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By John Helmer, Moscow

Last week the first snow landed on Moscow without sticking. On Thursday a significant  anniversary has also fallen without sticking.

It has been ninety-one years since November 3, 1931, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party voted the resolution to design, build, and pay for public parks and gardens as national policy. The pleasure garden of the rich and powerful for the preceding three thousand years had been revolutionised and democratised for the first time. “The parks of culture and rest,” the Central Committee declared, “represent a new kind of institution that has numerous political and didactic obligations to fulfil, all of which are for the wellbeing of millions of workers”.

The creation of Gorky Park had been an idea of Joseph Stalin’s inside the new layout he conceived for Moscow from Red Square to Sparrow Hills (called Lenin Hills between 1935 and 1999). Since Tsar Peter I and Empress Catherine II (lead image, left), Stalin (right) is the most notable gardening ruler in Russian history – and the only one to have put a personal hand to the soil and boot to the shovel.  

Since the Babylonians of Nebuchadnezzar’s time learned to adapt their lack of water to their need for greenery, the great gardening cultures are those which manage to find unique solutions to the particularities and the constants of weather, soil, and taste. Those who only imitate discover that no amount of money they throw at their gardens will enable the plants to overcome the elements, or the lack of them.

The Persians, Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Italians, French and English have all managed; they have created monuments of horticultural invention which can be enjoyed forever.  The great Russian gardens, however, are a different story. There has been almost no one to tell it – and there is one still one thing missing from the tale, the winter snow.  

One third of the story covering the tsarist era from the 18th century to the Revolution of 1917,  has been told by Margrethe Floryan.  The second third of the story, of the Soviet era dominated by Stalin,  is not yet published outside Russia. The final third of the story is least known. It is the story of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhov’s creation of a new park at Khodinskoye Pole, the military airfield in the northwest of the city. This is also the story of the future.

Floryan is a Danish art historian and curator of a Copenhagen museum; she spent the years between 1987 and 1995 living in Moscow where she prepared a book of history and photographs of Russian gardens which was the first to have been published in a foreign language outside the country; also the first to have illustrated the recovery of the Russian and Soviet gardens after the destruction inflicted by the Germans during their invasion of World War II. Floryan’s book “Gardens of the Tsars” first appeared in 1996.  

Left: Margrethe Floryan’s book of 1996; centre;  Dr Floryan in Copenhagen today; right, Andrei Bolotov, 1738-1833, founding plantsman of Russian gardens, writer of the first guide to Russian botanical species, an almanac for grafting apples and pears, and many other topics. 

Left to right: Prokofi Demidov, 1710-86; Empress Consort Maria Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Paul I, 1759-1828;  Joseph Stalin, mid-1930s.

The story of Russia’s ruling monarchs, aristocrats, and wealthy merchants aping those they thought of as their models, if not their betters in the west, is well known. Russian exceptionalism was a slow starter compared to the English, French or Americans.

The history of Russian painting does not begin until the mid-18th century when, according to this recent account,   “there was no such thing as a Russian school of painting. Growing numbers of painters were apprenticed to foreign artists and undertook commissions for the court and its satellites, but there was nowhere for them to acquire a comprehensive training.” It took more than a hundred years before the Imperial Academy of Arts recognized a genuinely national identity and the domestic art market was ready to pay painters to decorate home interiors with it.  

An even later start for Russian classical music, as reported here.  “Large potential audience, no money to reach its ears — this was the story of the start of Russian classical music 180 years ago. At that time Mikhail Glinka [1804-59], employed by the tsar to run his imperial chapel choir, was enjoying the popular success of ‘A Life for the Tsar’, the first Russian opera. Nicholas I even gave Glinka a Rb4,000 bonus on top of his Rb25,000 annual salary. It was also the time – March 9, 1839, to be precise — when Modest Mussorgsky was born. In his 20-year career Mussorgsky didn’t earn in total from his music what Glinka took in a single year…the Russian market for musical performance in the 19th century was monopolized by the tsar and his courtiers, who controlled the imperial theatres for opera and ballet, and also the censor. The ballet theatre doubled as the equivalent of peepshow and bordello for the royal family and their court.”

