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The Glory of Livadia
Oleksa Paniv presents his story about Livadiysky Palats, arguably the most magnificent palace to be seen on the southern coast of the Crimea. In addition to being a truly remarkable architectural landmark of the early twentieth century, it happened to be the venue of the historic “Yalta Conference” held in 1945 at which Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin determined the course of world politics for decades to come.
Photos: Oleksandr KADNIKOV
I have to make a rather startling confession for an author who is going to talk about a palace — I have never been fascinated with palaces, or rather I’ve been rather indifferent to palaces, no matter how grandiose, majestic or beautiful they may be.
But surely enough I can appreciate the design, the colors, the location and all other things that palaces can boast of.
I always felt ill at ease when I happened to guide or join guided tours (the last time I did such a thing was about fifteen years ago) through those palaces which had been nationalized and turned into some sort of a public use — museums or rest homes or whatever. Though the former owners had long been dead, I felt their disapproving, unseen presence — it was as though I was intruding upon their privacy.
However, there are several palaces not of great antiquity which remain sort of dear to me as architectural landmarks not so much for their distinguished design but for the fact of being situated in places in the Crimea which are dear to my heart.
Livadia in Greater Yalta
One of such palaces is situated in Livadia, one of the little places that administratively are included into Greater Yalta.
I visited the palace for the first time when I was a boy of ten. Or rather it was my parents who went there as tourists, and I was just in tow. My memory of that visit is very dim and it was the magnificent park around the palace that took my fancy rather than the palace itself — there were quite a few plants which looked very exotic to me.
A couple of decades later I visited the palace in Livadia several times, though not because I wanted to see it but because I was a tour guide who took groups of US and British tourists to various destinations in a country that was called then the Soviet Union. The Crimea was one of such destinations, and the Livadia Palace was a must-see sight on the foreign-tourists’ map.
At that time, the palace still functioned as what in soviet parlance was called sanatoriy — that is a cross between a rest home and a health-improvement center, the salubrious air and the sea being the most active ingredients in health-improvement provided.
And it was a sanatoriy for “workers and peasants” who paid only a fraction of what it cost to stay in Livadia, the difference being paid by their labor unions. Most of these holiday makers, even by the very modest soviet standards, were basically poor, and they were supposed to have felt privileged to have been given a chance to “rest,” as it was called, in a palace that used to belong to a Russian czar (about the palace belonging to a czar still further down)!
I never asked the soviet laborers whether they did indeed feel privileged but their appearance stood in a great contrast to the white marble palace they stayed in and to the luscious park they took walks in. When the local guide would take the group into the palace, with me providing interpretation, the first thing that assailed us were the smells — those of a kitchen that cooked down-to-earth things such as boiled cabbage, mingled with a great mass of human bodies who did not use any deodorants. Those little trips through the palace were very short as there was actually nothing to show to the tourists, except, probably the hall in which the heads of state of the Allied countries had their meals during the conference in February of 1945 (“Yalta Conference”).
The inner yard of the palace could be seen through the wrought-iron openwork gate (always closed) — it was there in that yard where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin were photographed sitting on a marble czarist bench.
These days, the palace is occasionally used as a venue for all sorts of high-level conferences — otherwise you could call it “a museum.”
Fairy tales and some facts
While interpreting I could not help learning some facts about the palace — when it was built, by who and for who and other things which were of little interest to me then.
It was only still later when I started to visit the Crimea regularly to aestivate in a wonderful place called Gaspra, several miles away from Livadia, that the palace began “to grow on me.” It became a place visits to which from sporadic became regular, particularly after I began taking my little daughter Olga with me to the Crimea. One of the things we always did at least once a week was to take a leisurely walk along the Horizontal Trail that winds along the low, forested mountains above the sea, to Livadia and back.
The Trail (the soviets changed its name into “The Solar Trail”; now it is often referred to as “The Czar’s Trail”) was laid out on the orders of the Czar Nicholas II to connect his estate of Livadia with the estate of his relative in Gaspra. The sole purpose of the trail was to provide an excellent walking ground with no steep rises or descents. You can walk the distance that separates Gaspra and Livadia at a leisurely pace in about ninety minutes.
