Alexander Palace reopens after reconstruction


Tsar Nicholas II’s favorite palace – the house he retired to after abdicating the throne – was one of the Romanovs’ most beloved residences. Its halls were filled with books, works of art and treasures collected by generations of the Russian royal family. Now, after years of research and costly reconstruction of its private chambers, the palace has been restored and is open to the public.

The curators used old faded photographs and old paintings as a guide while recreating the Alexander Palacedecorations and assemblage of personal effects long dispersed in other museums and private collections. The result of their work offers an intimate look into the lives of Tsar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and their five children.

Using old photographs as a guide, museum curators have recreated the private apartments of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra at the Alexander Palace.

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The palace’s close association with the last members of Russia’s ruling monarchy presented a dilemma for Soviet-era rulers, who did not want to glorify a past so violently rejected. As a result, the residence remained in limbo – a kind of museum but also a catch-all government building. Here’s how his fortune has risen and fallen over the past century.

The beginning of the end

On March 15, 1917, after a series of military losses against the Germans, a food riot across the country and an open revolt in the ranks of the imperial army, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated his throne, ending his more than 300 years reign of the Romanov dynasty. He signed a proclamation, accepted the title of “Colonel” of the Russian Provisional Government, and retired to Alexander Palace, the sumptuous mansion built by Catherine the Great in 1792. His wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, and their five children awaited him there. .

Located 24 km south of Saint Petersburg in Tsarskoe Selo, the former summer residence offered physical and symbolic distance from the bustle of the city. Nicholas had, in fact, made the palace his primary residence for exactly this reason shortly after the political uprisings of 1905, which saw massive street protests near Winter Square and the Bloody Sunday massacre in which Imperial troops attacked and killed crowds of walkers as well as passers-by.

But what had been a happy retirement for Nicholas quickly became a prison. Guards armed with rifles watched the family’s every move. Nicholas had little contact with the outside world, and his daily activities, including walks on the park grounds, were tightly controlled. In August of that year, he and his family were moved to Siberia and then to the Ural Mountains. On July 17, 1918, they were executed along with their servants and royal servants.

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Nicholas II, watched by armed guards, after abdicating his throne.

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A personal favorite

Nicholas II and Alexandra were delighted to live in the Alexander Palace and this was closely associated with their life together. The building is surrounded by extensive land where the couple had walked and had picnics with their young children. They planted gardens and entertained friends out of sight of the public and members of the royal court. And they made many improvements to the structure, including adding electrical wiring and creating comfortable, less formal family rooms, including one decorated in a then outrageously practical Art Nouveau style. Like the other palaces, it was a symbol of empire, but it was also a comfortable family home.

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View of the Palace of Alexander, 1839.

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Other Romanovs had also worshiped Alexander’s palace. Catherine the Great commissioned the palace in 1792 for her eldest grandson, Alexander I. After becoming emperor, he handed it over to his brother, Nicholas I, who commissioned major renovations and decorations and spent as much time there as possible with his family. When Nicholas I ascended the throne in 1825, the palace was handed over to a series of future heirs, possibly including Alexander III, whose son Nicholas II was born in the palace in 1868.

After the Revolution

Alexander’s Palace stood empty for a brief time after Nicholas left, but was later turned into a museum as well as an orphanage and convalescent home for soldiers. It remained relatively unchanged until World War II, when the Germans captured it en route to besieging St. Petersburg.

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After the revolution, the Alexander Palace was used as an orphanage, a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, and a “health resort” that held afternoon dances.

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The Nazis turned it into a headquarters for officers, many of whom looted artwork and personal effects. (Soviet curators managed to pack up some of the palace’s most valuable treasures before the enemy arrived, some of which were sent by wagon to Siberia; other items were hidden in the basement. ) After the war, the palace was briefly turned into a museum again before being handed over to the Soviet Navy in the 1950s, which used it as their headquarters and academy until the 1990s.

Many Romanov palaces, including Winter and Catherine, were restored and turned into museums during Soviet rule. But the Alexander Palace remained closed to the public despite escaping World War II relatively intact. Preserving a discarded past proved a thorny business for the country’s Soviet rulers, and it was a particularly delicate process with this building due to its association with the last Romanov emperor.

Start from nothing

For a long time, the Soviet authorities maintained that there was not much left of the Romanov legacy in the Alexander Palace to preserve. Rooms had been stripped of all furniture, they said, and entire sections had been damaged beyond recognition during the war. Nevertheless, conservationists inside and outside the country clamored to enter the building to begin the restoration. One of them was Bob Atchison, a Texas native who has made safeguarding the palace his lifelong passion.

In 1975 he flew to St. Petersburg and, as he describes it, “smuggled himself into the building.” He was delighted with what he had found. “I spoke in front of the guards and could immediately see that many architectural details remained intact,” he said. GTC during a recent phone call. “Some pieces had either been preserved or carefully restored. It was far from the total loss that Soviet guides told Western tourists about.

Atchison returned to the city several times after this first trip and befriended Anatoly Mikhailovich Kuchumov, the influential curator who had overseen the transport of many valuables from the palaces of St. Petersburg before the Nazi attacks. Kuchomov gave Atchison albums of photographs, which he had digitized, and which the duo then published on a website that Atchison created and maintains to this day. “At a time when [the authorities] said that the palace had been destroyed and nothing had been saved. We had all these pictures of its interiors that showed what was really there.

Interest in the palace grew after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund make a donation $150,000 to help restore its roof. Private donors like Atchison contributed to its repair and soon small parts of the palace, including the restored Portrait Room, Marble Drawing Room and Semicircular Room, were open to the public. In 2014, the Russian government embarked on a major restoration, which was unveiled last summer.

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A restored games room at the Alexander Palace.

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The work took historians and curators years of painstaking research. Rugs, tapestries, and prints were recreated by hand, and new wooden floors were laid to match those researchers could see in old photographs. If in Soviet times the goal of previous caretakers had been to downplay Nicholas II’s connection to the palace, modern restorers have sought to bring every detail of his life back to it. “They did an amazing job,” Atchison said. “I only wish Kuchumov was alive today to see him.”

Restoration work will continue as curators turn their attention to the guest and servants quarters in the west wing of the palace.

Alexander Palace is part of the State Museum and Heritage Site of Tsarskoye Selo, who offers calendar and planning tools to schedule a visit.

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