The Emperor’s Musical Preferences: Favourite Performers of Nicholas II

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Design for the Imperial-era curtain of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

In pre-revolutionary Russia, special attention was paid to the musical education of children from noble families. Girls were taught to play music and sing, and boys had to understand music. Naturally, the last Russian emperor Nicholas II was also musically educated. While he could play the piano, he was not fond of playing music and did not sing, even though he understood music, he loved romances and folk songs.

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Varya Vasilyevna Panina (1872-1911)

Varya Panina

In the early twentieth century, gypsy music was in fashion in Russia, and the first star was Varya Panina (1872-1911), whose voice was greatly admired by the famous Russian opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin himself, who often enjoyed the singer’s performances in the fashionable Yar Restaurant in Moscow.

Born into the family of Gypsy horse traders in Moscow, the performer was small in stature, suffered from being overweight, smoked cheap cigarettes and always performed while sitting in a chair, bowing infrequently simply to indulge her audience. However, she possessed outstanding vocal abilities. Famous for her deep contralto voice, Panina became one of the most popular music stars of early 20th century Russia.

In 1902 Varya Panina debuted on stage at the Dvoryanskoye Sobranye (The Gentry Assembly) in St. Petersburg. After her success, she performed only on stage, giving solo concerts, performing Gypsy songs and Russian romances to rapturous response. Among her fans were the poet Alexander Blok, writers Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Kuprin, Anton Chekhov, the artist Konstantin Korovin and members of the Imperial family. 

In 1906, Varvara Panina’s fame had reached the Imperial capital St. Petersburg and it was decided to invite her to the Mariinsky Theater with a solo concert.

The entire Imperial family was present at the concert, and after its completion, Varya Panina was invited to meet Nicholas II. The emperor jokingly chided the performer that his collection had not a single recording of the singer, one which all of Russia listened to. The representative of the Gramophone Company, who was present during the conversation between the tsar and Varya Panina, immediately took note of the tsar’s comment, and shortly thereafter, the emperor was presented with an amazing gift edition, which included 20 recordings of the gypsy singer.

Two songs from the repertoire of Varya Panin which the tsar enjoyed the most were: «Лебединая песня» Swan Song and «Мы были молоды с тобой» We Were Young With You. The words to the last romance were written by Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (1858-1915).

Sadly, the talented performer died very young (age 38) of a heart attack on 28th May 1911, and was buried at the Vagankovo cemetery.

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Nadezhda Vasilyevna Plevitskaya (1884-1940)

Nadezhda Plevitskaya

She was a real prima donna, famous for her Russian folk songs. It was the Minister of the Imperial Court Count Vladimir Fredericks, through whose efforts the singer was invited to perform concerts at the Russian Court. It has been said, that during the performances of Nadezhda Vasilyevna Plevitskaya (1884-1940), Nicholas II sobbed without hesitation, having been so moved while listening to the singers heartfelt compositions about the hard life of the Russian peasants.

Nadezhda Plevitskaya began to sing in Kiev, in the chapel of Alexandra Lipkina, changing her maid’s uniform to a concert dress. The girl, born to a peasant family in the village of Vinnikovo, near Kursk, did not know and had not learnt music, but her vocal talent and  ear for music allowed her to become a professional singer. She performed in Minkevich’s Lapotniki Choir, and then began to sing in the same Yar Restaurant in Moscow, where Varya Panina had achieved her fame.

The famous opera singer Leonid Sobinov heard Plevitskaya in the Naumov Restaurant during the Nizhny Novgorod Fair, and from there helped the performer organize performances at the Moscow Conservatory. Nadezhda Plevitskaya enjoyed incredible popularity, was friends with the famous Russian opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin and actors of the Art Theater.

Through Nicholas II, the performer became known as the “Kursk nightingale”, and the wife of the emperor Alexandra Fedorovna even presented Nadezhda Plevitskaya with a beetle design diamond brooch.

Rising from the bottom, Nadezhda Plevitskaya began to receive very high fees for her performances, and she never refused to help those in need, becoming one of St. Petersburg’s most well-known philanthropists. During World War I, she worked as a nurse in a hospital, after the revolution she emigrated to France, where in 1937 she was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for collaborating with the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) in the Soviet Union, and complicity in the abduction of Yevgeny Miller, the chief plenipotentiary for military and naval affairs under General P.N. Wrangel.

Nadezhda Plevitskaya died in a Rennes prison of a heart ailment on 1 October 1940, during the German occupation.

