PAUL THE FIRST liked to play with soldiers. As Elizabeth II’s son and heir to the throne, he had many fine opportunities to do this, but once mother died and Paul was crowned Emperor, his games could be expanded somewhat. Earlier he’d built a small palace—Mariental—in Pavlovsk in honor of his wife, but since then he’d had the Large Palace built, so a fortress seemed like more the thing for this spot.

The spot was at the confluence of the Slavyanka and Tyzva rivers, atop some old earthen fortifications left from the Swedish occupation of the area. In 1796 architect V.F. Brenna began construction of Bip on Paul’s order.

Bip had everything a castle was supposed to have, a drawbridge, towers, cannons, a year-round garrison (and according to some legends, an underground tunnel leading back to the Large Palace). This garrison had the job of raising the drawbridge every night, firing off a cannon salute on any of a number of specified occasions, and generally sticking to a strict military regimen. Paul even had Bip placed on the Imperial Register of Fortifications, which gave it official military status.

After Paul’s demise the castle was of course removed from this register and used for other purposes. In 1807 Paul’s wife Maria Fyodorovna opened Russia’s first school for the deaf and mute here. The school was later moved to a new location, and Bip became home to a range of different charitable ventures, a German painter, government and city offices, a cavalry unit, several different schools and a kindergarten.

And that was all before the revolution. After 1917 the castle was used as offices for the local Soviet, then very briefly (4 I’m sure very exciting days) as headquarters for White Army General Yudenich, followed by a stint as an orphanage. By 1937 the castle was in a pronounced state of neglect, and deemed unsuitable for the orphanage, which had to relocate. Determined to get Paul’s money’s worth, the Soviets then used the uncondemned parts of the castle for a bank, draft office, warehouse, etc.

But WWII finally put an end to this madcap castle re-purposing; Bip caught fire during a Nazi bombing raid and was left completely gutted. And it looks like this is where the castle’s long years of service will finally end; 60 years have passed since the end of the war, but Bip still stands as a skeleton. Now it’s an amusement not for a Tsar, but simply for the wind, and a few stray kids.

Location: Russia / Pavlovsk

Photography: Summer 2002

“Emperor Alexander I” is one of a couple dozen forts built between 1703 and 1913 to completely control the Neva delta and guard the north and south ship channels leading to St. Petersburg. Many of these forts are quite unique monuments of military engineering. In fact, the Kronshtadt archipelago is largely man-made; fully 18 of the forts are built on artificial islands. How 18th and 19th century technology managed to create these islands in the inhospitable Baltic Sea is a separate story, and a very interesting one...

“Alexander I” was constructed between 1836 and 1845. It’s a forbidding and extremely impressive structure, even today. 137 cannons on 4 levels, 360 degree firepower, constructed almost exclusively of curved surfaces inside and out to limit damage and flying debris in the event of bombardment.

Nevertheless, by the 1860’s rapid advances in weapons design made the fort largely outdated from a combat perspective. It was used for storing sea mines until 1896, when it was decomissioned.

However, it’s complete isolation from the mainland still had certain advantages, and in 1897 the fort was given over to the Institute of Experimental Medicine, which turned it into an anti-plague laboratory, one of only three in the world at the time. During it’s 21 years at the fort, the anti-plague laboratory developed several very useful vaccines and manufactured them in huge quantities for use by both Russia and many foreign countries. The lab’s products were popular since they were cheaper than those of the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

The lab was state-of-the-art for those days; it had it’s own power station and elevator for moving the larger test animals, horses and reindeer. Very strict sanitary and quarantine measures were observed, since the scientists worked with a variety of deadly diseases: plague, anthrax, cholera, typhoid, disentary, scarlet fever. Contact with the mainland was closely controlled; visitors needed official permission, and were brought to the fort on the IEM’s small steam boat “The Microbe.” Despite the precautions, there were a few cases of human infection. An infected scientist was put in a specially isolated chamber, and the ones that didn’t recover were incinerated at the fort. Of course, this was how Alexander I got it’s nickname “The Plague.” The lab was moved to another city after the 1917 revolution, but for years afterward passing boats would steer well clear of the island-fortress.

Many of the Kronshtadt forts saw combat during WWII, when they were used as anti-aircraft positions, but I don’t think Alexander I was used for this. The forts were decommissioned in the late 50’s; all weapons and most anything else of value was removed. Under Khrushchov’s orders, the forts were unceremoniously stripped: metal railings decorative and non-decorative, metal doors, metal pipes, metal anything. But fortunately for the locals, the government didn’t do a very thorough job of this, leaving it open season for the private entrepreneur. Now, most of these forts are accessible only by boat in the summer or by ice in the winter, so getting your blow torch out there and coming back with half a ton of metal you can sell sometimes takes impressive ingenuity. I imagine maybe even the engineers who constructed the forts would be impressed if they could witness some of the antics.

People have proposed a number of projects of what could be done with all these forts, but so far nothing has quite gotten off the ground. In the last few years though, Alexander I and nearby fort Konstantin have become a hot spot for massive summer raves. People come from pretty far away for these, many even from Moscow. But if you want to get on the ferry to Alexander I you should either buy a VIP ticket or get there really early, otherwise you’ll spend all night in an awful line, being crushed by hordes of anxious teenagers and getting periodically beaten back by cops. The rave organizers have also taken to locking up the fort during the winter.

And so it was that the majestic and forbidding Plague Fort remained impenetrable on both my visits...

Location: Russia / Kronshtadt

Photography: Winter 2003