St. Petersburg is a city of palaces. The biggest are world famous tourist attractions. Long lines of visitors pay $30 to see Peter the Great’s palace on the outskirts of the city at Peterhof, and the Winter Palace in the center of the city, now part of the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. Both were damaged during the three-year German siege of Leningrad, and have been carefully and expensively restored.
These gigantic homes of the Russian emperors rival the most elaborate palaces of European royalty. Enormous rooms covered in gold paint, acres of inlaid wood floors, furniture created by the most famous craftsmen, chandeliers, paintings, stucco work, ceiling frescos, carved doors, marble staircases wide enough for a herd of horses.
Peterhof was a country retreat for Peter, who had St. Petersburg built to create a northern port for his Empire, so it was a moderately sized palace, about 30 rooms, stretching the length of three football fields. The throne room is 25 feet high and covers 3500 sq. ft. A special canal was built to bring visitors’ boats from the Gulf of Finland. Tsar Peter was fascinated by water, and he helped design a spectacular complex of hundreds of fountains whose water is brought by a specially built canal from springs 12 miles away. A dozen smaller palaces are scattered among acres of formal gardens.
The Winter Palace is one of the largest buildings I have ever seen. It covers 650,000 sq. ft., nearly as large as Louis XIV’s Versailles and English royalty’s Buckingham Palace. Today it houses the Hermitage museum, but the palace rooms themselves push the art objects into the background.
These two are merely the most impressive of Petersburg’s palaces. The banks of the Neva River and the smaller canals that cross St. Petersburg are lined with the gigantic constructions of the Russian nobility. Families that owned tens of thousands of acres of land and thousands of peasant serfs competed to build private homes of incredible size and opulence.
America has no such palaces. The largest homes in the United States were built by the Vanderbilt family, based on the fortune in shipping and railroads amassed by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877). The largest is the Biltmore House in North Carolina with 250 rooms covering 180,000 sq. ft. The fabled “summer cottages” of Newport, RI, are much smaller. The largest house ever built in Chicago, Potter Palmer’s home facing Lake Michigan, would rank with the outbuildings at Peterhof.
There are no American political equivalents to the palaces of European royalty. The White House extends over 55,000 sq. ft. George Washington’s Mount Vernon (21 rooms) and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (43 rooms) are only about 10,000 sq. ft. When the leaders of the new United States decided to create a democracy, they legislated the end of palaces and the other trappings of European royalty in favor of legal equality (for white men, at least).
The fascination of St. Petersburg’s palaces for the visitor lies in their uniqueness, their impossible magnificence, their foreign gigantism. American tourists, myself included, enjoy marveling at the exuberant ostentation of European palaces like Peterhof, partly because we can find nothing like it at home.
Palaces require much more than personal wealth. Russian emperors used funds they collected from millions of Russian peasants to construct homes that spoke of their unearthly power. Most peasants were barely able to subsist on small plots of land, but they supported the faraway royal family and the local nobles who dominated their every aspect of their lives. These wonders of human creation were built on the exploitation of the many for the few, on the assumption that some people were better than most and deserved to spend as much as they liked to demonstrate and maintain their superiority.
St. Petersburg, city of palaces, is also a city of revolution. The Romanov royal family’s exploitation of Russian peasants and workers was overthrown in 1917. The small palace of Nicholas II’s mistress, the ballerina Kshesinskaya, now houses a fine museum of the modern political history of Russia. During the revolutionary months of 1917, the Bolshevik Party took over the building and Lenin used one room as his office. After the Bolsheviks took power, most of giant homes of the Russian nobility were divided into small apartments for average citizens.
Of the largest houses in the US, more than half were built between 1882 and 1929, during the so-called Gilded Age, when giant fortunes were made, but poverty was widespread. The richest 1% owned half of the property in America. Most of the remaining enormous American homes have been constructed in the last 15 years, another period when the very rich got even richer and economic inequality has increased to levels not seen since before the Great Depression.
Palaces are impressive human creations, employing the most skilled artists to create lasting works of cultural significance. But they are also symbols of economic exploitation, as the very rich flaunt their wealth before the masses in needless but conspicuous extravagance. The very few at the top can build what they want, but they cannot control how the rest think about their greed and their ostentation.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 23, 2016