The Senate Square. Peter the Great Memorial
in front of the Senate and Synod front façades
Saint Petersburg. The famous building of the Ruling Senate, Carlo Rossi’s last masterpiece. The House of Laval, meeting ground for the cream of St. Petersburg’s intelligentsia in Pushkin’s time. The Borkh-Polyakov tenement building, a typical example of the mid-19th century St. Petersburg cityscape. Constructed at different times in the very heart of the Northern Capital, just across from the famous Bronze Horseman statue and bordered by the English Embankment, Senate Square, and Galernaya Street, these three buildings were united into a single ensemble in 2006 when the State Duma of the Russian Federation passed a law moving the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation from Moscow to the banks of the Neva
Before departing for a military campaign against Turkey, Peter the Great signed a decree on February 22nd, 1711 which instituted the Russian Ruling Senate – “for governance”.Intended as a temporary state authority acting for the Tsar during his absence from the capital, the Senate’s powers grew significantly over time, eventually becoming Russia’s highest government agency. From the early 19th century it supervised all state institutions, and in 1864 became the country’s highest court. The Senate’s original seat was in Moscow. It moved to the new capital city of Saint Petersburg in 1714, where it changed address several times: the Peter and Paul Fortress, Troitskaya Square, and the Twelve Colleges building.Finally, in 1763, Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) provided it with a building located not far from the Admiralty on the Galernaya (now called English) Embankment, purchased by the state from the grandee and chancellor Count A. P. Bestuzhev-Riumin. This became the seat of the Senate’s activity until its abolishment in November of 1917 by the Council of People’s Commissars. The Holiest Synod, formed by Peter the Great in 1721 to serve as the highest state institution for religious governance, also moved there some time later. The square adjacent to the building acquired the name Senate Square, and was known from 1923 to 2008 as Decembrist Square.
Eventually, the old Bestuzhev-Riumin palace ran out of room for the ever growing staff of the Ruling Senate. Furthermore, the more somber Russian Neoclassical style which replaced the original baroque façade during the 1780s – 1790s began to seem modest and out of place for both its location in the Imperial capital’s festive downtown, and the importance of the state agencies it housed. In 1828, Emperor Nicholas I decided to replace the building with a larger and more impressive residence for the Senate and the Synod. Leading St. Petersburg architects of the time participated in the design competition. On February 18th 1829, the Emperor granted his approval to the project of C. I. Rossi, an architect gifted with extraordinary spatial thinking and an unsurpassed master of ensemble, whose works provided the pinnacle of the Imperial style, and the final stage in the evolution of Neoclassicism. The ground breaking ceremony for the new Senate building took place on August 24th, 1829. The Synod building construction began a year later, in August of 1830. The Senate building was completed in 1834, and the Synod building the following year.
Rossi’s plan called for all of the Senate Square’s western side (facing the Admiralty) to be finished in a uniform architectural setting. In place of the old Senate building and the nearby house of tradeswoman Kusovnikova, a grand composition was erected with an overall length of 200 meters. It consisted of two independent buildings connected by a majestic triumphal arch. Underlining the entire structure’s pageantry are eight-columned recessed porticos, accenting the center of each of the facades. The Senate building’s rounded corner is also decorated with an eight-pillar loggia, which allows for a smooth transition from the square to the embankment, concealing the façades’ unequal lengths, and masterfully accentuating the Neva’s left bank in the panorama. The composition’s focal point is an arch, lavishly adorned by sculptures, spanning Galernaya Street, for which Rossi used an unrealized design for the General Staff Building Arch of the Palace Square. This arch symbolized the unity of Church and State, of social and religious rule. It is no coincidence that the arch is crowned by the sculpture Justice and Piety and the Russian Empire coat of arms. Beneath the sculpture group are three basreliefs: God’s Law (dedicated to the Synod), Natural Law (dedicated to the Senate), and Civic Law. Over the paired columns flanking the archway stand the figures of Geniuses Holding the Law, and in the façade niches are allegorical statues: Justitia, Justice, Vigilance, Impartiality, Wisdom, Firmness, Verity (on the Senate building), and Faith, Piety, Theology, and Spiritual Enlightenment (on the Synod building). The rich sculptural decorations were created by V. I. Demut-Malinovskiy, S. S. Pimyenov, N. A. Tokarev, P. P. Sokolov, P. V. Svintsov, N. A. Ustinov, and I. I. Leppe and were cast at the Baird Works of Charles Baird.
