Illustrated Description Of Russia

the List of Illustrations


table of contents

PETER THE GREAT, whose name is associated with every twig and branch of Russian public or social life, did what no ruler ever did before—he built his capital on hostile ground. Often, while the building of the city was going on, he had to exchange the chisel and mallet for the sword, and drive back the enemy from the very gates of his infant capital. On one of these suburban battle-fields, he erected, in the year 1711, without the city and close to the sea, the castle and garden of Catherinenhoff, as a memorial of a victory obtained, over the Swedes. At first it was only the summer residence of his consort Catherine, and of the grand-duchesses Anne and Elizabeth. Their wooden palace stands yet, a view of which is given on the opposite page, but the gardens are greatly extended, and are full of bowling-greens and restaurants. For a long time these and the "Summer garden" were the only pleasure-resorts of the kind for the citizens; and still, probably from habit, these gardens are visited on the first of May. On that day all St. Petersburg is in motion: the poor on foot, the young exquisites on horseback, the ladies in their carriages—all flock to Catherinenhoff, to hail the coming of the fine season, even though it be held expedient, as it generally is, to go well wrapped up in bearskins. Here may be seen half the magnificoes of the empire moving slowly past in their carriages-and-four; the senators, the star-covered generals, the reverend bishops and metropolitans, the bearded merchants, and the "foreign guests" — a spectacle of which, often as it is repeated, a St. Petersburger is never weary. The carriages move after a certain prescribed plan the whole day long, like horses in a mill. It is no less singular than true, that all the gay world throughout Russia are moving about their many thousand towns, at the same pace, on the same day. The emperor, whose presence crowns the festival, is generally on horseback, with the princes and a brilliant staff. His arrival is looked for as if he were the representative of the spring; and when he has passed by, the throng drop off one after the other, and go home again, as if the sun himself had disappeared.

Palace of Catherinenhoff, St. Petersburg.

Palace of Catherinenhoff, St. Petersburg.
click to enlarge

The far-famed Summer garden of St. Petersburg is situated on the Neva, close to the Troitzka bridge, and bounds the eastern end of the Champ de Mars. It is half a mile in length and a fourth in breadth, and is the oldest in the city. It contains a number of fine old trees, and is therefore of incalculable value in the centre of the stony masses of the capital. The grounds are laid out in a number of long avenues, interspersed with flower-beds, somewhat in the ancient style of gardening, with an abundance of marble statues of "Springs" and "Summers," "Floras" and "Fauns," and other divinities belonging to the same coterie. On the northern side is the celebrated iron railing which it is said an Englishman once travelled all the way from London to see and make a sketch of, and then returned, satisfied with his journey, not deigning to cast an eye on any of the other marvels of the northern city! This railing, which is about sixteen feet in height, is grand and massive; it extends nearly a quarter of a mile, and the gilded spikes give it a very elegant effect.

The garden is attended to as carefully almost as those of Czarsko Selo, where a policeman is said to run after every leaf that falls, that it may instantly be removed out of sight! In autumn all the statues are cased in wooden boxes, to protect them against the rain and snow of winter, and all the tender trees and shrubs are at the same time packed up in straw and matting, in which they remain till the return of spring, when statues, trees, and men, lay their winter garments aside nearly at one and the same time. The grass-plots are regularly watered in summer, and the paths are carefully cleaned and trimmed. And the garden gratefully repays the pains expended on it, for throughout the fine season it forms a delightful retreat; and its turf and its trees in spring are green and smiling, before any of the other gardens have been able to divest themselves of the chill-hardened grain into which their features have been stiffened during a six-months' winter.

In one corner of the Summer garden stands the palace in which dwelt Peter the Great. It is a little, low, white house, with a few tasteless bas-reliefs, painted yellow. On the roof, between.the chimneys, St. George, mounted on a tin horse, is in the act of piercing the dragon. In the interior, a few articles of furniture, formerly used by Peter, are still preserved. The house seems to have grown ashamed of its littleness, for it hides itself completely among the tall linden-trees of the garden, as though fearful of intruding into the company of the stately palaces that have grown up around. How different it must have looked when it was yet sole lord of the wilderness—when it stood alone amid a mob of fishermen's huts !

