Peterhof: The Grand Palace of Peter the Great

Dr. Watson E. Mills has traveled to Russia on six occasions and has visited The Peterhof twice. He adds, “This trip to The Peterhof, more than 20 years ago, was special to me because I shared it with my son, Michael. Even though the old Soviet Union had collapsed a few years before our arrival, many of the vestiges of the old order remained. We witnessed first-hand the darker side of life in a communist nation and appreciated our free society at home all the more.”

My son and I flew to Moscow and toured Red Square and the Church of St. Basil with its many multi-colored, “onion-like” domes. We walked along the River Mocca, strolled in the Kremlin gardens, and even saw Lenin lying in his tomb in Red Square. We marveled at the beautiful metro stations even though the signs in Cyrillic kept us guessing. But as fascinating as it was, Moscow was only an intermediate stop as we awaited a domestic flight to St. Petersburg which would be our base when we visit The Peterhof, the grand palace of Peter the Great (1672-1725).

In St. Peterburg we had reserved a room on a “floating” hotel. Actually, this hotel was a retired and permanently docked cruise ship although of a much smaller variety than the behemoths we are accustomed to in the USA. We chose these accommodations because the centerpiece of our journey to Russia would be The Peterhof located about 15 miles east of St. Petersburg.

Like many other tourists, we chose to arrive at the Grand Palace via water. We boarded a Hydrofoil (30 minutes) at the Hermitage embankment behind the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and during the short journey I found myself imagining the Tsars approaching this grand palace along these same waters. As the Hydrofoil edged into the dock at The Peterhof, the water lapping up upon the shore, I wondered what famous world leaders had disembarked here as I was about to do.

As we walked along from the pier we encountered a pair of vast, ornate gates. Stretching out before us were formal gardens of truly gargantuan proportions. These gardens featured golden fountains, marble statues, and avenues lined with trees. Not even the newfound wealth of the Russian billionaire oligarchs who have profited shamelessly since the fall of the Soviet Union comes close to rivaling the wealth and extravagance of the Tsars, whose excesses are present at The Peterhof for all to see. As far as displays of wealth are concerned, The Peterhof makes the modern-day oligarch’s collection of Gulf Stream jets, sea-side dachas, and Lamborghinis look like so much chump-change. We were standing there literally aghast at what we were seeing when suddenly the spectacular Grand Cascade came to life before our very eyes, its 60 fountains at full throttle. In the center of it stands a golden statue of Samson tearing apart the jaw-bone of a lion. This Grand Cascade is home to more than 250 world-renowned statues and other relics, easily making it the world’s grandest fountain. The fountains are turned on each morning while the “Hymn to the Great City” is played over the loud speakers.

The Peterhof gardens have a unique water system that supplies its many fountains. No electrical pumps are required. Water is supplied by a gravity-fed water system, 22km long, skillfully designed to exploit the natural slope of the terrain. This system supplies sufficient water to the fountains and cascades to keep them working for up to 10 hours a day.

Aerial view of Peterhof

Most everybody knows at least something about Versailles in France. Few, however, have ever heard of the Russian “Versailles,” yet some would say that The Peterhof is even more fantastic than the palace at Versailles. Peter had visited France and toured Versailles and was most impressed by the grandeur of the place, so he conceived of his own gardens and fountain complex but on a much grander scale than what he had seen in France. Many talented architects were assembled to work on the designs for Peterhof (which means “Peter’s Court” in Dutch). Peter the Great was used to getting his own way and was equally eager to execute those who raised any objection to his pretentious ideas for greatness. He was not content with just building a city that bore his name at the edge of the Baltic Sea. He went further and decided that he also needed a nearby palace as well. Predictably, no one disagreed with him – at least, not for long!

Over the years, he oversaw the construction of a magnificent “summer” estate that included not only the Great Imperial Palace itself, but many other “out” buildings and several large parks. The palace was the gala summer imperial residence for the Tsars for 200 years until the October Revolution when the whole estate was nationalized by a special decree issued by Vladimir Lenin.

The place is known, generally, as Peterhof, although in 1944 the name was briefly changed to Petrodvorets (“Peter’s Palace”) – an attempt to de-Germanize its name in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Russia during World War II. After the fall of the old Soviet Union in 1991 the original name was restored and the palace and park were again known as Peterhof. Today, Petrodvorets is the name of the surrounding town.
Work on The Peterhof ceased after Peter’s death in 1725, and, indeed, The Peterhof was almost abandoned until Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth, came to the throne in 1740. Elizabeth commissioned Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who had already completed the Palace in St. Petersburg, to build a genuinely regal palace at Petrovdorets. Rastrelli chose to retain the original building within his design, and the result is supremely elegant. The long, narrow palace has minimal decoration – Rastrelli’s chief stylistic flourishes are the two white pavilions with gilded cupolas at the end of its wings. Beige and white, the palace is majestic without being overwhelming, and provides a perfect backdrop to the elegantly formal Upper Garden. Improvements to the park continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as Peterhof once again became the official Imperial Residence during the reign of Nicholas I. He ordered the building of the modest Cottage Palace in 1826.

During World War II, the occupying forces of the German Army destroyed much of The Peterhof. Many of the fountains were heavily damaged, and the palace was partially exploded and left to burn. Restoration work began, however, almost immediately after the end of the war and continues to this day. The Lower Park was reopened to the public in 1945. As a result, many of the buildings and statuary in Peterhof have been restored and new giltwork is evident throughout. The original, stated purpose of Peterhof was as a celebration and claim to access to the Baltic. Inside The Peterhof there are many paintings of sea battles by the famous Russian artist, Ivan Aivazovsky. The Peterhof commemorates the imperial expansion and modernization of Russia.

Statuary at Peterhof

Inside, the Grand Palace is considerably more lavish, and the fact that the interiors had to be almost entirely reconstructed after World War II does nothing to detract from their present-day grandeur. The palace’s sumptuous interiors have retained a remarkable homogeneity of style. Today, upon entering the palace, visitors are met by the incredibly ornate Ceremonial Staircase, adorned with a multitude of gilded statues. Highlights include the richly decorated Ballroom and Throne Room, which boasts a beautiful parquet floor. The Western Chinese Study is heavily Oriental, with bejeweled red and green walls and an elegant Chinese tea-set. The Drawing Room of the Imperial Suite includes fine silk wall hangings. The rest of the Imperial Suite, the royal family’s private quarters, is furnished in grand 19th century style. Then there is Peter the Great’s simple Oak Study, and the adjacent Crown Room, which was actually the Imperial bedchamber.

Easily the most striking aspect of the exterior of The Peterhof complex is its majestic parks, fountains, and cascades, which together with the many tree-lined avenues constitute a beautiful backdrop to the royal buildings.

The spectacular parklands of The Peterhof are remarkable for the sheer variety of styles they represent. These parks represent almost two centuries of European aristocratic fashion executed to the most exacting standards – no expense was too great. The master landscapers were able to overcome the extremely hostile conditions of this northern climate creating a remarkable wonderland of beautiful, multi-colored flowers set amongst incredible vistas and ornate decorations. I count my visits to The Peterhof among the most memorable sights I have ever seen.

Next time: “ The Three Gorges Cruise along the Yangtze River in China”

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