The history of Oranienbaum begins in 1711, when the commission distributing land for the suburban mansions of the aristocracy assigned Prince Alexander Menshikov a plot opposite Kotlin Island on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, a slight distance away from Peterhof.

The first recorded name of the estate also dates back to 1711. To this day, it is still unknown why Menshikov chose to call it “Oranienbaum.” Such a title was quite difficult for Russians to pronounce and was immediately simplified to “Oranibom” or “Rambov.”

According to one theory, the name of Oranienbaum comes from the orange trees that allegedly grew on a previously existing Swedish estate. While there was never any other estate in this place, Menshikov did indeed build an orangery, in which 101 wild orange trees grew in 1728.

An alternative explanation is that the estate was named in honour of William III of Orange – stadtholder of the Netherlands and king of England, who was greatly admired by Peter the Great and, accordingly, Menshikov. In 1703, Peter I founded the town of Oranienburg near Voronezh, later granted to Menshikov.

The first buildings at Oranienbaum were a saw-mill and brick factories, which produced the materials for the future palace. At first, as on other large estates, a temporary wooden house was constructed for the owner. In 1711, the foundations were laid for a grand palace, designed by Italian architect Francesco Fontana.

After Francesco Fontana left Russia circa 1713, construction was headed by the German architect Johann Gottfried Schädel. Andreas Schlüter also contributed to the design around this time.

Between 1711 and 1725, a two-storey palace was built from stone on the coastal ridge. The main wing was adjoined by two galleries with high pavilions – the Church Pavilion and the Japanese Pavilion. One of the first regular parks in Russia was laid out in front of the palace in 1712. Known as the Lower Garden, it was a typical example of the regular French parks fashionable in Russia in the first half of the eighteenth century.

The palace and the garden were joined to the sea by a long canal – a popular feature in palace ensembles during the reign of Peter the Great. Boats could pass from the Gulf of Finland right up to the palace. Besides the main palace and the landscape garden, the ensemble also included a picture gallery, an orangery and five “lower houses” for the estate personnel.

In August 1721, a nobleman from Holstein called Friedrich Wilhelm von Bergholtz visited Oranienbaum and wrote that “the house is built on a hill and has a superb view. It consists of a two-storey main block and two semi-circular galleries, leading to two comparatively large, round wings. One of them will house a very beautiful chapel, while the other will contain a large hall.

“At the bottom, in front of the house, is an extensive garden, which has still not quite been put in order. Before this is a small and pleasant grove, through which a wide allée has been cut and a canal has been dug, directly opposite the main building, providing a wonderful view of the sea... At the top, from the central hall of the house, Kronslot is visible, almost diagonally opposite, at a distance of no more than three miles by water. The rooms in the palace are small, but handsome, and decorated with fine paintings and furniture.”

By 1727, Prince Alexander Menshikov had almost finished building his suburban palace, which matched the imperial residences in size, scale and opulence. In the western wing, the St Pantaleon Chapel was nearing completion. A magnificent gilded iconostasis by Ivan Zarudny, a leading Russian carver and architect, had already arrived from Moscow. The church was due to be blessed on 3 September 1727.

Prince Menshikov eagerly awaited the arrival of Peter II from Peterhof, but the young emperor did not appear, so the ceremony went ahead without him. This event signalled the start of the downfall of the previously almighty prince. During the consecration ceremony, Menshikov is alleged to have sat in the tsar’s place, on the throne intended for the emperor.

After the arrest and banishment of Menshikov in 1727, Oranienbaum Palace stood empty for sixteen years. In 1743, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna awarded the whole estate to her nephew, the future Peter III, following his proclamation as heir presumptive to the Russian throne in 1742.

Grand Duke Peter Fyodorovich did not like the palace – the architecture was too out-of-date, the rooms were too small and the main hall was too cramped for dancing. Between 1746 and 1750, Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli headed reconstruction of the building and the replanning of the garden. Besides essential repairs to the main block, a series of extensions and “out-buildings” were added.

In 1750, Rastrelli built a wooden Summer Palace for the holding of balls. Two years later, construction of the Picture House began to the left of the Grand Palace. This building included a picture gallery, an opera theatre, a large library and a cabinet of curiosities.

