I had many an ambitious day-tripping plan for my Winter Hols. Arkhangelskoye — a comparatively modest country estate that over the course of the 17th-20th centuries had passed through the hands of several prominent aristocratic families of Imperial Russia — was not on that list. In fact, I had never heard about it and found out about it entirely by chance from a British expat, of all people, over holiday beers.
I was excited about the prospect of visiting a I place I knew nothing about; usually I am my own biggest spoiler, guilty of over-researching every historical site, museum, and yes, even movie, before laying eyes on it ‘in real life.’ This time around the only thing I researched was public transportation directions, so I had no idea what to expect of the trip. The only thing I had hoped for was that the weather being what it has been for the past three weeks, the whole place wasn’t going to be muddy and grey.
The Arkhangelskoye ‘palace complex’ (in Russian, ‘complex’ denotes a compound, or any set of buildings or installations) is located on the bank of the Moscow River, some 20 km/ 13 miles west of the city, in the middle of a pine forest. On arrival, of all the places I had visited abroad, it reminded me most closely of Vaux le Vicomte, France’s less flashy, more naturalistic precursor to Versailles. The setting is rural and fairly isolated, if you ignore all the recent suburban development nearby; in the pre-21st century context the defining characteristic of this country palace would have been country.
Back to 2014. The forest is gorgeous. ‘Mast’ red pine groves stretch all the way to the steep northern banks of the frozen Moscow River. They envelop the palace and then give way to an airy panoramic vista. Slightly icy pathways notwithstanding, the rest of the ground is covered with clean, white snow. The estate itself is integrated into the natural landscape, save for the massive cleared out lawn that stretched from the palace almost all the way to the river. The orchard that frames the ginormous field provides a nice, gradual transition from tall pine forest to that open stretch of grass or snow. In warmer seasons a magnificent sculpture collection decorates the estate, appearing here and there along wooded paths and dotted all over open spaces. The statues — many of them genuine antiquity pieces — are encased in wood or glass crates in the winter months, to protect them from the elements. The layout of the grounds is relaxed and uncluttered.
Three main architectural sites of the estate are:
The building was designed by an Italian architect in neoclassical style and built in late 18th century. The interiors are light and airy and the decor has been preserved and/or reconstructed to match the look that the place had under its final private owner, Prince Yusupov (he of the Russian aristocratic clan with close ties to the Romanov imperial family and possibly wealthier than the royal family itself, having made immense fortunes through mining in the Ural mountains). It struck me as rather eclectic: Grisaille wall frescoes, Italian Renaissance-themed tapestries and carpets, Ming Dynasty vases, Egyptian Revival ceiling design, Northern European wood-carved furniture with early Art Nouveau undertones, and so forth.
Church of Archangel Michael
The entire estate takes its name from this 1660 stone church, still very much active and even busy on Christmas Day, which is when I visited Arkhangelskoye.
This early 20th-century construction was intended as a mausoleum for the Yusupovs. It was not to serve its mission, as the family was forced to emigrate to Europe during the 1917 revolution. In fact, the work on the mausoleum were never completed. Though the building itself belongs in the modern age, its exterior design is neoclassical, and the interior is decorated in the Baroque style.
The estate’s largest structure is the sanatorium — a still-operational convalescence home constructed in the 1930s, after the estate had been, naturally, expropriated by the Soviet authorities. The two buildings are stylistically synchronized with the rest of the complex, though several elements give them away as noticeably more modern. They sit opposite of the main palace, right at the edge of the elevated river bank before it drops off toward the floodplain — an arrangement that reminded me of an ancient fortress.
The grounds also house a famous theater, monuments dedicated to the Russian Empress Catherine The Great and to preeminent Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin, a tea house, fountains, as well as Flugel, former estate office that today functions as a museum for a fabulous collection of fine porcelain that was manufactured and decorated at the Arkhangelskoye estate by Yusupov’s serf artists and craftsmen.
What I enjoyed the most about the visit, however, was the energy of the place. It was in full holiday swing: the main palace’s courtyard was hosting a Yolka carnival for the kids, with Ded Moroz and Snegurochka at the helm, of course. There was a folk crafts market and an arts & crafts workshop for the kids, pony rides and horse carriage rides, doll shop, hot pies, Russian carnival games led by folks in traditional Russian country clothing, accordion music and sweets given away for free! At night there was to be a dance at the palace; in fact, according to the announcement board, there were dances and carnivals and balls for kids and adults alike throughout the winter holidays and regularly on weekends.
A gorgeous place, a beautiful experience — I cannot wait to come back for more to see Arkhangelskoye in all its springtime, summer and autumnal glory.
Arkhangelskoye Estate: from Tushinskaya metro stop (purple line, NW side), buses or route taxis #151, 541, 549. Other options here: http://www.arhangelskoe.su/for_visitor/place/