Pushkin

Pushkin, a quiet suburb of St. Petersburg, is a UNESCO-protected historical landmark. It was named Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village) before the 1917 Revolution. This town abounds in palaces, parks, history and mysteries. It was here that the Amber Room went missing during the Great Patriotic War. The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin went to school here, and so did his successors, the poets Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev. Before 1917, Russian tsars spent their childhood here, and after, Soviet orphans lived where the tsars used to live. Plan to spend the whole day here. Pushkin is 30km south of St. Petersburg off the Moscow Highway. 

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There was a Swedish estate here in the 17th century, before the town was founded, which became property of Empress Catherine I. She had a palace built here and a park planted with a pond in the middle. Catherine I also had two churches built. One, Znamenskaya, or the Church of the Holy Sign, still stands. It is believed to be the oldest stone building in town. When Catherine I died, Tsarskoye Selo became property of Empress Elizabeth, who had a grand palace and park complex built. She appointed Bartholomeo Francesco Rastrelli head architect on the project. But this was only the beginning. Tsarskoye Selo truly flourished during the reign of Catherine II. The Alexander Palace was built and the Catherine palace underwent a major remodelling at the end of the 18th century. The Imperial Lyceum, where the young Pushkin and many other people of prominence went to school, opened in Tsarskoye Selo in 1811.   

The ornate Catherine Cathedral, built in 1835-1840 to the design of the court architect Konstantin Ton, towers in the middle of Pushkin. While it is not one of the main local landmarks, the central location of this church makes it an ideal starting point for walking tours, as well as an ideal dating site.  

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This complex of buildings was rebuilt several times. The latest rebuilding was completed in 1866 under the supervision of the architect Nikolai Nikitin. According to its original intent, the main building still a market, just like it was in Pushkin’s time, the early 1800s. The place looked more impressive back then, and there was more going on: they sold live chickens and calves in the outdoor Gostiny Dvor plaza. The market stalls had been restored by 2003, when St. Petersburg celebrated its 300th anniversary in grand style.  

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The Egyptian Gate at the inception of Peterburgskoye Shosse is a decorative structure designed by Adam Menelaws and built in 1830. Bedecked with neo-Egyptian relief sculptures, the gate once served as a grand entrance into town from the direction of St. Petersburg. The gate merits a long detailed inspection. Make sure you find screech beetles, snake heads and scenes from Egyptian mythology. The gate was badly damaged in the Great Patriotic War, but has been carefully restored. The latest restoration was completed in the 1980s.  

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This faux Gothic technical installation resembles a castle. Tsarskoye Selo was one of the first towns in Europe to receive a steady supply of electricity – all thanks to this power plant. The plant had four crude oil-powered boilers when it was launched in 1898. The plant was closed in the 1920s due to redundancy. All equipment was removed from inside it ten years later. There was a factory here in Soviet time, which first manufactured primus prickers and later on, irons and vacuum cleaners.  

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This architectural complex, built in the style of old Russian architecture, was intended for the royal security guard escort or, more precisely, the elite part of the escort that protected members of the royal fambily. Construction began in 1913 and ended in 1918, when there was no royal security escort anymore. The original name of the Gorodok, or housing area, was “Houses for the clergy and service personnel of His Majesty’s St. Theodore Cathedral.” The complex consists of the Imperial Pavilion, Armoury, Priests’ House, barracks of His Imperial Majesty’s security convoy, and St. Theodore Cathedral. There was a field hospital here during WWI, where the poet Sergey Yesenin volunteered as an orderly in 1916.  

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The Imperial Lyceum of Tsarskoye Selo was a prestigious school for children from noble backgrounds, opened in 1811. It was housed in an annex of the Catherine Palace until 1843. Then the Lyceum was moved to St. Petersburg and renamed Alexander Lyceum. The Lyceum admitted boys aged 10 to 14 to train them for high-ranking jobs in public service. A Lyceum diploma ranked pari passu with a university diploma. Education and life in this institution were the most progressive and enlightened in Russia at the time. Corporal punishment was prohibited here, while being widespread in schools across the empire. Some of the best minds of the epoch taught humanities and sciences at the Lyceum. They were a major influence on the graduates. The well known satirical writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin was among the Lyceum alumni of consequence, many of whom were liberally minded people. The Lyceum’s very first class, studying from 1811 to 1817, was its most famous. Alexander Pushkin was among the 30 bright young men graduating in 1817.  

The future Decembrists Wilhelm Kuchelbacker and Ivan Pushchin, who strongly opposed the Russian monarchy and serfdom, were in the same class with Pushkin. The Decembrist insurgency, leading to an organized protest in Senate Square on 26 December 1825, was suppressed. Five of the ring-leaders were given the death sentence. Several thousand others were exiled to Siberia or demoted to the rank of enlisted man and sent to fight the indigenous mountain folk in the Caucasus. Pushkin had many friends in the Decembrist movement, and his oeuvre was strongly influenced by the Decembrist cause.

