The fascinating story of Gatchina – home to the tsars
Tourists come from all over the world to experience St Petersburg’s history and, in particular, its association with the tsars who ruled Russia for centuries.
One of the tsars’ favourite residences, yet one which doesn’t receive the same kind of tourist attention as places like Peterhof or Tsarskoe Selo, is Gatchina.
Located in St Petersburg’s suburbs, Gatchina is probably the most lived-in of the royal residences, with four tsars considering it their family home. First appearing in the records in 1499, Khotchino (the old name for Gatchina) was a Russian village under the rule of Novgorod the Great. The village was won and lost by the Livonians and then the Swedes during the 17th century, only to be regained for Russia by Peter the Great during the Northern Wars.
Peter founded an Imperial Hospital and Apothecary there, but it was not until 1765, when Catherine the Great bought the village and surrounding lands for her favourite, Count Grigory Orlov, that work began on the palace and park.
Orlov employed Italian-born architect Antonio Rinaldi to design Gatchina Palace. Rinaldi began work in 1766, and took fifteen years to complete the castle-style building. By then, Orlov had fallen out of favour with Catherine, and had just two years left to live.
After his death, Gatchina was bought back by the Empress and handed to her son, the future Tsar Paul. Paul had the palace remodelled, accentuating its fortress character to suite his militaristic tastes. Gatchina remained the property of his widow, Maria Fedorovna, before being passed on to his son, Nicholas I, who used it as his official summer residence, as did his son, Alexander II.
During the Revolution and Civil War, Gatchina was the site of two major events - the final fall of Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government in 1917, and Trotsky's defeat of the final advance of the White Army from Estonia in July 1919.
The palace and park were opened to the public soon after the Revolution, and served as a museum until they were occupied by the Nazis in 1941, causing severe damage. Restoration work is still ongoing more than 60 years later. But there’s still plenty to see at Gatchina, including:
- The Grand Palace, perhaps the most unusual and individual of St Petersburg's suburban imperial palaces, though it’s far less striking than the brightly coloured, stucco covered facades at Pavlovsk and Tsarskoe Selo. It houses the Exhibition of Weaponry, with over 1000 items of ceremonial arms and armour that once belonged to the Imperial family, along with several fine 18th and 19th century works from the renowned Imperial Porcelain Factory.
- The Priory Palace, an extraordinary building that resembles a Gothic country church rather than a palace. It was the result of Tsar Paul's abiding relationship with the Knights Templar of the Maltese Order of St John. Compelled to leave Malta by Napoleon, the Knights turned to Russia, with whom they had been allied during the Turkish Wars of Catherine the Great's reign, for protection. Paul, although officially Russian Orthodox, agreed to take the order under his patronage and, in 1798, assumed the title of Grand Master.
- The park at Gatchina was created at the same time as the Grand Palace, and followed much the same pattern as that of the building. Today, the park is slowly being returned to its 19th century magnificence, though several of the historical buildings are still in ruins, the formal gardens have all but disappeared, and the extensive parkland is for the most part overgrown. The restored Birch House is well worth a visit – a folly that resembles a woodpile from the outside, but inside has extraordinarily ornate interiors filled with exquisite stucco work magnified with ingeniously positioned mirrors. And then there’s the Pavilion of Venus, made entirely of wood, but resembling a stone classical temple. It also has an extremely elegant interior and is the main feature of the Island of Love on White Lake, one of the most picturesque corners of the park.
You’ll find Gatchina about 50km south of St Petersburg, beyond Pushkin and Pavlovsk. The simplest way to reach the town is by marshrutka minibus from Moskovskaya (K-18), Kirovsky Zavod (K-546), or Prospekt Veteranov (K-631) Metro Stations. Buses terminate next to Gatchina-Baltiskaya Station, which is directly opposite the main entrance to the Grand Palace. Suburban trains also run between there and Baltiskaya Station in St Petersburg every 40 minutes, the journey taking slightly less than an hour.