CLICK on the IMAGE above to watch a VIDEO about the Imperial Apartments
in the Winter Palace. Duration: 12 minutes, 53 seconds. English subtitles
Please note that this article focuses on specific interiors of Emperor Nicholas II’s private apartments in the Winter Palace, it is part of a larger publishing project I am currently working on, that will feature a more comprehenvive study of this Imperial residence during the reign of Russia’s last Tsar – PG
On his accession, Nicholas II was keen to return to the Winter Palace residence in the capital. The palace architect, Alexander Feodorovich Krasovsky (1848-1918), was entrusted with creating private rooms for the Emperor and his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna. In December 1895 they moved into the Winter Palace and lived there permanently in the winter. Following the events of Bloody Sunday [22nd January (O.S. 9th) 1905], the Imperial Family moved to the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, visiting the Winter Palace only for formal ceremonies, banquets and receptions.
Receptions and balls became rare events. The most famous ball held in the Winter Palace during the reign of Russia’s last Tsar was the luxurious Costume Ball, held in two stages on 11th and 13th February 1903. All the visitors dressed in bejeweled 17th-century style costumes. Nicholas II wore the costume of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676); while the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna wore the costume of his first wife Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna Miloslavskaya (1624-1669).
It was in 1897, that Emperor Nicholas II approved the project for a new colour of the facades of the Winter Palace. A brick-red hue was chosen, to match the red sandstone colour of the new fence of Her Majesty’s Own Garden. The Emperor’s decision was carried out in 1901 after the construction of the fence of the garden was completed.
PHOTO: view of the north-western corner block of the Winter Palace and Her Majesty’s Own Garden. The door in the center is the Saltykov Entrance, which led to the personal apartments of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, located on the 2nd floor
The personal apartments of Nicholas II and his wife were created in the second floor of the north-western corner block, beyond the Malachite Room that was among the state rooms of the palace whose historical appearance was preserved. The rooms which Alexander Bryullov (1798-1877) had decorated for Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860) in 1838-39, were converted for Russia’s last Emperor and Empress.
The rooms were a self-enclosed complex, a separate apartment, designed to embody the young couple’s domestic ideal, a cosy, welcoming home. The Emperor’s diaries show that they both devoted much attention to the fitting out of their new apartments. Many of the rooms belonging to Nicholas II were small, narrow, dark and awkward in design, especially the Emperor’s narrow study.
Krasovsky, showed himself to be a master with immense erudition and superb taste. The combination of brilliant historical stylization with Moderne (Art Nouveau) elements made the apartments of the last Russian Emperor’s family a unique work of art. Each room that Krasovsky created was an elegant paraphrasing of the style of a particular historical era.
The second enfilade overlooked the Admiralty, which included the Imperial Bedroom, Nicholas II’s Study, the Gothic Library, the Billiard Room, Nicholas II’s private bath, a drawing room, lavatory and a small Checkpoint at the Saltykov staircase. A private garden was created beneath the windows of the Imperial apartments on the site of a former parade ground, surrounded by a high wall topped with decorative iron-grille railings.
PHOTO: view of the Imperial Bedroom
PHOTO: the bed which Nicholas and Alexandra shared, and the icon case
The Imperial Bedroom featured an alcove highlighted by two white stucco columns. The walls were decorated with cretonne, a heavy English cotton fabric featuring red flowers and green leaves. The wall panels and furniture were made of Karelian birch.
A small living room was created in front of a large folding screen which separated it from the alcove. It featured a number of pieces of furniture, including a comfortable sofa and chairs. In addition, where wicker furniture for the children. Alexandra Feodorovna spent many hours here, relaxing on the sofa with a book or needlework, while her children played nearby.
In the alcove, separated from the rest of the room by a folding screen was a large bed – unlike most sovereigns of the day, Nicholas II and his wife shared a bedroom. A large folding icon case – covered with icons – was situated against one wall.
PHOTOS: two views of Emperor Nicholas II’s Study
Nicholas II’s Study was arranged in the English Gothic style, decorated with oak. The beauty of the wood was enhanced by the matte surface of the upper part of the walls, painted in an oak colour and the rich green and yellow silk draperies which decorated the double-windows of the interior. The wall between the two arches was decorated with a huge fireplace, the upper part decorated with coloured tiles.
All the details of the interior and the furniture were enhanced with Gothic-style carvings. An important element in in this interior was the Gothic fireplace embellished with griffons and lions, heraldic figures from the arms of the Romanov House and the Hesse-Darmstadt House, to which the Empress belonged.
The Emperor’s desk was decorated with small busts of his grandfather Emperor Alexander II and great-grandfather Nicholas I, and numeroud framed family photographs. The walls were decorated with portraits of Nicholas II’s ancestors. In another part of room stood a piano, which the Imperial couple often played four hands. In the evenings, after returning from the theater, they often had dinner in front of the fireplace.
PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II’s bath, located next to his Study
A large marble bath was installed next to the Emperor’s Study, behind the lavatory and the Checkpoint. A small staircase connected to the Emperor’s dressing room and his Valet’s room. The pool was a rectangular recess with a marble staircase of 9 steps.
In 1898, the size of the pool was increased to a size of 387 [152 in.] x 385 cm [151 in.] and a depth of 159 cm [63 in.]. The architect, Nikolai Ivanovich Kramskoy (1865-1938), who carried out the renovation managed to preserve the original marble wall cladding and frieze design seen in the photo above.
PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II’s Gothic Library
The Gothic library was the largest room of the suite refurbished for Nicholas II by Krasovsky, who used the same English medieaval style used in the Emperor’s Study. The two-tiered interior, which included the ceiling, the bookcases, the stairs and upper gallery were trimmed with wax-polished walnut. They were decorated with ornaments characteristic of the Gothic style. The walls between the cabinets and the upper gallery were covered with embossed leather. This magnificent decoration was made at the worskhop of Nikolai Fedorovich Svirsky (1851-1915) – supplier to His Majesty’s Imperial Court.
A huge white stone fireplace, reminiscent of a Gothic portal with a frieze dominated the interior. Nicholas and Alexandra liked to spend their evenings reading in front of the fireplace.
Furniture was made in the Gothic style, according to Nabokov’s drawings, which included several tables, the Emperor’s desk in front of the fireplace, chairs and a lectern. A unique smoking table, decorated with gold and diamonds, with a well stocked selection of cigarettes and cigars was a unique addition. In this interior, reminiscent of a medieval hall, the Emperor often received officials.
Emperor Nicholas II’s Billiard Room
Nicholas II, like many of his predecessors and relatives loved billiards. Sometimes he played a game or two with his adjutant wing on duty, whose post was in the adjoining Reception Room.
The interior of the Billiard Room was designed in the Neo-Classical style. The doors were framed in the form of portals with pilasters topped with a entablature and acroterium. The classic styled white marble fireplace was decorated with a frieze depicting cupids in chariots. Wall panels, doors and furniture were made of polished mahogany and decorated with copper inserts. Paintings and vases collected by Nicholas II during his Far Eastern journey in 1891-92, decorated the walls and shelves. The parquet floor from the Pompeian Dining Room, created by Alexander Pavlovich Bryullov (1798-1877) in 1838-39, was transferred to this interior.
PHOTO: the Small Dining Room
Formerly known as the Pompeian Dining Room, the Small Dining Room was redecorated in 1894–95, by Krasovsky. A rococo plaster-work style was chosen to frame 18th-century St Petersburg tapestries. It was in this room, that Nicholas and Alexandra and their guests gathered for meals. The crystal chandelier was made in England in the 1760s, it was electrified during Nicholas II’s reign.
The hands of the clock on the mantle [seen on the far wall in the photo above] are stopped at 2.10, the time when the ministers of the Provisional Government were arrested in this room, during the early morning hours on 26th October 1917.
The Winter Palace had been the seat of the Provisional Government since July 1917. It’s leader Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) wasted little time in acquisitioning the Emperor’s Gothic Library for his own personal use.
Following the Government’s arrest in the Small Dining Room, an eyewitness account records a systematic destruction of the apartments by the Bolsheviks:
“The Palace was pillaged and devastated from top to bottom by the Bolshevik[s]…Priceless pictures were ripped from their frames by bayonets. Packed boxes of rare plate and china…were broken open and the contents smashed or carried off. The library….was forced open and ransacked…..the Tsaritsa’s salon, like all other rooms, was thrown into chaos. The colossal crystal lustre, with its artfully concealed music, was smashed to atoms. Desks, pictures, ornaments—everything was destroyed.”
On 30th October 1917 the Military Revolutionary Committee of the government of the Russian Republic declared the palace “a state museum on a par with the Hermitage”. The palace was given over to the administration of the museum in 1922. In 1923 a programme was initiated under the direction of the architect Alexander Vladimirovich Sivkov (1890-1968) to convert the palace ensemble into a museum complex. This programme included the reconstruction of the Winter Palace that in the post-revolutionary period became known as the Palace of the Arts.
For a brief period following the revolution, the private apartments were open to the public to display the life of the former rulers, as this was the area of the palace where entry had been gained by the revolutionaries, and as a consequence, much had been destroyed so it is hard to know how accurate the depiction of the imperial private lives could have been.
In time the state rooms of the former imperial residence came to be used for exhibitions, while the living rooms and service premises were converted into display rooms, losing their decorations. In 1926, the “Historical Rooms of Emperor Nicholas II” were closed, dismantled and given over to exhibition use.
The only historic interiors which have survived from the time of Nicholas II are the Gothic Library and the Small Dining Room. Sadly, the remaining interiors have not survived and today we only have photographs, architect’s drawings and archive documents which preserve the memory of the former private apartments of Russia’s last emperor and tsar.
© Paul Gilbert. 30 August 2022
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