Welcome to Day 1 of our Virtual Artistic Residence with Yulia Savikovskaya:

My name is Yulia, I am a writer and anthropologist, and was born and educated in St Petersburg. During the eight weeks of my virtual artist residence I will write about locations in my home city that I love, that I have strong memories of and that are associated with my life. I will try to make eight little guides through areas of the city that I know and have discovered and frequented at different periods of my life, interspersing them with little interesting facts and bits of knowledge.

Yulia Savikovskaya

This first text will have some personal revelations, as perhaps will all others that come after it. I’ll tell you a story of a town Pushkin that until 1918 had a name Tsarskoye Selo (originating from its name with Finnish origins – Saarskaya Myza («a place on high grounds»), as the estate was called when Peter the First presented it to his wife Catherine the First) and from 1918 to 1937 – Detskoye Selo. Now it is only the complex of museums and parks surrounding the renowned Catherine Palace in Pushkin that bears the name of Tsarskoye Selo. It is one of the top tourist attractions in St Petersburg and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. If you are in St Petersburg for the first time, to see this Palace and its famous Amber Room should be one of your priorities – give it a full day trip. Catherine Palace has been the Summer Palace for the last Emperor Nicholas II and his family, and before them served as a summer residency for Catherine I, Elizabeth I, Catherine II and Alexander I.

Catherine’s Palace and Park were closed during quarantine. @Yulia Savikovskaya

Don’t forget that the beautiful Pavlovsk Palace and its remarkable surrounding park with English-style landscapes is just 20 minutes from Pushkin. The Palace was built for Paul I and his widow Maria Fyodorovna spent a lot of time there after his murder. It is on Railway Station building in Pavlovsk (unfortunately not in existence after the WWII) designed by architect Andrey Stackenschneider and opened for public in 1838 that Johann Strauss gave successful concerts from 1856 onwards: there is a monument dedicated to him near the park. Such eminent figures as Alexander Glazunov, Anna Pavlova (one of her last performances in Russia) and Sergei Prokofiev also performed at Pavlovsk (nicknamed «Musical») Station.

Pavlovsk Palace on 30th June 2020, one the third day after it re-opened. @Yulia Savikovskaya

You would probably get to both towns by an electric train (elektrichka) and it will take you about half an hour if you travel from Vitebsky Railway Station (Pushkinskaya or Zvenigorodksaya metro stations) and 15 min if you travel from the last metro station on a blue (second) line Kupchino. When you do so, remember that you are travelling on the first ever railway built in Russia – the line running from St Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo (with extension to Pavlovsk) was opened by the Emperor Nicholas I on 30 October (11 November) 1837 and was designed by Austrian architect Franz von Gerstner. The locomotive was delivered from Robert Stephenson and Company in England and there were four classes of carriages: berlins, diligences, charabans and wagons. Depending on your luck, you will be travelling in a slightly modernized version of either a diligence (soft seating) or a charaban (hard seating, usual for Soviet electric trains) today. I live in a suburban development Shushary that is situated between Kupchino metro station and Pushkin. One could walk the distance within an hour, but the path includes a 7km stretch of a dusty highway, so people use cycles or scooters to go there, or just take a bus.

One of the rare remaining road signposts of Catherine the Great times indicating the distance from Tsarskoye Selo to St. Petersburg. @Yulia Savikovskaya

When I will have earned enough money I plan to move from my current location, and one possible destination is Pushkin. It is a unique place in terms of its closeness to the city (15-20 min by electric train or 30 min by bus) and its ecologically clean, luxuriously green atmosphere. It boasts elite apartments and country houses along with new developments and older 5-storey houses (named BAM in Soviet times) known for their sturginess and solidity. In the spring of 2020 I had an unexpected opportunity to get into a close relationship with Pushkin, and I thought I would start my series from this story of physical and mental survival. By the way, did you know that Anna Akhmatova lived here (in a now destroyed house near the railway station) as a teenager, and later returned to spend some time here with her husband Nikolai Gumilev, always remembering the place with nostalgia in the 1940s-1950s? Did you know that Alexander Pushkin, apart from studying in an Imperial Lyceum (hence the current name of the town) hired a summer dacha here after his wedding to Natalya Goncharova, and spent a few very happy months here from May to October 1831, with this building now a museum? Did you know that writer and historian Nikolai Karamzin also lived here for a while with his family, being given a house to stay by Nicholas I himself? Well, I went to Pushkin in April, May and June 2020 to recover my body and soul from two serious illnesses – long-term unrequited love and… another unexpected painful guest – coronavirus.

View of Catherine’s Palace – still closed, the way to it empty. @Yulia Savikovskaya

On March 25, 2020 I returned from Britain. My usual trip for concerts and theatre attendance was cut short, and the last concert I saw was on March 15, 2020, while the last opera rehearsal in Covent Garden I attended was on March 16, 2020. I spent two weeks at home, adhering to the new rules of quarantine for arrivals from abroad. On April 7, 2020 I started venturing out to Pushkin, as it was the closest nature spot available, and I only needed a bus to get there. The whole experience of travelling even on a short bus journey was weird and scary: the virus was still an unknown Martian and it seemed to me (especially after paranoia of getting out of newly-lockdowned Britain and dealing with cancelled flights to Russia) to be floating ominously everywhere. One part of me carelessly braved the knowledge of the pandemic, and another one was immensely scared. I remember how the bus driver, afraid of the virus transmission, refused to take my phone when I asked him to show me where the last stop will be. The usual tourist attractions – Catherine and Alexander parks in Pushkin, as well as Pavlovsk park – were closed, but Pushkin has a number of other green enclaves.

