FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION

Peterhof was the Russian Versailles, until it was sacked by the Nazis in 1941. Now its restoration is nearly complete, but Russia and Germany are still at war over the palace's missing treasures
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THEY CALL it "the morgue" - a small dusty storeroom where the broken fragments of works of art are kept which were carefully gathered up from the gutted palace of Peterhof, 20 miles east of St Petersburg, and the pavilions in its devastated park after the German army left in 1945. It has never been photographed before.

Vadim Znamenov, director of the palace museum for the past 30 years, gave the Independent on Sunday access to this pathetic store in order to highlight the artistic debt that he considers Germany still owes the Russian people - and Peterhof in particular. "There is a lot of talk about the 'trophy art' that Russia took from Germany after the war and whether we should give it back," he told me. "This year both the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow have put on exhibitions of the German art they have stored since the war. But it was Peterhof and the other palaces occupied by the Germans that were really affected. The argument for not giving back 'trophy' art is that Russian culture suffered and needs compensation. Peterhof needs compensation."

He is a small man, shy, with a shock of greying hair. He sits on the edge of his office chair and makes his case with passion.

Peterhof was burnt down in 1941, its park with its famous fountains and pavilions devastated. The pre-war inventory contained 4,004 works of art; 1,563 were evacuated before the Germans arrived and 2,441 left behind. Znamenov and his staff still have no more than an inkling as to how much was stolen and how much destroyed. At present the official statistic is 1,032 lost works of art. These would include 18th-century porcelains from Sevres, Wedgwood and, of course, the Russian Imperial factory; rich oriental lacquers and ivories collected by the Tsars; Old Master paintings; 18th- century furniture and knick-knacks; and all the miscellaneous treasures that would have been found in one of Europe's grandest palaces. Many of these works have been lost forever, but a few things continue to emerge from the woodwork.

Last year Znamenov had a call from the Berlin Historical Museum - "someone had come in with a painting which had an inventory number on the back showing it came from the Farm Palace in our park. They gave it back." He waved a hand at an elk's head on a shield that hung on the opposite wall of the office - "a year ago a German took that to the Ethnographical Museum in St Petersburg. He said that his uncle had taken it from Peterhof during the war but now that he had inherited it, he felt he should give it back. These examples are a drop in the ocean."

Peterhof is the Russian equivalent of Versailles, a vast rococo palace, yellow and white with glittering gold cupolas, set in a park of pavilions and fountains beside the icy seas of the Gulf of Finland. It was begun by Peter the Great, who had visited and hugely admired Versailles in 1716, massively extended by his daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, and then redecorated and adapted by succeeding generation of Tsars, right up to 1917. The palace was gutted by fire a few days after the Germans arrived in 1941 and for the next three years the front line crossed the park, its spectral rolls of barbed wire running through the grounds of a petite, moated summer pavilion called Marly - in memory of Louis XIV's vanished summertime home in France. Bunkers and dug-outs destroyed the elaborate system of fountains.

A massive restoration programme undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s, backed by state funds, virtually re-created the palace and its grounds. And the rebuilding programme continued, at a rather slower pace, right up to perestroika - when the introduction of a market economy and soaring inflation meant that funds were cut off.

"The more time that passed, the more it looked like a fairy palace," commented Znamenov. "Everything now looks as if it's back. But in 1948 there was not a floor or ceiling in this hall or in the throne-room of Peterhof." We were sitting in his office, formerly Catherine the Great's boudoir; her bedroom and toilet were in the secretary's office next door. "The more time goes by, the more people don't believe it was ever different. Only those who know feel what they are missing. When compensation is under discussion, one of the arguments of German barbarism is Peterhof."

He sighed. "At the same time, people think the regime of Communists was criminal and cultural values were not protected after the First World War. Last year we tried to buy back a pair of porphyry ewers which the Soviets sold off in 1932 - an Arab who lives in London bid pounds 332,500 and we couldn't go that far. We were the underbidders. Sometimes, when speaking of compensation, people say it's a long time and we should just give all the 'trophy' back. I don't agree."

I was shown round "the morgue" by Vil Jumangulov, the curator of sculpture - a small man in an old windjammer, his face lined with experience. The storeroom is located in the former kitchen wing, along with restoration studios and offices. Directly after the war, the rooms were used as communal flats, he said, but gradually the families moved out and it returned to museum status. The "morgue" has been tucked into a tiny room for the past five or six years, sharing it with plaster models of the palace's sculptural decorations used during the restoration. "We made plaster models from pre-war photographs," he explained. "Then the restorers carved wooden replicas from them." Beside the door the bust of a garlanded nymph, one pert breast uncovered, was framed by a rubber bicycle tyre with two old saucepans balanced on top. "We've finished with her," he said defensively, embarrassed by the dust and disorder.

Beside the nymph lay a battered metal globe with holes in it. "That was the top of the chandelier shower in the bath-house attached to the Mon Plaisir pavilion," said Jumangulov. Catherine the Great had it built in 1769 to spout fresh water in the middle of a sea-water pool; against the wall of the storeroom lay the tube which had carried the fresh water up to the globe, while magnificent bronze Art Nouveau wall lights, which had been installed in the bath-house at the end of the 19th century, formed as tufts of reeds, were hung against the wall gathering dust. "We're still hoping to restore the bath-house," Jumangulov explained.

He edged his way round packing cases to a shelf of marble heads. "Here's Catherine the Great from a full-length statue of Catherine the Law Giver which stood in the vestibule of Mon Plaisir, and Nich-olas I from a freestanding statue in the park. It was in the grounds of the Cottage Palace. And here's the head of an allegorical figure of Glory from the Belvedere. That was a little palace built by Stackenscheider for Paul I's daughter and didn't get ruined - it's a sanatorium today. There was a whole group of marbles on the steps in front of it and this was one of them."

The centre of the room is dominated by stacks of wooden trays containing fragments of ceramics, roughly arranged according to date. One large box contains broken, blue and white Delft tiles imported from Holland by Peter the Great to decorate the kitchen and living-room walls of Mon Plaisir. This was the first building of the Peterhof complex, a comfortable Dutch- inspired home where the Tsar could live only yards from the sea shore. The tiles came from a "play" kitchen where his wife, Catherine I, would cook.

Another box has fragments of Meissen vases; exquisitely crafted porcelain flowers lie shattered among the chips. Another has bits of Empire vases in classical style, heavily embellished with gilding, from the Russian Imperial factory. Britain is represented by the base of a shattered vase which reads "Wedgwood and Bentley" - nothing other than the factory mark remains. Catherine the Great was an anglophile and ordered several Wedgwood services.

A second "morgue", exclusively devoted to large sculptural pieces, is housed in the former kitchen of Mon Plaisir, across the park from the main palace - the real kitchen, that is, with chimneys for massive fires, not Catherine's play kitchen. Today it is crumbling and loosely patched up, with wind whistling through the higgledy-piggledy storage space. In the doorway is the seated figure of Glory minus the head we had encountered in the small store.

There is rusting gilt-bronze foliage which used to adorn the cupola of the chapel, two bronze figures of saints from the lost "Gothic" chapel, the battered heads of two giant marble sculptures copied from the antique, half a blue and white plant pot from Peter the Great's garden, a headless marble Psyche which Nicholas I ordered from Cincinatus Baruzzi in Bologna in 1845, the cast iron heads of 12 of the 22 nymphs who used to spew water from their mouths around the colonnaded Lion Fountain ... and more, much more, all battered and gathering dust. !

Comments