Because he was busy with other projects, Carlo Rossi hardly participated in the construction of the Senate and the Synod, which became his last major work, and in 1832 he retired from service altogether. The construction works were supervised by Alexander Schtaubert, who also designed the internal layout and finish of the buildings. Specifically, Schtaubert is credited with the final setting for the church of St. Alexander Nevsky, topped with a saucer dome, located on the second story of the Senate building’s rounded corner part. The finishing of other internal spaces was completed by interior designers B. Medici, F. Rikhter, A. I. Solovyev, and V. G. Shiryaev. The Senate and the Synod buildings completed the formation of St. Petersburg’s ensemble of central squares. They represent one of the top achievements in Russia’s and the world’s urban development of the time, and became the final masterpiece of Russian Neoclassicism. Their importance in history is often described by the saying: “Neoclassicism entered Russia through the New Holland Arch, and left through the arch of the Senate and the Synod.” In 1836 the government staff moved into the new buildings. The personnel was followed by the enormous Senate and Synodic Archives, archives of the Ministry of Justice and of the State Council, the Senate and Synodic libraries, the Synodic Museum of Religious Antiquity, and later the Coat of Arms Museum of the Heraldry Department. The necessity of storing large amounts of documents is responsible for such architectural particularities as massive brick flooring above the archive repository, granite curbing along the internal walls, and a distinctive heating system consisting of special pipes and vents stretching out from the basement furnaces. By the early 20th century, of all the rooms in the two buildings only four were not occupied by documents, books or museum specimens: the Grand Halls of Common Presence of the Ruling Senate and the Holiest Synod, and two chapels. For this reason, in 1912, a three-story house on the English Embankment was purchased by the state and adjoined to the complex to house the administration staff and documents of the Departments of Cassation and Appeals. To this day it is known by the name of its previous owners – the House of Laval.
This mansion, with its pillared façade and lion figures at the entrance (known as the Philosophers for their contemplative look), is one of the best known on the English Embankment. Its current appearance resulted from an 1805-1810 reconstruction by the architect Jean-François Thomas de Thomon, but the building itself is much older. In the 1730s a mansion was built there for Count A. I. Osterman, a powerful confidant of Empress Anna Ioanovna. When Empress Elizaveta Petrovna came to the throne, Osterman was condemned and exiled, and the palace passed on to St. Petersburg’s General Chief of Police V. F. Saltikov. It later it belonged to Senator N. E.Muravyev, and in the late 18th century it was the property of the barons Stroganov and underwent reconstruction by A. N. Voronikhin.
In 1800, the house was bought by the newlywed Lavals. It was for them that Thomas de Thomon refinished the antique building’s facades and interiors. The couple owed their large fortune, which enabled them to own a mansion in the very center of the aristocratic St. Petersburg, to Alexandra Laval. She was the daughter of Catherine the Great’s State Secretary G. V. Kozitskiy, and on her mother’s side was the descendant of the Myasnikov-Tverdishevs, owners of mines and metallurgical works in the Urals, to whom Pushkin referred to as “some of the wealthiest people of Russia” in his History of Pugachev. By the standards of the day Alexandra married late, finding the man of her choice only at age 27. Jean-Charles-François de Laval (called Ivan Stepanovich in Russia) was a French immigrant, who fled his homeland during the French Revolution, and served in the Cadet Corps. The Kozitskiy family opposed the unequal match, and so the young couple turned to Tsar Paul I for help. According to the family legend, the Emperor demanded an explanation as to why Laval was denied marriage. The girl’s mother, E. I. Kozitskaya, replied: “He’s a Frenchman of a different faith, not known by anyone, and his rank is too low,” to which Paul snapped: “He’s a Christian. His rank is plenty sufficient for Kozitskaya. I know him. Marry them!”
The bride’s dowry consisted of the Voskresenskiy plant in the Urals, numerous lands, a part of the Aptekarsky Island in St. Petersburg with a magnificent dacha on the Neva, and 20 million rubles. Laval used part of the money for a loan to the exiled future King of France Louis XVIII, for which was made an earl. He later became chamberlain, an Actual Privy Councilor, and a notable official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the first half of the 18th century, the House of Laval was one of the epicenters of St. Petersburg’s cultural life, famous for its interior décor and the artmasterpiece collection. The owners held a 5 thousand volume library, a unique painting collection with works by such masters as Rubens and Rembrandt, a collection of engravings, geographical maps, antique sculptures, and Etruscan and Egyptian antiquities. (Many of these masterpieces are now on display at the State Hermitage Museum). The floor of one of the rooms was decorated by an ancient 1st century A.D. marble mosaic, which according to the legend came from the Roman emperor Nero’s palace.
