By Audley specialist John
Think of Russia, and your mind may first turn to the country’s communist legacy. Yet I’d argue that there has never been a better time to go one step further back, and retrace Russia’s Romanov dynasty (1613–1917).
The country has an intriguingly contradictory relationship with its past. What surprised me on my first few visits was learning that the Soviets spent a lot of time renovating imperial palaces and structures or occasionally repurposing them, rather than destroying them. And I’ve found that, despite modern Russians’ fierce pride in the achievements of the Soviet era, there’s still great respect for the tsarist period. Peter the Great? ‘A good thing’. And Nicholas II? He’s seen as more of a victim than a perpetrator.
In this guide I pick out what are, for me, some of the most interesting relics of the Romanov period. These aren’t just places that you could visit on a trip to St Petersburg or Moscow. I also want to highlight specific objets d’art and interiors that speak of tsarist and aristocratic ostentation — and the power struggles going on behind the scenes.
Retracing the Romanovs: places to visit in Russia
The Diamond and Throne Rooms in the Hermitage
The former Winter Palace of the tsars is a Versailles-like, three-tiered Baroque pile with an imposing white and mint-green columned façade overlooking the Neva River. Now part of the state art museum, the Hermitage, the palace features some of the world’s most prestigious collections, but even just stepping inside it gives you an immediate, visceral sense of imperial grandiosity.
Guides can help you navigate the bewildering succession of heavily gold-plated, mirrored and frescoed rooms. The interiors simply bombard you with opulence. Alongside the collections of paintings and statuary are the splendid, shouty signatures of the Russian court’s wealth. You might find your eyes drawn to an intricately painted grand piano, a golden clock in the shape of a peacock, and chandeliers dripping in crystals and gilded bronze.
For a more unusual snapshot of Romanov Russia, I’d head to a couple of areas not usually featured on most guides’ itineraries (although access can be arranged in advance). The Diamond Room contains Catherine the Great’s collection of jewels and gem-crusted ceremonial wear, as well as her more personal objects — all very spaciously presented. I never knew a human being could own so many pocket watches.
Then there’s the Small Throne Room (also known as Peter the Great’s Memorial Throne Room). Here I learned that the Bolsheviks never moved the throne: they simply screened it off with a large map of the Soviet Union.
Again, I was unaware such an item still existed: you’d assume it would have been looted or melted down. It was almost as if no-one had quite known what to do with it. Today, the gold-and-red seat stands on a dais, visible but roped off from the public. It seemed quite symbolic of modern Russia’s attitude toward its former royal family: reverential, but something to be kept firmly in the past.
This luridly lemon-yellow residence on the banks of the Moika Canal receives surprisingly few visitors despite its internal quirks, and its connection to one of the more macabre episodes in the build up to the Revolution: the murder of Grigory Rasputin, Nicholas II’s trusted advisor.
The palace is easy to explore independently with an audio guide. It’s also mostly avoided by large tour groups, making for a quiet, sedate visit.
I always feel as though someone’s still at home here: the tapestries and lavish upholstery, though still ornate, are slightly faded and the rooms still feel lived-in, unlike other palaces which have been heavily restored and polished to a tee. The palace survived the revolution and World War II unscathed, and has never had to be rebuilt.
The palace’s star, by far, is the private 135-seater family theater. You enter it just under a scaled-down replica of the tsar’s box, just as you might see in the Mariinsky. For such a small space, I found it unexpectedly, even shockingly ostentatious: gold-filigreed balconies look onto a proscenium arch with plush garnet-hued velvet curtains, all crowned by an exuberantly frescoed ceiling. There’s even a box that was reserved for Russian princesses.
It’s a real Rococo confection, intended to showcase the Yusupov family’s social standing, and even more interesting to see once you have a bit of historical context to hand. The Yusupovs considered themselves Russia’s second family (aristocrat Felix Yusupov was married to Nicholas II’s niece). Knowing this, the whole theater suddenly feels like an extravagant piece of Machiavellian game-playing, as Yusupov would invite friends, associates and the tsar himself to witness this overt projection of riches and status. You can still watch performances here today.
Finally, the palace’s basement has a rudimentary but entertaining tableau of wax figures retelling Rasputin’s story. Afterwards, you can see the steps where his body was dumped into the freezing canal waters by the murderous group led by Felix Yusupov who thought him a corrupting influence on the tsar and Tsarina Alexandra.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
The psychedelic onion domes of this church may recall Saint Basil’s in Moscow, but its interior and the site of its construction are reminders of just how much the tsars were venerated.
Inside, it’s covered from floor to ceiling, including the cupolas, in Byzantine-bright elaborate mosaics. They’re so detailed, at first you mistake them for paintings. Mosaics also decorate the huge iconostasis. There’s a marble canopy covering the very spot where Tsar Alexander II’s blood was spilled on the original cobbles after a passer-by hurled a bomb at him in 1886.
Then, if you walk outside and examine the railings bordering the Griboedov Canal, you can see how the canal has been pushed in and rerouted, just so the church could be constructed exactly on the spot where the tsar fell.