This garden is the great lounge of the population of St. Petersburg; it is the afternoon resort of crowds of the most charming children, who repair thither, escorted by their mothers and nurses, to people the solitary walks, and make the shrubberies resound with their innocent mirth. Fifteen or sixteen years later, these children reappear upon the same scene, but this time with less artless intentions, and to play a more perilous game. On Whit-Monday a strange spectacle is to be seen here, for on that day the celebrated festival of the wife-market takes place. Here, according to ancient custom, the sons and daughters of the tradesmen assemble in all their finery, to pick and choose a partner for life, or, at any rate, to laythe foundation of a future marriage; for, though this class still muster in great force on Whit-Monday, the practice is not so thoroughly carried out as it used to be. In former days, the girls on this momentous occasion were dressed from head to foot in all their best apparel, and decorated with every ornament they could borrow from their family. It is even said that " a Russian mamma once contrived to make a necklace of six dozen gilt teaspoons for her daughter, a girdle of an equal number of tablespoons, and then fastened a couple of punch-ladles behind, in the form of a cross— Greek, of course."

The islands of the Neva have been before alluded to. There are in all more than forty of them, great and small, some of which, although all belong to the precincts of the city, are still completely deserted, inundated by the sea and the Neva, and visited only by seals, or by wolves who come over the ice during the winter, or by fishermen in a less inclement season of the year. Many of these swampy and birch-covered islets — such, for instance, as the Volny and Truktanoff islands—are scarcely known to many of the inhabitants of St. Petersburg; and it is a remarkable proof of the wildness and uncultivated region which surrounds the capital, at least on one side, that a man may, if he feel so disposed, kill either a bear or a wolf between breakfast and dinner. In very severe winters, hungry wolves have not only approached the suburbs in search of food, but even the imperial palace! Kohl tells us of a lady who scared one of these animals away with her parasol; and of another who, being surprised by a bear while reading in her villa in the environs of St. Petersburg, repulsed his advances by throwing her book, a novel of George Sand's, at his head. Five, however, of the islands of the delta, though originally yielding nothing but shrubs and a few old oaks, birches, and firs, were invaded by the gardener toward the close of the last century, and are now laid out in the most tasteful manner. Imperial palaces arose, too, under the creative hand of Catherine II., who made grants of land, and even whole islands, to her favorites, that they might build and lay out villas and houses there; hence, perhaps, the name datscha (gift) for villa, with which the Kammenoi, or Stone island, is nearly covered. These buildings are in every variety of style, Gothic, Chinese, &c., and specimens are to be found of all ages and nations in gardening and villa-building; but, though costly and luxurious, they are destitute of the comfort of an English or American country-house. One charm, however, they have, and for this they are indebted, singular enough, to the severity of the climate: the hothouses are as numerous as the villas, and in the warm weather the balconies, doors, and windows of the datsches are adorned with multitudes of exotic plants. These villas are generally inhabited by the wealthier classes. There is, too, on this island a summer theatre, in which French plays are performed; an imperial villa, and the hospital for the disabled.


click to enlarge

The datsches of the nobility are all of wood, the emperor's alone being of stone, and tortured into every incongruous form that bad taste can devise ; the whole touched up and picked out with painted cornices and pilasters, in red and yellow ochre, and, once done, left to the mercy of the seasons. Each has just enough ground around to give the idea of an English tea-garden, with every appurtenance of painted wooden arch, temple, and seat, to confirm it.

In this neighborhood is also a Russian village, wooden cottages with deep roofs, and galleries running round like the Swiss, ornamented with most delicately-carved wood. Of course, here is also plenty of red, blue, and yellow, for it would seem that without these primary colors nothing can be done. The love of red, especially, is so inherent a taste in Russia, that "red" and "beautiful" are, in a popular sense, expressed by the same word. But this is evidently the show-village of the capital, and almost entirely let to families for the summer.

