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DETSKOYE SELO (PARKS AND PALACES) LENINGRAD, 1934

IT MAY seem odd that in 1934 the Leningrad Soviet would have a Park and Palace Department. Indeed, it did and, what’s more, it published a tidy little guidebook in English. Detskoye Selo (Parks and Palaces) makes for interesting contrast, particularly in light of the first-hand views of the Russian Revolution as shared by Phil Jordan, valet, chauffeur, and major domo to the American ambassador in Petrograd.

Detskoye Selo, drawings and cover by N. Ushhin, text by S. Geitchenko, translation by M. Grinwald, editor N. Arkhangelsky, responsible editor D. Gratch, Leningrad Soviet, 1934.

Petrograd? Leningrad? People prior to 1904 and after 1991 would call this Russian city by its original name, St. Petersburg. Also, we’re used to “Soviet” as an adjective: the Soviet Union. But it’s also a noun signifying an elected local, district, or national council, as in the Leningrad Soviet, publisher of this guidebook.

Frontispiece and title page of Detskoye Selo. This and the following images from this guidebook.

“Why do we keep unaltered the palaces of the Romanovs?” the guide asks rhetorically. “Builders of a new life,” it explains, “the citizens of the Soviet Union, desire to understand the sombre past of their country…. That half a million excursionists visited the Detskoye Selo museums in 1933 demonstrates the interest that is taken in these memorials by the working class.”

The “present museums,” as the guidebook calls the palaces and parks, “tell what the tsar’s power in Russia was, how its outward appearance changed under the influence of economic development, and why the overthrow of the monarch in 1917 was inevitable.”

Detskoye Selo is a handsomely done guidebook, if a bit heavy on political discourse here and there.

“The rise of Detskoye Selo” notes the guidebook, “is intimately connected with the struggle of landlord Russia for conquest of the Baltic shores, which began in the first part of the eighteenth century. Needing a maritime outlet for its trade, Russia had to ‘cut a window into Europe.’ ”

Through this window came architects from the west. For example, the Italian Baroque architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli was invited to design Tsarkoye Selo, the suburban residence of Elisabeth I of Russia, a fourth-generation Romanov reigning 1709–1762.

The guidebook writes of Rastrelli response: “A three-storey pile is some three hundred metres long and the facade eloquently demonstrates the taste of the epoch.”

A conversation between the Russian empress and French ambassador is described: “ ‘Now is there anything you do not approve of?’ Elisabeth asked him.”

“ ‘Why, yes, I think there is one big defect. A box in which to keep the jewels. ’ ”

In the 1780s, late in the reign of Catherine the Great, Charles Cameron, a Scot, “became the favourite artist to carry out the fancies of the empress whom the court flatterers extolled as the “Northern Semiramis” [an Assyrian royal, one of Dante’s soul of the lustful]. Cameron’s work was of great elegance.”

The Amber Room of Tsarskoye Selo contained more than 6 tons of amber decorated in gold leaf. Looted by the Nazis in World War II, the current whereabouts of its contents remain a mystery. A reconstruction of the room was opened in 2003.

“The huge structure of the Catherine palace is surrounded with large gardens which completely separate this residence of the tsars from humble mortals and forbid them entrance to it.”

“Every nook of Detskoye Selo breathes of the past. Each step engenders memories of old. These reminiscences are often ungracious and ugly—for great was the evil wrought by Russia’s crowned despots. Their whims and pastimes were a heavy burden upon the long-suffering people. The artistic elegance of the palaces of the Russian tsars can never efface the bitter pages of the old regime.”

Yes, and how often does dialectical materialism appear in other guidebooks, Baedeker’s, for example? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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