The institution of the Winter Palace dates from the first decade of St. Petersburg's existence, when the first Winter House was constructed for Peter I in 1711. With the transfer of the capital from Moscow in 1712, the winter residence of the tsaremperor acquired the status of a major state building. The next Winter Palace was built on the Neva River embankment in 1716–1719 to a plan by Georg Mattarnovi and was expanded in the 1720s by Domenico Trezzini. In 1732 Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli began work at the command of Empress Anna on a third version of the Winter Palace, which was under construction for much of the 1730s.
The planning of a new Winter Palace for Empress Elizabeth began in the early 1750s under the direction of Rastrelli, who intended to incorporate the existing third Winter Palace into the design of a still larger structure. However, as work proceeded in 1754, he concluded that the new palace would require not simply an expansion of the old, but would have to be built over its foundations. Construction continued year round despite the severe winters, and the empress—who viewed the palace as a matter of state prestige during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763)—continued to issue orders for its rapid completion. The 859,555 rubles originally allotted for construction of the Winter Palace were to be drawn, in a scheme devised by the courtier Pyotr Shuvalov, from the revenues of state-licensed taverns. (Most of Rastrelli's army of laborers earned a monthly wage of one ruble.) Cost overruns were chronic, and work was occasionally halted for lack of materials and money at a time when Russia's resources were strained to the limit by the Seven Years' War. Ultimately the project cost some 2,500,000 rubles, drawn from alcohol and salt taxes placed on an already burdened population. Elizabeth did not live to see the completion of the palace: She died on December 25, 1761. The main state rooms and imperial apartments were ready the following year for Tsar Peter III and his wife Catherine.
The basic plan of the Winter Palace consists of a quadrilateral with an interior courtyard decorated in a manner similar to the outer walls. The exterior facades of the new imperial palace—three of which are turned toward public spaces—were decorated in a late baroque style. On the Neva River facade the palace presents, from a distance, an uninterrupted horizontal sweep of more than 200 meters, while the opposite facade (on Palace Square) is marked in the center by the three arches of the main courtyard entrance—immortalized by the film director Sergei Eisenstein as well as by artists who portrayed, in exaggerated form, the "storming of the Winter Palace." The facade overlooking the Admiralty is the one area of the structure that contains substantial elements of the third Winter Palace.
A strict symmetry reigns over the facades. Two hundred fifty columns segment some seven hundred windows, not including those of the interior court. The palace has three main floors situated over a basement level, and the structure culminates in an elaborate cornice supporting 176 large ornamental vases and allegorical statues. The original stone statuary, corroded by Petersburg's harsh climate, was replaced in the 1890s by copper figures. The sandy color that Rastrelli intended for the stucco facade has vanished under a series of paints ranging from dull red (applied in the late nineteenth century) to turquoise in the early twenty-first century.
The interior of the Winter Palace, with its more than seven hundred rooms, has undergone many changes, and little of Rastrelli's rococo decoration has survived. Work on the interior continued for several decades, as rooms were changed and
refitted to suit the tastes of Catherine the Great and her successors. Still more damaging was the 1837 palace fire that burned unchecked for more than two days and destroyed the interior. During the reconstruction most of the rooms were decorated in eclectic styles of the mid-nineteenth century or restored to the neoclassical style used by Rastrelli's successors in decorating the palace, such as Giacomo Quarenghi. Only the main, or Jordan, staircase and the corridor leading to it (the Rastrelli Gallery) were restored by Vasily Stasov in a manner close to Rastrelli's original design. Yet the Winter Palace remains associated above all with the name of Rastrelli, the creator of this baroque masterpiece.
In 1918 the Winter Palace and its art collection were nationalized, and in 1922 most of the building became part of the State Hermitage Museum. Substantial restoration work was interrupted by the outbreak of war, during which the museum staff performed heroically. The State Hermitage Museum reopened in 1945, and since that time the former Winter Palace has become the object of scrupulous preservation efforts devoted to one of the world's greatest museums.
See also: elizabeth; french influence in russia; museum, hermitage; rastrelli, bartolomeo; st. petersburg
William Craft Brumfield