Houses of the state include palaces and royal residences as well as ministries and various office buildings. Government buildings are built for both function and for inspiring awe (and obedience), so it’s no wonder such buildings have been the scene of so much drama and history. Of course, with many government buildings, it is hard to tell where religion ends and the state begins. It is also surprising just how much effort and expense goes into such buildings…or maybe it really isn’t.
Porcelain stoves and polluted Rembrandts- The Winter Palace and the Hermitage
Standing serenely overlooking the Neva River, the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Russia looks like the sort of place where things happen.
And it is.
The palace has been the scene of lavish balls, fires, riots, and the Communist coup d’etat that led to the Soviet Union.
Built as the residence of the Tzars, the Winter Palace is a riot of large spaces and expensive ornamentation. It is also probably the only royal palace anywhere that is bright green in color. The present structure is the third on the site and is, as you would expect, the biggest and richest of the lot. The whole thing started with Peter the Great and his plan to construct St Petersburg as a Russian port and center of both government and culture. He built the first Winter Palace and ordered his nobles to build palaces for themselves as well. He ordered them to spend at least half the year in the new city, a decree that was not very popular. In spite of its decorations, the palace wasn’t lavishly furnished at first, and the Tzar’s court had to transport much of the furnishings back and forth to Moscow each time the court moved.
Most of what we know today as the Winter Palace was done by Princess Elizabeth, the Grand Duchess and daughter of Peter the Great. Elizabeth pushed the construction of the Winter Palace even though Russia was engaged in a war at the time. The project was financed by a liquor tax which was easy to do since the government owned all the taverns. But even this wasn’t enough for the extravagant plans and soon the money was running short and new taxes on both salt and other items were necessary. The vast interior spaces of the palace were heated by a series of large built in porcelain stoves whose intricate blue and white surfaces look like giant Delft pottery. These stoves were stoked from behind the walls so the servants would not have to drag firewood past the nobility.
Although she wasn’t the first resident, the place is most closely associated with Catherine the Great. Not only did she upgrade the furnishings, but Catherine started the now famous art collection and placed it in a plainer section of the palace called the Hermitage. All of this construction and art collection was part of Russia’s effort to be part of the highest level of European sophistication. And so the winter Palace was completed and Catherine the Great’s art collection in the Hermitage continued to grow. A fire in 1837 destroyed much of the interior of the Winter Palace but it has been remodeled and rebuilt. The winter Palace is probably most famous for the so-called October Revolution of 1917 in which the communists overthrew the provisional government, ushering in the Soviet Union. Although this incident is often pictured as a communist overthrowing the czar, the czar had abdicated months before. The October Revolution was actually a coup d’état in which the communists overthrew, not the czar, but the provisional government that had overthrown the czar. Less publicized was a month long looting of the palace’s wine cellars, leading to what some have described as the “greatest hangover in history.”
Today, the palace and Hermitage building attached are public museums. Since St. Petersburg is now a cruise ship destination, the palace and the museum can get impossibly crowded on certain days. Even so there is no doubt that both the palace and the museum are impressive. Although the palace is mostly unfurnished the visitor will still pass through cavernous room after cavernous room encrusted with gold carvings rich draperies and massive ceiling paintings. After a while all of this opulence almost gets monotonous. The museum’s collection is so extensive it is impossible to see in one day or probably even a week. Many lesser art museums would be happy to own a Rembrandt. The Hermitage has a room of Rembrandts. In spite of the treasures on display at the Hermitage, the building is not air-conditioned and on sultry days in the summer, the staff opens the windows for ventilation thus exposing acres of precious art to the heat, humidity, and pollution of the city… including that room full of Rembrandts.