The Lyceum became a museum in 1949. The 1966-1974 restoration reconstructed the interiors from the time when the great poet studied here. 

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Amid this early 19th-century landscaped park lie the ruins of the Babolovo Palace, built at the end of the 18th century for Grigory Potyomkin, and rebuilt by the great Russian architect Vasily Stasov a hundred years later.  It was in this palace that the legendary King Bathtub was installed, carved in red granite by the famous stonemason Samson Sukhanov, who also contributed to the crafting of the Minin and Pozharsky Monument in Moscow’s Red Square. Sukhanov was paid 16,000 rubles for his work on the granite tub – a fortune at the time. It took ten years to carve the 48-ton tub out of a solid Finnish granite rock. Once the giant tub, which held 8,000 buckets of water, was in place, Stasov ordered the palace’s foundation strengthened.   

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This modest one-story house with a mezzanine is exactly the same it was when Alexander Pushkin spent his extra long honeymoon here in the summer of 1831. Pushkin wanted to spend that summer in Tsarskoye Selo. He wrote his friend Piotr Pletnev, asking him to find him a place to stay. “Find me some digs… on any street in Tsarskoye Selo… I just need an insulated study… The rest I don’t care about,” Pushkin wrote. It did not take long to find a place: eight rooms in the house of Anna Kitaeva, the widow of an imperial body-servant. It was in the mezzanine of this house that Pushkin wrote Onegin’s letter to Tatyana and The Tale of Tsar Saltan. While living here, Pushkin would work in the daytime, and then he and his young wife Natalia Goncharova would go out for a walk in the evening. Locals would come to sneak a look at the celebrity when they walked in the park. Pushkin was very famous at the time. Kitaeva’s other tenants in the subsequent years were proud to inhabit the same place where Pushkin had lived, and made sure the furnishings and interior decorations were preserved intact. The house got a memorial plate in 1910: “A.S. Pushkin lived in this house from May 25 to October 20, 1831.” 

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The Catherine Palace, or Grand Tsarskoye Selo Palace, was the summer residence first of Catherine I (this palace was the first thing she had built on her new property), then of Elizabeth, and finally of Catherine II. Construction began in 1717 and took seven years. The inauguration of the palace was celebrated on a grand scale, including cannon volleys. The palace would be rebuilt several times. The 1752 rebuilding by Bartholomeo Francesco Rastrelli turned the Catherine Palace into the baroque edifice we know. One of the treasures that have gone missing in the palace was the legendary Amber Room. The Nazis stole it during the Great Patriotic War, but no one knows where the room was hidden. The effort to reconstruct the Amber Room commenced in 1979, and was completed by 2003, the year of St. Petersburg’s 300th jubilee. The Catherine Palace is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  

The Catherine Palace stands amid a magnificent park, named Catherine Park. It is of two parts. One is a landscaped English Park. They say that the other, the rectilinear Old Park, was founded by Peter I himself, who had some Dutch landscape designers at his command. Catherine II patronized the landscaped part, the English Park. Statues were erected here commemorating the Russian Empress’ achievements. It is easy to lose one’s way amid the many buildings in the Catherine Park. Among the must-sees are the Cameron Gallery with its sculpture collection, the Upper Bath, the Hermitage and Hermitage Kitchen Pavilions, and the Marble Bridge.  

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The Alexander Palace, or the New Tsarskoye Selo Palace, was built at the end of the 18th century by order of Catherine II, who wished to give the palace to her grandson Alexander I as her wedding gift. And she did. This two-story palace with a monumental colonnade was designed by Giacomo Quarenghi. Alexander’s successors, Emperors Nicholas I and Nicholas II, loved this place even more than Alexander did. In Soviet time, this was a recreational facility for NKVD staff. The rooms that once belonged to the children of Nicholas II were converted to a Young Communists’ Orphanage.  The palace is currently under restoration, and can only be admired from the outside. 

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Like his grandmother, Catherine II, Alexander I was a big fan of walking. This palace park was built to his order. Similarly to the Catherine Park, it is divided into a landscaped part and a regular part.  Some of the landmarks in the park are the “Mushroom” curtain wall, the Parnassus Hill, the Chinese Theatre, the Dragon Bridge, the Grand Chinese Bridge, Bridge of the Cross, and Small Chinese Bridges, as well as the Chinese Village, the Big and Small Caprices, the White Tower, the Chapel, the “Pensioners’” stables and horse graveyard, the Arsenal, the ruins of the Llama Pavilion, and the Children’s House.