The photograps on this page were published recently in OIRU’s (Society for the Study of the Russian Estate) journal “The Russian Estate” issue #4(20), Moscow, 1998. They were probably made during the 1920’s, when Otrada was a museum.


I’D HAD MY EYE on Otrada-Semyonovskoe for some months. Flipping through some old “Russian Estate” journals, I always seemed to land on it, a sprawling red Moscow estate with two improbable rotunda-looking structures spiraling towards the sky. No interior photos, but from the windows you could tell it was abandoned, at least back then. I got in touch with a guy in Moscow who had been there in 2001. His few pictures left no doubt that this was a major estate, and one likely in a picturesque stage of decay. Barring any subsequent fires or restoration, this was a place worth making a trip to Moscow for. Most estates on that grand a scale are either museums now, or long since destroyed. I called up an old classmate in Moscow and arranged to stay with him for a few days.

Any expectations I might have had from those photographs turned out to be definite understatements; the place was dark, fantastically cavernous, filled with a rich array of extant frescos, decorative plaster work, parquet floors, a history intertwined with the very core of Tsarist Russia, and a current owner no less mythic...

Otrada was the estate of Count Vladimir Grigorievich Orlov, who built it in 1775–1779 on land given to him by his older brother Grigory.
Bedroom(?). See images 10-10 & 10-14.
Grigory and two other Orlov brothers were principal figures in the 1762 coup in which Tsar Peter III went to the Ropsha palace for a mandatory “vacation” and a few days later turned up conveniently and permanently dead (according to legend, strangled in one of the palace’s underground passages), allowing Catherine II to take the throne. Grigory went on to become one of her most visible lovers, win a Turkish War, and—for several years—to be one of the most influential figures at the Russian court. The village of Semyonovskoe and the surrounding land were a gift from Catherine.

Unlike his older brother, Vladimir wasn’t much for politics and intrigue. After the coup he went off to study at the University of Leipzig and upon his return in 1766 was appointed director of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He was 24 in that year.

By the mid 1770’s, Catherine had a new chief favorite—Prince Potyomkin—and the Orlovs’ influence was waning. Vladimir decided this would be a good time to take up the country life and so retired from the Academy and moved to Semyonovskoe to begin work on Otrada, which he envisioned as an estate along the lines of an English lord’s.

In many ways Orlov’s estate became something of a ‘favorite’ of history. The abolishment of serfdom in 1861, the violent uprisings and unrest which marked the next six decades, the same events which doomed most of the estates in Russia seemed to have little effect on Otrada. In fact, it remained in the Orlov-Davydov family up until the 1917 revolution.

Whatever historical good fortune Otrada had built up was enough to last it another few years. The Orlov-Davydovs were forced to flee, but the estate’s century-and-a-half worth of accumulated art, books, and family archives were still remarkably intact in 1920, at the end of all the looting and destruction accompanying Russia’s Civil War.

Many of the more valuable objects had already been shipped off to the Museum of History in Moscow, but in 1920 whatever was left became the basis for a museum at Otrada.
Drawing Room.
This museum was regarded as one of the best in the Moscow countryside, but in 1925 most of these country museums were dismantled, their collections ‘centralized’ under Stalin’s orders. Many of Otrada’s artworks were divided between the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, where you can still find them. The estate library—which included some rare works dating back to 1650—went to the Lenin Library. Some of the more notable objects once at the estate were Lomonosov’s telescope and relics, Orlov’s Rembrandt painting “Christ” (which not surprisingly was already missing by the time people came to look for it in 1917, but then it turned up in a Moscow safe in 1919 and was sent to the Pushkin Museum, from which it was stolen in 1927. Dug up (literally) in 1931 and restored, it eventually found its way back to Holland).

The family archives turned out to be almost limitless. Beginning in 1935, researchers spent the next 30 years going through them, finding correspondences from Voltaire, Rousseau, Leibnitz, Cervantes, Walter Scott, Catherine the Great, Turgenev and others. Like many of the other major estates in Russia, Otrada had been cultural beacon on the murky seas of the Russian provinces.

