Speed Kills!

The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

Russia’s emperors and empresses were forever tinkering with their homes, but few had greater consequences than Tsar Nicholas I’s decision to alter the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Nicholas was a great architectural patron, establishing the Committee for Construction and Hydraulic Works to oversee public and private building in the capital and taking an active interest in numerous projects. In 1833, he commissioned renowned architect August de Montferrand to redesign several staterooms, the Field Marshall’s Hall and the Small Throne Room in the riverside palace. In addition to the commission, the tsar gave the Frenchman an absolutely killer deadline.

Tsar Nicholas I.

Tsar Nicholas I–man in a hurry.

Four years later, on December 17, 1837, with renovation continuing at a frantic pace, soot inflammation triggered a fire that shot through some boarded-up chimneys and ignited the dry, highly polished floors and oil-painted fretwork. It spread slowly at first, but eventually broke through the roof of the Peter the Great Hall. Quick-thinking staff and palace guards hauled heavy furniture and other treasures into snowy Palace Square while word of the fire was dispatched to the emperor who was enjoying a night of theater. Nicholas wisely ordered destruction of the three passages connecting the palace to the adjacent Hermitage housing the Romanovs’ vast art collection. It was a timely move that kept that building and its priceless contents from destruction. The fire continued for three days, consuming much of the lavish interior and casting a glow seen from as far away as 45 miles. When the last flames were extinguished, the palace claimed no casualties, but eyewitnesses reported at least thirty guardsmen had lost their lives.

Fire glow was visible as far away as 45 miles.

Fire glow was visible as far away as 45 miles.

Blame for the disaster naturally fell on Montferrand, who claimed the tsar’s impossible deadline had necessitated such shortcuts as using wood where stone was a safer choice. Ignoring the lesson that haste had made waste, as well as cost human lives, and disregarding the scope of the colossal project, Nicholas ordered Russian architect Vasily Stasov and artist Alexander Brullov to rehab fire damage to the 300-room palace within a year! To help them meet this even more ungodly deadline, the tsar appointed Count Pyotr Kleinmichel, a military man, to supervise the project. Famed for cruelty and ruthlessness, Kleinmichel’s methods would, in the most literal sense, prove deadly.

The Jordan Staircase had to be almost completely rebuilt.

The Jordan Staircase had to be almost completely rebuilt.

Thousands of men were put to work rebuilding the gigantic palace, installing fire walls and replacing much of the wood with non-flammable brick and iron. Sumptuous suites were meticulously reproduced, the fabled Jordan Staircase rebuilt and the Malachite Hall created. This came at a terrible cost as frenzied workers toiled through the ferocious Russian winter. A visitor from France, the Marquis de Custine, recorded the horrors: “During freezes of fifteen to twenty degrees below zero, six thousand obscure martyrs…were shut up in walls heated to eighty-six degrees in order to dry the walls more quickly. Thus these wretches on entering and leaving this abode of death— now become, thanks to their sacrifice, the home of vanity, magnificence and pleasure—underwent a difference of (over) a hundred degrees. Work in the mines of the Urals is less injurious to life.” Driven by Kleinmichel’s iron hand, workmen perished daily, only to be quickly replaced so progress would continue uninterrupted. On this shameful slaughter, the palace was , of course, silent, and no one knows how many laborers were sacrificed for tsarist glory.

The majestic Malachite Hall was new after the Palace was rebuilt.

The majestic Malachite Hall was new after the Winter Palace was rebuilt.

Despite such desperate measures, the impossible task proved to be exactly that, and the deadline came and went before work was finally finished. Nicholas was, by all accounts, pleased with the results, and one can only wonder if he fathomed the error of his imperious ways when, only a few hours after his inspection, a chunk of ceiling collapsed and sent a huge chandelier crashing to the floor where the tsar had stood. The room,  had, of course, been rebuilt too fast. Insult was added to injury as he personally cared nothing for the meticulous extravagance created by his ruthless command. His own bedroom was decorated with nothing more than maps and a single icon, and his camp bed had a crude straw mattress and coarse blankets.

The Romanovs are the subject of my new book, Past Time, due in August.


1 Comment

  1. Bebe Bahnsen
    Jul 27, 2015

    Excellent and fascinating. No wonder there was a revolution!

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