St. Michael’s Castle

There is no other building in the city that is steeped in so much mystery as this castle situated at the banks of the Fontanka and the Moika rivers. Also know as Mikhailovsky Castle, or palace, and the Engineers’ Castle, it is a romantic citadel envisioned by the Tsar, Paul I. Named after Archangel Michael, whom Tsar Paul regarded as his patron saint, it was built to serve as his family residence but also as the headquarters of the Maltese Order of the Knights of St. John. Paul was rumoured to have become the grand master of this order, and the imagery of the medieval world is prevalent in this castle.

Breaking from tradition, Paul did not want to live in the Winter Palace. He ordered to construct a new building at the site of the wooden palace of Elisabeth I. The first foundation stone of the new palace was laid on 26 February 1797. From the very start of the construction citizens watched in awe and amazement at the arising monster. The city had never seen anything like it before. The castle was a square with rounded corners in plan. The central octagonal courtyard was inscribed into the square. All the castle’s facades were decorated differently. Moreover, the Mikhailovsky castle was entirely encircled by channels and ditches filled with water. Even the red-brick colour of the castle was quite unusual.

At first, the castle bore the name of the Archangel Michael – Paul’s patron saint. Paul and his numerous family members moved to the new residence on the 1st of February 1801. With the castle designed to protect the increasingly paranoid Tsar Paul, he was ironically murdered in his bedroom by his military leaders more than a month later. It was as early as during construction that the rumour appeared that St. Xenia of St. Petersburg had foretold Paul would live as many years as there were letters above the front façade of the Mikhailovsky Castle. The city folk used to carefully read hammered letters of scriptural words written on the castle; they counted them over and over again and there were 47 letters. The prophecy had come true – the Emperor had lived exactly 47 years. Some people remembered Paul’s own words – he used to say he would die at the same place where he was born. Paul was born in 1754 in the Elisabeth Palace which had stood at the place of the new Mikhailovsky Palace.

After his murder the building stood empty. In 1819 the Central Engineering School occupied the building at the order of Paul’s son Nicholas I; the castle got its new name “the Engineering castle” in 1823.

During World War II the Mikhailovsky castle was used as a hospital. Different state institutions occupied it in Soviet times. At the present day the castle hosts a significant branch of the State Russian Museum. It has been fully renovated and some of its rooms were returned to their original look. A monument to Paul I was erected in the palace courtyard in 2003.

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