But after 1925 Otrada finally fell out of favor; I don’t know what happened in the ensuing years. Its history picks up again in 1977, when a sanatorium opened on the estate grounds. The sanatorium occupies modern buildings, but during the mid 80’s put a substantial effort into restoring the palace.

History, however, was working against it now. In 1991 the Soviet Union foundered, taking with it the estate’s funds for restoration. Otrada once again lies in disrepair, a ghost ship on the sea of history.

So who owns this sanatorium? Who is this “no less mythic” owner? Maybe you’ll enjoy the story of how I found out.

I knew the estate was located on the territory of some sanatorium or other, but this was really all I knew.
Tiled furnace. See image 10-11
There aren’t any details on the Internet. Actually, there are, but not many, and I’d even read them, but forgot.

During my scouting trip I happened to walk past one of the estate’s auxiliary buildings, obviously still in use. The sign by the door read “FSB Kindergarten” (the FSB is the kinder, gentler KGB). This amused me a little, since I didn’t know their agents began at such a tender age, but I kept walking and didn’t think much more about it.

The next day I was in the palace, setting up my camera when two guys in camouflage walk by, giving a couple ladies a little tour. They walked past me, but after a few steps turned around and started to ask some questions. Like, what exactly are you doing there and who are you anyway? Does security know you’re here? You probably snuck in through a hole in the fence, huh? And so forth. Here I did a bit of explaining, to the effect that no, I had not ‘snuck’ in, but had entered quite casually through one of the many gaping windows and that I didn’t have anyone’s permission since by the looks of things, there wasn’t anyone to ask for said permission in the first place; I figured the building was ownerless. But as it turns out, there is an owner and that owner is the FSB. The guys said I would need to go see the head of security and let him know exactly who I was, why I was there, and why he should believe me that I’m not a spy. I said I’d certainly do that and they walked on.

But they came back very shortly. They said it’d be better for me to wait there; they’d send someone. Then they walked off again.

But again, not for long. This time it was the ol’ “Come with us.”

They lead me off to the sanatorium’s main building, which is pretty nice really, in good repair. The first thing you notice as you walk in is a big portrait of “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinskij (founder of the NKVD, which became the KGB) done in marble. Very imposing. But all in all, it’s a warm and comfortable place. After they locked up my heavy camera case, I could really relax and get cozy.

Now, I should mention that all this was happening on Feb. 23rd, Defenders of the Fatherland Day (formerly Red Army Day, a big holiday for all the men), so the head of security was at home in Moscow, enjoying his holiday, maybe barbecuing shashliki. They called him up, but I had to wait about 3 hours while he made it out to Semyonovskoe.

Semyonovskoe is just a little village, really out in the sticks you could say.
Drawing Room. See image 10-11
As I understand it, not many foreigners make it out to these parts, so everybody took a real interest in me. They wanted to know how things were in the States, how much you make a month and what’s the price for an apartment or gasoline. I even met the local priest, who jokingly (I guess?) told me I was ‘done for.’ During those 3 hours the FSB guys made a real effort to keep me entertained. We had some great herbal tea at the sanatorium cafe, they bought me a big lunch at the cafeteria, gave me newspapers to read, showed me their collection of pre-revolutionary photographs of Otrada, even took me up to the roof to show off the wonderful view of the countryside. I honestly forgot I was officially ‘detained’ and really felt more like the guest of honor. Those FSB guys were sincerely friendly and amazingly hospitable. I certainly don’t think you’d get the same treatment from the spooks at the CIA! :-)

Finally the head of security arrived. He took me into his office, asked me a bunch of questions and carefully wrote down my answers, looked through my documents. I was slightly nervous and he seemed to like that. But I can’t say that he seemed at all mad for spoiling his holiday like I had. Then he asked me to wait in the hall and spent about 20 minutes making some calls, verifying my information I guess. At the end of it he invited me back in, told me a little about the history of the estate and said I was free to go. The guys downstairs all said a big goodbye and I headed back out into the snow, feeling the warm gaze of the FSB behind me.


Location: Russia / Moskovskaja oblast' / Stupinskij rajon / selo Semyonovskoe

Photography: Winter 2003