History of Pavlovsk

History of Pavlovsk
Pavlovsk may not seem to have the polished glamour or fame of its neighbour Pushkin, but what it lacks in gilt and grooming it makes up for with a rough, pastoral elegance all its own, not to mention an equally fascinating history.

The founding of Pavlovsk
Though a Russian fort, later occupied by the Swedes until its recapture in 1702, existed on the site of present day Pavlovsk from the 13th century, the area contained little more than a handful of peasants inhabiting two small villages until December 1777, when Catherine the Great bequeathed the land to her son Paul I and his wife Maria Feodorvna, following the birth of their first son Alexander I. Though the empress herself preferred to hunt the grounds and enjoyed the nature, she also lent one of her personal architects, Scotsman Charles Cameron to design and construct a palace and park for the future emperor, his smitten bride and their growing new family. Her generosity was not without limits, however and the commission came with significant financial constraints that only added to the strained relationship that existed between the royal couple, Cameron and, of course, the less than maternal Catherine.

Construction commences
It is perhaps telling of where the architect's loyalty truly lied when the first structure he built on the 977 acre gift was not a residence for Paul, but a pavilion loftly titled the Temple of Friendship...to contain a statue of Catherine the Great. He did eventually get around to the palace, which he conceived as a humble three storied cube topped with a dome and supported by 64 columns. What it didn't have was all the military touches so beloved by Paul – none of the moats, forts or marching grounds he so admired.

For her part, Maria Feodorovna disliked the bold colour choices and crated back from a European tour a staggering 16 sets of furniture, a 60 piece toilet set from Marie Antoinette, 96 clocks and shipments upon shipments of art objects, many of a lofty Roman character that annoyed Cameron and was in direct conflict with his attempts to create a simpler, more intimate residence. His not unexpected dismissal in 1786 raised his former assistant Vincenzo Brenna to director of the project. Later Giacomo Quarenghi, Carlo Rossi and Andrey Voronikhin would also have a hand in crafting the interiors and the result is a surprisingly cohesive unity of style, despite their differences in personal styles and aesthetic ideals.

Going all out
When the original mommy dearest, Catherine, died suddenly of a stroke on November 16, 1796 and Paul obtained the Imperial seat, he and his wife finally had the means to embellish Pavlovsk the way they wanted. While the exterior remained aesthetically austere even given the additions of two, double-storied wings, the couple spared no expense on the furnishings and décor. Each room possesses its own character and theme, each done to the hilt with frescoed ceilings, intricately worked parquet flooring (Maria's library alone utilizes 12 types of wood), specially commissioned crystal chandeliers and art objects beyond count.
Meanwhile, Maria had long held an interest in botany and took a personal hand in creating one of the largest landscaped gardens in the world.

Following Paul's death in 1801 (his paranoia turned out to be well-founded when he was assassinated in Mikhailovsky fortress), the dowager empress retreated to Pavlovsk where she regularly held literary salons attended by some of the most celebrated writers of the day including Sergey Glinka, Vasily Zhukovsky and Nikolai Karamzin.

Passing from the Imperials
After Maria died in 1828 care of the palace, park and village was willed to her son, the Grand Duke Mikhail, who kept the estate intact and unchanged, as did subsequent heirs. Even the Revolution of 1917 had no effect on the former imperial residence, as the Bolsheviks granted the petition made by Alexander Polovotsoff, director of the Art Institute and the Museum of Applied Arts in St. Petersburg to preserve the complex as a museum. Instead, it was left to the German Nazi forces to ravage Pavlovsk.

Nazi occupation
Swift and heroic efforts were made to protect the treasures of the Tsars from the very onset of the Soviet's entry into World War II. The very day after Germany attacked the Union, the curators began to carefully dismantle the estate for safekeeping elsewhere. Statues too large to transport were buried at a depth of three metres on the grounds, delicate antiquities were bricked up in the basement; windows were boarded and sand was scattered over the floors to protect them from bombardment.

Despite all this, Nazis marched in force into Pavlovsk three months into the war and would occupy the palace and the surrounding area for the next two and a half years. By the time of its liberation on January 24, 1944, the palace was a ruin. The Soviets retook an utterly ravished shell that had been afire for three full days prior to their arrival. Losses included the entirety of the park’s water system, 70% of the 100,000 trees that had previously flourished there, all of the decorative bridges and 40% of the exhibitions, artifacts and furnishings. None of which is evident in present day Pavlovsk thanks to the assiduous care of the Soviet bureaucrats, historians, artists and devoted curators.

Rebuilding for future generations
Restoration works began almost immediately in 1944, even before the war had ended. By 1977, using the original sketches and plans belonging to the 18th century architects, photographs taken from the early 20th century and the remnants of what had been saved or spared, the palace again appeared just as it did in Maria Feodorovna’s day. Perhaps most impressively, is that all of this was done with the strictest adherence to techniques and craftsmanship of the original era, spurning the creation of a special restoration school in Leningrad and a silk factory in Moscow to accommodate the works being done.

The Pavlovsk of today
The palaces and parks of the ill-fated Romanovs still encompass about two-thirds of the area in Pavlovsk, the rest consists of a sleepy suburb containing palatial dachas of the upper class, much like when Dostoevsky described the town in The Idiot, and dilapidated wrecks of the less monetarily fortunate, plus homes and flats for those in-between.

Primarily though, the locals of St. Petersburg and tourists alike venture the 40 minute train journey into town to stroll along the undulating river banks and gentle slopes of the garden, peppered by classical figurines, hidden pavilions and broad expanses of fields. It is beautiful and peaceful at any time of year, but its arboreal glory really comes into its own as the leaves turn brilliant shades of gold and red and a crisp breeze blows in the scents of a primitive world going to rest.

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