Statues of Catherine the Great abound in St Petersburg, the city her in-laws built but which she made her own. More than 200 years after her death, Catherine’s vision for Russia lingers as visibly as those statues.
It’s not surprising that the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg has launched a significant exhibition dedicated to the reign of Catherine the Great. Taking over the beautiful Mikhailovsky Castle in the city centre, the exhibition brings life to the gold and glamour that cover the palaces and churches of the city.
Catherine II took the throne following a coup in 1762, dressed in the dramatic green uniform of the Preobrazhensky guards. Artists and sculptors working with her created such a distinctive style that anyone spending a few days in St Petersburg will begin to recognise her smile. The exhibition at the Mikhailovsky castle looks into how this legend was created, while explaining how the painting styles and table glassware of the era came to life.
From the first room, the displays tell us that the image of Catherine’s reign was controlled from the top by the empress and her supporters. She encouraged the arts and culture, but always with an eye to her reign’s reputation, according to the exhibition.
One room in the castle is dedicated to portraits of Catherine and the people in her life, including General Suvorov, famous in Russia for his victories in the Russo-Turkish wars. Altogether, there are more than 500 items on display, including some of the sumptuous heavily-embroidered gowns and coats worn at the court.
For those interested in understanding how history influences today’s politics, it’s worth noting that Empress Catherine II and her general Grigory Potemkin — also her partner — were the first to annex the Crimean peninsula to Russian rule. The events of that period, including the Empress’ journey by ship and carriage from St Petersburg to Crimea, form a central part of the new exhibition.
In another section, cartoons show how Catherine was seen at the time in the British and European press. One shows her with hands raised boxer-style protecting Russia against invasion, while a colourful image shows her stepping over from Constantinople to St Petersburg.
Visitors should allow plenty of time to visit Mikhailovsky Castle as other exhibitions on show include the portrait galleries of famous Russians from the arts and politics. Don’t miss the slightly disturbing collection of busts on the ground floor — dozens of heads grouped together by sculptor.
The palace itself is a delightful maze to explore, surrounded by moats and with stone staircases winding their way behind the walls. Some seem to disappear into the walls while others lead to ever-more fantastical rooms.
The palace was built for Catherine’s son, Paul I, whose statue sits in a beautiful courtyard at the centre of the peach-coloured castle. It’s best appreciated by standing in the centre of the courtyard and spinning in a circle to see how the clashing styles of Gothic and Renaissance architecture somehow complement each other.
In contrast to the crowds at the Hermitage, this museum is often missed by visitors to the city, but is worth a look for a deeper understanding of St Petersburg’s place in history.
Visit the Exhibition: Catherine the Great in Russia and beyond
When: now until May 28th
Where: Mikhailovsky Castle St Petersburg
Price: 450 roubles
Language: Russian, English