Joined to the Kammenoi, on the west, by a bridge, is another garden-island, called the Yelaginskoi, or Yelagin island, after the name of a family who once possessed it. It is now exclusively occupied by the imperial chateau and gardens. The court frequently reside here in the spring, the most brilliant season for the islands, but there is no amusement for the public beyond that of strolling about on foot and lionizing- the emperor's datscha. This has the appearance of an English or American country-residence, with the gravel-walks and flower-beds in admirable order. The rooms are by no means large, but yet very well arranged for living in quietly and comfortably. The emperor's own apartment is a perfect " snuggery " in its way. This island is said to be a favorite resort of the empress. The view from the chateau is delightful: first the gardens of the villa, then the broad sheet of the Neva with its verdant banks, and, lastly, the lofty spires of the capital are seen rising in the distance. A promenade, similar to that at Catherinenhoff, takes place later in the year on the Yelagin island, at which the imperial family are present. This fete is more attractive, for the weather is more settled, and the scenery is much finer.

To the south of the islands of Yelagin and Kammenoi is the Krestovsky, or Cross island, which lies before the courtly Yelagin and Kammenoi Ostroff, toward the sea, and is larger than the two former put together. Numerous avenues have been opened through the thick, primeval birch and pine wood of this island, and afford agreeable views of the gulf of Finland. This island is peculiarly the resort of the lower classes ot St. Petersburg: hither flock the mujik and the kupez in gay gondolas, to enjoy in the woods their national amusements of swings and Russian mountains; and here on holydays smokes on the grass under every pine-group the favorite somovar, round which may be seen encamped a party of long-beards, gossiping, singing, and clamoring.

Noble's Villa on the Island of Kammenoi.

Noble's Villa on the Island of Kammenoi.
click to enlarge

The German part of the population have appropriated to themselves another island, that of Petrosky. The arrangements are on a smaller scale, and here only are to be found milk and cake gardens, coffeehouses and taverns. It must not be understood, however, that there is anything exclusive, for datschas, chateaus, and Russians, mingle here as elsewhere.

The fifth garden-island is that of the Aptekarskoi, or Apothecaries' island, and here is the botanical garden, one of the most interesting sights of the capital. This is open tothe public on Sundays and holydays. The science of hothouse gardening is here brought to the utmost perfection, and one of the finest assortments of tropical plants in existence has been collected amid the snows of the north. The establishment is under the direction of a Scotch gardener, who has been eminently successful in propagating and preserving the most delicate plants. The collection of orchidaceous plants is one of the best in Europe, and agents are employed in many different parts of the world in sending home plants worthy of these immense conservatories.

Kohl states how the islands should be visited. "Call," he observes, " upon a friend, if you have one in any of these elegant swamp-villas, and enjoy the tea or evening collation upon his luxurious divans. Then, toward sunset, have a gondola, manned by half-a-dozen sturdy fellows, and row down the arm of the Neva to the gulf of Finland. Watch there the globe of the northern-summer sun sink into the lap of Thetis, and hurry back through the magic July night, and row round some of the islands, taking a wide sweep, for there is plenty of room here on the water also, punching and driving your gondoliers, meanwhile, to make them go the faster. Listen then from the water to the sounds from the thick forest, gaze on the lights from the fishing-villages, the late illumination of the brilliant datschas, and hearken to the nightly doings on the islands, where all is as loud by night as it was by day; and, at last, return home like a night-wandering ghost, when, toward one o'clock, the cold dew announces the return of the sun."

The gardens in Count Strogonoff's domain, where there is a fine park, are open to. the public. Here is to be seen an antique sarcophagus and marble, vulgarly called the tomb of Homer, which was brought from the island of Ios, in the Grecian archipelago, at the end of the last century. It is ornamented with bas-reliefs representing scenes in the life of Achilles. There is a little book written thereon, by Heyne, the celebrated archaeologist and professor at Gottingen, which has been reproduced by M. Murall. These gardens, and those of Count Nesselrode, the chancellor of the empire, are open to the public daily.

The villages of St. Petersburg, often spoken of by travellers, are the Great and Little Okhta, the Great and Little Derevnia, and the Tshornaya Retska. The houses in these villages are constructed of logs of fir-trees strongly put together; and are planted like soldiers, in one long, straight line. From the houses, hardly one of which possesses a tree, long cabbage and cucumber plantations stretch into the country on the land-side, while the road on the banks of the river is filled on holydays with carriages driving up and down as they do in the avenues of the " Garden-islands." Those persons whose revenues are too moderate for a Gothic or a Chinese datscha, engage a summer residence in some of these cheap houses, and enjoy there as much happiness as a somovar, a pack of cards, and a dusty, galloping drive, can afford them. A moving crowd is, however, always an animated sight, and in the private gardens at Okhta a German band plays. The gardens at Sergola are also open to the public.