Babolovsky park in early April. @Yulia Savikovskaya

The huge Babolovsky park is adjacent to Alexandrovsky and was used by Catherine the Great as her hunting location (very much like Richmond was by Henry VIII). It was open as it was impossible to fence it, and there were also Nizhny (Otdelny) park serving as a green link between Pushkin and Pavlovsk, and Buferny Park on the outskirts of Pushkin, opened there in the late 1980s. In the first days after my quarantine I walked through all of them, covering the territories, measuring the extent of my freedom, fascinated by the fact of being outdoors, suspecting that venturing into nature was half-illegal during these days of self-isolation. Babolovsky park was officially in transition from winter to spring but everyone ignored the huge sign «сlosed for drying procedures». Everyone was also expecting the police to raid the parks as it, according to TV reports, did in other parts of the city but plenty of walkers still were out. I remember registering the lack of masks on elderly people that filled the parks in abundance and mentally reproached them and tried to bypass them with an intended distance. The spring was just coming, small leafs were budding on the trees. I took a lot of photos, I felt like a hero, I could walk while others were lamenting the days spent at home.

Early April in Otdelny (Nizhny) park in Pushkin @Yulia Savikovskaya

After a few walks when I intensely listened to the humming of birds and looked at the trees in amazement that they stil exist I began to realize I had difficulty in breathing and even returning to a bus stop to get home became difficult. I fell ill with coronavirus and did not get out of bed till the end of May. In a way the pains I experienced were half-welcome, as the inner tragedy that went through me due to my unrequited love was even stronger. By coincidence my inner world collapsed about the same time that coronavirus entered the world (December 2019-January 2020) and I had been living with the feeling of impending tragegy ever since. So I welcomed the apocalypse of the virus and subconsciously pleaded for this disease to torment me so that my mental capacity could be reduced and I could suffer less from guilt, bitterness and a feeling of personal failure. It was the reloading of my brain matrix, in a way quite similar to the time when this love journey started in December 2017, but this time it was not constructive, hopeful or self-revelatory. It resembled an avalanche or a tsunami where everything was just wiped clean with the desease, as I lost the feeling of smell and taste, and was intoxicated by the virus to the point I could hardly think, read or work for an hour a day. In a paradoxical way it was liberating. I didn’t need to care whether I will ever love or be loved. For now I just needed to survive.

Me on one of those days when I started to feel better. @Yulia Savikovskaya

In late May and early June 2020 I started to venture out to Pushkin again. The parks were still closed, some essential goods shops were open, but masks were required everywhere. Spring was in full bloom, with Pushkin transforming in a small paradise of green and white. Bird cherry was in abundance, cherry and apple trees were starting to blossom, lilacs were on their way.

Bird cherry in bloom in May in Pushkin. @Yulia Savikovskaya

I remembered May 2019 last spring when I went here, very much in love and associating this abundance with hope and life. However my life might have changed during this year, this spring was quite similar, and I remember how acutely I felt its eternal and expected beauty in this town. As my suburban development is officially a part of Pushkin, it is here I went to see my doctors – it was quite symbolical in a way, too. During my walks I found some unusual places – dachas of Petr Romanovich Bagration (1818-1876, nephew of the hero of the 1812 Patriotic War Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration) and of Imperial Ceremony master Vassily Kochubey (1868-1940).

Former Dacha of Pyotr Bagration (later was bought by the Georgian Duke Chavchavadze). @Yulia Savikovskaya

I also discovered a building that was built during Tsar Nicholas II rule – Barracks of His Own Imperial Majesty’s Convoy. They constitute a part of another unique site in Pushkin – a complex called Fyodorovsky Gorodok (designed by architect Sergei Krichinsky, it is now under renovation) that was built 1913-1918, with Nicholas II’s request that its style should resemble that of Rostov Kremlin and that it should not be in dissonance with already existing Alexander Palace nearby. During the First World War an infirmary for the wounded soldiers was opened here with Grand Duchesses Maria Nikolaevna and Anastasia Nikolaevna supervising its work. Russian poet Sergey Essenin was sent here (colonel Dmitri Loman helped him in getting this position) when he was drafted to the army and served his term as a medical brother here, also taking part in entertainment evenings and poetry readings in honour of the Tsarine and Grand Duchesses.

His Majesty’s Own Imperial Convoy building. @Yulia Savikovskaya

It is only a few days ago, after a month of recovery spent in the south of Russia that I finally was able to visit the re-opened Catherine and Alexander parks surrounding the majestic and sumptuous Catherine Palace (now also open for individual tours with audio guides instead of excursions). Many famous architects worked to invest it with its current glory, the most famous being Bartolomeo Rastrelli (architect of the Palace as we currently know it) and Charles Cameron (architect of the transcendental Cameron Gallery that unfailingly attracts visitors’ eye). There are also columns commemorating victories in Russian-Turkish war, as well as many beautiful blue and gold pavilions and Chinese Village (now a private hotel) to be discovered in the park. There is also the whole story of reconstruction of Amber Room fully lost during the WWII, as Pushkin was under occupation during the Siege of Leningrad.

Magnificent Catherine Palace in August. @Yulia Savikovskaya

Due to abundance of parks, both towns (Pushkin and Pavlovsk) served as locations for pioner summer camps during the Soviet times, and a few years ago theatre director Andrei Moguchy made an immersive exhibition in St Petersburg Manege about these transformations. As I get back to life and only begin to re-establish connection with my body and sensory feelings, I am grateful to walk, see, touch, feel and love again. I am grateful to this beautiful little town basking in its history for saving me. It might take a lot more walks in Pushkin and Pavlovsk parks to come to terms with what I have lived through during the last months and in fact years, but it will be a very different story that I sometimes will undoubtedly put into writing, too.