Winter Palace: the residence of emperors and a symbol of the Northern capital

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The ancient Moscow Kremlin has long become a symbol of Russia, tsarist power and perfectly copes with the role of the residence of the country’s leader, but there is a building that, with its grandeur and significance, may well rival the Kremlin. Of course, this is the Winter Palace, which became a symbol of St. Petersburg and served as the residence of the Russian emperors for 142 long years..

View of the Winter Palace from the Admiralty
Perrot Ferdinande-Victor. View of the Winter Palace from the Admiralty side. 1840

The Winter Palace can be compared, perhaps, only with Windsor Castle, which has been the permanent residence of the British royal family for nine centuries, or Versailles, from whose luxurious halls French kings ruled the country.

Winter Palace
Winter Palace – top view

Neither the royal Kremlin chambers nor the summer palaces of the Crimean peninsula can compete with the Winter Palace either in its role in the history of the country, or in the grandeur of the interiors, or in the number of legends and myths that exist around the main building of the Northern capital.


Few people know that the building of the Winter Palace that exists today and is perfectly familiar to all Petersburgers and guests of the city is already its fifth version. The foundation of the palace is associated with a legend – the first building on the site of the future residence of the emperors was built in 1711 and witnessed the most joyful and sad events in the life of the first Russian emperor. A small, two-story house in the “Dutch style” under a tiled roof was presented to Peter the Great by Alexander Menshikov, and the gift was timed to coincide with the Tsar’s marriage to Ekaterina Alekseevna.

First Winter Palace
First Winter Palace

It was in this building that the royal wedding feast took place and here, as the legend says, 12 years later Peter the Great caught his wife of treason.

It is interesting that the first Winter Palace has survived. Yes, yes, it was not demolished at all during the construction of a more spacious second building, since it was not located on the embankment of the Neva, but nearby – on the current Millionnaya Street. Now the building is located on the lower floors of the Hermitage Theater, which is separated from the main buildings of the Hermitage by the Winter Canal. An inconspicuous wooden door leads to the museum dedicated to the first Russian emperor, so usually all the glory goes to the “elder brother” – a descendant of the first Winter Palace.

The construction of the second Winter Palace began during the life of Peter the Great – at the corner of the Neva and the Winter Canal, which was then called the Zimnedomny Canal. The family of the emperor moved to a new building, built under the direction of architects Georg Mattarnovi and then Domenico Trezzini, in 1720.

Second Winter Palace
Second Winter Palace

Already in 1731, the then reigning Empress Anna Ioannovna decided that the existing palace was too small and entrusted the construction of a new residence to the architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. It was Rastrelli who became the most prominent representative of the so-called “Russian baroque”, which was also called “Peter’s or St. Petersburg’s baroque”. This style combined the traditions of European Baroque with the Russian, “Naryshkin style”, which is characterized by bell towers, rather bright colors, the use of red brick and multi-tiered roofs.

St. Petersburg was built in a more austere, “western” style, and Rastrelli’s Winter Palace fit perfectly into the look of an unusual for Russia, but very beautiful city.

Third Winter Palace
Third Winter Palace

In this, the third version of the Winter Palace, the features of the current structure are already visible, but it did not last long – in 1750, Elizaveta Petrovna came to the conclusion that the building, to which numerous office premises were attached all this time, took on the appearance of too “motley and sloppy” and wished to rebuild the palace.

At first, Bartolomeo Rastrelli simply tried to expand the area of ​​the premises and maintain the outbuildings in the same style as the main building, but Elizaveta Petrovna also decided to increase the height of the building to 22 meters (the height of the third Winter Palace was only 14 meters) and the architect decided that it would be easier to demolish construction and rebuild everything.

Images of the fourth, temporary Winter Palace, which was built of wood by Rastrelli at the corner of the Nevskaya Embankment and the Moika and served as a haven for the imperial family during the construction of the fifth Winter Palace, which has survived to this day, which lasted from 1754 to 1762.