The surviving inventory of the cabinet of curiosities suggests that the new owner was trying to replicate the Kunstkammer of Peter the Great. Along with works of art, the cabinet boasted great rarities, both of natural and artificial origin. There were precious stones, minerals, rare stuffed animals and anthropological exhibits – usually some form of anomaly, such as Siamese twins (“skeleton of freak with two different heads, three arms, two spines and two legs”).

As in his grandfather’s cabinet of curiosities, Peter III’s Kunstkammer had many exhibits bottled in spirits. They were mostly examples of the abnormal development of the human foetus – “freak without legs, one complete arm and one half-arm in spirit,” “child with ranine face in spirit, “young monkey in spirit,” “two spoilt Chinese heads.” There were also various oriental curios – a total of eighty pieces – including mechanical toys (“chinaman sitting on an elephant in which the mechanism is spoilt”) and statuettes (“copper priest with a censer”). Although the collection of Peter III was later broken up and dispersed, many former objects can still be found today in Russian museums.

In the second half of the 1750s, Peter moved deeper into the Oranienbaum Park, away from the Menshikov Palace. He began to build an ensemble called the Own Dacha, which had its very own fortress, Peterstadt. The forerunner of this citadel was Ekaterinburg – a mock fortress built in the park immediately after Oranienbaum was awarded to Peter in 1743.

Peter planned to recreate Holstein in miniature and Peterstadt was defended by a small detachment of real Holstein soldiers, under the command of German officers. The squad was housed in barracks hastily built between 1756 and 1757. Although Peterstadt was small, it had its own arsenal, guardhouse, commander’s house, tavern and coffee house.

Slightly later, as if sensing the danger that lay ahead, Peter began to rebuild the fortress and bolster the defences. The mock fortress of Peterstadt and the toy detachment of Holstein soldiers are now regarded as deliberate attempts by the grandson of Peter the Great to emulate his illustrious grandfather.

In 1759, Antonio Rinaldi designed a two-storey stone building called the Palace of Peter III. The finish touches were added right on the eve of Peter’s overthrow in June 1762. A pleasure garden, with a hermitage in the middle, was laid out in the valley of the River Karasta. Like the Hermitage at Peterhof, it also had a descending table. The park was decorated with arbours, a cascade, a menagerie, a Nightingale Summerhouse (for listening to birds singing) and, finally, a Chinese House.

On 28 June 1762, with the assistance of the Orlov brothers and other members of the imperial guards, Peter’s wife Catherine seized power in St Petersburg. The emperor was arrested in Oranienbaum and forced to abdicate. He was taken under armed guard to the hunting palace at Ropsha, where he died in unclear circumstances on 6 July 1762.

Although Oranienbaum was associated with the name of her detested husband, Catherine still loved this place, where she had lived as a young grand duchess. She had spent her first years in Russia there, riding on horseback through the park and surrounding countryside. Even after the overthrow of Peter III, she spent at least some time there every summer, until about 1774.

During this period, Catherine II did much to improve Oranienbaum. Like her late husband, she paid little attention to the old Menshikov Palace, preferring to complete the new projects begun under Peter III. The only difference was that, unlike her husband’s preference for architecture militaris, she concentrated on architecture civilis. In the 1760s, Catherine completed Peter’s plans for a palace and park complex called the Own Dacha. Work was entrusted to Antonio Rinaldi, who had already built Peterstadt.

The centrepiece of the Own Dacha complex at Oranienbaum was the Chinese Palace, which was designed by Antonio Rinaldi in the Rococo style and built between 1762 and 1768 as a summer residence of Catherine the Great. The empress did not live at the palace, which she preferred to show to guests as an expensive toy.

Originally known as the Dutch House, this outwardly modest building saved all its surprises for the inside, from the stunning plafonds on the ceilings right down to the matching motifs on the parquet floors. Four rooms were designed in the Chinoiserie style, which is what gave the palace its name.

Between 1764 and 1768, Antonio Rinaldi made floors from artificial marble and smalt (Glass Beads Study) in sixteen rooms of the Chinese Palace. The girders beneath them quickly rotted, causing them to sink under their own weight. In 1770, it was decided to create the parquet floors now surviving in fifteen of the palace rooms.

