First tourist group visits Lower Dacha of Nicholas II in Peterhof

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The ruins of the Lower Dacha, Alexandria Park, Peterhof

Click HERE to watch a video (in Russian). Please note that the video is in two parts – the first part of the video shows the group visiting the ruins of the Lower Dacha, while the second part shows them visiting the interiors of the Farm Palace (opened in 2010), which is also situated in the Alexandria Park – PG

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On 25th April, more than 50 participants of the Open City Project, which promotes cognitive walks around the sights of St. Petersburg, which are inaccessible to the general public, were the first group allowed to visit the Lower Dacha, situated in the Alexandria Park of Peterhof.  Here they learned about the history of the park, about the life of its August residents, and the tragic fate of the Lower Dacha

Together with the Chief Architect of the Peterhof State Museum Preserve Sergey Pavlov, the group visited the ruins of the Lower Dacha, which is currently in the process of restoration. The complex of the Lower Dacha, the favorite summer residence of the family of Nicholas II, suffered considerably during the Great Patriotic War. In the 1960s, the remaining ruins were blown up. The possibility of restoring this unique monument of history and culture has been discussed for several decades.

In 2016, the Peterhof State Museum received approval for the concept of restoration of the Lower Dacha, combining the conservation of the original fragments of the ruins with a partial reconstruction of the building. The first stage of the concept realization, the historical foundations and the preserved part of the first floor, are currently protected by a special ventilated canopy.

Recent archaeological surveys have uncovered unique items related to the period of the occupation of Peterhof in 1941-1943. Pavlov notes that excavations have already uncovered details of the building and its interiors, including original tile floors, iron grille work, fragments of pottery, carved stone decorations, all of which will be carefully preserved and become part of the new permanent exhibition. 

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Early 20th century view of the Lower Dacha

The Lower Dacha – also known as the Lower Palace – was erected in the mid-1880s for the Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich (future Emperor Nicholas II) by the architect Anthony Osipovich Tomishko (1851-1900), the famous architect who also designed the famous Kresty Prison in St. Petersburg.

“The sovereign [Emperor Alexander III – Ed.] gave Tomishko carte blanche with the project – permitting the architect with spending, hiring contractors, and monitoring its construction – while making additional adjustments made by the emperor and especially his wife the Empress Maria Feodorovna. Despite this, Tomishko did not see the implementation of his project,” – said the chief architect of the Peterhof State Museum-Preserve Sergei Pavlov.

Despite all the difficulties, a four-story building made of bi-coloured bricks – yellow and red – was created on the shore of the Gulf of Finland in the Alexandria Park resembling an elegant Italian villa in the Neo-Renaissance style.

The remoteness of the Lower Dacha from Peterhof, which was completely inaccessible to outsiders made it a favorite residence for the emperor and his family. “The main beauty of the whole house is it’s proximity of the sea” – the Emperor wrote in his diary.  

After their marriage in 1895, it was here that Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna spent their first summer together. It was also here that four of their five children were born, three daughters: Tatiana (1897), Maria (1899), Anastasia (1901), as well as their only son and heir to the Russian throne, Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich (1904). It was also at the Lower Dacha that in 1914, Nicholas II signed the Manifesto of Russia’s entry into the First World War.

After the birth of their children in the 1890s, the house became too small and a second block was added to the original building, where children’s rooms were located.

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Early 20th century view of the Lower Dacha

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According to Sergei Pavlov, the fate of the Lower Dacha was met by tragedy and destruction during the 20th century. This is confirmed by the history of the palace.

Shortly after the Revolution, the Lower Dacha was opened as a museum, in which the personal items of the Imperial family, including furnishings and children’s toys were displayed.

The anti-monarchist attitude of this museum and it’s Soviet caretakers is best described by the museum’s first director Nikolai Arkhipov, who referred to himself as “the keeper of the royal underpants.”

It is clear that such a museum could not exist for long, and in 1936 a recreation center for members of the NKVD  (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) was opened in the Lower Dacha. Then came the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) and the occupation and destruction of the area by the Nazis.

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The Lower Dacha as it looked after the Great Patriotic War 1941-45

During the war, the Nazis used the former Imperial residence as a base for its coastal defence. The building survived the war, and stood until 1961 when it was blown up by the Soviets – the Lower Dacha was left in ruins. 

Who and why the imperial summer residence was destroyed still remains a mystery. Documents in the archives have not been preserved.

According to a local legend, one of the sons of the then military hierarchy broke a leg while climbing on the ruins of the dacha. His angry father ordered that the building be “blown off the face of the earth.” Another popular theory was that the site had become popular with local Orthodox Christians and monarchists, who would often hold memorials at the ruins with candles and prayers. 

There is also a more prosaic version. Many museum workers believe that the whole thing was based on Soviet ideology, who were alien to any relics associated with the last Tsar. As the museum experts note, the explosion was carefully orchestrated, one which could only be carried out by professionals.

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Chief Architect of the Peterhof State Museum Sergey Pavlov at the ruins of the Lower Dacha

“Then the question arose: what to do next?” – recalls Sergei Pavlov.

According to him, several options for the restoration of the monument were considered. The first suggested a complete historic recreation of the Lower Dacha, based on plans, documents and photographs which have been preserved in the archives.

“But when we analyzed this proposal further, we understood two fundamental problems. First, we had little to work with when compared to the ruins of the Great Palace – of which 60-70% of the building had survived, but only 7-10% of the Lower Palace had survived. So, how can this be recreated?” Sergei Pavlov asks.

Further, since the palace, although called imperial, in fact was very small, with modest rooms and narrow halls, which excludes all sightseeing activities by visitors and tour groups. In addition, there would be a problem with filling the exposition.

“There is a legend that Peterhof has a lot of things from the Lower Dacha. I can tell you that this is incorrect. In fact, we have in our collections, only 14 pieces of furniture and about 35 additional items from the dacha. To fill them all the exhibition space of the palace is simply impossible,” – explained the chief architect of Peterhof.

Another option considered was the conservation of the ruins. However, this idea was considered difficult to implement, simply based on the harsh conditions of the St. Petersburg climate. “We took a rather difficult, hard-won decision. We agreed to combine the preservation of the surviving fragments of the ruins to become incorporated into the partial reconstruction of the dacha,” explained Sergei Pavlov.

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The ruins of the Lower Dacha

There are plans for a reconstruction of the study of Nicholas II on the upper floor, in which we will fill with genuine items and objects of everyday life of that era. The lower floor will be used for both permanent and temporary exhibitions.

“In this way, we can utilize all the necessary living spaces, which we desperately need. For instance, we do not have a conference room, or a room for scientific study, nor is there is a laboratory, are library. All of these will be implemented into the new building, “- said Sergei Pavlov.

According to Pavlov, the first priority in the recreation of the Lower Dacha will be a memorial place to the family of Nicholas II. Secondly, the building will host an historical and cultural center, where there will be exhibitions and concerts, reflecting the spirit of this place.

The new multi-museum complex will preserve the unique panorama of Peterhof and the silhouette of the coastline, the reconstruction of which will be the second stage of a larger project.

Surviving fragments of boulder fortification and a boat canal through which a small yacht transferred the Imperial family to the Imperial yacht Standart (which was unable to dock at the pier, due to the shallow bay), will all be restored.

Complete work on the reconstruction of the Lower Dacha is expected to be completed in 2025. And then the historical landscape of Alexandria Park will be fully restored.

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Nicholas II with his three eldest daughters at the Lower Dacha, 1905

Click HERE to read more articles about the history and reconstruction of the Lower Dacha, as well as additional articles on Peterhof.

© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 2 May 2018