Floryan has done Russian gardens and gardeners the invaluable service of showing how swiftly – relative to painters and composers – the Scots, English, French, German and Italian architects  were superseded by Russians, and how they came to recognize the special qualities of the Russian landscape even before the painters and musicians. Floryan introduces to the western reader the names, works, and originality of Prokofi Demidov (1710-1786), Andrei Bolotov (1738-1833), and Vasily Bazhenov (1738-1799), as well as the contributions of the Prussian-born wife and widow of Tsar Paul I, the empress consort Maria Feodorovna (1759-1828).   A handful of academic studies in English have followed Floryan;   and a batch of coffee-table photograph albums.   Rare in English, and difficult to obtain since Floryan’s book, are histories to illustrate the historian Nikolai Karamzin’s declaration of aesthetic independence in 1792 that the Russian landscape was “better than French and English gardens”.

Stalin as gardener  and Soviet city planners, landscape gardeners and horticulturalists thought so too. Arriving in Moscow in the final years of the Soviet Union and living through the first flush of Danish enthusiasm for Boris Yelstin, Floryan is uninterested in and occasionally hostile to Soviet thinking and design.

She spends more text and illustration on Russian fanciers of European gardens like Peter, Catherine, and Maria Feodorovna than she does on the efforts of Demidov and Bolotov to stimulate Russian botanical collections and plantings. Floryan ignores the history of Russian cultivation of the Siberian, Central Asian, Crimean, and Caucasian species, and their spread to the west. She fails to recognize the Russian origins of the tulip in Crimea before the Dutch turned it into their money-spinner; not to mention the Papaver orientalis (Oriental poppy), Bergenia crassifolia (Siberia tea), Gypsophila paniculata (Baby’s breath), Lychnis chalcedonica (Maltese cross), Scilla siberica (squill), and Delphinium grandiflorum (larkspur) which are all Russian natives – though if you go French and English nurseries, you might never know so.   Even the ancient Minoan and Greek asphodel – flower of the after-life and of Elysium, also flower of this website’s header   — may have originated in Russian Central Asia.  

Also missing from Floryan’s history and photographic record is the Russian winter and its four  months of black tree skeletons, grey skies, and white snow on the ground. It has been the fantasy of the rich and powerful Russians to ignore the national weather, conspicuously so in the construction of the famous orangeries of Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo, and Kuskovo. Floryan’s history tells too much of that tale.

She also shows a peculiar prejudice against the colours which Russian garden designers and landscape architects have placed in their parks – pinks, reds, blues, and yellows.  These are the colours of the Russian snowscape, their brightness a calculated antidote to winter.

How is it possible not to realise this? The Anglo-American obsession for clipped green grass and vast lawns – product of the destruction of small-lot farming, the rise of the wool industry, and dispossession of the yeomanry – is one explanation.  The absence of photographs of the great Russian gardens under snow — snow blindness on the part of the photographers – is another reason.  


Visitors’ guide and website: https://peterhofmuseum.ru/ 


According to Floryan, having bought Arkhangelskoye on the death of Prince Nikolai Golitsyn in 1809, Prince Nikolai Yusupov began reconstruction of the gardens and palace in 1812, after the withdrawal of the French from Moscow. Yusupov’s originality was to plant trees which were typical of the Moscow region surrounding his property.  When the poet Alexander Pushkin visited in 1830 he saw the past, not the future of Russian gardens: “I am suddenly carried away to the days of Catherine II.” Source and guide: https://www.arhangelskoe.su/ 


Bogoroditske Garden, Tula region, of 1784 by Andrei Bolotov – virtual reconstruction in July 2021 by Daria Pimonova.


Source: https://en.tsaritsyno-museum.ru/


Neskuchny Sad means “Merry Garden”. First laid out in 1756 and planted with more than 5,000 species by Prokofi Demidov, it was the first Russian botanical garden.  Very little of the original planting of Demidov’s garden remains, but the garden itself and its buildings have been added to and they are popular with visitors.   


Visitors’ guide and website: https://park-gorkogo.com/


Khodynskoye Pole (Khodynka Field) in the northwest of Moscow, five kilometres from the Kremlin, was the scene of a public celebration of the 1896 coronation of Nicholas II which led to a stampede and the deaths of about 1,300 people. In 1911 the field  became the first aerodrome in Russia,  and during World War II, out of range of German artillery, aircraft bringing US and British officials to meet Stalin landed there. In August 1991 a division of troops was assembled on the airfield during the attempted rising against Mikhail Gorbachev. Two years later a similar force was massed on the field to save Boris Yeltsin from the rebellion of parliament. After another fifteen years,  with Defence Ministry agreement,   Mayor Yury Luzhkov prepared a redevelopment plan for the area, with apartment buildings set aside for the military, residential and commercial development along the perimeter, sports stadiums,  and the new park. Luzhkov’s wife, Elena Baturina’s Inteko group was the principal developer.  No other Russian oligarch has contributed comparable interest and money to public parks and gardens.

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