The Russian nobility led a charmed life in the nineteenth century. Arkhangelskoe is one of the largest estates of the Moscow region, one of many palaces of Prince Nikolai Yusupov, head of a family said to have been richer than the Czar’s. On a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon, a few years back, a friend and I crawled under a fence and approached the side of the main house, stumbling on a sleeping guard dog and his master who also was enjoying a snooze in the warm sun. The guard warned us to be careful of falling house parts and wished us a pleasant afternoon—and went back to sleep.
The palace was originally built in the late 18th Century and the estate purchased by Prince Nikolai Yusupov from Prince Golitsyn in 1810. It was rebuilt after being sacked by Napoleon’s troops in 1812. Prince Nikolai Yusupov was a descendant of the famous noble family that sprung from the son of a Tatar chieftain held hostage by Ivan the Terrible. The family is better known for Nikolai’s great-grandson, Prince Felix Yusupov, who murdered Rasputin in the cellar of their St. Petersburg estate in 1916. They were a family of inordinate wealth and unrestrained excesses, of beautiful women and unconventional men.
The estate was immense. The avenue of trees leading to the main house was overgrown and unkempt; the main gate, crafted in decorative iron, was locked with a heavy chain and a Russian padlock the size of a stove, but the gate squealed opened with a push. Like so many things in Russia, interesting things happen when you push. Fading frescoes of courtly figures on cracked and broken yellow plaster faced an inner courtyard of weeds that once received the carriages of Russian nobility and the Czar himself. The main house, faded yellow with dirty white trim, was a two storied building in Russian Classical style with a large portico supported by four splintered Corinthian columns. Little trees were growing out of rotted gutters. Careless piles of weathered building material lay between the colonnades, suggesting good intent.
Facing a river to the south, the Moscow River in its early and narrow stage, a rounded portico opened onto a large garden, yellow with dandelions and edged with columns of classical statues under wooden boxes to protect them from the elements. A terrace with stairs led down onto a park the size of a football field filled with dandelions and bordered by scores of boxed statues. Two babushkas were picking some little morsel from amongst the yellow flowers. From a lady on the gravel path I bought a pack of post cards showing the estate in its better days, the Italian statues under the wooden covers, and the earlier grandeur of the rooms and decor.
On a terrace overlooking the river were two yellow and white matched two-storey buildings in better repair a military officers’ retreat I was told. The park ran along the river moving too slowly to determine the direction of flow. Along the bank six young girls paraded proudly two-by-two within dandelion rings large enough to enclose them both.
In the river, two boys standing on a sinking raft were trying to paddle to shore, but laughing so hard at their predicament they were unable to go anywhere but in circles. Along the shore, old men were fishing lazily, catching nothing. Frogs, the loudest I have ever heard, were stumbling across the lily pads and arguing hoarsely at each other―typically Russian, I thought.
A well worn pathway led from the formal grounds through a primeval looking grove of pines and birches reminding me of an Ivan Shishkin painting with its dark shadows and slanted golden rays of the late day dancing on the red and white trunks. The pines were tall and thin, reaching almost a hundred feet into the sky―perfect for the masts of sailing ships, I thought.
On the hill through the green birch leaves three gold crosses glowed on the Archangel Michael church. The church, small, white, and simple was built in 1667, its onion domes covered with wooden shingles. Alongside the church rested a Yusupov princess in her grave.
Within the untrimmed groves of pines, birches, and lindens, stood a theater, and a mausoleum with semicircular columned porches, and other buildings of the estate in various states of decay. The expanse of the property and the architectural detail was beyond my expectations. I was surprised that the estate had survived the destruction of historical and natural forces. This visit reinforced my opinion, formed after seeing the palaces of St. Petersburg and the others of Moscow, that Russia takes no back seat to France or Germany in historical grandeur. While the shining splendor of a well-kept Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland is astounding, the unrestored naturalness of Arkhangelskoe seemed more real, more personal.
It was a lovely spring afternoon on Prince Yusupov’s estate.
Of course, today, the estate is all restored with classical music concerts in the summer months and even an open air jazz festival that has become quite an attraction. Also, today you have to pay to enter—but it is worth it.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.