The fate of the contents of the Alexander Palace in the 20th century

PHOTO: the Alexander Palace was established as a museum in June 1918

Thousands of items from the Alexander Palace were destroyed or stolen in the decades that followed the 1917 Revolution. Thousands more were moved to other locations, where they remain to this day. This article examines the fate of the Alexander Palace collection, researched from Russian archival sources.

The ‘Romanov Museum’

On 1st August 1917, Emperor Nicholas and his family left the Alexander Palace for the last time. It was on this day that the Imperial family were sent into exile to Tobolsk, where they spent 8 months under house arrest, before being transferred to Ekaterinburg, where they were murdered by the Ural Soviet on 17th July 1918.

In June 1918, the Alexander Palace was established as a museum and opened to the public. Throngs of visitors – among them many revolutionaries and their families – filed silently through the state halls located in the central part of the building and the private apartments of the last tsar and his family located in the east wing of the palace.

The Bolsheviks had led the Russian people into believing that Nicholas II and his family lived in great luxury, however, the interiors of the Alexander Palace proved otherwise. Compared to their 18th century ancestors, Nicholas II and his family lived rather modestly. The Alexander Palace lacked the ostentatious interiors of the nearby Catherine Palace the Great Palace at Peterhof, and even that of the Winter Palace in Petrograd (St. Petersburg).

Following the uncertainty of the political climate during 1917, members of the Tsarskoye Selo Commission prepared for the evacuation of highly artistic items from the collection of the Imperial residences, including the Alexander Palace. These included paintings by outstanding artists, sculptures, the finest examples of furniture, bronze, porcelain and crystal. In total, 50 crates with items from the Alexander Palace were packed and transported by train to Moscow in two separate shipments – 15-17th September 6-8th October. The items were placed in storage in the Armoury and the Grand Kremlin Palace.

In October 1917, the Artistic and Historical Commission began to compile descriptions of the interiors of the Alexander Palace. They refused to compile new inventories, preferring instead to draw up cards with descriptions of objects, carry out plans for the arrangement of furniture, explication of interiors and take photographs of each room, its possessions and decoration.

This decision was made due to the fact that there was an enormous number of items in the Alexander Palace, which meant that to list every item, not to mention their description, would take a lot of time, which the Artistic-Historical Commission did not have, due to the growing political unrest in Petrograd.

In December 1920, the valuables evacuated in 1917 were returned to Tsarskoye Selo from Moscow, among them were 32 crates containing items from the Alexander Palace. In parallel with the rest of the work, the researchers began unpacking the re-evacuated exhibits, examining them, checking against the inventories, and by 1923 all items were returned to their historical places in the Alexander Palace.

The Soviet regime were always hostile towards the ‘Romanov Museum’ and made constant threats  to close the museum and sell off its treasures. Luckily, the museum staff managed to dissuade the government from this step and the museum operated up until the beginning of the Second World War.

In 1941 the Alexander Palace was closed, the children’s toys and furniture were transferred to the Toy Museum in Moscow [in 1931, the museum was transferred to Zagorsk – renamed Sergiev Posad – where many of OTMAAs toys remain to this day – PG].

PHOTO: the damaged Alexander Palace and SS cemetery, 1944

Nazi occupation

In the first months of the Great Patriotic War (1941-44), only a part of the contents of the Alexander Palace was evacuated: chandeliers, carpets, some pieces of furniture, marble and porcelain. The bulk of the contents remained in the palace during the war, and suffered great losses.

By mid-September 1941, the Alexander Palace – along with the rest of Pushkin [Tsarskoye Selo] – was near the front line. During the occupation of Pushkin, the Nazi Headquarters was located in the Alexander Palace, the torture chambers of the Gestapo located in the basement, and a cemetery for 85 SS officers was created in the lawn, situated in front of the palace.

When Soviet troops entered the city in 1944, the Alexander Palace, like all other palaces, was in a terrible state. Historical interiors had been looted, thousands of items stolen or destroyed, some interiors had been completely destroyed.

The building itself suffered to a much lesser extent than the nearby Catherine Palace. The former sustained some shelling by the Soviets, who were determined to drive the Nazi invaders from the Alexander Palace, where they were holed up. The palace had been looted by the retreating Nazi’s which resulted in many of the palaces treasures being stolen. According to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of the Russian Federation, the registered inventory for the Alexander Palace had 30,382 items, of which 22,628 items – more than two thirds – were recorded as lost or stolen at the end of World War II.

PHOTO: the Alexander Palace surrounded by security fence and barbed wire

Post-war Soviet years 

At the end of the war, the palace was mothballed and in 1946 was handed over to the USSR Academy of Sciences to store the collections of the Institute of Russian Literature and to house the exposition of the All-Union Museum of Alexander Pushkin. Between 1947-1951, restoration work began on the Alexander Palace, during which it was planned to restore the surviving interiors of the plans of the architect Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817), and the surviving fragments of the decoration, as well as to recreate the interiors of the time of Emperors Nicholas I and Nicholas II. However, during the work, many elements of the decoration of the Maple and Rosewood drawing rooms of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, as well as the Moorish Bathroom of Nicholas II were lost. Instead, these interiors were modified according to the project of the Soviet architect Lev Moiseevich Bezverkhny (1908–1963).

