A residence of the Russian Emperors

For over a hundred years Gatchina was a residence for the Emperors of Russia. During the 19th century its royal owners continued to make improvements to the Palace, its parks and the growing town of Gatchina.

Although during this period no new structures of importance were built in the Gatchina parks, enormous sums were spent on the repair and upkeep of the park’s pavilions and bridges, and on the maintenance of the lakes, ponds, greenery and paths.

A view of the White Lake, Swan Island and the Jordan Well
A view of the White Lake, Swan Island and the Jordan Well
Memorial to Paul I on the parade-ground of Gatchina Palace
Memorial to Paul I on the parade-ground of Gatchina Palace

In the reign of Nicholas I substantial reconstruction was carried out on Gatchina Palace and its parade-ground under the guidance of the talented Russian architect R. I. Kuzmin. In 1851 a bronze statue of Paul I, the work of the sculptor I. Vitali, was unveiled on the parade-ground.

At the same time necessary repair work was carried out in the parks. The wooden bridges on the Island of Love, across the channels of the Water Maze, and near the Cold Bath-house, were replaced by charming iron bridges with open-work railings. A pontoon bridge was built on Long Island. For the parks’ watchmen there appeared small guardhouses “in the Swiss style”, and a new fence was erected around the Sylvia and Menagerie Parks.

In 1868 Alexander II, wishing to perpetuate the memory of the so-called “Gatchina Fleet”, ordered an exact copy to be made of the yacht “Miroliubivaya”, which by that time had fallen into decay. This yacht “plied the waters” of the White Lake for 27 years, until the end of the 19th century.

The royal family. 1898
The royal family. 1898
The royal family.<br>Photograph from before 1917
The royal family.
Photograph from before 1917
The royal family. Photograph from before 1917
The royal family.
Photograph from before 1917

After Paul’s death, his widow Maria Fyodorovna founded a “College of Practical Horticulture” attached to the Gatchina parks, which continued to operate successfully through the 19th century; it was attended by inmates of the Nikolaevsky orphans’ home. After graduating from the college the students worked at Gatchina and in other parks and gardens, including the Botanical Gardens in St. Petersburg.

It was a genuine school of horticulture with its own traditions and continuity; one of its principals was the famous master gardener James Hackett. He had come to Russia from Ireland during the reign of Catherine II when the Gatchina estate was owned by Count Grigory Orlov. For a large part of his life he laboured on the creation of the Gatchina parks and gardens. He died, a venerable old man, in 1833 at the age of ninety-six, bequeathing the sum of 3,000 roubles “for the assistance of the poor and orphans living chiefly in Gatchina”.

The royal family. Photograph from before 1917
The royal family. Photograph from before 1917
The royal family. Photograph from before 1917
The royal family. Photograph from before 1917

In the mid-19th century Gatchina became a favourite place for royal hunting-parties. The most enthusiastic hunter among the Emperors of Russia was Alexander II. One of his tutors judged that hunting would be good physical training for the future sovereign. At the age of eleven he took part in his first bear hunt, and in later years he would never miss a chance to go bear-hunting in winter.

After the death of his father, Nicholas I, Alexander transferred the Court hunting parties from Petersburg to Gatchina. By his order the “Yegerskaya sloboda” (the “hunters’ suburb”) with its wooden houses was specially constructed for his huntsmen. A number of these houses survive to this day.

A splendid menagerie was maintained for the Imperial hunt, including fine, and even rare, specimens of wild animals – for example bison from the Belovezhsky forests.

Watercolour by M. Zichy
Watercolour by M. Zichy
Watercolour by M. Zichy
Watercolour by M. Zichy

Alexander II loved to organise hunts in honour of his foreign guests and to exchange animals with them: “In 1857 His Majesty the King of Prussia sent as a gift to the Emperor four German deer, which by His Majesty’s wishes were placed in the Gatchina menagerie, from which four Siberian deer were taken and sent to Berlin.” In the Gatchina Palace the Arsenal Room and the Bear Staircase were adorned with the Emperor’s numerous hunting trophies.

After the assassination of Alexander II by the terrorists of the “People’s Will”, his son Alexander III hastened to move with his family to Gatchina. Like his great-grandfather Paul, he loved the Gatchina residence, preferring it to all others: “Here I am again in our beloved Gatchina, and you can imagine how delighted I am to escape from the nightmare that is Petersburg,” he wrote in one of his letters to the Empress Maria Fyodorovna. Alexander III lived for long stretches of time at Gatchina, effectively turning it into a small capital of the Russian state. During his thirteen-year reign the appearance of the town was substantially altered.

Plan for the Iron Bridge – A. F. Shperer
Plan for the Iron Bridge – A. F. Shperer
The Black Gate
The Black Gate

In this period the population of the town was considerably increased by the multitude of courtiers, officials, merchants and military officers attached to the royal family. The building next to the Palace, which in Paul’s time had been the stables, now housed the famous regiment of “blue cuirassiers”, whose commander was the Emperor’s consort Maria Fyodorovna.