The Czarsko Selo, a royal residence, and favorite resort of the imperial family, is distant about fifteen miles from St. Petersburg. The road to it was made by the empress Catherine II., at a cost of a million of roubles. Soon after passing the Moscow barrier, two huge figures of bulls are seen in front of a building on the right of the road. This is the great cattle-market ; and farther on is a triumphal arch, similar to that erected at the Riga gate. There is nothing to attract attention on this road, or anything to indicate that the traveller is in the vicinity of a large capital, unless it be the imperial milestones, which are of colossal dimensions ; the main and two side roads are, it is true, of great width, but the open, uncultivated plain on either hand is swampy and flat. The road for the first five miles to Czarsko Selo is that to Moscow, and at this point the former turns off to the right. Near here is the royal chateau of Tchesme, built by the empress Catherine to commemorate the victory obtained by Orloff over the Turks on the coast of Anatolia. The edifice is in the form of a Turkish pavilion, with a central rotunda containing the full-length portraits of sovereigns contemporary with Catherine. Since her death, this palace has been deserted. In 1825, Alexander and his consort passed it on their way to the south of Russia; and, about eight months after, their mortal remains found shelter in it for a night on their way to the imperial sepulchre. There is no other object of interest on this road.

We have described the carriage-road; but the best and most rapid mode of proceeding to Czarsko is by the railroad, the first laid down in Russia, and which is more particularly noticed in another chapter. At the stations, droskies, or, in winter, sledges, are in readiness to carry the passengers on. For upward of a mile, before reaching Czarsko, the road is bounded on either side by a village which seems interminable—one long, monotonous row of wooden huts, with nothing to enliven them but a few bearded mujiks and ugly women. At the entrance to the grounds of the palace are two small towers carved with Egyptian figures and hieroglyphics, &c.; a barrier is here thrown across the road, at which a guard is stationed: the entrance, when completed, will be covered with iron bas-reliefs from Egyptian scenes, taken from the classical work of Denon on that country.

Opposite the gate called the Caprice is a cluster of white houses, in two rows of different sizes, diminishing as they recede from the road, and converging at the farthest extremity—altogether a bizarre arrangement, and showing the magnificence of Russian gallantry. The empress Catherine II., at the theatre one night, happened to express her pleasure on seeing the perspective view of a small town; and the next time she visited Czarsko Selo she saw the scene realized in a town erected by Count Orloff, at an immense expense, before the gate of the palace!

The facade of the palace is twelve hundred feet feet in length. Originally every statue, pedestal, and capital of the numerous columns, the vases, carvings, and other ornaments in front, were covered with gold-leaf, and the gold used for that purpose amounted to more than a million of ducats. In a few years the gilding wore off, and the contractors engaged in repairing it offered the empress nearly half a million of silver roubles for the fragments of gold-leaf; but Catherine refused, saying, "Je ne suis pas dans l'usage de vendre mes vieilles hardes"

The only gilding which now remains is on the dome and cupolas of the church, which are, as usual in Russia, surmounted by the cross and crescent. The front of the palace, toward the gardens, is tawdry, and glaring in green, white, and yellow, which at first sight appear to have been smeared on the walls in large patches and stripes, and have a most unpleasant effect. The first portion of the building generally shown is the chapel, a spacious room, fitted up entirely with dark-colored wood, most lavishly gilded, even the ceiling being one bright sheet of gold. On the walls are some curious old paintings, particularly one of a man with a solid wooden beam projecting from his eye, nearly as large and quite as long as his whole-body; while the mote in his neighbor's eye is certainly most visible, as it is half as big as his head! A key of the city of Adrianople hangs beside the altar; but there is no other emblem of war's havoc and destruction within this temple of the Most High. The imperial family have a kind of gallery in the chapel, communicating with their various apartments. in the palace, and situated immediately behind the screen or ikonostast.