‘In 1951, by a government decree, the Alexander Palace was transferred to the Ministry of Defense. The Naval Department used the building as a top-secret, submarine tracking research institute of the Baltic Fleet. As a result, the former palace would be strictly off-limits to visitors for the next 45 years. The Alexander Palace was surrounded by a security fence and barbed wire and closed to the public. Even historians could not gain access inside.

‘The palace’s collection which was among the evacuated items in the Central Repository of Museum Stocks from the Suburban Palace-Museums was transferred to the Pavlovsk Palace Museum. A total of 5,615 items were moved from the palace to Pavlovsk. Of these, nearly 200 pieces were originally from the Alexander Palaces’ three ceremonial halls: the Portrait, Semi-Circular and Marble Halls. These include 39 pieces of porcelain, 41 paintings, 73 decorative bronze pieces, and 28 pieces of furniture.’¹

At the time, no one could have imagined that the Soviet Union would end, so it was just automatically assumed that these items would remain part of the Pavlovsk collection. Most of these items remain at Pavlovsk to this day.

PHOTO: most of the interiors in the “Memories in the Alexander Palace” exhibition,
featured huge floor to ceiling photos depicting the original look of each room,
and served as backdrops, against which items of furniture were displayed

The Post-Soviet years

In 1996, a grant from the World Monuments Fund (WMF) was received for the restoration of the Alexander Palace, and work began to repair the building’s roof.

In 1997, the first museum exposition “Memories in the Alexander Palace” was opened in the east wing of the Alexander Palace. Since almost all the historic interiors of Nicholas II and his family were lost, large floor to ceiling photos depicting the original look of each room, served as backdrops, against which items of furniture were displayed.

In 2009, the Alexander Palace was transferred to the administration of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Reserve. In June 2010, the year marking the 300th anniversary of Tsarskoye Selo, the Portrait, Semi-Circular and Billiard Halls were opened to the public after an extensive restoration.

PHOTO: Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’s dresses on display at Pavlovsk

It is interesting to add, that in 2007, Pavlovsk opened a costume museum in one of the wings of the palace. The permanent exhibit showcases a mere fraction of dresses, hats, gloves, fans, and other personal items of Empresses Maria Feodorovna and Alexandra Feodorovna, as well as Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.

Given that Nicholas II and his family never resided at Pavlovsk, how is it that these items from the wardrobes of the last Imperial family are today part of the Pavlovsk collection? As it turns out, they are among the many thousands of items transferred from the Central Repository of Museum Stocks from the Suburban Palace-Museums in 1951.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and in particular since the restoration of the Alexander Palace, the return of the collection has been a bone of contention between the two palace-museums. During a visit to Pavlovsk several years ago, I raised the subject with one of the Directors at Pavlovsk. “If we return these exhibits to the Alexander Palace, then we [Pavlovsk] will have nothing,” he declared.

Surely, the Pavlovsk Palace State Museum have a moral responsibility to return all of the items to their rightful home? Their history belongs to the Alexander Palace. It seems that the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation Olga Lyubimova will have the final say. Let us hope that she does the right thing, and order the return of these items to the Alexander Palace, where they can be put on display in the rooms from which they originated.

It is interesting to note that during the course of the restoration of the Alexander Palace, which began in 2015, some items which were stolen during the Great Patriotic War have found their way home to the Alexander Palace. In recent years, a number of items have been returned by the descendants of German soldiers who stole from the palace during the Nazi retreat in 1944. Let us hope that their actions set an example to others.

Fifteen interiors situated in the eastern wing of the palace, are now scheduled to open to visitors in 2021. Among the recreated interiors are the New Study of Nicholas II, Moorish Bathroom of Nicholas II, Working Study of Nicholas II, Reception Room of Nicholas II, Pallisander (Rosewood) Living Room, Mauve (Lilac) Boudoir, Alexandra’s Corner Reception Room, the Imperial Bedroom, among others.

In the future, the Alexander Palace will become a memorial museum of the Romanov family – from Catherine the Great to Nicholas II, showcasing the private, domestic life of the Russian monarchs who used the palace as an official residence. The eastern wing of the palace will be known as the Museum of the Russian Imperial Family. The multi-museum complex, which includes the Western wing is scheduled for completion no earlier than 2024.

© Paul Gilbert. 17 January 2021

¹ ‘My Russia. The Rebirth of the Alexander Palace’ by Paul Gilbert. Published in ‘Royal Russia No. 3 (2013), pgs. 1-11

***

Dear Reader: If you enjoy my articles on the history and restoration of the Alexander Palace, then please help support my research by making a donation in US or Canadian dollars to my project The Truth About Nicholas II – please note that donations can be made by GoFundMePayPal, credit cardpersonal check or money order. The net proceeds help fund my work, including research, translations, etc. Thank you for your consideration – PG

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