Among the three suburb palaces in St. Petersburg, Gatchina got the least concerns during the post-war era comparing to Pushkin and Peterhof. Garchina was the residence of at least four Tsars from the time it constructed. The area name was first mentioned in 1499. During that time, it was under the rule of Novgorod. Peter the Great conquered these lands after the Northern Wars, though before that, it was under the rule of the Swedes and the Livonians.
Gatchina is located 50 kilometers south of Saint Petersburg, right after Pushkin and Peterhof. Peter the Great utilized this land as the imperial hospital, and it remained as the same until 1765 when Catherine the Great purchased all the lands in the surrounding area for his favorite, Count Orlov. Grigory Orlov was one of the military generals of Russia and favorite by the Empress. He started the construction for the palace and the park in 1766.
He chose the famous Italian architect, Antonio Rinaldi for the job. Rinaldi was one of the imperial family’s chief architects at first, but after Catherine succeeded the throne, he became Orlov’s personal architects. He started the job in 1766, and it continued for 15 years. By the time the construction completed, Count Orlov had fallen out of the empress’s favorite and only got two years to live. After his death, the palace and surrounding area were once again bought by the Catherine the Great and given to his son, the future Tsar Paul I.
Paul didn’t like the design and architecture of the palace and the park, so he assigned his favorite architect, Vincenzo Brenna to rebuild them. The palace was one of the imperial residents until the October Revolution. However, before that, it was the Summer house of Paul I and his widow, Nicholas I, Alexander the Second, and Alexander the Third. The complex witnessed two major events at the beginning of the Revolution, the fall of Kerensky's Provisional Government in 1917, and Trotsky's defeat in 1919.
The palace turned to a museum after the revolution and it remained until the Second World War. During the war, the palace and its surrounding area occupied by the Nazi’s army and damaged severely. Most of the palace valuables looted or lost after the German’s army retreated. The palace interior and exterior damaged severely, and the park almost demolished completely; though the damages were serious, the renovation didn’t begin until 1968. The Naval Academy took over the palace during that time. There were no talks about restoring the museum to Gatchina before the restoration, and most of the exhibits were transported to the other museums in Russia, but after the restoration started, the administrators once again considered to recover the museum in the palace.
The fall of the Soviet Union meant that the project is suspended since the renovation process was moving forward. The restoration which was meant to be done in 2012 is still going on as of today.
The Gatchina Palace is quite unique and bizarre among the other suburb palaces around St. Petersburg, but the simple look of its exterior made it less impressive at first sight. Rinaldi traveled to lots of countries such as Britain before arriving in Russia. When he ordered to build a knight fortress for Count Orlov, he designed a palace with a medieval look exterior and classic Russian interior with Britain's palaces in mind.
After Paul I got this palace as a gift from his mother, he assigned his favorite architect Brenna to renovate the palace and the park to suit his military taste. Most of the interior design of the palace is from the work of Brenna.
The last renovation during the imperial era was done during the Nicholas I’s reign and by the hands of Roman Kuzmin who attached the Arsenal to the complex, and also installed a beautiful statue of Paul I in front of the palace.
Paul the first commanded to build the Priory Palace which was more like a Gothic church than a palace for the Knights Templar of the Maltese Order of St. John who turned to Russia after Napoleon forced them to leave Malta. Nikolai Lvov built this palace near the Black Lake's shore in 1799. During the Second World War, this palace turned to a military hospital, and after the war, it changed to the local history museum. Currently, its 30-meter tower which has a great view over the park and the grand palace is open for the public.
Gatchina Park was built at the same time as the grand palace. The design of the park was ideal for hunting which was Orlov's favorite hobby; however, that design was not appreciated by Paul, so he appointed Brenna to remodel the park, and give the gardens a more formal look. Currently, the park which almost destroyed during the Second World War is slowly getting back its original 19th-century form, though most of the pavilions and gardens are demolished. There are several pavilions and structures built in the park, but the most famous ones are the Birch, the Eagle, and the Venous.
The first collection of the Gatchina museum was gathered by the first owner of the palace, Count Orlov who collected hunting weapons, paintings, applied art from the Western and Oriental masters, decorative, and drawings. Following his death, the next owners increased the collection exhibits constantly. After the October revolution, the grand palace of Gatchina turned to the largest suburb museum in St. Petersburg with almost 54,000 exhibits. During the post-war era, most of these collections lost or robbed, and only 16,000 of them got rescued. These collections gathered in the museum fund vault or sent to other museums in Russia. The Gatchina museum started to work again in 1986, and around 8000 rescued items gave back to its collection.
These collections are quite unique, and they worth the time and energy to be observed thoughtfully. The famous collection includes engravings, metal artworks, furniture, weapons, paintings, rare books, fabrics suits, porcelains, glass artworks, ceramics, sculptures, and several more kinds of art.
Unfortunately, the Gatchina doesn't include in most of the St. Petersburg’s tours due to the distance of the complex to the city center. However, still many tourists visit this place in their travel to St. Petersburg journey. We recommend that if you have plans to include this place in your St. Petersburg tour, talk to your Russia tour managers beforehand.