The palace of Czarsko was, at the emperor Alexander's death, abandoned by the imperial family, and is therefore bare of furniture, though the walls and floors are decorated with exceeding richness. The former are either simple white and gold, or hung with rich silks ; the latter parquetted in the most graceful designs and tender colors, and still as fresh as when first laid down. One very elegant room is that called the Lapis-lazuli, in which strips of this stone are inlaid in the walls, and the floor of this apartment is of ebony inlaid with large flowers of mother-of-pearl," forming one of the most splendid contrasts possible. The room itself is not very large, but the effect is beautiful. Catherine II. has been frequently accused of vandalism in having the pictures in this room cut so as to fit the walls. A late traveller, however, after examining them most narrowly, declares that this sin can not be laid at her door. " The wall," he observes, a is certainly covered with pictures without frames, forming a complete lining, and a most comical group they make — Teniers' boors, with a beautiful Canaletti of the royal Polish Zamek, most lovingly fastened together, but their fair proportions have not been curtailed. Here is also a celebrated statue of the Savior by Danneker."

But the wonder of this palace is the famous amber-room, the walls of which are literally panelled with this material in various architectural designs ; the arms of Frederick the Great, by whom the amber was presented to Catherine II., being moulded in different compartments with the imperial cipher, the Russian E. for Ekaterina. Accustomed to see only small pieces of this beautiful substance, one can hardly believe that the large, rough fragments projecting from the walls are really amber. These are colored a pale yellow, and in several places groups of figures are formed with fragments of this precious substance ingeniously put together, while the frames are composed of larger portions. The effect produced by this species of decoration is, however, too fade and waxy to be pleasing.

The bedchamber of Catherine is adorned with walls of porcelain and pillars of purple glass, and the bedclothes are those under which she slept the last time she was at the palace. In the banqueting-room the entire walls to the height of about nine feet are covered with gold, which is also laid on most lavishly on the ceilings in almost all the state-apartments. The Chinese room is remarkable for the taste with which everything is arranged after the fantastic manner which is supposed to be that of the celestial empire. Two grand ballrooms are also conspicuous, the upper end of each being occupied by a collection of the most splendid China vases placed on circular tiers up to the ceiling, and marked with the imperial E. The whole palace, in fact, breathes of recollections of the great Catherine ; and here are to be seen private rooms with a door communicating with the adjoining apartments, and the gentle descent leading into the garden by which she was wheeled up and down when infirmity had deprived her of the use of her limbs.

Imperial Palace of Czarsko Selo.

Imperial Palace of Czarsko Selo.
click to enlarge

"But the sentiment of the edifice," observes a recent traveller, "dwelt in the simple rooms of the late emperor Alexander, whom all remember with affection, and speak of with melancholy enthusiasm. His apartments have been kept exactly as he left them when he departed for Taganrog. His writing-cabinet—a small, light room, with scagliola walls—seemed as if the imperial inmate had just turned his back. There was his writing-table in confusion, his well-blotted case, the pens black with ink. Through this was his simple bedroom, where in an alcove, on a slight camp-bedstead with linen coverlet, lay the fine person and troubled heart of poor Alexander ! On one side was the small table with the little green-morocco looking-glass, his simple English shaving-apparatus, his brushes, combs, and a pocket-handkerchief marked 'Z. 23.' On a chair lay a worn military surtout, beneath were his manly boots. There was something very painful in these relics. If preserved by fraternal affection, it seems strange that the same feeling should not shield them from strangers' eyes and touch.

" The palace of the emperor Nicholas, originally built, upon the marriage of her grandson Alexander, by the empress Catherine II., excited very different feelings. It was simpler in decoration than many a noble's at St. Petersburg, clean as possible, and light with the rays of the bright winter's sun. The only objects on the plain walls of the great drawing-room were a small print of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, and the busts of the seven imperial children in infantine beauty. The emperor's own room, in point of heavy writing-tables and bureaux, was that of a man of business, but his military tastes peeped through all. Around on the walls were arranged glass cases containing models of the different cavalry regiments, executed, man and horse, with the greatest beauty, ' and right,' as a military attendant assured us, ' to a button;' and this, it seems, is the one thing needful. Paintings of military manoeuvres and stiff squares of soldiers were also dispersed through his apartments.


Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855