The Imperial summer retreat that never was: a grandiose project that consumed resources for decades, only to be aborted as it neared fruition.

Pictures by Joost Lemmens

Heading eastward from the Tsaritsyno station of the Moscow underground, passing under the railway bridge and right around a building site and a fire station, Tsaritsyno's ruins loom on the hilltop beyond the ponds, straight ahead.

Usadba Large Bridge Dry Ravine Dry Ravine Third Kavalerskiy Building Church of Saint Nicholas Octahedron Palace Administration Bread House Bread Gate Great Palace Patterned Bridge Small Palace Opera House Patterned Gate Belvedere Artificial Ruin Nerastankino Temple of Ceres Small Pond Causeway Tsaritsyno Pond Tsaritsyno Pond

In the 16th century, Tsarina Irina, the wife of Tsar Fyodor Ivanovitch and sister of Tsar Boris Godunov, had an estate here, which was then called Bogorodskoye (“Place of the Mother of God”). In the 17th century the area was the property of the boyar family Streshnev, and later of the Princes Golitsyn. In 1712 Peter the Great gave it as a present to Moldavian Prince Sergei Kantemir. When Catherine first saw the place, then named Chornaya Gryaz (Black Mud) in 1775, it was a paradise. She stayed in the existing estate for most of the summer and autumn, together with her lover, Georgy Potyomkin. Finally she bought the place for 25,000 roubles and called it Tsaritsyno Selo (Tsarina's Village).

Envisaging an estate to match her glorious summer palaces outside St. Petersburg, she commissioned the brilliant architect Vasily Bazhenov (1737-1799), to design a suitable country residence for her. His plan specified a park with pavilions in the Moorish-Gothic style then fashionable in Europe, with adjoining palaces for the Empress and her son Paul.

After Catherine had approved his designs, he increasingly came up against financial difficulties. Bills were not paid from St. Petersburg and hiring builders to complete the job when there was no money on hand to pay them proved too much for Bazhenov. Under stress and with his health impaired, he even ran into debt and had to sell one of his wife's properties to help finance the work.

In 1785 Catherine reappeared in Moscow, ominously not going straight to Tsaritsino, which had just been completed against all the odds, but staying up the road at Kolomenskoye, which she had never liked. When she pitched up at Tsaritsyno at 10 o'clock in the evening, she did something both uncharacteristic and unexpected: Without a word of explanation she ordered the central part of the architectural ensemble to be pulled down.

It has been conjectured that one of the main reasons for her dissatisfaction concerned Bazhenov's involvement with Freemasonry, of which Catherine had become increasingly suspicious. Were his entrancing white stone decorations on the redbrick gothic base secret Masonic symbols?

Furthermore, Bazhenov had designed a country estate fit for the enlightened monarch who had once considered that, after awakening innate reason and the natural goodness of her subjects, it would be possible to establish the Golden Age of civilisation in Russia. On Bazhenov's Tsaritsyno, with its collection of small ornate palaces in their wooded setting, were imprinted the utopian illusions that she once harboured. However, by the time Catherine saw the fruits of Bazhenov's labours, she increasingly felt that the Russian throne was being threatened by the liberal ideas and secrecy associated with the Masonic Lodges. She needed a residence that expressed the stability and power of the throne.

In 1786 Matvei Kazakov, the architect behind Moscow University, the Petrovsky Palace and the Kremlin Senate House, was commissioned to build a new palace. In place of the three smaller ones that Catherine so disliked, he designed a single palatial residence, albeit in much the same gothic style.

Its construction continued until 1793, yet the palace was left unfinished because of financial problems caused by the war with Turkey. After the Empress's death in 1796 Tsaritsyno was abandoned to the elements.

In 1984 a museum was established at the site. Since then, efforts have been made at restoring some of the buildings.

Paterned Bridge

Approaching over a causeway across the Tsaritsyno Ponds, one passes beneath the Patterned Bridge (Figurniy Most), which spans a cleft in the hillside. Built of pinkish brick, it bristles with white stone Pinnacles and Gothic arches, Rosicrucian blooms and Maltese Crosses.

 Patterned Bridge 

Clockwise from Northwest of the palace courtyard lie a derelict guardhouse called the Third Kavalerskiy Building, the newly restored nineteenth-century Church of St. Nicholas, the Octahedron or servants quarters, and the Palace Administration.

Church of St. Nicholas

 Church of St. Nicholas 

Large Bridge

Except for the church – alternatively called the ‘Church of the Mother of God the Source of Life’ – they are all Bazhenov's work, like the Large Bridge across the ravine beyond.

 Large Bridge 

Bread Gate (Great Palace on left)

Continuing south from the palace courtyard you'll reach the ornamental Bread Gate (Khlebniy Vorota), between Bazhenovs monolithic Bread House (Khlebniy Dom) or kitchens, and Kazakovs imposing Great Palace (Bolshoy Dvorets).

 Bread Gate 

Great Palace

In the 19th century its roof tiles and beams were purloined by a local factory, leaving a two-storey shell, crumbling and weed-choked.

 Great Palace 

Passing its twin wings, which stretch for 130 metres, replete with flustered corner turrets and rows of pointed arches, one may head south, away from the semicircular Small Palace built for Gentlemen-in-Waiting...

Great Palace (left) and Small Palace (right)

 Great & Small Palace 

Patterned Gate, with Opera House in background

... to the fantastically carved Opera House (Operniy Dom, near the Patterned Gate (Figurniy Vorota), a turreted Gothic arch that forms the entrance to the park.

 Patterned Gate 

Continuing southwards into the park one finds a Classical Belvedere overlooking the pond, followed by an artificial Ruin such as was fashionable in the late 18th century.

Artificial Ruin

 Artificial Ruin 

Here, the path turns east to slip by two more follies in the woods on the right, cryptically named Nerastankino and the Temple of Ceres. Like the Belvedere, these were both added to the park by Ivan Yegotov in 1803, when there was a brief revival of interest in Tsaritsyno.

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