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Russia: Tsar's Palace Receives New Lease On Life

Washington, 12 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Tsarskoye Selo, or Tsar's Village, near Russia's second city of St. Petersburg, draws millions of visitors every year from around the world.

Home of the Russian Emperors and Empresses from Peter the Great in the 18th century to Nicholas II at the beginning of the 20th century, the collection of palaces and parklands ranks among the world's finest.

Its centerpiece is the magnificent Catherine Palace with its gilded domes, majestic halls and ornate rococo decoration. Almost completely destroyed during World War II, the palace has since been rebuilt.

Away from the tourists' gaze is the lesser known but no less magnificent Alexander Palace. Separated from the main park by a fence and under military guard, the palace has been used as a research institute for the Soviet Navy since 1951.

Commissioned by Catherine the Great for her grandson, the future Alexander I, the palace is most closely connected to the tragic reign of Nicholas II, the last Tsar, who was born there.

The weathering of time and the damage of war have taken their toll on the stately neoclassical palace. Efforts to preserve and restore it have until recently largely been the work of one man: an American researcher named Robert Atchison.

Atchison has devoted almost his entire life to the palace, gathering information about its history for use by restoration workers.

Speaking from his home in Texas, Atchison told RFE/RL that his fascination with the palace and with the Romanov family began as a child.

"I read about the Romanovs in books I borrowed from the school library," he said.

Referring to the murder of Nicholas II and his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918, Atchison says he was terrified that such a peaceful-looking family could have died in such a violent way.

Later undaunted by Soviet claims that the Alexander Palace had been destroyed in World War II, Atchison decided to see for himself.

Visiting Russia for the first time in 1974, he found his way into the palace and saw that much of it in fact remained intact.

"The palace was used by the Germans as a hospital during the war and it was the least damaged of all the palaces," he explains.

Much of the original furnishings and interior decorations have also survived. Many of them were smuggled to Siberia by museum curators before the war and returned in 1944.

Some of the boxes used to transport them have never been opened.

With the help of American author and historian Suzanne Massie, Atchison founded the Alexander Palace Association.

In close cooperation with the Russian authorities the association is now working with the World Monuments Fund (WMF) to restore the palace. The plan is to turn it into a museum of the Romanov family as it had been before the war.

Repair work began last year after the WMF, a private non-profit organization based in New York, placed the palace on its List of the World's 100 Most Endangered Sites.

The WMF awarded a grant of $100,000 for emergency repairs of the palace roof, which is now being carried out by a Finnish restoration firm.

The project as a whole envisages the restoration of the exterior and interior of the palace as well as the surrounding landscape. But Atchison says he is now facing a moral as well as a financial dilemma.

"It is difficult to talk about spending huge sums of money on restoration today while many Russian workers, including museum curators and restorers, are not being paid," he says.

Many talented people associated with the museums are leaving to work for newly-rich businessmen -- some with criminal connections -- as antiques experts, he says.

Atchison is also deeply concerned about preserving an archive from the palace, the only one of its kind in the world, which is threatened by fire, water and even theft.

"The archive shows every purchase made by the Imperial family," says Atchison, who is trying to raise money to duplicate it. "Everything from receipts for Kodak film and Coca-Cola drinks to fabrics used for the interiors is contained in that archive," he says. "It is crucial to the restoration work."

One of his latest tools to promote the palace project is his Internet web site. It offers a virtual tour of the Alexander Palace, showing in intimate detail the life of the last Russian Tsar and his family. It even includes a recipe for food prepared for their dogs.

On one day alone, Atchison says he had more than 50,000 visitors to the site from all over the world. He has received offers of help from enthusiasts in, among other places, Peru, New Zealand South Africa.

Atchison hopes that when it is completed the Alexander Palace can serve as a prototype for museum management in Russia in the future.

"The days of government handouts are over. Museums in Russia now have to learn how to fund themselves," he says.

Atchison also hopes that by restoring the Alexander Palace to its former glory millions of people all over the world will be able to share his passion for one of the most fascinating periods of Russian history.

(This is the second in a series of four articles about historic preservation in Central and Eastern Europe and the former USSR. See Saving The East's Architectural Heritage.)