The Mystery of the Amber Room

A Must-See in Pushkin, AKA Tsarskoye Tselo

Yekaterinsky Palace, or Catherine Palace, in Pushkin, Russia. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Yekaterinsky Palace, or Catherine Palace, in Pushkin, Russia. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

To the list of places I don’t know I need to see when I head to Russia is Pushkin, also known as Tsarskoye Tselo (‘czar’s village,’ I am told). Not far from St. Petersburg, it is home to the Catherine Palace (named for Catherine I of Russia, not Catherine the Great, who came along later). Truthfully, beyond the Hermitage and Red Square, I am a little bit vague on what my top destinations will be. No matter. I am fortunate to get out to Pushkin and into the Yekaterinsky Palace, which is what to me seems like a possibly better-looking version of Versailles. I definitely prefer its exterior to the more government-building–like facade of that palace not far from Paris.

A hall of mirrors that is not in France but in Tsarskoye Tselo (also known as Pushkin), Russia. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

A hall of mirrors that is not in France but in Tsarskoye Tselo (also known as Pushkin), Russia. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

What makes a visit to Catherine Palace especially memorable is its Amber Room, a space lined in amber that was originally built in the early 1700s and then transported to Tsarskoye Tselo. Unfortunately, the Nazis showed up in World War II and looted the place, taking the amber panels with them to destinations unknown. Seeing pictures of Nazis on motorcycles driving through the rooms of this enormous palace is depressing even today and launches a riff on the spoils of war versus spoiling places in a war.

Then, too, visiting this palace, one can get lost in a reverie on saving the art when saving actual lives is at stake, and on prioritizing, and on how civilians tend to fare once their government has been conquered. There is so much to think about as I wander through these rooms being reminded of Versailles and contemplate the fates of France’s Marie-Antoinette and of Russia’s last czar, Nicholas, and his family, who spent a lot of time here. Is it a good or bad thing that a symbol of royal indulgence was disappeared?

Nazis looted Catherine Palace during World War II. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Nazis looted Catherine Palace during World War II. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

In any event, it appears no one quite knows where those original amber panels went, even today. The New York Times reports that they may be in a bunker in Poland. Not so many years ago, it was thought they might be in an underground cavern in Germany.

The Amber Room, Catherine Palace, Pushkin, Russia. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

The Amber Room, Catherine Palace, Pushkin, Russia. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

In the early aughts, a reconstructed amber room—the culmination of decades-long efforts—was completed at Catherine Palace. It’s a must-see even it is not quite the real thing.

—Lori Tripoli

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