Mariinsky Palace used to be nothing more than another distant government building that the public could only glance at from behind the fence.
The 18th century palace has been closed to visitors for almost 12 years, undergoing renovation to restore its baroque image with a distinctive turquoise facade.
Though the works finished in 2017, the building has since been mainly used for political receptions and inaccessible to the public. In 2020, Mariinsky Palace finally started welcoming visitors, but the operations were constantly interrupted by COVID-19 quarantine restrictions.
Located in the governmental quarter, the palace is still used by the president to host foreign delegations, but it also now offers tours. And they do far more than give curious eyes a look at the inner workings of the political kitchen, as Mariinsky has much to tell about the history of Kyiv and of Ukraine.
“It is the face of our country,” says Kyiv guide and historian Lyolya Filimonova.
Mariinsky is an exceptional case for Ukraine since the country is not historically known for royal palaces. In the Russian Empire, Ukraine’s capital was more of a provincial city which didn’t attract the royal family living in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
But this suddenly changed in 1747, when Russian Empress Elizabeth commissioned the building of Mariinsky Palace and St. Andrew’s Church located on Andriivsky Descent.
“Elizabeth saw something in Kyiv that touched her,” Filimonova told the Kyiv Post.
Both buildings, intended for the royal family, were designed by Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastelli, who had previously worked on the Winter Palace and Vorontsov Palace in St. Petersburg.
Mariinsky’s development finished in 1752. Elizabeth herself didn’t visit the palace even once, while other royals barely lived within its walls, says Bohdan Kozhukhar, Mariinsky’s guide and historian.
Since the time of Elizabeth’s reign, the palace’s architecture has been completely transformed and it’s still unknown what it looked like to begin with. “How it was built is hard for us to imagine because nothing original has remained,” Filimonova says.
Mariinsky was rebuilt twice: once in the 19th century after a devastating fire destroyed its wooden structures, and then after World War II when it was partly destroyed by a bomb.
Though the building underwent unrecognizable makeovers, these reconstructions actually add value to the palace, Kozhukhar believes.
“Through its history, some of the architects who designed the palace and the people who physically built it were Ukrainians,” he says. “It is our heritage.”
The structure’s recent reconstruction that started in 2004 dragged on due to budget interruptions, through four presidential administrations. It cost the state nearly Hr 1 billion to complete this major makeover, which strengthened the foundations, replaced the utilities, and restored the facade, the interior design and the yard.
More than a decade later, Mariinsky re-established its 19th century look: A two-story baroque building with turquoise facade walls, tall windows and light-painted pillars, balusters and stucco.
Once again, it shone in Mariinsky Park, standing right next door to the building of the Ukrainian parliament, or Verkhovna Rada. The palace was finally used for receptions again in 2017, only to completely finish all the works two years later.
But it wasn’t until 2020, as Mariinsky opened its doors to visitors, that a new chapter in its history started.
Clinton and Warhol
The opening in September was so hotly anticipated that tour tickets that went on sale two months earlier sold out in a few hours.
Though lockdowns led to closures, the buzz around the palace still hasn’t settled down. People are continuing to buy tickets months in advance. Visits come in the form of a 45-minute guided tour led by Kozhukhar and a fellow colleague from Friday to Sunday in Ukrainian, English and Russian.
The group tours offer a peek into the palace’s political functions, showing visitors the locations for ceremonies, awards, round table negotiations between delegations and even a banquet table with a sample Ukrainian lunch menu and Mariinsky’s custom-made tableware from the 1980s.
“Every room of the palace is unique,” Filimonova says. These premises host important events like receptions for presidential inaugurations. Some of the world’s most influential figures were guests at Mariinsky, from U. S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton to U. K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Part of the exhibit offers a look at the presidents’ gift collection featuring all sorts of goods that foreign visitors brought to Ukrainian leaders. There are various souvenirs, early works of iconic U.S. artist of Ukrainian descent Andy Warhol and more.
Apart from its political significance, the tour also introduces visitors to the palace’s rich history through a look at the remaining traces of the 19th-century design — five paintings drawn by Italian painter Kamill Alliaudi and a golden medallion with one of the royal’s profiles located in two of the rooms.
There’s also a collection of Ukrainian art by some of the most prominent local artists, which is constantly updated. This summer, the excursions have given visitors the opportunity to explore a small back garden of the palace, which was not previously open for public access. There, the visitors can observe a large staircase with two lion sculptures at its base.
Filimonova believes that the president’s residence should be open to the people, just like it is all over the world. The former residence of the French monarchs, the state-owned Palace of Versailles in Paris, which draws millions of visitors each year, is one of the most striking examples.
And though Mariinsky is the first building of the kind in Ukraine, it might just become the starter of a new trend. “This is a beautiful precedent,” Filimonova says.
More to come
The team leading tours in Mariinsky is not planning to stop at making one government building accessible. Their next goal this summer is another presidential residence, the House with Chimaeras.
Constructed by renowned Polish architect Władysław Horodecki, the building is widely considered one of the most extraordinary edifices of Kyiv’s Art Nouveau.
The structure is best known for its intricate sculpture decorations of mystic animals sitting all around the roof edges. Located on Bankova Street, right in front of the presidential administration, like Mariinsky Palace, this building has remained shielded from the public due to its political function.
It also serves as a setting for the receptions of foreign delegations and festive ceremonies. But plans for new tours and the recent opening of the entire Bankova Street for public access create hope that other government facilities, many of which are buildings of national heritage, will also be open to the public.
Filimonova says that it’s unfortunate that access to these buildings was restricted to just the authorities, but that has to change, and just like Mariinsky, the House with Chimaeras has to be made accessible.
“People have to see it because it’s a masterpiece,” she says.
Mariinsky Palace. 5A Mykhaila Hrushevskoho St. Friday-Sunday entrance — Hr 150 ($5.50). Group tours are held every hour from 10 a. m. until 5 p. m. and are available in Ukrainian, English and Russian. Book a place on a tour at www.m-palace. com.ua. The audio guides are available to get at the palace in both English and Ukrainian or can be downloaded through the Megogo app.
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