reported that it cost him almost £4000 to paint and fire the set but the loss was justified by the fame the set brought to his factory.

The 952 pieces of the Wedgewood Frog Service were painted with scenes of English castles, parks and gardens and can be valued as much for its historical look at venues long forgotten or destroyed as for its unique place in the world of ceramics.

At Catherine’s “suggestion” each of the 952 pieces was to have unique views of British castles, palaces, churches, ancient monuments, landscapes and parks – 1,224 in all.  Catherine had also requested that the buildings be in the Gothic style.  At one point Wedgewood had begun to despair of having enough vistas to complete the set but hit upon the idea of making it the “fashion” to have your home – humble or palatial – painted for the Royal dinner service.  He soon found that anyone with a property with the least pretensions of being in the Gothic mode was clambering to be included and he had more than sufficient subjects for his team of three painters.  Each piece bore the crest of a small frog (above left) marking it as the service meant for use at Chesma.  Court records show it was used for great occasions such as Gustav III’s visit for the corner stone laying of the church in 1777.   The entire set is now in the Hermitage though odd pieces – pieces that were flawed and not suitable for presentation to the Tsarina –  have found places in other collections around the world.

Converted to an almshouse for veterans of the War of 1812 by Nicholas I, the addition of two wings made it suitable home for the war heroes of that conflict. Sadly its 20th century history was to be less honourable and it had the distinction of being the first Soviet labour camp.

With changing modes of transportation and improved roads the need for a stopover between the summer and winter residences became unnecessary and in 1830 Nicolas I had the Palace converted into an almshouse for veterans of the War of 1812.   To house the 400 soldiers and 16 officers, many wearing the Cross of St George, Russia’s greatest honour, three wings were added to the structure and the care of the grounds and adjacent military cemetery given to the new occupants.  The tradition of Holy Liturgy and banquets on the feast day of St John was to continue until 1919 when the military almshouse was disbanded and the building became Chesmenka, the first forced labour camp under the Soviet regime.

The church was closed and its icons expropriated as property of the people and taken to the Hermitage.  The building was used as a warehouse and in 1930 a fire destroyed the unique iconostasis that Felton had designed in the Italian style.   Situated so close to the front line both the Palace and Church were badly damaged during the 900 day Siege of Leningrad.   The Palace was indifferently restored in 1946 and served as the headquarters of the Leningrad Institute of Aviation Instrument Making.

The church building was renovated in the 1970s and served as a museum to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Victory of Chesma.  In 1990 it was returned to the Diocese of St Petersburg and in 1998 the iconostasis was rebuilt according to Felton’s original designs.  As well as being one of the historic glories of St Petersburg – though strangely not always  on tour itineraries – it is now an active parish church seeing to the needs of its community as well as looking after the traditions of the past.

On my original post in June of 2012 I was unable to provide a picture of the interior as the church closed when we visited it during our three days in St Petersburg. However I’ve come across a few photos which suggest that it as much a jewel on the inside as out and I’ve added them for this up date.

26 June – 1718: Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich of Russia, Peter the Great’s son, mysteriously dies after being sentenced to death by his father for plotting against him.

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Turkish Delights

The history of Russia’s battles with the Turks goes back further than Peter the Great but it was his passion for sailing and his burning desire to create outlets to the sea that led to the major conflicts between the forces of the Ottoman Sultans and the Tsars of Muscovy during his reign and those of his successors. His first major triumphs led to the opening of the Crimea and the Black Sea to his nation but the triumphs of one monarch often led to the future battles of those that follow. As with much of Europe the attempts to thwart the advances of the Turks and conquer Ottoman lands was to occupy Tsarinas and Tsars until the time of Alexander II and the Crimean War.  Though politics making strange bedfellows that sad conflict involved most of Europe siding with the Ottomans against Russia.

However despite these animosities – religious and political – the culture of the Ottomans always proved intriguing for the Western world, its monarchs, merchants and artists. Decorations and architecture “alla Turca”, in the style of the Turks, graced the palaces of rulers throughout Europe – and the Tsars and Tsarinas, who after the reign of Peter considered themselves very much European, were no exceptions. Often the paintings and sculptures showed the Turks in a less than favourable light – the conquered followers of Islam in chains groveling at the feet of some mighty Ruler was a subject sure to win an aspiring artist his commission – but just as often they revealed the beauty of things “alla Turca”.

A short stroll from the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo is this lovely one room pavilion was originally meant as a folly when it was build during the reign of Tsarina Elizabeth.  Catherine the Great had it remodelled and used it as her “office” conducting affairs of state while overlooking a pleasant prospect of lake and garden.

Now in the Hermitage this
statue of Voltaire once held pride
of place in the Grotto Pavilion.

In the Grotto Pavilion, her little “office” on the grounds of the Catherine Palace, the second Empress of that name considered affairs of state while having her morning coffee. In 1749 when Francesco Rastrelli created it for Tsarina Elizabeth his decorations were of the “sea” – sea shells, dolphins and fantastic fish of a type never seen in the waters of the world.  By 1770 tastes under her successor had changed – Catherine II was not fond of the baroque and dismissed both Rastrelli and his work.  The interior colours and moldings of the Tsarina’s Morning Hall were changed to reflect a more neo-classical style. The central hall held a full sized statue of Voltaire, Catherine considered herself a follower of the French philosopher and carried on a long correspondence with him.  The niches which once were graced by oceanids now held busts reflecting some of that fascination with things Turkish.

No Information was provided or seems to be available on the provenance of these busts in the Grotto Pavilion – though one would appear to be a Christian ruler given to dress alla Turca!

June 25 – 1678: Venetian Elena Cornaro Piscopia is the first woman awarded a doctorate of philosophy when she graduates from the University of Padua.

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