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Yuri Spiridonovich Morfessi (1882-1949)

Yuri Morfessi

Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin christened Yuri Spiridonovich Morfessi (1882-1949) “the accordion of the Russian song”, while journalists and fans hailed him as: “the prince of the gypsy song”. In the 1910s, Yuri Morfessi was at the peak of his fame, adored by fans, reaping unusually high fees for his performances. The handsome income of the artist allowed him to purchase a luxurious apartment on Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, and open his own restaurant «Уголок» “Corner”.

In the summer of 1914, he performed a private concert on the Imperial yacht Polar Star «Полярная звезда» in the presence of the Imperial family. Nicholas II listened to the singer with undisguised pleasure, and then personally shook hands with Yuri Morfessi, thanking him for his performance.

A month after the performance, the performer was presented with a pair of diamond double-headed eagle cuff-links as a gift of thanks from the Emperor. In 1914, it was planned to invite Morfessi for a three-day guest voyage on the imperial yacht, but these plans were cancelled due to the outbreak of the First World War.

In the fall of 1917, while touring the Far East, Morfessi learned about the coup in Petrograd. He returned to Petersburg, but, after learning about the murder of the tsar and his family the following year, he left for Odessa. It was here, where he opened the Artist’s House and organized performances of famous artists.

In 1920, he emigrated to Europe, where he sang in Paris, Belgrade, and Zagreb. With the outbreak of World War II, he became a member of the concert crew of the Russian Corps, created by Russian emigrants in Yugoslavia. In 1943, he toured Berlin, where he recorded records.

Yuri Morfessi died of a heart attack on 12 July 1949 in Füssen, Bavaria. Obituaries were published in Russian Thought (France) and LDCs (USA). Sadly, the grave of the singer was not preserved..

© Paul Gilbert. 14 January 2020

Seven Letters from the Past

Back in July 2018, the Feodorovsky Sovereign Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo hosted a unique exhibition Seven Letters from the Past timed to the 100th anniversary of the murders of Emperor Nicholas II and his family. 

The highlight of the exhibit were seven portraits of the Imperial family by the St. Petersburg artist Alexander Kondurov. 

The artist depicted the faces and figures of members of the Imperial Family through the mutilated walls of the shooting room of the Ipatiev House, where they were all brutally murdered on 17th July 1918.

Each composition includes a facsimile passage from a letter written by the family member during their captivity in the “House of Special Purpose’ and the outline of a black window frame in which a cross is clearly seen.

Exhibitions showcasing Alexander Kondurovs’ paintings have been held in Russia, USA, Germany, Finland. The artist’s works are in museums and private collections.

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The Murder of the Imperial Family. 2018
by Alexander Kondurov. Private collection

© Paul Gilbert. 13 January 2020

God, Save the Tsar! Боже, Царя храни!

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Imperial Anthem of the Russian Empire

God, Save the Tsar! (Russian: Боже, Царя храни!; transliteration: Bozhe, Tsarya khrani!) was the national anthem of the former Russian Empire. The song was chosen from a competition held in 1833 and was first performed on 18 December 1833. The composer was violinist Alexei Lvov, and the lyrics were by the court poet Vasily Zhukovsky. It was the anthem until the Russian Revolution of 1917, after which Worker’s Marseillaise was adopted as the new national anthem until the overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government.

In 1833, Tsar Nicholas I ordered Count Alexey Fyodorovich Lvov (1799-1870), the violinist and army general who was his court composer and aide-de-camp, to compose new music to replace the air that since 1816 had served as the music for the Russian Empire’s Anthem God Save the Tsar, namely Henry Hugh Carey’s God, Save the King. The lyrics of “God Save the Tsar” (Bozhe Tsarya Khranii) date from 1815 and came from Prayers of the Russian People by Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky (1783-1852), an officer and poet who served as tutor to the Tsesarevich Alexander Nikolayevich, the future Tsar-Liberator Alexander II.

After some initial creative difficulties, the melody that would serve as the anthem of the Russian Empire for the remainder of its existence came to Lvov in the course of a single night’s inspiration; he succeeded in creating a work of majesty and power that was suitable for the army, the church and the people – indeed, for the entire realm. None other than the great Alexander Pushkin himself reworked Zhukovsky’s verses to adapt them to Lvov’s new hymn. It was the first national anthem in Russian history to feature music and lyrics by Russian authors.

Upon hearing its beautiful strains for the first time, Nicholas I ordered the work repeated several times. At the close of the final rendition, the Tsar – a stern and military-minded ruler who was to be vilified by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as the “Gendarme of Europe” for his crushing of the forces of revolution wherever they appeared – clasped the composer’s hand with tears in his eyes and uttered the single word: “Splendid!”

