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Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Traveller's Tales: Catherine's Palace and the Mystery of the Amber Room

The author at Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square
I have just returned from a trip to Russia. For a child of the cold war, Russia had never been high on my list of “must see” places but an opportunity arose for a 2 week waterways cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow and who was I to say no? I have to say I loved every minute of the journey which went a long way to dispelling any lingering notions I may have had of Russia as the dark, dismal place of my childhood.

The Cold War Russia of my childhood.
We began our travels in St. Petersburg.  Leningrad, as it was renamed in 1924, is infamous for the 900 day siege by the German forces during World War 2 (Or the "Patriotic War" as the Russians call it). The German advance on Western Russia came so swiftly that Russia was ill prepared for it. The first German attack on Russian sovereignty came in June 1941 and by September of that year they were bombarding Leningrad.  Staff of the Hermitage worked day and night to pack up over one million valuable works of art and 2 trains managed to get away before the blockade. The third train could not get through and the works of art spent the war in storage beneath St. Isaacs Cathedral. For an interesting story based on the life of the staff in the Hermitage, I recommend Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad.

The Germans occupied the outer reaches of Leningrad including the palaces of Peterhof and the collection of summer royal residences at Tsarkoye Selo ("Tsar's village"). The principle residence is that known as Catherine’s Palace, a magnificent confection of rococo/baroque/neoclassical architecture first started by Catherine I (the widow of Peter the Great). Other royal residences include the Alexander Palace where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were first imprisoned.

Our visit took us only to Catherine's Palace. Most famous in a palace noted for its excess of decoration was the “Amber Room”, an entire room paneled in amber – the gift of the Prussian Frederick Wilhelm I to Peter the Great.  It is estimated that on final installation it measured 180 square feet, making a room that glowed with six tons of amber and other semi-precious stones. The amber panels were backed with gold leaf, and historians estimate that, at the time, the room was worth $142 million in today's dollars. Over time, the Amber Room was used as a private meditation chamber for Tsarina Elizabeth, a gathering room for Catherine the Great and a trophy space for amber connoisseur Alexander II. (see Smithsonian article).

As the Germans advanced on Tsarkoye Selo the palace staff tried first to disassemble the valuable room but the amber proved to brittle and began to shatter. In an attempted ruse, the panels were covered with wallpaper but it did not take the German officials sent to source valuable works of art long to uncover the ruse and within 36 hours the Amber Room was removed, crated and sent to Germany where it was reassembled in Königsberg's castle museum on the Baltic Coast. That was the last that was ever seen or heard of the Amber Room.

Shelling scars on St. Isaac's Cathedral
Back in Leningrad the siege dragged on. Millions of civilians died of starvation and disease. As a side note even the famed Hermitage cats were not spared the hunt for food! Following the war, cats had to be imported back into the city to take up the important rodent control duties in the Hermitage. Scars of the bombardment can still be seen on some of the buildings in St. Petersburg

The destruction of Catherine's Palace in 1944
The siege was finally lifted in January 1944 and as the Germans were pushed back, in one final act of vandalism they set about intentionally destroying the royal palaces.  This picture, painted contemporaneously, shows the fire engulfing Catherine’s palace. Time bombs set in the cellar of the building failed to detonate.

The Grand Hall post War
Since the end of the war, Russian authorities began a painstaking reconstruction of the great palaces to the extent that a casual visitor would not know that what they are seeing was probably not original.

The Grand Hall in 2013
 I love mysteries and the question remains as to the fate of the Amber Room. It was last seen at Königsberg Castle.  In January 1945 as the war turned against Germany, “possessions” of the German higher echelon began to be moved. Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen crates containing the Amber Room panels waiting on a railway platform, others claim the crates were put aboard a ship that was later sunk or it may have been destroyed by allied bombing in 1944.  Other claims include stories of it being stored in underground bunkers beneath Königsberg (now lost) or in nearby mines.

Since World War 2 extensive searches by groups and treasure hunters have been conducted. See for example this 2011 article in the Daily Mail.  However researches by journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy conclude that the room was most likely destroyed in the 1944 bombing. This theory to some extent is supported by the discovery of one of the original stone mosaics in Germany in 1997, in the possession of the family of one of the soldiers tasked with packing the room up. 

One other theory is that the panels were discovered intact by the advancing Russians safely stored in the cellars of the castle, however for propaganda reasons they decided to keep the discovery quiet. Amber disintegrates if it is not cared for and in the 1960s Soviet authorities destroyed the remains of the castle. Was this to hide the disintegration of this precious relic?

In 2003, the recreation of the Amber Room, based on the pre war black and white photos was opened by Putin. It had taken 20 years and cost  $12million. Even knowing it is a reconstruction, as can be seen from the photos below, it remains jaw droppingly stunning, (as indeed is the whole of the palace).