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View of Kreschatik from the Bessarabian Square at the end of 19th  century. Kiev
Tuesday, 16 July 2019

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Must-see in Ukraine > Hard destiny of the residence: the main palace of the capital and peripetias of its “life”

Inessa BLYUM, journalist.
Specially for “Prime Excursion Bureau”.

When Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, who must have been the only Russian ruler, who treated Ukraine with respect, decided to build her palace in the city, it froze in expectation. The former capital of the Rus land finally got a chance to become governmental residence again. Since the wife of Chernigov chorister and swineherd Aleksey Razumovskiy, the All-Russian state sovereign considered creation of the Southern capital of the country. But these intentions were not realized…

For the second time such an idea occurred to the last Russian Emperor Nikolay 2, and again it was Mariinskiy Palace that was supposed to become the residence. In 1911 during the memorable visit to Kiev, when Prime Minister of the Empire Petr Stolypin was vitally wounded, the Emperor was supposed to proclaim his intention to make Kiev “the third capital”, according to evidence of memoirists. But the shot at the Opera Theatre cancelled these plans. Large projects became untimely. The World War 1 burst out in three years and in six – the revolution occurred. Still Mariinskiy Palace became the residence of the next “master of destinies” – the bloody “king for a day” and adventurer Colonel Muravyev, whose “red” gangs committed acts of violence in Kiev for more than a month. It was a horrible time, when dead bodies of “class enemies” were piled up in the former Emperor garden. Though more than a century and a half had passed before that crucial moment in the history of the Palace and that period wasn`t less interesting…

Interiors of MariinskiyPalace

Born in the gallant century

Everything started in the luxuriant epoch of Baroque, in the gallant century of ladies with huge farthingales and cavaliers in silk stockings with puffy bows. Spurs thundered, mazurka gamboled, sophisticated court ladies danced Ukrainian dances impetuously and Ukrainian language was in fashion in the court − beautiful, melodious; it was so sweet to speak it, imitating the Sovereign, who distorted the “Southern Russian dialect” in a very cute manner. That was a great epoch! In 1744 Elizaveta personally selected the place for the future palace during her regular visit to Kiev. From here, from Privalye tract endless views of Dnieper and boundless territory of Ukraine opened up.

Genius Bartolomeo Rastrelli – the court magician of Baroque − was predictably appointed the architect. He was the author of Zimniy Palace in St. Petersburg and the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. Simultaneously he became the author of two projects for Kiev – St. Andre`s Church And Mariinskiy Palace. Appearance of the palace imitated Imperial residence in the village Perovo near Moscow, where, by the way, Elizaveta and Aleksey Razumovskiy had secret wedding ceremony.

They say that the Palace was built by Rastrelli, but it is not quite right, in fact. He designed its prototype in Perovo, while architect Ivan Michurin drew Kiev version of the Palace and supervised its construction. But Mariinskiy is not the exact copy of the residence near Moscow. Michurin added two two-storey outbuildings to the central building of the palace, increasing its total area almost twice. But the facades were decorated with less luxury than in Perovo.

The construction was finished in 1755. The Empress never had a chance to live in her southern residence. She got old and sick, it became hard for her to travel and the Seven Years` War, which was ruinous for Russia, started. By the time of Elisaveta’s death in December 1761 the palace looked like a case of walls without interior finish. Like St. Andrew`s Church, the project was frozen and turned into protracted construction. And still finishing work was carried out − they waited for another Sovereign of the Empire Ekaterina to leave for the South. While waiting for the Empress, the walls of the second wooden floor were papered with piled up paper – analog of modern wallpaper, upholstered with silk, decorated with mirrors. The stone first floor was meant for servants. It is ironic that it is the only one out of the whole Elisaveta’s construction that escaped destruction after all the fires and reconstructions of the following years, while the interiors of the second floor were lost with the floor itself.

Ekaterina 2 reached the palace only in 1787 – in transit to the attached Crimean land. And she stayed for almost three months there. It didn`t impress her – seemed small and comfortless after her St. Petersburg residence. And, in general, Ekaterina was not fond of Kiev, unlike her predecessor. After her visit the palace was granted to governor-generals of the south-western area. Such famous personalities as field marshal Petr Rumyantsev – Zadunayskiy and the famous in future commanders Mikhail Kutuzov and Mikhail Miloradovich lived there.