Incongruously, during World War II, the communist regime turned the church into a vegetable storehouse.
The Fabergé Museum
The much-desired, intricately designed Fabergé eggs (which the royal family traditionally gifted to each other as Easter presents) are housed in a neoclassical palace on the Fontanka River.
As you explore, my advice would be to try and take notice of the rooms you’re passing through, as well as admiring the small collection of eggs themselves (bought by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg). The richly patterned brocade-like wallpaper and luxuriant drapery of the Blue Drawing Room give just one example of the finery with which Russia’s 18th- and 19th-century social elite surrounded themselves. Balls were frequently held here.
You could spend hours poring over the intricate miniature designs of each Fabergé egg. I like to try and seek out the very last egg ever commissioned, the austere-looking Karelian Birch egg. It was commissioned before the revolution — but delivered afterwards. The receipt famously addressed ‘Mr Romanov’ rather than ‘your imperial majesty’.
Most visitors who venture out to Tsarskoye Selo, the location of the imperial family’s summer residences, focus on the flauntingly Rococo Catherine Palace or Peterhof, with its terrace of fountains and formal gardens. Not many find their way to the seemingly far less showy, butter-yellow and white Pavlovsk Palace, built for Catherine the Great’s son Paul.
The interiors are cheerful in feel and as decorative as you’d expect. But here’s my tip: ask your guide to show you around Pavlovsk’s gardens.
At the end of the gardens you’ll find a palatial-like pavilion that the royal family would use for dining. It was designed with a mechanism that lifted food up through the floor, to keep the servants unseen and make the party feel as if they were on a picnic.
The Russian capital is more of a monument to the country’s Soviet heritage than its Romanov legacy —think medieval buildings juxtaposed with soaring Stalinist skyscrapers. Having said that, some of Moscow’s lesser-visited points of interest provide a real window into tsarist history.
The crown jewels
Russia’s rulers were crowned in the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin, but few visitors to the complex know about the crown jewels. They’re located in a side room of the Armoury Museum, which most people pass by during their tour, unaware that the lion’s share of the Romanov dynasty’s regalia is hidden on the other side of the wall. You enter a darkened room, and the treasures are displayed tastefully on ruched black velvet.
There are orbs, gold and platinum ingots, and raw diamonds, sapphires and rubies. But the pièce de résistance is the Grand Imperial Crown made for Catherine the Great. It was used by Nicholas II for his coronation — interestingly, tsars would take the headpiece into their own hands and crown themselves, before crowning their consort.
The crown is a real feast for the eyes: a concoction of metal basketwork, pearls, diamond circlets, and a cross of five diamonds mounted by a blood-red spinel (thought to be the world’s second largest). Again, looking at the jewels, I found it incredible that the cash-strapped communist regime didn’t sell them all off. Only a few jewels are missing, believed to have been stolen.
The Palace of the Romanov Boyars
With its painted imitation faceting and bochka roofs and arches, this restored residence transports you back to 14th- and 15th-century Russia. It was the home of the Romanov family while they were still nobles jostling for power, before Mickail I was elected tsar in 1613. It then housed a tier of nobles who purportedly supported the Romanovs.
A visit there gives you a glimpse into their shuttered but feverishly thrusting, machismo world: the men’s chambers have leather wall hangings and are kept darkened. I could imagine them all gathered around the long banqueting tables, chattering behind the tsar’s back.
In and around Ekaterinburg
A two-and-a-half hour flight from Moscow to the city of Ekaterinburg brings you to the site of the most harrowing episode in Romanov history. The pristine white Cathedral on Spilled Blood, with its gleaming gold cupolas, stands over the spot where the Romanov family were executed in the basement of a merchant’s house.
Then, a short drive out into the countryside brings you to Ganina Yama, the mine shaft where their bodies were disposed of. A simple wooden orthodox cross marks the point of the shaft.
Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and their five children were canonized in 1981, and you see icons to them in many orthodox churches. Gingerbread-house-like wooden churches have been erected around the site of the shaft, one for each family member. There’s also a carved wooden statue of the tsar’s children crowned with aureoles. A wooden covered walkway with kokoshnik arches at either end encircles the filled-in shaft. If you visit around the anniversary of the murders, you’ll see the grass over the pit covered in lilies.
When I was there, I was moved to see how genuinely sad Russian visitors were — lighting candles and sometimes crying a little in the churches dedicated to the prince and princesses. It was something I’d never really witnessed before. And when I talked to people, they would defend Nicholas II, and expressed guilt and distress over the brutal deaths of his children.
Being there reminded me of a painting in the Hermitage, which seems to depict the tsar with tears in his eyes. Every Russian I’ve ever asked about that picture likes to interpret it in a romantic light. They say it shows the tsar’s premonition of what was going to happen to him, and that he was misled by his advisors.
As morose and even voyeuristic as it all sounds, I do think that Ganina Yama is truly worth visiting, if only to see a part of Russia’s response to this controversial episode of its history. It helps build a more nuanced picture of the country and its people than the textbooks and modern media suggest.