In Russian class we had to write a small piece about something that there’s a lot of in Russia but isn’t in the United States, and the first thing that came to mind is—palaces. In the past two weeks I’ve visited more palaces than I can count—from Yusopov’s Palace to Peterhof to my school, Smolny Institute, which is located in the Bobrinsky Palace.
While at first my inner Romantic-era heart sang at the prospect of seeing these lavish residences with their sprawling grounds, I soon tired of the lavish spectacles. Why were we spending so much time peering through the historical lens of life as a member of the 0.01%? What was so special about Peter the Great’s wife that there’s an entire museum dedicated to her bath house? Where are the museums dedicated to the lives of ordinary people—the serfs, the peasants, the servants who gave their lives so that the nobles could sustain their luxurious lifestyles?
I grew skeptical, but at the same time felt obligated to capitalize on the opportunity to visit so many palaces. Thus, I found myself aboard the electric train to Pushkin, a small suburb on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, to see Catherine the Great’s Palace.
It was a place made out of dreams—a long light blue palace snaking around a majestic courtyard situated at the head of rambling forested grounds. As I walked through the grounds, my mind began to compose Romantic stories of wandering heroes, lost loves, and rustling skirts. Was this pathway where he was when the letter was received? Was this small pool where her heart was broken? Was this forested grove where one could’ve hid themselves from their servants if they didn’t want to be found? I clearly wasn’t the only one with romantic fantasies as I noticed many brides walking around as well taking photos or people posing with period-era costumed grounds’ workers.
My imagination grew even stronger when I found myself in the very ballroom where the BBC War and Peace ball scene was shot. My heart leapt as I imagined being Natasha twirling about on the floors with her Andrei. Surprisingly, wrapped in that juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, my heart suddenly felt—full. The lavish riches from the famous Amber Room, the gilded dining halls, the glittering ballroom, and the room where the walls were priceless paintings were suddenly not just artifacts of the lives of the very wealthy but rather served as cultural portals for imagination.
I was even further moved at the finish of the tour when I read on a plaque about the people who risked everything to save and preserve Catherine’s Palace during World War II and then restore it once the war was concluded. These were people who realized, like I finally did, the depth of these cultural treasures. These were people who believed so much in the power of their art and their culture that they were willing to carry large and cumbersome artifacts to safety through gunfire. These were people who risked their lives for the power of art.
Thus, I realized that this palace is not just a palace but perhaps serves more as a symbol of the juxtaposition of human nature in all its destructive capabilities and artistic potential. My earlier questions posed still stand as I contemplate the ties between art and wealth/power, the sacrifices of the common man, and the overwhelming question of—whose history is it after all? But I suppose that, in the end, those questions, too, add yet another perspective. Catherine’s Palace is not just a symbol of wealth and power. It’s a symbol of sacrifice from the nameless subjects who made the lifestyle possible. It’s a symbol of the enduring power of art in awakening one’s fantasy and imagination and defining one’s culture. It’s a symbol of belief in that power from those who were ready to die to protect their art, their culture, and their history.
And, to me, it served as a reminder that while humans are capable of great destruction, we are also capable of great beauty.