The public premier of God, Save the Tsar took place on 6 December 1833 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, where it was performed by a choir of one hundred singers and two military bands. At Christmas that same year, by the Tsar’s personal order it was performed by military bands in every hall of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. A week later, the Emperor issued a decree declaring the anthem a “civil prayer” to be performed at all parades and official ceremonies. As was the case with the Preobrazhensky March, the most widely-used arrangement for military band of God, Save the Tsar was created by Ferdinand Haase; it was the shortest anthem in the world at eight lines.

During the Coronation of Tsar Alexander II in 1855, Lvov led one thousand singers and two thousand musicians in a rendition of God Save the Tsar, the first performance of the anthem at a coronation. As Lvov directed the choir and orchestra, he, by means of galvanic batteries, set off forty-nine cannons, one by one, sometimes on the beat. At the conclusion, hundreds of Roman candles and rockets soared into the sky.

God, Save the Tsar! remained the Russian Empire’s national hymn until the February Revolution of 1917.

Sources: Brandenburg Historica; Scenarios of Power (Wortman, Richard S.)

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LYRICS

Русский

Боже, Царя храни!
Сильный, державный,
Царствуй на славу, на славу нам!

Царствуй на страх врагам,
Царь православный!
Боже, Царя храни!

English translation

God, save the Tsar!
Strong, sovereign,
Reign for glory, For our glory!

Reign to foes’ fear,
Orthodox Tsar.
God, save the Tsar!

Below, are a selection of videos which present a variety of renditions of God, Save the Tsar! Боже, Царя храни!, performed by Russian Orthodox and professional choir ensembles – courtesy of YouTube:

1. Beautiful rendition of God, Save the Tsar! with vintage newsreels of the Imperial family. Duration: 2 minutes, 38 seconds

2. Performed by the Kuban Cossack Choir. Duration: 1 minute, 38 seconds

3. Performed by the Mikhailovsky Theatre Orchestra and Choir. Duration: 1 minute, 46 seconds

4. Performed by Varya Strizhak. Duration: 3 minutes, 19 seconds

5. Performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, and the State Academic Choir. Duration: 2 minutes, 33 seconds

6. Performed by the Alexander Nevsky Lavra Choir. Duration: 2 minutes, 10 seconds

7. Performed by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Duration: 1 minute, 4 seconds

8. Performed by the Columbia Military Band in 1914. Duration: 3 minutes, 16 seconds

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© Paul Gilbert. 11 January 2020

 

 

 

Olga Taratynova on the restoration of the Alexander Palace

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Director of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Olga Taratynova

According to the Director of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Olga Taratynova, historic documents and photographs have been extremely useful resources for restorers in the recreation of the private apartments of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in the Alexander Palace.

In the summer of 2020, eight rooms located on the first floor of the east wing of the Alexander Palace will open to visitors – the result of almost five years of work. The building was seriously damaged not so much from the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), but as a result of the destruction of the palace during the Soviet years. Experts are currently attempting to restore the interiors as close to their historic original as possible.

As Olga Taratynova, noted during a recent interview with The Art Newspaper Russia, almost 90% of the private apartments of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna will be recreated. The scrupulous use of all available iconographic material has been utilized to aid restorers to bring the project to fruition. “It was decided to restore the interiors as they looked at the beginning of the 20th century,” said Olga Taratynova. “We hope that the Alexander Palace will become as popular as the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo.”

The Alexander Palace was commissioned by the Empress Catherine II in the early 1790s for her beloved grandson, Tsearevich and Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovich (the future emperor Alexander I), by the architect Giacomo Quarenghi. In 1905, Nicholas II made the palace his permanent residence, and it was then that the interiors underwent major changes – they were adapted for life in accordance with the fashion of their time, sadly little of the early 20th century interiors have been preserved.

In August, immediately after the Imperial Family were sent into exile to Tobolsk, the famous art historian Georgy Lukomsky took numerous photographs of the interiors – black and white and color, the so-called auto-chromes. These along with newsreels taken during the Soviet years, have provided restorers the basic material for their work.

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The eastern wing will house the Museum of the Russian Imperial Family in the Alexander Palace

Not long after the departure of the Imperial Family for Siberia, a museum was established within the Alexander Palace. It operated until the beginning of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). From 1951, the Ministry of Defence occupied the building until 2009, when the palace was transferred to the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserve.

