Every picture I have seen of the recently reconstructed palace at Tsaritsyno on the southern outskirts of Moscow has shown a massive, pseudo-Gothic building with a few people in the foreground. When I visited the place recently, I found the opposite: a massive crowd with a few pseudo-Gothic towers in the distance. Admittedly it was a Sunday afternoon; admittedly the weather was sunny, warm and pleasantly autumnal, with the feeling that this was probably the last time to get out in shirt-sleeves before the onset of autumn. But really, the crowds! A Russian William Powell Frith could have painted a modern version of “Derby Day” there. So the first point about Tsaritsyno is make sure you visit when it is cold and gloomy, and definitely on a week-day. In fact, that will probably enhance the effect of the extraordinary buildings. Perhaps snowy weather would be the best.
Tsaritsyno has a long and interesting history. It first came to prominence in the seventeenth century when the Streshnev boyar family were recorded as occupying four villages in the area, collectively known as Чёрная Грязь, or Black Dirt/Mud. Later the estate passed into the famous Golitsyn family who built a large manor house there.
But Peter the Great hated and feared the great boyar families, confiscating this one and passing it on to Prince Dmitri Kantemir, the former ruler of Moldova. The Kantemirs avoided Kremlin intrigue and concentrated instead on beautifying their houses, pavilions, lakes and grounds at Чёрная Грязь to such effect that when Catherine the Great visited in 1775 she felt she had to own it. Along with her reputed nymphomania, she also displayed the related quality of almost uncontrollable acquisitiveness. In a less wealthy woman it might have ended up as kleptomania. Within three weeks of setting eyes on Чёрная Грязь, the estate was hers.
Within three months of acquiring the property, Catherine had commissioned the architect, Vasily Bazhenov, to design and build a completely new ensemble of palaces, pavilions and other buildings, including bridges, gates and stables. She specified the Moorish-Gothic style, which was then in vogue in western Europe. Bazhenov is known today for having designed the Pashkov House, which became the Old Building of the Lenin Library. It stands, newly restored like Tsaritsyno, on high ground overlooking the Alexandrovsky Gardens and the Kammeny Most.
Catherine renamed her new estate and work started immediately, continuing until 1786 when Bazhenov was sacked. Some people think that part of the reason was that he was a Freemason. After the Pugachev Revolt in the early 1770s, Catherine had come to regard all secret societies with great mistrust. She had part of Bazhenov’s palace demolished and appointed Matvey Kazakov to replace him.
Kazakov subsequently became famous as one of the most influential architects of the new Moscow which was built after the great fire of 1812. He designed the Moscow University building and the Kremlin Senate, as well as famous Hall of Columns at the bottom of Tverskaya Street. He has been compared to Quarenghi in St Petersburg. But his talent never bore fruit at Tsaritsyno because building stopped again, almost as soon as it had re-started, this time due to lack of money. The reason was the outbreak of the second Russo-Turkish war in 1787, which followed Catherine’s annexation of the Crimea.
At this point, the creative history of Tsaritsyno stopped. The building was never completed, falling slowly into disrepair. Parts of it were used variously as a hospital, rest-home, museum, unofficial nature reserve and home for the drunks of south-west Moscow. Today it is a lavishly appointed pleasure park for Moscow’s emerging consumer society. Over $15 million has been spent on restoration in the last ten years, and it shows.
Even if the crowds are so dense that you cannot get into the palace, it is worth visiting Tsaritsyno simply to see the fountains, which are spectacular. I recommend taking the Metro to Орехово (Orekhovo) on the green line, then walking back through the grounds, past the palace and down to the lakes where the fountains are. It is then a short step to Царицыно (Tsaritsyino) metro station, on the same line. Apart from the fact that this route in generally downhill, it also means that you will save the fountains for last.