Walk through the misty forests surrounding the small village of Semenvskoe, fifty miles west of Moscow, and you’ll stumble upon the crumbling ruins of a once beautiful palace. The sapling trees give way to overgrown sunken gardens, the remnants of a boating lake, and empty flowerbeds.
Explore further and you’ll come across two sculpted, snarling lions that sit upon gate posts, leading to a sweeping driveway that carries you to the front steps of the vast, decaying ruin. Not so long ago, just walking near this old palace would have been highly dangerous; that was when the KGB were using the grand mansion as a rest home and sanitarium for exhausted agents.
But the haunting ruin has a far deeper history: it was built in 1775 for one of the most powerful noblemen in Imperial Russia, Count Grigory Grigorievich Orlov, one time suitor to Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia. Incredibly, the ornate and lavish palace survived the ruthless Communist Revolution.
It was commandeered as a people’s museum after 1918, then used as an agricultural college and a training school for the infamous NKVD. Until recently it was used by the FSB Security Services until it was finally abandoned.
Armed security guards occasionally still patrol the grounds, but we are stepping inside the ruined palace in the company of our Russian correspondent, explorer and photographer of the ‘Abandoned Russia’ Instagram account, Anna.
“In the abandoned places I am attracted by the history,” explains Anna, “this architecture of the past times, the spirit of time.” In fact, if you wanted to explore a place that neatly encapsulated Russia’s tumultuous modern history, you could do no worse than step inside the haunting ruins of the Otrada Palace.
Last week we went to explore some other remnants of Imperial Russia; its abandoned Orthodox churches and rural family cottages, places that were used by everyday people. Otrada Palace couldn’t be more different: Count Orlov was a man of unparalleled position and wealth in Imperial Russia.
He led the coup d’etat with overthrew Catherine the Great’s husband, Tsar Peter III, installing Catherine, his lover, as Empress. During her reign from 1762 until 1796, Russia grew to become one of the great powers of Europe. This was the golden age of the Russian Empire, led by a remarkable woman.
The prominent French portrait artist Madame Vigée Le Brun described first meeting Catherine the Great at a gala: “The double doors opened and the Empress appeared. I have said that she was quite small, and yet on the days when she made her public appearances, with her head held high, her eagle-like stare and a countenance accustomed to command, all this gave her such an air of majesty that to me she might have been Queen of the World.” And at her right hand was her virtual co-ruler, Count Orlov.
Such was Orlov’s prominence and wealth, he had built the largest non-Royal palace in Russia, just outside the small village of Semenovskoe. Otrada palace was modelled after an English stately home, built with striking red brick which contrasted with the white cornices and columns.
The palace was surrounded with a vast, landscaped park that was once filled with wild deer, elk and nightingales. The grounds were decorated enormous flowerbeds, fountains, lush orangeries, greenhouses and a boating lake. But walk through the park today and everything is overgrown and in ruins.
The Orlov Palace has been steadily falling apart for a century. Immediately after the October Revolution the looting and stripping of its riches began. In 1918 the entire estate was nationalised, with its remaining antiques and luxurious fittings seized, “For the needs of the cultural and educational commission of the Executive Committee.” The vast palace was at first turned into a people’s museum, where people could catch a glimpse of what life was like for the noble classes during the time of the Tsars.
In 1925, Count Orlov’s Palace was turned into a far more rustic purpose: an agricultural college. “After the Revolution, a lot of mansions were given to ordinary people,” explains Anna. “They were used as schools, as warehouses. Everything was stolen and taken to an unknown destination.”
One witness recalled that when the museum closed, the remaining treasures of the “the Orlovs were taken out of Otrada in twenty carts.” The fate of the actual Orlov’s was far more ignominious: their bodies were disinterred from the grand family mausoleum that sat on the grounds and simply thrown away.
Step inside the empty palace, and walk through the dusty corridors and empty rooms and you can still catch glimpses of the palace’s past glory; the broken parquet floors, the huge library on the ground floor, who’s books were taken for the Russian State Library, and the faded remnants of ceilings painted by Karl Bruillov, the most fashionable salon artist of his day. “The first time I visited Orlov’s estate in 2018. I was struck by the scale and grandeur of the buildings,” explains Anna.
In 1938, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs moved into the palace. Its abbreviated name would strike terror into Russian lives, the NKVD. The secret police agency of the Soviets, the NKVD was involved in espionage and brutal political repression; it ran the Gulag system, monitored Soviet borders, and carried out untold numbers of executions during the Great Purges, all in the name of protecting State security.
The NKVD used Otrada Palace as a grand training school to perfect their dark arts. After World War II, the school was converted into a rest home for the agency’s successor, the KGB. Described by Time magazine in 1983 as, “The world’s most effective information gathering organisation,” the KGB used the palatial grounds as a sanitarium for its exhausted agents, a practice which continued after the fall of the Soviet Union, with Russia’s new state security agency, the FSB.
“The military rest there and improve their health,,” explains Anna. “This place is under military protection. At first, the Orlov’s estate was a rest house, but there was no proper care for it, it was not restored and it began to collapse. So it stands under a military guard, but completely abandoned.”
Today the former palace of Count Orlov continues to fall apart, ravaged by looters and vandals, but mostly by decades of neglect. But those adventurous enough to avoid the guards, and climb inside will find a forgotten relic that has somehow survived since the time of the Tsars.