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DESTINATION: RUSSIA

Remnants of the Romanovs

Near St. Petersburg, the last days of Anastasia and her family echo in an eerie 18th century palace reopened to visitors

August 13, 2000|SUSAN JAMES | Susan James is a freelance writer based in La Canada

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — "That is the window," our Russian guide, Natalya, explained. She gestured toward a yellow and white rotunda studded with bow windows that reflected a stormy sky. "Through there at dawn on Aug. 1, 1917, the Czarina Alexandra's wheelchair was lifted and the entire imperial family was taken away."

On either side of the ominous rotunda stretched two stately wings of an 18th century palace, and beyond them the green depths of an overgrown park. Except for the wind blowing through stands of white lilac planted by the doomed czarina, there was no sound. It was an eerie place. I kept looking over my shoulder for the imperial ghosts that must surely haunt it. Natalya looked somberly at the crumbling, yet-to-be-restored exterior of the palace. "Of course, you know that the Romanovs never returned."

So here I was, finally, visiting a place I had read about for years: the Alexander Palace at Czarskoe Selo, the Czar's Village, about 15 miles south of St. Petersburg. I had come in June for a convention and was thrilled to be in a city that always has fascinated me. The Alexander Palace was a big part of the attraction.

Built between 1792 and 1796 by Catherine the Great as a wedding present for her favorite grandson, Czar Alexander I, the palace passed in 1894 to Russia's last czar, Nicholas II. He and his wife, Alexandra, and their five children lived for 22 years in the modestly decorated west wing. Of their four young daughters, the youngest, Anastasia, was the clown, mimicking guests, cracking jokes and climbing trees in the adjacent Alexander Park.

After the 1917 Russian Revolution and the czar's abdication, the Romanovs spent five months under house arrest in the palace. That August they were spirited away to Siberia, and 11 months later they were dead--slain by Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg.

For years speculation grew that Anastasia had escaped the massacre, and a woman even claimed to be the grand duchess. Evidence suggests she was actually a Polish factory worker, but her attempts to assume the identity of the grand duchess made Anastasia probably the best-known Russian royal in the world.

My fascination with Anastasia and her family began in my childhood. At a party in 1968, I met Maria Rasputin, daughter of Grigori Rasputin, the religious mystic-turned-confidant of Nicholas II and Alexandra. On some Sundays, Maria said, the czar would send a car to take her to the palace so she could have tea with the grand duchesses. The girls would enter the room so quietly, she couldn't hear their feet touch the floor.

Fifteen years later, in 1983, I visited St. Petersburg for the first time. It was called Leningrad then. The sky was gray, and so were the faces of the people.

When I returned this past June with my mother, I found a world of change. The sky was blue, and people were fashionably dressed. There were no long lines at the food stores, and the shelves were crammed with goods in the Gostiny Dvor, St. Petersburg's fashionable bazaar on Nevsky Prospect, the main shopping boulevard.

We stayed at the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel, a concrete warren of 1,200 rooms on the western end of Vasilevsky, one of the city's 42 islands. What the hotel lacked in style and elegance it made up with a stunning view of the Gulf of Finland out my window. It was the time of the so-called white nights of June and July, when the sun barely dips below the horizon. I could stand at my window at midnight and watch the sunlight on whitecaps that flecked the gulf.

It also helped that among the hotel's amenities was a travel agency that arranged our trip to the Alexander Palace. We rented a car and hired a driver and English-speaking guide (Natalya) to take us to Czarskoe Selo, site of not only the relatively modest Alexander Palace but also the stunning Catherine Palace. The latter was built largely under the direction of Czarina Elizabeth, starting in 1752, and was named after her mother, Catherine I; the palace later was reshaped dramatically by Catherine II, a.k.a. Catherine the Great.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Czarskoe Selo was the Beverly Hills of St. Petersburg. The rich and famous constructed mansions on the outskirts of the palace parks. Only the nobility were allowed to build in what was essentially a large gated community patrolled by soldiers.

As we pulled onto the gravel of the Alexander Palace drive, it was as if we had entered that lost world. The crumbling yellow and white walls are the same ones that Anastasia would have seen had she looked back one last time on that fateful August dawn. The trees Anastasia climbed still stand in the park, as does the full-size, four-room playhouse on the Children's Island, where the family's pet cemetery was.

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