Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

The mists of history

The last home to Russia's doomed royal family, and the haunt of 'mad mystic' Rasputin, the Alexander Palace has been trashed over the past century. Now an Aucklander is part of an international group helping to restore it as a world-heritage museum, writes Linda Herrick

Alexander Palace is being restored room by room. Photo / Paul Brewer
Alexander Palace is being restored room by room. Photo / Paul Brewer

Back in the 1980s, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Aucklander Paul Brewer, a keen student of Russian history then and now, visited St Petersburg, known at the time as Leningrad. The tumultuous period of the Russian Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century was his special interest and the royal Romanovs' last residence, Alexander Palace just outside St Petersburg, was central to that story. The palace was a symbol of the family's power and privilege -- and of their downfall.

The family's luck started to shatter with the onslaught of World War I. Tsar Nicholas II disastrously sacked his generals, took control of Russia's armies and went off to the front, leaving Empress Alexandra in charge of the enormous nation, "sitting in her mauve sitting room being whispered to by Rasputin", as Brewer puts it.

Alexander Palace was the last residence of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

"The sitting room of the Empress is in many ways the most famous room in the palace because she would lie on her couch and essentially run Russia," he says. "That room, to revolutionaries, had a sort of mythical, sinister, almost demonic stature. The palace assumed an iconic role during that political turmoil and yet I could find very little about it. It was hard to find images but I could see it on maps."

When Brewer went to St Petersburg for the first time, as part of a tightly controlled group of tourists, they were bussed out to see the enormous baroque Catherine Palace, situated in the same park as the much smaller Palladian-style Alexander, at Tsarskoye Selo. "After we'd toured the Catherine, I asked the guide if we could have a look at the Alexander. She looked at me with enormous regret and said, 'I am so sorry to have to tell you but it was completely destroyed during the war and no longer exists.' I thought, 'But I can see it through the trees.' Under Communism, dissidents just disappeared, taken to the camps and never spoken of again. Buildings became non-buildings, as well."

The next day, Brewer feigned sickness and snuck out on the train back to Tsarskoye Selo. "I couldn't figure out how to use the buses so I walked, it took me forever. I walked around the palace, which was occupied by the navy. It was surrounded by barbed wire electric fences, watch towers, guards with rifles, alsatians straining on the leash. I didn't take photos. It was in a terrible condition. Russian winters are so severe that buildings like this which are stucco over brick need annual restoration. It was shabby but even so I was blown away by how beautiful it was."

Much of the palace's mystique turns on its historic resonances. Built by Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century as a gift for her favourite grandson, Alexander I, it was a summer home for the Romanov dynasty for 120 years. Nicholas II and Alexandra moved there in 1902, when it became their permanent home, their haven from the outside world.

"They retreated from the very public role that successful monarchs have," says Brewer, who is director of external relations at Regional Facilities Auckland. "They became invisible and that enables rumours and gossip. Alexandra had had four daughters to everyone's disappointment and the son was a haemophiliac which was a crushing blow to her. She devoted her life to keeping him alive, with disastrous consequences because she involved Rasputin.

The interior of the Portrait Hall as it was during the Romanov reign, in an autochrome image which recently came up for sale in Paris.

"The Alexander Palace became the subject of gossip because it was so cut off from society. When you consider that Nicholas II was running the biggest empire in the world at a time of rapid industrialisation, massive unemployment in the countryside, a huge population sweep into the cities to be exploited as a cheap labour force, fermenting discontent and revolutionary fervour -- they were remarkably cut off from all that. They had this idea that the 'real Russia' were simple, Tsar-loving peasants."

Two revolutions in 1917 ended the rule of the Romanovs. After the first one, Nicholas II abdicated and the family was placed under house arrest in the palace. "They were confined to a small area and to get exercise, they dug vegetable gardens," says Brewer. "You can still see the slight remnants of the mounds. While they were digging, the public would gather at the fence and shout at them. Their few remaining friends would stand silently at the gate, too afraid to acknowledge them. The family thought they were going to live in England. George V, the Tsar's cousin, had offered them asylum but he became nervous, he thought it would make him unpopular. He withdrew the offer of asylum; his private secretary sent a telegram to the British ambassador in St Petersburg, saying, 'His Majesty no longer insists that the Imperial Family comes to England'."

Prime Minister Kerensky had a moderate attitude towards the family, and sent them to a town in Siberia where he thought they would be safe. But when the Bolsheviks took over, they were butchered in July 1918.

The Alexander Palace had a new life as a museum between the world wars, although a great deal of its contents was looted by the Communists to sell abroad, as they did with property from the aristocratic families from across the republic. What remained of the palace's treasures was evacuated and hidden by curators just before WWII, when it was occupied by the Germans as part of the siege of Leningrad. At the end of the war, the Germans put charges in the basement to blow the palace up, but left in such disarray they didn't have time to do it.

After WWII, there were plans to restore it as a museum until, explains Brewer, "Stalin said: no way. 'We are not going to have this again as a memorial to a decadent, discredited bourgeois monarchy', so he gave it to the navy."

About 14 years ago, Brewer discovered via the internet a US-based organisation that was trying to help save the palace. He got in touch with them in New York and he is now head of global initiatives with the Friends of the Alexander Palace group, a job he describes as a "hobby". A number of years ago, FAP commissioned a report from the United Nations-affiliated World Monument Fund to assess the palace's value, architecturally and historically. "Having researched it and toured it, they gave it their highest classification -- the same rating they gave the Taj Mahal."

One of Brewer's colleagues liaised with the Rockefeller Association, which gave a "huge amount" of money to get the palace re-roofed before it collapsed. "That started the Russian authorities thinking, 'we've got to move this back as a museum'."

The navy relented and handed over the private, and completely empty, wing of the last tsar and five years ago, the entire palace was handed over to the museum which now runs the place.

Using old autochrome images of the rooms which recently came up for sale in Paris, FAP is helping fund reproductions of the original silk fabrics which covered the walls, restoring picture frames, doors and furniture, and tracking down objects from the palace which have been dispersed around the world. Brewer says the new Getty Museum in Los Angeles has a huge amount of works from Russian palaces ("you'd never know if you looked at the labels"), including large tapestries from the Alexander that the Russian Government is trying to retrieve.

Right now, the three principal state apartments have been restored to about 80 per cent of their former glory, with some other state rooms open but needing a huge amount of work. The private rooms have yet to be touched.

Brewer is hopeful that Russian oligarchs -- not renowned for their philanthropy -- may eventually be persuaded to help.

"One of those Russian oligarchs bought the Forbes collection of Faberge eggs [which had been in the palace] and took them back to Russia where they disappeared from view. He kept them in a bank vault. Now he has bought and restored a palace in St Petersburg and created a museum with the Faberge eggs on display. The eggs would once have been on display in the Empress' drawing room. We want them to go back when the rooms are restored.

"When the palace is relaunched it will be a major international event. The Russians take a long-term view of this. They still have buildings damaged in World War II that they are slowly restoring.

"It's very different from us, with the debate about the Cathedral in Christchurch -- this idea that it has to be demolished if the money can't be raised. We seem to take a pretty brutalist short-term view of buildings of significance. The Russians have this extraordinary love of their heritage."

Illustrated talk

What: Tragedy and Triumph -- the fall and rise of the Alexander Palace, by Paul Brewer

Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery Auditorium, Tuesday at 6pm; free

- NZ Herald

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