Facade of the Winter Palace
Facade of the Winter Palace overlooking the embankment of the Neva

The palace was conceived and erected in the form of a closed quadrangle that surrounds a large courtyard – Palace Square. At the time of the completion of construction, the building was the tallest in St. Petersburg and clearly dominated the surrounding space. By the way, trying to preserve such superiority of the imperial residence, Nicholas the First issued a decree in 1844, which prohibited the construction of civil buildings in the city that would be higher than the Winter Palace – the buildings surrounding it had to be at least a fathom (2.13 meters) less.

Rastrelli paid special attention to the design of the facades – the side of the palace facing the embankment of the Neva looks like a continuous two-tier colonnade without noticeable protrusions. The main facade of the building – southern, overlooking Palace Square, has 7 divisions, its center is cut through 3 arches for the entrance, it is more magnificently decorated with a decorated projection.

The courtyard of the Winter Palace
The courtyard of the Winter Palace

In general, the building of the Winter Palace, with its columns, windows framed by platbands with cupid heads and lion masks, dozens of decorative vases and statues installed on the roof balustrade, looks very elegant and majestic. The start of an amazing collection of works of art, which became the basis for the future world-famous exhibition of the Hermitage, was laid back in 1764, when 225 paintings by the most famous artists of that time were purchased to decorate the new imperial palace.


Along with the legend about the founding of the first Winter Palace, the residence of the emperors keeps many other secrets, and its history is accompanied by a lot of myths..

It is worth noting at least such a significant event as the death of Catherine the Great, who died in her chambers in the Winter Palace. It is not worth repeating rumors that the reason for the death of the Empress was her excessive passion is not worth it, but the testimony of the maids of honor, who repeatedly saw the ghost of Catherine II in the chambers of the palace, deserve a more respectful attitude..

In addition, according to some historical sources, even on the night of November 5-6, when the empress was already dying, her son Pavel the First could not sleep and suffered from strange and disturbing visions (and he only learned about the state of the mistress of the Russian Empire in the morning) … However, Paul was not distinguished by a strong will and a strong character and also repeatedly talked with the ghost of his great ancestor – Peter the Great, who allegedly warned his descendant about the premature death.

The story that on the eve of her death Catherine saw herself leaving the hall of the Winter Palace in ceremonial clothes was also widely spread, and told those close to her that her hour was at hand. There were also rumors about the murder of the empress, but they did not find confirmation.

Ceremonial portrait of Empress Catherine II
A ceremonial portrait of Empress Catherine II, kept in the Museum of Minsk

There is also an interesting legend about Karl Johann Christian Reising, a thirty-year-old major in the Semyonovsky Life Guards Regiment, who became a hero of St. Petersburg city folklore after his unexpected death, which befell him while he was on duty in the Winter Palace. According to legend, the young man fell asleep at his post and was awakened by Emperor Nicholas the First. Seeing the emperor bending over him, the guardsman instantly died of a broken heart and, probably, joined the ranks of the ghosts of the Winter Palace.

There are rumors about the reasons for the transfer of the residence from the Winter Palace to Tsarskoe Selo by the decision of Nicholas II – a mystic and a man inclined to take everything too close to his heart, the emperor could not live in the solemn and history-bearing Winter Palace, preferring the much more modest and quiet Aleksandrovsky palace.

There are also legends about the numerous secret passages and staircases that exist in the Winter Palace, however, such rumors always accompany all significant buildings that have played a role in the history of the building (although the existence of separate secret passages and stairs in the imperial residence is confirmed).

Storming the Winter
The storming of the Winter Palace

However, the main legend of the last century associated with the Winter Palace is its storming during the October 1917 coup. When the Bolsheviks came to power, they composed many stories that immortalize this significant event, and Sergei Eisenstein’s film October, directed by the director in 1927, for a long time remained the only official version of what happened. Meanwhile, as the facts and eyewitness accounts of that time show, there was no bloody battle, and Kerensky left Zimny ​​long before the assault and not in a woman’s dress at all, but in his own car and the Northern capital, which remained practically without leaders, went to the Bolsheviks so easily that new leaders simply did not know what to do with the power that fell on them.


Now in the building of the Winter Palace there are 1,084 rooms (at the end of the 18th century there were up to 1,500 rooms in the palace, many of them were demolished during further reconstructions), the total area of ​​living quarters is more than 46 thousand square meters, the halls and chambers of the palace are illuminated by 1945 windows, There are 117 stairs (including secret ones). Also in the building there are 1,786 doors and 329 chimneys, and the length of the cornice framing the roof is over 2 kilometers..

