May 01, 2006

If These Walls

The Smolny Institute is an extraordinary place, permeated with history.

Once upon a time – when St. Petersburg was first established, when the Neva was not yet lined with ornate granite embankments, when the tsar lived in a simple house that was anything but a palace – this was the outskirts of town. On the very spot where the magnificent Smolny buildings stand today, tar was produced for Peter the Great’s ships. A few decades passed, St. Petersburg grew, and the Tar Works (Smolny dvor – smola is Russian for tar) were encompassed by the growing city.

At this point, an attractive building was erected on the site: Smolny Palace. It did not look much like a palace, but this is where Tsarevna Elizabeth lived, daughter of the late Tsar Peter. The young beauty aroused the constant suspicion of her aunt, the Empress Anna Ivanovna, who saw in the direct descendent of the great emperor a threat to her own power. Legend has it that Anna’s ruthless and omnipotent favorite, Ernst Johann Biron, disguised himself as a stable hand in order to spy on Elizabeth and determine her true intentions. And here, it is said, Elizabeth first had the idea of building a refuge for such unfortunate girls as herself.

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Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

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