Alexander was already, in the late 19th century, paying attention to ecological problems. On his orders measures were taken for “the preservation of the lakes in the Imperial park and menagerie from contamination by unclean waters flowing downhill from the town, and also from the unclean waters discharged from the wooden pipes.” As a result a new sewage system was put in place in Gatchina, which continues to operate today. From this time, work commenced on the draining of the parks and the installation of a general water system, starting from the Kolpanskoe lake.

During the reign of Alexander III the Palace Park was brought to “an exemplary state”. Paths, lawns greenery, and almost all the park’s architectural features were subjected to extensive repair and restored to pristine condition. Today the archival documents concerning this work are invaluable historical source material for current restoration operations.

The royal family in the Private Garden
The royal family in the Private Garden
The royal family in the Private Garden
The royal family in the Private Garden

The royal family, their many relatives, and the guests who came to Gatchina often went out walking, riding or driving in the parks. As usual the favourite entertainment was hunting. In winter people would go skiing, drive in sledges, or build snow fortresses; in summer they would go on the lakes in boats or catamarans and catch fish. All their lives Alexander III’s children would remember the New Year and Easter holidays spent in the Gatchina Palace.

A favourite place for the Tsar’s children to play was the Private Garden with its wonderful green corridors, its multitude of paths, sculptures and flower-beds. Towards the end of the 19th century there appeared here a “silent corner of mourning”: under the windows of Alexander III’s private apartments the family’s favourite pets were buried “for their faithfulness to the sovereign and in memory of their animal virtues”.

The memorial to the dog Kamchatka
The memorial to the dog Kamchatka
The memorial to Til
The memorial to Til

Today the gravestones preserve, touchingly, the names of the royal family’s dogs, cats and parrots. Among them are two small granite memorials: one of them commemorates Kamchatka, Alexander III’s favourite sheepdog. The dog was a present to the Emperor from the sailors of the cruiser “Africa”. In the railway accident of 1888, from which the royal family miraculously emerged unharmed, the dog perished. “Among humans I have hardly one true, disinterested friend – indeed, for me there cannot be any: but a dog can be, and Kamchatka was, such a friend,” Alexander wrote sadly at the end of his life.

For the Imperial children, walks with their father through the park were always a real treat: “He wanted us to learn to read the book of Nature as easily as he could himself.” The Tsar taught his children to clear the roads of snow in winter, to uproot and burn withered trees, to find their way home, and to follow the tracks of wild animals.

In Alexander’s study there were always flowers, gathered by his younger children during their walks in the park: simple spring snowdrops, May violets and lilies-of-the-valley, gay camomiles and bluebells – the products of hot summer days. It is no accident that to the end of her days Olga Alexandrovna, the Tsar’s younger daughter, who was a talented artist, loved to paint still-lifes and landscapes with flowers.

The gate at the entrance to the Priory Park
The gate at the entrance to the Priory Park
Ãàò÷èíà. A pond in the Priory Park
A pond in the Priory Park

While the Palace Park was reserved, and scrupulously maintained, for the use of the Imperial family, the Priory Park was opened up to the people of Gatchina for their recreation. For this purpose new alleyways were laid in the park and lined with pines, firs and oaks. In spring and summer the park was full of the sound of birdsong and fragrant with flowers of the forest and meadow. The park’s principal lake, the Black Lake, was cleaned and deepened, the old bathing pavilion was transferred to the Wild, or Dark, Lake, and in its place a boating station was built. To improve the flow of water in the Dark Lake, two “earthen dams with a cast-iron reservoir” were made. Music and musicians often appeared in the park. With Alexander III’s permission the Priory palace was restored and became the accommodation of the singers of the Court chapel. In the evening a wind band would play in the park.

In a commemorative volume produced for the town’s centenary, it is noted that the Priory Park has become “one of the most pleasant corners of Gatchina, attracting large numbers of people for rest and recreation, who during the time of the White Nights do not leave this splendid park until long after midnight.”

Imperial Gatchina. Photograph from before 1917
Imperial Gatchina. Photograph from before 1917
Imperial Gatchina. Photograph from before 1917
Imperial Gatchina. Photograph from before 1917

By the end of the 19th century Gatchina had been transformed into a “lovely and quiet” suburban town. Its inhabitants included famous writers, poets, musicians, artists, who celebrated the town in their works. Among them was the writer Alexander Ivanovich Kuprin, who prided himself on being “an all-Russian inhabitant of Gatchina”. Even when he was far from Russia, he could not forget the image of the “lilac” town of Gatchina: “The lilacs are blooming…violet, white, pink. Gaily blooming in the old Gatchina park. On the water swim ducks and gees, shedding their white feathers. The grass is deep green. The poplars are fragrant…the white nights have begun. And suddenly Gatchina, lately covered with snow and in the grip of the wintry west winds, is transformed into the pleasantest part of the Petersburg region.”