Finding a comfortable place to sit in front of the palace in Livadia, I would tell my daughter all sorts of tales about the palace: “Once upon a time there lived four beautiful princesses, one prince and their royal parents…” It was only when Olga was about five that I began to introduce into my happy-end Livadia fairy tale a sad ending, “And then came the ogres who chased the princesses, the prince and their parents away into the cold and darkness…”
She, sitting at one of the czarist marble benches that still grace the park, and looking at the white glory of the palace, almost wept and I tried to cheer her up by saying that, “But see, the palace is still here, not ruined, as beautiful as ever and we can enjoy ourselves looking at it.” And we would contemplate the serenely beautiful scenery in a reverent silence.
When she grew older I told her the true story:
The estate of Livadia was purchased by the Romanov family in 1860 (note that the estate was not just taken over by the Romanovs as they could have easily done, but actually purchased; the Bolsheviks thought and acted differently, grabbing whatever there was for grabbing, and much later the current Ukrainian rulers are doing pretty much the same). Alexander II officially presented the estate to his wife and the construction of the first palace and other buildings began soon after. The American writer Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, visited Livadia in 1868 during his trip to Europe and Palestine, thus becoming probably the first distinguished American tourist ever to visit the place.
Under Alexander III, the next czar (Alexander II was assassinated in 1881), the construction in Livadia began in earnest and the Big Palace, the precursor of the one that still stands, was built. Nicholas, Alexander’s son, was not fit to be a ruler of any state, much less of such a tremendously big one as Russia with a great many problems as big as its size, but he felt he was entitled to more than one palace, and he wanted particularly badly a handsome palace in Livadia — he loved that place.
He was narrow-minded, lacking any natural gifts, irresolute, unable to rise to the formidable challenges Russia faced in the 1910s. His rule ended in total disaster — collapse of the empire, his own death and that of his family and of millions of other people… But yet, he was a loving father who doted on his children.
When it was decided to pull down the dilapidating Big Palace and build a new one on the same site, an architect of a prodigious talent was commissioned to do the design. Nikolay Krasnov did prove to be exceptionally good. He was born in 1864 and died in 1939 in immigration. He built other remarkable palaces and houses for the Romanovs in the Crimea, including a mansion in Gaspra.
Nicholas wanted “something Italianate” and got it — a white palace with lots of Renaissance echoes in its design.
In the spring of 1910 the construction of the new palace in Livadia was already in full swing. The palace was erected in a record time of seventeen months and in September 1911, the palace was unveiled and the imperial family could move in. The palace “modestly” boasted 116 rooms, one big inner yard and three small ones, and it was furnished with the most fashionable — at that time — furniture one could imagine.
The Romanov family just loved the palace and the enlarged fantastic park around it.
The Romanovs did not live in the palace permanently but came regularly in the spring or early summer for stays of varying length. The children stayed longer than the czar who took swims and photographs and long walks along the Horizontal Trail, sometimes accompanied by his ailing wife, his hemophiliac son, their apparent, and robustly healthy daughters.
During and after the revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that followed, the palace was gutted and lost all of its original furniture. But the building itself survived the revolutionary storms and vandalism. Luckily, the exterior of the palace has suffered little damage and it looks basically the way it did a hundred years ago — the stone, which was used for facing the exterior walls and which came from the Crimean quarries, was chemically treated to withstand weathering and preserve its creamy whiteness.
In the 1920s, the palace was turned into a rest home.
Guests of honor
On our visits to the palace, after resting a little on a marble bench (marble, for decorative needs of adorning the palace, had been brought from Italy), we would take a walk around the palace, looking at the other buildings that have survived from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All of them together make a sort of an architectural complex. We imagined we were guests of honor. There were thousands of other such “guests,” but we pretended we were special — and in a sense we were. In the late 1980s and even in the 1990s, not too many people visiting the palace were aware of any intimate details connected with the imperial family and with the palace. I was — because I had several books in English dealing with the revolution of 1917, the Russian last czar, his and his children’s fate and other related subjects (such books were banned in the Soviet Union and one had be careful not to advertise the fact of possessing them). Later, I enriched my library with tomes of numerous memoirs richly enhanced by old photographs.
We would look at these old photographs, and compare them with what we could see in front of us. “Look, here’s that old church, redesigned by Krasnov; and there is that building behind the palace, see? And here is the fountain that still plays…”
Then we would take a slow walk back home to Gaspra along the shady Horizontal Trail covered with dark-yellow sand, with my daughter telling me fairy tales of her own invention, in which the Livadia palace featured prominently.
In one of the rooms of the palace
Czar Nicholas II returning the salute of the officers.
Nicholas, his family (his wife Alexandra in the wheelchair)
The central dining hall of the palace.
Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin,
In the inner yard of the palace.
In the park adjacent to the palace.