St. Petersburg, Russia
Looking at this building you would hardly think that it qualifies for the title of ‘castle’. But appearances can be deceptive! Yes, this is one of the many imperial palaces of St. Petersburg – built between 1797 and 1801, and it looks like many of the other Classical buildings in the City, but it has a few things which qualify it to be a bona fide castle.
A small wooden palace existed on this site from the time of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, but the main Royal residence was the Winter Palace. However, Emperor Paul I (1754-1801) disliked the Winter Palace and always felt that he would be the victim of intrigues and assassination attempts if he lived there. He became Emperor in 1796 on the death of Catherine the Great and immediately began plans to build a new palace for himself.
He employed two architects, Vincenzo Brenna and Vasili Bazhenov to work on the building – which looks different from each side; Classical on one side, Italian Renaissance on another and Gothic on another.
Paul I was fascinated with medieval knights and so he decided to turn his new palace into a Castle. It is built around a central courtyard like many later castles and even has a moat around it formed of two rivers (the Moika and Fontanka) plus two specially dug canals. This turned the Castle into an artificial island which was only accessible via drawbridges.
Outside the Castle Paul had a statue of Peter the Great erected with the inscription “From Great Grandson to Great Grandfather”.
Paul I lived in his Castle for just 40 nights before – ironically – he was assassinated there. On 12 March 1801, in his own bedroom, he was approached by a group of dismissed military officers. They firstly tried to force his abdication, but he refused and in the struggle one of the officers struck him with a sword. This might have been construed as an accident, save for the fact that he was then strangled and trampled to death.
His successor, his son Alexander I, was in the Castle at the time and was told of his father’s death by one of the assassins, General Nicholas Zubov, with the words “Time to grow up! Go and rule!”.
The imperial family moved back to the Winter Palace and the Mikhailovsky Castle was abandoned and, in 1823, given to the Imperial Army’s Engineering School – which gave it it’s other common name of “the Engineers’ Castle”. Amongst those who studied there was Dostoyevsky who also later was imprisoned at St. Petersburg’s other great castle – the Peter and Paul Fortress.
In the 1990s the Mikhailovsky Castle became the Portrait Gallery of the Russian Museum of St. Petersburg which function it still holds today.
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