This structure is officially called the Petrov Way Palace, as in way station. It was built at the request of Yekaterina II, whom we know better as Catherine the Great. Legend has it, and I usually prefer legend over dry, misleading facts, that Cath wanted to have a place to powder her nose and fluff up her dress before making her grand entrance into Moscow after long, grueling trips from St. Petersburg. The structure’s modern address is Leningradsky Prospekt, 40, which, as you may discern, is on the direct road leading from Moscow to St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and back. At the end of the 18th century, when the palace was built by architect Matvei Kazakov, this was outside of Moscow proper. These days it is surrounded by roads and modern high rises just down the pike. And these days the palace once again houses a hotel and spa for those willing to pay the price of royal luxury.
If you are wondering why I am posting about a Russian tsar on this art-inspired site, you don’t know the work of my longtime friend and colleague Lurana Donnels O’Malley, the West’s leading scholar on the playwright Catherine the Great, author of The Dramatic Works of Catherine the Great, and editor/translator of Two Comedies by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. (I had the pleasure of editing the latter book for the now-defunct Russian Theatre Archive series.) Catherine wrote some 14 plays, including dramas, historical plays and satirical comedies, and about nine librettos for operettas. This made her not only the first head of state, but also the first woman, to engage in literary activity in Russia. There is evidence that the Empress had help in her writing from several trusted assistants (O’Malley singles out Ivan Elagin, Alexander Khrapovitsky and Grigory Kozitsky), and this would make sense since her Russian, though quite good, was not native. She, of course, was born and grew up in Prussia, coming to Russia as a young woman to marry the future Tsar Peter III, for whom this palace is named. Scant honor, one must say, since Catherine helped assassinate Peter in order to become Empress outright.
Every time I drive by Catherine’s way station on my way to or from Sheremetyevo airport, I can’t help but wonder if she engaged in some of her literary activity while holed up briefly in this small haven. Having not yet arrived in the Kremlin (or just freed of its intrigues, if she was on her way back to St. Petersburg), and thus not swamped with important government duties, might she have taken the leisurely opportunity here to write a scene or two for her plays? Or might she have dashed off here some of those famous letters she wrote to Voltaire? They make for intriguing questions as you race past this beautiful structure in the flow of traffic.