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The birth and development of the palace and park ensemble of Tsarskoe Selo is connected with the liberation from Swedish rule of the old Novgorodian lands on the banks of the River Neva, the construction of St Petersburg and its establishment as the capital of the Russian state.
These lands had since ancient times been Russian territory. In the twelfth century the area was known as “the Izhora land of Lord Novgorod the Great”, but in the seventeenth century the “Izhora land” was occupied by the Swedes. The return of the territory to Russia began in 1702, when the country turned the tide of the Northern War.
The site that would become Tsarskoe Selo appears on Swedish seventeenth-century maps as a small estate known as “Sarishoff” or “Saarismoisio” (translated from the Finnish “the manor on an elevated spot”), and in Russian as “Sarskaya Myza”. Immediately after the end of the Neva campaign the manor was given to Alexander Menshikov, who was appointed governor general of the liberated territory, but then on 24 June 1710 it was transferred on Peter the Great’s orders to his future wife Catherine (their official marriage took place in February 1712) and included in the category of palace lands.
The creation of royal residence in place of the estate began in the 1710s and continued in the 1720s. Nearby a village grew up as well as an area of housing for court servants. Soon Sarskaya Myza was being called Sarskoye Selo (selo means “village”) and when construction of a palace began it acquired the elevated title of Tsarskoe Selo – “Tsar’s Village”.
For two centuries Tsarskoe Selo was a grand imperial summer residence, the construction of which was a matter of state importance and involved departments of the government.
After the October Revolution of 1917 the palace and park ensemble was turned into a museum and the new authorities took over the best buildings in the town as educational and health establishments for children. As a consequence, when the town was renamed in 1918 it became Detskoye Selo – “Children’s Village”. On 9 June that same year the Catherine Palace was opened as a museum. In 1937, when the country marked the 100th anniversary of the tragic death of Alexander Pushkin, the town where the future poet had received his education in the Imperial Lyceum was given his name. Finally, in January 1983 the palaces and parks in the town of Pushkin were given the status of a preserve and in 1990 this became the Tsarskoe Selo State Museum Preserve.
The Tsarskoe Selo palace and park ensemble is a superb monument of world-ranking architecture and garden-and-park design dating from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. A whole constellation of outstanding architects, sculptors and painters made the ideas of their crowned clients a reality here. Tsarskoe Selo is a cluster of very fine examples of Baroque and Classical architecture and it was also the first place in the Russian capital where interiors decorated in the Moderne (Art Nouveau) style appeared.
The compositional centre of the ensemble is the Great Tsarskoe Selo or Catherine Palace – a splendid example of the Russian Baroque. Visitors are enraptured by the sumptuous décor of the Great Hall and the Golden Enfilade of staterooms that includes the world-famous Amber Room now returned to life. Today, as we enter the palace, we can sense the spirit of the times of Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine II and admire unique works of fine and applied art.
Tsarskoe Selo is also home to one of the finest creations of Classicism in architecture – the Alexander Palace. Passing through the rooms of the living apartments that are open to visitors, you can get an idea of the aesthetic preferences of the last members of the Romanov dynasty and view the Emperor’s State Study that was decorated in the Moderne style.
More than a hundred historical monuments are scattered across the Catherine and Alexander Parks that have a joint area of 300 hectares: there are grand palaces and intimate pavilions, bridges and marble monuments, and also exotic structures imitating Gothic, Turkish and Chinese architecture that invest little corners of the parks with a romantic atmosphere.
The palaces and parks of the unique Tsarskoe Selo ensemble suffered badly during the Second World War. The Catherine Palace was in occupied territory for twenty-eight months and by 1944 had been reduced to a burnt-out shell. Some of the park pavilions were partially or totally ruined. Other buildings in the complex also suffered serious damage. In the Tsarskoe Selo parks, dug up for trenches and bunkers, 25 bridges and around 50 weirs, dams and cascades were destroyed.
Now, over half a century after the end of the war, the restoration and reconstruction work that began in the 1950s can without exaggeration be described as unprecedented in world practice. The architects and restorers are still today recreating the priceless legacy of the past using the traditional materials and techniques of gilders, stonemasons, stucco-workers and other craftsmen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose secrets are rediscovered through study of documentary sources.