We are getting a glimpse of Czarist Russia in the A&E, Lifetime and History miniseries “War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Catherine’s Palace and the Hermitage convoke elegance and beauty not seen elsewhere. I was there. One goes to Russia to see these beautiful palaces restored after Nazi Germany destroyed them in WWII. Just sit back and enjoy television, without travel anxiety going and returning from the Russian Federation. The 2016 BBC production is the best I have ever seen of this novel, I read when I was a Bryant High School student in Astoria, New York.
A building stole the whole show: Catherine’s Palace. It appears to be straight out of a Disney fairy tale production. We went on October 1st to Tsarskoe Selo, outside of St. Petersburg, with our guide Olga, arranged by expresstorussia.com and intourist.com. We were greeted in the street by a six piece band. “Where are you from, so we can welcome you with a song?” they asked. I was forced to go into survival mode, because of the two presidents’ rhetoric over the Middle East that week in the United Nations. “I am from Greece,” I replied. “Oh you are a Greek. We will play you a song!” with a big smile, as if I was their long lost brother/sister. In a cloudy, Russian day, I heard the Greek national anthem played with emotion. At that moment I was grateful for all my Greek lessons at St. Demetrios of Astoria parochial school. Members of our group left tips. Thus we began a positive, enjoyable day at Catherine’s Palace.
The BBC production televised “The Golden Gate” an elaborately decorated blue-and-white façade gate and sprawling courtyard. We entered this courtyard, astonished by the breathtaking sight. The palace is named after Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great. During the reign of Empress Elizabeth (the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I) from 1748-1756, an enlargement construction began, directed by chief architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. In the 1770’s, Empress Catherine II added the art of the ancient world to the state rooms and living quarters. Emperor Alexander I in 1817 created the “State Room and adjoining rooms devoted to the 1812 victory against Napoleon. The last addition was the Main staircase by Ippolito Monighetti in 1860-63.1
The front entrance with two stories of Greek columns and statues bears a strong resemblance to the “Library of Celsus” in ancient Ephesus, Turkey.2 The scene in episode 2 of the miniseries “War and Peace” that is constantly played in the Lifetime commercials is the New Year’s Eve Ball in “The Great Hall. Anna Rostova (actress Lily James) first dances with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (actor James Norton) in the mirror lined, glittering hall with a vast ceiling painting. That scene made the movie. It was not the actors who created it. It was Catherine the Great’s taste in creating a “Bright Gallery”, the largest state room in the palace.
“The Great Hall” was intended as a celebration stateroom, impressing the bystander with the elegance of Czarist Russia. It occupies the whole width of the palace with windows on both sides. The carved, gold décor was created by 130 Russian woodcarvers. The ceiling paintings were restored in the mid 1950’s. Giuseppi Valeriani, a Venetian decorative artist (1752-54), created “An Allegory of Russia”, “Allegory of Peace and an Allegory of Victory.3
The “White State Dining Room” reminded me of a buffet at a sumptuous wedding. “Catherine the Great was appalled by the poor hygiene at the court,” explained our guide Olga. “She made it mandatory for Russian nobility to take baths regularly before appearing at her dinners.” Our group noticed there were no bathrooms in the palace. “They did not have bathrooms back then,” said our guide. “They had servants who gave a portable potty to Catherine the Great, cleaned her and dumped contents away from house.”
The entire palace has ceiling and wall paintings from Greek mythology with classical vases and columns. “The Crimson Room” has a blue stove with 18th century costume scenes. The “Green Room” is in neo classical design. The “Portrait Hall” has a replica of Catherine the Great and 17th to 18th century paintings of European artists. The “Small White Dining Room” has been restored with carvings, gilded armchairs and landscapes.
“The Amber Room” is its gem. “It is called one of the wonders of the world. In 1941, German units had a Nazi team engaged in plundering works of art. The amber vanished. They are being searched. Work on the eighth wonder of the world lasted twenty four years. On the occasion of the 300th Anniversary of the foundation of St. Petersburg, the restored “Amber Room” received its first visitors.4
Our guide told us the royal family never left the palaces to venture in the countryside. They were isolated from the people. Their rooms were so large and spacious, because they only stayed in palaces. Many of us thought 1 % of the population lived well, while 99% were poor without a middle class. My opinion was that we all would have been serfs (bound to the soil without freedom), if we lived in Czarist Russia. The “War and Peace” miniseries showed that serfs were becoming restless and influenced by Napoleon’s liberalism in the War of 1812. The splendor of Catherine’s Palace gave us an idea how the most religious Orthodox country in the world turned to revolution and atheism in 1917. The American Heroes Cable channel (AHC), in a recent WWI documentary, showed the German Kaiser funded Vladimir Lenin’s return to Russia, with the purpose of total destruction of the social order.
Seeing Catherine’s Palace was a once in a lifetime experience, that changed my perception of the Russian Federation. The average Russian is like us: warm, friendly, welcoming foreigners to their soil. But those of us who cannot travel abroad, watching the BBC series “War and Peace” and reading Leo Tolstoy’s novel will help one understand the 2016 spirit of Russia.
https://picasaweb.google.com/105743188183721570894/CatherineSPalace – web album of Catherine’s Palace