Lack of a personal palace is one of my life’s greatest deficiencies. So thank goodness there are plenty of gorgeous 18th and 19th century grand estates in Moscow and its close surroundings to chose from should I find myself in possession of a couple of spare billions or an oil field in my backyard.
The Kuskovo Complex in southeast Moscow used to be a pretty good contender for my palace shortlist. I remember going skiing and sledding in the nearby park when I was a tween, the compound’s bright pink palace looking striking against the fresh white snow, but I have never been to Kuskovo as an adult, and I’ve never toured its grounds and museums. I decided to rectify that shortcoming on the last day of my Winter Break. Unfortunately I could not have chosen a worse time for the trip.
One of the funky things about Moscow and its surroundings is that due the city’s size and varied topography, different areas have completely different micro-climates. So while just a day before I enjoyed a stroll through the Winter Wonderland of the Arkhangelskoye Estate, and though there were no changes in temperature overnight, I arrived at Kuskovo to find a slippery, slushy, muddy mess instead of snow. And then it started raining.
But on I went, rain and ice and puddles and all, getting pretty soaked in the process, from both ends.
Kuskovo is a Recreation Palace — the term I learned thanks to the ticket office brochure. Naturally, one needs a palace to live in, and if that palace happens to be in a city, then a country estate is de rigueur, but one had no idea that one needed a separate palace just for recreational personal. I guess it’s to reward oneself for all the hard labor of living in one’s other estates. One has learned one’s lesson. So, what did that ‘recreation’ entail? Well, in the olden days Kuskovo hosted parties, concerts, receptions and performances for up to — get this — 30,000 people at once. Thirty THOUSAND. The Royal Wedding had nothing on Kuskovo’s run of the mill picnic.
Completed in the second half of the 18th century for Count Sheremetyev — an influential courtier and one of Russia’s richest men — Kuskovo complex consists of more than a dozen buildings, formal French gardens with marble statues, and a large lake surrounded by a park.
The buildings are…interesting. They are VERY bright. I am not sure whether such color intensity is the result of recent renovations but considering that this estate is a historic gem, it is a reasonable assumption that efforts are made to preserve the authenticity of the place down to the last detail, and especially something as defining as the color scheme. Which, in this case, is Easter Rainbow. The main palace is salmon-pink and adjacent buildings are rose-pink, coral, saffron yellow and dove grey. Other structures strewn around the estate are Creamsicle-orange, orange-pink, canary yellow, lemon yellow, light berry and mint green. Put together, does this make for a whimsical or cacophonous combination? Set against the black-grey-white-dark green of an entirely unseasonal weather backdrop it certainly leaned toward the latter.
The highlight of the complex is, not surprisingly, the main palace. It is sprawling, very pink and beautifully situated on the side of a lake. Now, for all my grouching about this visit, I really enjoyed the tour of this place. The interiors are straight out of a period movie, bright, well-preserved, clean (I still remember dust bunnies hanging off of the bed canopies at Versailles). But, because this is a very grouchy post, I must complain. You could barely see anything. The historical preservation commission, or whatever similar federal institution it might be in Russia, has decided that any kind of artificial lighting in this palace would would be a fire hazard. I don’t know if that is the standard MO for other grand estates (all of which, I now realize, I had visited in summertime), but in the middle of a Russian winter, when we get barely 5 hours a day of proper daylight, and that’s in clear, sunny weather? It wasn’t working. It was really difficult to appreciate paintings, upholstery details, frescoes and general impact of the decor with such limited illumination, made even worse when the majority of the showcased space laid between the passageway and the window, so you were looking against the light. Nevertheless, I liked it. It was pretty, especially the main ballroom. The Duke and I are dancing there right this moment, in my mind.
Two other buildings stood out for me. The first was The Grotto. The pavilion, set on a side of a pond, looks pretty standard on the outside, in a way that a Rococo mini-palace can look standard. But the inside…well, it’s pretty magical. Whimsical to the highest degree. It is decorated with sea shells and coral, and the structure of the place indeed invokes that of an underwater cavern. It’s rather chilly, in the most fitting of ways.
The second building that made an impression is the Dutch House. It is the earliest completed and still-surviving structure on the estate, and one of the three ‘foreign’ entertainment pavilions — the other two being the Italian House and the Swiss Lodge. It is more an amalgam than a replica of what a house in the Lower Lands looked like in the 18th century, all thatched roofs and tiled interiors.
Kuskovo also houses the largest porcelain and fine china collection in Russia, and one of the greatest ones in the world. Lots of pretty things that I, unfortunately, could not take pictures of, as photography was not allowed inside that particular exhibit (though you could purchase reasonably priced photo books of the collection).
The takeaway? The buildings were pretty on their own, but the whole place didn’t really come together for me. Because I love ‘The Nature‘, I suspect Kuskovo’s rather flat setting and lack of integration with the wilderness — at least that’s how it appeared in early January — contributes to the somewhat frustrating experience. While, for example, Archangelskoye, is somewhere I want to go to over and over again , Kuskovo is the trip that practically begs for a do-over.
Kuskovo grounds and museums are open Wednesday through Sunday, for details check out the estate’s English-language site. Directions: about 10 minutes by bus or route taxi from Ryazansky Prospect metro stop (purple line). There is a cafe on the premises but not much development around.