The construction of the Winter Palace cost the imperial treasury about 860 thousand rubles (which was very modest at that time for such a large-scale structure), more than 4 thousand people worked at the construction site.

The main imperial throne is installed in the St. George Hall, other significant premises include the Picket (New) Hall, the Military Gallery of 1812, the Armorial Hall, the Field Marshal Hall, the Petrovsky (Small Throne) Hall, as well as the Jordan Staircase, originally called the Ambassador, and then renamed into due to the fact that it was on this staircase to the Baptism of the Lord that the procession descended to plunge into the ice-hole, the so-called “Jordan”.

The Great Imperial Throne in the St. George Hall
The Great Imperial Throne in the St. George Hall


During its existence, the Winter Palace has experienced not only three large-scale construction projects, but also many joyful and dramatic events, among which we can single out some that had the greatest influence on the history of the palace itself and the entire country as a whole:

  • the wedding of the future Emperor Paul the First with Wilhelmina of Hesse-Shtadskaya (having adopted Orthodoxy, Natalia Alekseevna), held on September 29, 1773;
  • in 1776, Natalya Alekseevna died in the chambers of the Winter Palace during childbirth;
  • On November 6, 1796, Catherine II died in her chambers;
  • in 1826, by decree of Nicholas II, a gallery of fame of participants in the Patriotic War of 1812 appeared in the Winter Palace;
  • In 1837, a fire broke out in the Winter Palace, which took three days to extinguish; many premises of the building were seriously damaged. Fortunately, most of the collection of antiques, paintings and statues was saved, and the architects V.P. Stasov and A.P. Bryullov completely restored the interiors of the luxurious halls two years later;
  • in 1869, gas lighting appeared in the palace, replacing the usual candlelight, already in 1880 a water supply was laid (before that the imperials had to use ordinary washstands), in 1882 the first telephone was launched in the Winter Palace, and on Christmas holidays in 1884 in the premises of the Winter the electric light also flashed. It is interesting that the power plant, built to supply all the halls of the palace in the Hermitage, remained the largest in Europe for 15 years;
  • in 1880, an explosion thundered in the Winter Palace – a member of the Narodnaya Volya Khalturin made an attempt on the life of Emperor Alexander II, but neither the king nor his family suffered, 11 soldiers were killed from the guard;
  • in 1881, after the assassination of Alexander II, the new emperor decided to move the residence from the Winter Palace to Gatchina, fearing for the safety of his family. However, Alexander III still received foreign guests in the halls of the palace and periodically lived in the Winter Palace;
  • the Winter Palace finally lost the status of the emperors’ residence in 1904, when Nicholas II decided to move the residence to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, so beloved by him;
  • in 1905, a demonstration of workers was shot near the walls of the Winter Palace, which was the beginning of the 1905 revolution;
  • in 1915-1917, the Tsarevich Alexei hospital operated in the Winter Palace, which received the wounded on the fronts of the First World War;
  • in 1917, the Winter Palace experienced the most dramatic events in its history – the February Revolution, for several months it was the seat of the Provisional Government, then in the history of the imperial palace there was an October coup, cannon shelling of the Peter and Paul Fortress, looting, transportation of valuables to Moscow and nationalization;
  • in 1920, the State Museum of the Revolution began to work in the Winter Palace, which was closed only in 1941;
  • During World War II, the Winter Palace served as a bomb shelter for thousands of residents of besieged Leningrad; in addition, the building housed the most valuable exhibits of the Hermitage and other museums in the city. During the German bombing raids, 17 artillery shells and 2 aerial bombs hit the Winter Palace, one of the main decorations of the building, the Jordan Staircase, was damaged, but already in 1944 the Winter Palace opened its doors to visitors again, although restoration work continued for several more years.

Jordan stairs
Jordan stairs

At present, the Winter Palace is part of the State Hermitage complex, which also includes the buildings of the Old, Small and New Hermitages, the Reserve House and the Hermitage Theater. The museum complex also includes the eastern wing of the General Staff building, the Menshikov Palace, the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory and the Staraya Derevnya restoration and storage center.

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