Countess Laval held music and literature evenings, and her salon was the meeting place for many famous poets, writers, musicians, and artists, amongst whom were I. A. Krylov, V. A. Zhukovskiy, A. S. Griboyedov, A.Mitskevich, K. F. Rilyeev.This was the place where N. M.Karamzin read to the public for the first time his History of the Russian State, and Pushkin recited the ode Liberty and Boris Godunov. Frequent guests at the house were the future “Decembrists”. The owners’ daughter Ekaterina married one of the leaders of the Revolt on the Senate Square, Prince S. P. Trubetskoy, whom she followed into exile in Siberia.
The House of Laval is closely tied to M. Y. Lermontov’s biography. On February 16th 1840, at Countess Laval’s ball, a quarrel took place between the poet and the son of the French ambassador de Barant, which resulted in a duel and Lermontov’s banishment from St. Petersburg.
The receptions, balls, literary evenings, and concerts went on for as long as both Lavals were alive. The Count died in 1846, and the Countess in 1850. The house was inherited by their daughter Sophie, wife of Count A. M. Borkh. In 1853 the inheritors added on a tenement building to the house, facing the Galernaya Street (the present № 3). However, the upkeep of this real estate proved too expensive for the Borkhs, and in the 1870s they sold the mansion on the embankment and the house on Galernaya to a famous banker and entrepreneur S. S.Polyakov. He in turn sold the former House of Laval to the state, which adapted it for the Senate’s needs.
After the 1917 Revolution the Senate was abolished, the capital moved to Moscow, and the former Senate buildings were occupied by the State Historic Archive, which included the Senate and the Synod Archives, as well as the foundations of other top government institutions of the Russian Empire. If before history had been made here, it was now stored and studied. This archive was called the Hermitage of documents, its facilities holding approximately 6.5 million records, and the overall shelving length reaching 200 kilometers. The memory of the past was preserved not only in documents, but also in numerous legends. For instance, one of the stories passed from generation to generation is that of the ghost of some low ranking official which resides in the repositories ever since he ended his life in the Senate building after an unfortunate love affair.
By 2006 all the previous inhabitants had abandoned the time-worn walls. It was then decided that the Senate building, the House of Laval, and the Borkh-Polyakov tenement building on the Galernaya Street were to be occupied by the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation. For the archive’s needs, a new complex was constructed, and in 2007 the ancient buildings on Senate Square began undergoing reconstruction and restoration works on the surviving historical interiors. The finish and wall paintings were renewed in the Senate Common Presence Hall, and the appearance of the Senate church that suffered great damages during the World War II was fully restored. In the House of Laval the fretwork-like (grisaille) painting preserved in many rooms was restored. The restoration works also included the Pompeian Hall, which during 1817-1818 was finished by the architect T. Champetier and decorated by polychromatic painting done by the interior designers B. Medici and S. A. Bessonov. The original form was restored in the elegant Blue Room, completed in the Neo-Rococo style in the 1840s by a famous architect G. A. Bosse, as well as in a number of other interior spaces. A massive reconstruction project took place in the Senate’s courtyard. In place of several dilapidated structures was built, but essentially ‘hidden’, a completely new round-shaped building for the Main Conference Room of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, roofed over by a large skylight. The new building’s height, designed by the St. Petersburg architectural studio of S.U. Bobylyev, is in line with the Senate building, so the glass dome can be seen only from the observation deck of St. Isaac Cathedral. The 1200 square-meter conference hall itself is located on the level of the Senate building’s third floor, and is joined to it by walkways. Its wood panel finish is completed in the Neoclassical style echoing the interior design of the Moscow Constitutional Court conference hall.
Upon completion of all reconstructive works in 2008, the renewed buildings were occupied by the Constitutional Court, which moved up from Moscow. The house on Galernaya Street was allocated for Court personnel offices. The 19 judges settled in the offices of the Senate building. The House of Laval is reserved for delegation receptions, social functions, negotiations, proceedings, and conferences. With the new millennium, Saint Petersburg regained one of the most meaningful symbols of Russian state authority