by Elina Mishuris
Pavlovsk, a small town about half an hour away from St. Petersburg by train, doesn’t look scorched. There are no bullet holes in its walls and, while the farms are shabby, the fortifications of residential homes are new. Having sprung up in the early ‘90s due to newly acquired funds—thanks to perestroika and the black market economy— many of these dream homes have taken over the land, as if growing from the ground after a heavy summer rain.
The houses are grandiose, with varying architectural styles encroaching upon one another from floor to floor. These mansions are similar to the two summer homes that were built for Pavel, son of Catherine the Great, and his wife, Maria Feodorovna, in what would become the vast landscape of the Pavlovsk Park. The mansions would merge, melt, and reemerge to become the Palace. And Pavel would emerge to become tsar just as his mother died.
When I last visited the park’s gravel paths 10 years ago, it was peaceful, quiet, and calm. There were no tourists and no snack stands. The conflicting styles of the Palace, like the surrounding mansions, had less to do with the owners than with their respective social statuses—there was old and new nobility.
From the vokzal (train station) at one of the Park’s entrances, the park opens up with roads and an enormous wooded expanse. Black and white birches, firs, creeping mosses, mushrooms, spontaneous lakes, pools, and the Slavyanka River make up the grounds.
The farmers from the outskirts of the park often bring their herds in to graze. This isn’t allowed, but in Russia, a blind eye is a friendly eye.
The most treasured elements are the monuments. One has the privilege of seeing The Twelve Roads, which appears through a clearing in the woods, and the nine Muses that surround a replica of Apollo. A full amphitheater, half-covered with moss, also sits on the bank of the Slavyanka. To the left of the theater, the Peel Tower stands tall. The pale, pointed roof structure depicts a perfect pastoral picture from lands far west.
Russia and this fabled, exalted, demonized west, have always had rather strained relations. Western art and culture abounds in this park that bears a distinctly British landscape. The look clashes with the inexhaustible Russian nature: brutal in its expanse and not tamed, but rather shaped to a certain precision. The Palace embraces clean lines as well as ornate works; its halls are full of ticking clocks and galleries, velvet ropes, and hushed visitors who wear tiny plastic slippers so not to scuff the floors.
The Communists opened the Palace as a museum years ago, right after the Revolution. The Nazis invaded and torched it, but after the war, it was promptly rebuilt.
The first time the Palace burned was in 1803, after which another batch of Europeans and Russians rebuilt it. The house across the street from the blue monstrosity we rented was never finished. Instead, it was gutted as if by a fire, but only because the money dried up.
Pavlovsk isn’t concerned. If it can rely on anything, it is the durability of history and culture.