Russia reopens the last czar's palace as museum, a century after his execution

A room that includes numerous framed photos at Alexander Palace, outside of St Petersburg in Russia, on Aug 13, 2021.
A room that includes numerous framed photos at Alexander Palace, outside of St Petersburg in Russia, on Aug 13, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

ST PETERSBURG (NYTIMES) - Ms Maria Ryadova recalled being in a dusty room inside the Alexander Palace, hopping from one floor beam to another and peering into the dark chasm beneath, on the day she and her team of workers made a momentous discovery.

A pile of broken blue tiles had been hiding in the darkness. These shards, Ms Ryadova knew from archival black-and-white photos, were the remains of tiles that had once adorned the walls of that room, which used to be Czar Nicholas II's private pool and bathroom in the early 1900s.

But, before they were uncovered, she had never known their colour.

The discovery of these glossy pieces of cobalt and turquoise completed another piece of the puzzle that has been reconstructing the imperial mansion, which was once the home of the last czar of Russia and his family.

"This was an incredible find," said Ms Ryadova, 40, who is one of the main architects involved in the project. "I felt extremely inspired."

With a team of architects and researchers, Ms Ryadova has spent more than a decade on these grounds, working to restore the stately yellow edifice to its early-20th-century glory, before World War II and Soviet remodelling led to its deterioration.

On Aug 13, the work of Ms Ryadova and many others was finally unveiled when Alexander Palace opened to the public as a museum.

The final home of Russia’s last czar Nicholas II has been returned to its early-20th-century glory. PHOTO: NYTIMES

This palace is likely to be the final major Russian imperial mansion to become a museum, said research specialist Tatiana Andreeva, 37.

It is the result of years of investigative work by Ms Andreeva, Ms Ryadova and their many colleagues, who recreated the interiors by working with a few fuzzy coloured images, thousands of black-and-white photos, some watercolours, several drapery swatches and memoirs of palace life.

More than a century after the Russian monarchy collapsed with the execution of Nicholas II and his wife, four daughters and son by the Bolsheviks in 1918, historians are working to excavate the country's imperial past.

For some, Alexander Palace has become a symbol of Russia's reconciliation with it.

"I have a complicated attitude towards the aristocrats of pre-Soviet Russia," said Mr Max Trudolyubov, 51, a popular blogger and commentator on current affairs. "But these palaces became monuments."

A display of artifacts from the rule of Nicholas II at Alexander Palace, outside of St Petersburg in Russia, on Aug 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Nicholas II has long been portrayed to the Russian people either as a bloody and committed despot - a relentless oppressor of the working class - or a clueless, light-hearted fool who carelessly let his country fall off the cliff into the abyss of Bolshevism.

In 2011, the Russian state decided to recreate the czar's private suite - which had been furnished in the art nouveau style, and was mostly destroyed during World War II and subsequent Soviet reconstructions - and create a museum around it.

In the end, the government committed more than US$28 million (S$38 million) to the project, with US$12 million coming from the museum and private benefactors.

To recreate the czar's private rooms, Ms Ryadova's team had to remake almost everything: pickled oak parquet floors, wool rugs and silk draperies, and even spittoons used by the imperial family and courtiers.

A desk in Czar Nicholas II’s private room at Alexander Palace, outside of St Petersburg in Russia, on Aug 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Originally built in 1796 by Catherine the Great for her grandson Alexander, the palace was part of the imperial retreat in Tsarskoye Selo, a sprawling complex of palaces and parks outside of St Petersburg, Russia's capital at the time.

In 1905, Alexander's great-grand-nephew, Nicholas II, moved his family there permanently to escape the increasingly chaotic and dangerous life in the capital, where riots broke out regularly and his grandfather was killed in 1881.

Nicholas II's choice, on the eve of revolution, to abandon his troops and reunite with his family at Alexander Palace, divides many who study the time period.

To some, it is an indictment: He put his family above the interests of his country, over which he had absolute power.

But, to many Russian Orthodox believers, Nicholas II's acceptance of his fate was a show of humility.

In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonised him and his family as passion bearers, a category used to identify believers who endured suffering and death with Christ-like piety.

As she walked through the palace's nearly finished rooms a few weeks before the opening this summer, Ms Ryadova said she hoped visitors would be enraptured. She has faced too many challenges and disappointments in this reconstruction to feel otherwise.

For instance, she has been frustrated by the czar's family photos. As avid photographers, they took thousands of pictures inside the palace, including photographs that could be considered some of the world's earliest selfies.

Portraits, however, are often useless to restoration specialists because floors and ceilings are usually cut out of the frame.

The living room in the reconstructed Alexander Palace, outside of St Petersburg in Russia, on Aug 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"Now I tell everyone: Photograph your ceilings," Ms Ryadova said.

In 1944, after the German occupation, most of the properties at Tsarskoye Selo had no windows or roofs.

"The country was in a horrible state, but people wanted to see these ruins rebuilt as they were," said Ms Olga Taratynova, director of the Tsarskoye Selo museum.

So, even though the Soviet government had established itself as antithetical to the rule of the czars, it put money towards renovating their palaces.

"It was a political decision," said Ms Taratynova, 66.

A footbridge at Tsarskoye Selo, a sprawling complex of palaces and parks that includes Alexander Palace, on Aug 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The complex has since become an important tourist destination, not to mention a symbol of Russian history.

Ms Taratynova recalled that in 2002, United States president George W. Bush had visited the Catherine Palace as the guest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

When Mr Bush entered the grand 8,500 sq ft throne hall, with its gold-plated woodcarving decor, Ms Taratynova said, he froze, mesmerised, and said simply: "Wow."

"We Russians love it when people come to visit and say 'wow'," she said.