In the autumn of 2015, the palace was completely closed for restoration. The project of reconstruction, technical re-equipment and adaptation was the studio of Nikita Yavein Studio 44, the general contractor was LLC PSB ZhilStroy.

According to the Chief Architect of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Maria Ryadova, the project for reconstructing the interiors had to be adjusted after the Lukomsky autochromes were acquired for the museum at an auction in Paris in 2012. “When we saw these colour photographs, we saw for the first time, exactly how the apartments actually looked in 1917,” said Maria Ryadova. “Unfortunately, the ceiling lights and floors were not visible in them, therefore, we left them the way they were.”

Aside from the numerous photographs of the interiors, were the preserved albums with samples of fabrics for decorating walls and furniture. This made it possible to recreate the upholstery as accurately as possible. The room-by-room inventories made by Vsevolod Yakovlev, the keeper of the palace, have also survived to this day. Restorers had many doubts about the Moorish Bathroom of Nicholas II (after the military vacated the palace in 2009, only the plastered walls remained). But when work began on the room, excavation of the floor revealed fragments of ceramics. A vintage Soviet newsreel showed the general appearance of the room. As a result, the interior of this room has been restored in all its beauty and with historical authenticity.

The first eight rooms are now scheduled to open to visitors in the summer of 2020. A total of 14 rooms will be restored in the eastern wing of the Alexander Palace, which will be known as the Museum of the Russian Imperial Family in the Alexander Palace. All work in the palace will be completed by 2022.

Click HERE to review 14 additional articles on the history and restoration of the Alexander Palace, which include a total of 110 photos + 2 videos

© Paul Gilbert. 5 January 2020

Street in Crimea named in honour of Nicholas II

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A street leading to the Livadia Palace has been named in honour of Emperor Nicholas II. It is the first street in Russia named in honour of Russia’s last sovereign.

No. 1 Nicholas II Street is home to the Embassy of the Russian Empire, a multimedia project that features three exhibitions: Crimea in the fate of Russia; Nicholas II Living Pictures and The Holy Warriors of Russia.

Construction on Livadia Palace began on 21 January 1910, and after 17 months of construction, the palace was inaugurated on 11 September 1911. Emperor Nicholas II spent about 4 million gold rubles on the palace.

The Imperial family visited Livadia in the fall of 1911 and 1913 and in the spring of 1912 and 1914.

© Paul Gilbert. 5 January 2019

The End of Royal Russia

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Please take a moment to review my new professional page,
which includes photos, a video and links

After 25+ years, Royal Russia is no more. I have permanently closed my Royal Russia web site and news blog. My Royal Russia Facebook page will automatically be deleted on 12th January. I will, however, continue to publish my popular semi-annual journal Royal Russia.

I will now be devoting my time and resources to the full-time study of the life, reign and era of Russia’s last emperor and tsar. You can follow my research on my ‘Nicholas II’ blog, and my personal Facebook page. I will also continue to publish my semi-annual journal Sovereign as well as new book titles.

My blog ‘Nicholas II. Emperor. Tsar. Saint’ received more than 70,000 hits in 2019. I will continue to post articles and news from Russian media sources throughout 2020.

I am also looking forward to hosting the 2nd International Nicholas II Conference on Saturday 15th May 2021, at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York.

Thank you to each and every one of you who have followed and supported me and my work over the past 25 years. Today marks the beginning of the next page of my personal journey, please join me!

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© Paul Gilbert. 3 January 2020

 

New outdoor portrait of Nicholas II appears in Serbia’s capital

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Another monumental portrait image of Tsar Nicholas II has appeared in the Serbian capital of Belgrade

With the blessing of Archpriest Vladimir Levichanin, the image of Nicholas II has been painted on the wall of the parish house of the Church of St. George the Great Martyr, located on Voyvodzhanskaya Street in New Belgrade.

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The tradition of historical murals and street art is popular in the Serbian capital, but this is the first such case that an image of such a high artistic style has appeared on a building belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

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The creator of the portrait is the famous Belgrade artist Milan Milosavljevich, who wanted to donate his work to the church, in which he could portray Emperor Nicholas II, who is especially revered in Serbia. One of the initiators of the project is the Serbian book publisher Nikola Drobnyakovich.

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Currently, there is Tsar Nicholas II Street in Belgrade, and in the very center of the city there is a majestic monument to the last Russian emperor and patron of the Serbian people.