Beginning of the ordeals

The Palace got the first stroke of the destiny in 1812, when captive Saxons from the Army of Napoleon were placed in it. Having become real German barracks, the palace underwent devastation and neglect. After the Saxons the governor prince Rayevskiy moved in there and started repair works that were highly needed. But in 1819 a bad fire burst out in the restored palace. The upper floor was completely ruined by fire − the building had this unpretentious look for almost half a century.

In 1830th the Department of Imperial Property rented the down floor to the Mineral Waters Joint-Stock Company. After becoming a sanatorium, it changed its finish and appearance again – baths were located in the central building and suites − in the outbuildings. The Emperor Nikolay 1, who visited Kiev many times, didn`t worry about it, unlike his successor. Aleksandr 2, who arrived at Kiev in 1868, ordered to dissolve the agreement with the “bathers” and restore the palace. The second floor was made of stone this time. A full-height big accessory building with a balcony and staircases was built in its central part. The interior was decorated with painting of Italian painter Kamil Alliaudi, who was invited by Aleksandr 2 personally. Now these paintings are the only decorative element of the interior of the palace, preserved till present time.

The Palace got its name at that period. Empress Maria Aleksandrovna (1824 − 1880), the wife of Aleksandr 2, became an unintentional goddaughter of the building. It was her, who offered to lay out a park, which eventually was named after her, on the territory of the huge deserted military ground in front of the palace. The Tsar Garden, situated at the back elevation, was also refined and given features of British landscape style.

That is the way the palace survived another half a century. Not only Russian Emperors, but also foreign guests, who visited Kiev, stayed there. Before the very revolution another Maria, the widow of Aleksandr 3 Maria Fedorovna (1847 – 1928), spent two years there. She was in charge of hospital work of the seat of war of the World War 1. So the name “Mariinskiy” got another ground.

Soviet time

1918th started… The first Bolshevik invasion to Kiev made it a gloomy place of executions, as they said. Burial places of red revolutionaries appeared in the park in front of the palace later. During the short period of Ukrainian People`s Republic and Hetman Skoropadskiy different Ministries were situated in it. Council of People`s Commissars of the USSR was located in the palace in 1919 – 1920th. Later establishments with various directions of activity were situated in it – from the headquarters of military district to agricultural museum. At the end of June of 1941 Central Taras Shevchenko Museum was supposed to be opened in the palace…

Soon the palace was ablaze again. It was hit by a bomb. Although there is a version that a soviet mine exploded under it. It partially destroyed the building. Te famous Kiev architect Pavel Aleshyn restored it in 1945-1949. The palace was put on the list of objects of Governmental purposes – General Secretaries lived there. In a word, the situation returned to the state of Imperial times.

The palace had to go through another grand reconstruction in 1980th. A lift to the second floor was installed, when very sick Leonid Brezhnev was supposed to stay in it on the occasion of celebration of Kiev`s 1500th anniversary in May 1981. The Emperor`s cabinet of Aleksandr 2 was destroyed for this purpose. At the same time, the reconstruction served for the benefit of the Palace – the marble staircase to the second floor was fully restored, antique furniture and chandeliers were reproduced according to drawings and paintings. And the main thing that the virtuosic mosaic parquet, which calls forth permanent admiration from visitors, was laid anew.

The palace is in expectation of changes

The palace, which was the main residence of three Ukrainian Presidents, has been under reconstruction since 2007. The repair works are planned to be finished by 2012, when Kiev will host participants of Euro 2012. Today it is hard to say how the building of the palace will change after the reconstruction. It is possible that the Emperor`s cabinet will be recreated again and Brezhnev`s lift will be demounted. Full renovation of engineering systems of the palace and renewal of part of the Tsar Garden behind it are planned. But the habitual black color of caps of outward columns may remain invariable - according to legend, any try to gilt them has always been a failure. Maybe it is the memory of hardship that the palace has gone through. Anyway, due to this fact the former tsar residence will be included into the list of excursions “Mystical Places of Kiev”.

December 2010.