The wooden floors of the Chinese Palace were made between 1771 and 1782 by foreign joiners Jacob Lang, Johann Petersen, Johann Schultz and Witte, assisted by Russian marquetry masters. The parquetry was largely based on the previous patterns of the artificial marble floors.

The Chinese Palace perfectly captures the tastes of Catherine the Great. This was the first and only residence built, from start to finish, for the empress herself. In all the other imperial palaces at St Petersburg, Peterhof, Tsarskoe Selo and elsewhere, she entered apartments that had already been created before her arrival in Russia. Although these palaces were reconstructed, that was not enough to make them her own.

The Chinese Palace was surrounded by a kitchen and premises for the members of the court. A pond was dug in front of the palace, next to an ivy-entwined pergola. Rinaldi surrounded the palace with an extremely original park, which was neither completely symmetrical (French), nor completely landscape (English). Rinaldi created – or, rather, combined – two parks, showing that Baroque and Neoclassicism could co-exist in landscape gardening.

Despite the regular layout of the park, Rinaldi does not repeat Versailles. The allées do not create the same perspectives as in Peterhof. The main building – the Chinese Palace – is hidden away in an intimate corner. The high windowed doors make the palace more like a park pavilion – with the riot of a Rococo fantasy behind the glass.

Another unique creation by Antonio Rinaldi rose up in the distance. This was the Rollercoaster Pavilion (1762–64). Repeating a building created by Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli for Elizabeth Petrovna at Tsarskoe Selo, this unusual structure was designed in a pure Rococo style. From the first floor, carriages with squealing passengers plunged down a wooden chute, five-hundred yards in length. The slide existed until 1801, when it had to be dismantled because of its dilapidated state.

After the death of Catherine the Great in 1796, Oranienbaum was inherited by her eldest grandson Alexander I in 1796. The estate then passed to Nicholas I in 1825. In 1827, the emperor offered Oranienbaum to his two brothers – Konstantin and Mikhail. Konstantin lived in Warsaw and turned down the present, but Mikhail took up residence there.

Oranienbaum instantly became the favourite suburban residence of Mikhail’s remarkable wife, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna. Between the 1830s and 1850s, she carried out large-scale reconstruction work, breathing new life into the palaces and parks.

The Menshikov Palace had not been occupied since the days of Catherine the Great. Harald Julius von Bosse reconstructed the facades and adding glass-enclosed verandas.

Elena Pavlovna decided to join up all the previously unrelated parts of the estate – the Grand (Menshikov) Palace, the Own Dacha complex, the Peterstadt fortress – within the framework of the Upper Park. The English gardener, Joseph Busch, planted new trees and dismantled anything that spoilt the general perception of the landscape. The different parts of the estate were linked together by new allées and pathways.

Elena Pavlovna set about restoring the fortifications at Peterstadt. She planted new trees and bushes, attempting to recreate the romantic air of the “ruined fortresses” so often found in English parks.

In the 1850s, Elena Pavlovna changed the area around the Chinese Palace. The park became a landscape garden. New bridges were built and new paths and flowerbeds were laid out.

The Chinese Palace was transformed by the addition of a new floor. By the mid-nineteenth century, there was a clear need to expand the building, which did not have enough room for a place of residence. Three architects – Heinrich Stackenschneider, Ludwig Bohnstedt and Harald Julius von Bosse – submitted reconstruction projects. Elena Pavlovna chose Bohnstedt’s proposal, which aimed to cause as little damage as possible to Rinaldi’s masterpiece.

After the death of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna in 1873, Oranienbaum was inherited by Grand Duchess Ekaterina Mikhailovna, the only daughter of Mikhail and Elena to survive her parents. She kept the estate running along the lines introduced by her mother.

In 1851, Grand Duchess Ekaterina Mikhailovna married Duke George August of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. They lived at Oranienbaum and their children were the last owners of Oranienbaum before the revolution.

After the revolution, Oranienbaum was nationalised and turned into a museum. The estate survived the Second World War virtually unscathed and recently celebrated its three-hundredth anniversary in September 2011, following a major ongoing restoration programme.

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