Gatchina Palace: Catherine the Great’s lover, her son and other stories

Gatchina Palace. Source: Press photo

Gatchina Palace, the imperial residence outside St. Petersburg, is celebrating 250 years since the beginning of its construction.

Primarily associated with Paul I, who was gifted the palace by his mother, Catherine the Great, and lived there for more than 15 years, Gatchina became a stately home after Paul’s accession and maintained this status until the revolution of 1917. Initially, however, the Empress had built the palace not for her son, but for her lover.

Catherine the Great took the throne in a coup. According to the eminent pre-revolutionary historian Vasily Klyuchevsky, she undertook “a double seizure: She both took power from her husband and didn’t pass it to her son, the natural heir of his father” (for this reason, Paul is known as the “Russian Hamlet”).

One of the leaders of the coup was Catherine’s favorite Count Grigory Orlov – a stately man, both resolute and reckless. He was well-known as St. Petersburg’s Don Juan. Three years after her coronation, Catherine gave Orlov a generous gift – the Gatchina estate, a picturesque area with forests and spring lakes just 25 miles from St. Petersburg. Here, Orlov immediately started building a hunting lodge.

The construction dragged on for 15 years, and Orlov died soon after its completion, before having a chance to enjoy his gift. Catherine then bought the estate from the Count’s heirs and presented it to her son Paul on the occasion of the birth of his eldest daughter Alexandra. The frivolousness of the situation was typical of the 18th century.

Gatchina became Paul’s most beloved residence, and everything at the palace was arranged to his taste.

“The palace reflects two Paul’s strongest passions – theater and military,” said Alexandra Farafonova, the head of the Gatchina Palace Research Archive. “The best Petersburg troupes performed in the palace and sometimes even members of the imperial family and people close to them gave amateur performances.

“In addition, the Gatchina army became a model for the future reform of the Russian Empire army. The artillery received the most attention, and played an important role in the Patriotic War of 1812 with Napoleon.”

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