Sankt Pieter Burkh
“St. Petersburg is Russian—but it is not Russia.”
— Nicholas II, the last Czar
St. Petersburg exists because of one man—Peter the Great, Tsar of All the Russias (1682-1725), who on May 27, 1703 founded the city he initially called “Sankt Pieter Burkh,” in honor of his apostolic patron saint.
By 1712, Peter made his city the capital of the Russian empire, which spanned continents and multiple time zones. By the time he died in 1725, Peter’s new port city had 40,000 inhabitants and was set to become a major seafaring power like Holland, a country the young tsar admired.
A critical successor to Peter the Great and all he had set into motion was Catherine II (1729-1796). She had no legitimate right to the throne of Russia, but her ingenious way with people thrust her to power. The poet Pushkin said about her: “Her brilliance blinded, her friendliness attracted, and generosity attached.” The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), with whom Catherine the Great corresponded for years, called her “The Star of the North.” Many consider the time of Catherine the Great’s rule to have been the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.
Catherine the Great is remembered for many innovations, among them the founding of the Hermitage Museum, which was opened for the public in 1852.
This museum houses 3.5 million artistic/cultural exhibits in five magnificent buildings, including the iconic 3-story, green-and-white Baroque Winter Palace.
Its only rival is the Louvre in Paris.
It would take about 9 years even to glance at each of the objects on display in the Museum’s thousand rooms. Among its riches, the Hermitage collection contains forty Rubenses, twenty-five Rembrandts, more than twenty Van Dycks, two of the ten or twelve authenticated paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, along with dozens of paintings by Italian Renaissance geniuses such as Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and Fra Filippo Lippi.
The art that Peter the Great bought for his personal enjoyment while traveling in Europe formed the base of the collection. Then Catherine the Great and her successors added to Peter’s treasures by acquiring entire private collections from European monarchs, aristocrats, and auctions. When Nicholas II, the last tsar, ascended the throne in 1894, he inherited the greatest art collection in Europe.
The St. Petersburg area teems with palaces. One of my favorites is Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, just fifteen miles outside of St. Petersburg.
Once inside Catherine Palace, we seemed to float through an array of stately rooms. Most dramatic was the Amber Room, sometimes called the “eighth wonder of the world.”
It contains amazing quantities of magnificent inlaid amber (dried resin from prehistoric trees) in warm hues: every variation of yellow, ranging from shadowy topaz to vivid lemon.
Under the reign of Friederich I, between 1701 and 1709, this room of singular beauty was created in Berlin for the city’s extravagant Charlottenburg Palace.
In my book 7½ Places of Wonder, I recount the rather charming story of how it fell into Peter the Great’s hands and made its way to St. Petersburg.
By June of 1941, when the German Wehrmacht bulldozed its way across the Soviet Union toward St. Petersburg, the Amber Room had found sanctuary in Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Sela.
The advancing Nazi armies knew that and were determined to reclaim this one-time German art treasure.
As the Wehrmacht neared Tsarskoe Sela, Catherine Palace curators scrambled to spirit its contents to safety, but many prized objects were left behind, among them the Amber Room. To complicate the crisis, curators who were to secure remaining treasures were unexpectedly reassigned to support municipal defenses. One recorded in her diary: “We carry out the work of guards, office workers, cleaners.”
With the Wehrmacht nearly within earshot, the curators decided that their only recourse was to try to mislead the Nazis by hiding the amber panels in situbehind fake walls covered with ordinary wallpaper. But the Nazis found the panels and within thirty-six hours had dismantled them. Soon they were shipped to Königsberg in East Prussia and displayed for a time.
Then these coveted panels disappeared. Of the many theories about the disappearance, our Russian guide favored the view that the Amber Room was probably destroyed in 1944, when Königsberg Castle was bombed in Allied air raids.
In the 1980s the Amber Room was reconstructed by Russian craftsmen, using black-and-white photographs and staff recollections.