© Paul Gilbert. 2 January 2020

Early 20th century photos of Nicholas II

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Sovereign Emperor Nicholas II, during a photo session – 1903
Photo © State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) 

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Sovereign Emperor Nicholas II, during a photo session – 1903
Photo © State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) 

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Sovereign Emperor Nicholas II, during a photo session – 1903
Photo © State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) 

© Paul Gilbert. 31 December 2019

The sad state of the Imperial Railway Pavilion in Tsarskoye Selo

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Current state of the Imperial Railway Pavilion near the Alexander Palace, Tsarskoye Selo

Over the past 25+ years, I have written numerous articles on the Imperial Railway Pavilion in Tsarskoye Selo. Among these, have been news updates from Russian media sources on proposals to restore this historic building, sadly, none of which have seen the light of day.

Meanwhile, the Imperial Railway Pavilion has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate. This of course is in part due to the elements, vandalism, but also from sheer neglect.

During my many visits to Tsarskoye Selo over the years, I have visited the pavilion on a number of occasions, only to have my spirits dampened on each successive visit by its ongoing neglect and deterioration.

On one such visit, a door had been broken open, and I ventured inside to explore the interior. I was shocked by what I saw. Graffiti all over the walls, garbage strewn throughout, including empty vodka and beer bottles. The smells were equally offensive. The interiors were being used by local drug addicts and thugs, who not only used it as a public toilet, but also lit fires, charring the walls and ceilings in the process. I took many photographs as evidence of what I saw. The only light came through what remained of the windows, the darkness cast shadows, and I entered each room with trepidation, fearing what or who might be lurking in the shadows.

The pavilion is now completely surrounded with a fence, all the doors and windows sealed – as seen in the photo above – to prevent any further trespassing and acts of vandalism.

Can the Imperial Railway Pavilion be saved?

In July 2019, Channel 5 News (St. Petersburg), reported that a decision by the regional government would allow the lease on historical buildings for the price of just one ruble per square meter. Among the list of seven structures was the former Imperial Railway Pavilion in Tsarskoye Selo.

The investor would be responsible for the reconstruction of the Imperial Railway Station, with a 49 year lease. Some developers suggested using the historic building as a hotel, shopping center, or restaurant. Any of these proposals would further (negatively) affect the historic integrity of this architectural monument, therefore, let us pray that none of these ideas come to fruition!

Given its proximity to the Alexander Palace of one and a half kilometres, it would be both fitting and logical that the pavilion should be turned over to the administration of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserve (GMVZ), who have shown a high degree of professionalism in the restoration of damaged building dating from the Tsarist period. For instance, they are about to begin the restoration of the Chinese Theatre, which is in a far worse state than the Imperial Railway Pavilion.

If they could get financial backing from the Ministry of Culture, the GMVZ could breath new life back into the pavilion. Drawings have been preserved of the interiors, including the magnificent wall and ceiling paintings, which have almost disappeared. One idea, would be to create a museum dedicated to the history of the Imperial Railway, which opened during the reign of Nicholas I, and include a permanent exhibition dedicated to the luxurious Imperial Train of Russia’s last emperor. 

A shocking state of neglect and disrepair 

The following photographs taken by St. Petersburg historian and guide Roman Venezin, depict the interiors of the Imperial Railway Pavilion, as they looked in 2014. Please bear in mind that these photographs were taken five years ago, and the building and its once magnificent interiors have deteriorated even further. 

A brief history of the Imperial Railway Pavilion

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The original Imperial Pavilion was constructed of wood in 1895, however, it was destroyed by fire on 25th January 1911. A new stone pavilion designed by architect V.A. Pokrovsky, was constructed in the same Neo-Russian style as the buildings of the nearby Feodorovsky Gorodok. It was here that the Emperor greeted many foreign dignitaries. A special road was laid from the station to the Alexander Palace.

The richly decorated interiors were stylized as chambers with heavy stone vaults. The rich decoration of the facades and interiors corresponded to the grand presentation of the station, being an example of a synthesis of architecture, monumental painting and decorative art, which successfully combined the forms of ancient Russian architecture of the 17th century. with construction technologies and materials characteristic of the modern era.

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The imperial chambers of the station were painted by the artist M. I. Kurilko, reflecting the chambers of the beloved suburban palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich.

During the First World War 1914-1917. The Tsar’s pavilion was used to transfer the wounded soldiers with special ambulance trains to hospitals deployed in Tsarskoye Selo (there were more than 60 of them). In 1918, the station was renamed the Uritsky Pavilion, and was closed in the middle of the 20th century. The pavilion was badly damaged during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). 

© Paul Gilbert. 29 December 2019