ONE MORNING I WAS LOITERING around the Polovtsov dacha and happened to make the acquaintence of “The Commendant,” who said if I were to come back sometime when he was on guard duty and ask nicely, and be careful to not touch anything and not stay too long, then maybe I could have a look inside.

I came back a couple weeks later, but these had been a hard couple of weeks for the dacha; I found it now surrounded by anti-tank barricades, fortified machine gun positions, and looking like one wing had burned pretty nicely. A few foreign grip trucks parked around back, though, cleared up the situation; somebody was shooting a movie.

By the next week the war had moved to a different spot in St. Petersburg and things on Stone Island were quiet once again. The Commendant told me a German production was in town, shooting a movie about the last days of the Reich (“Der Untergang”/“Downfall”, 2004). The Polovtsov Dacha is actually a pretty popular spot for film crews. Several music videos have been shot there in the last few years.

I’ve read in the papers that the Department of Presidential Affairs has aquired the building now (lately Putin’s been picking up quite a bit of historical real estate around St. Petersburg, turning it into official residences and such). However—and things are murky here—the building seemed to be still occupied by one Elegant Logic, Inc. As I’ve since found out, Elegant Logic is an American company, but who knows what they do or why they need to do it in this particular building. They leased the dacha from the government back in 1992 for a period of 49 years, under the condition they’d restore it. I think the only “restoration” they’ve done since then is to install a security system and motion detectors.

To skip back to the beginning, though, the dacha was built by Alexander Alexandrovich Polovtsov, a very wealthy and high-ranking government official. Actually, he died a couple years before construction began in 1911, but the building stayed in the family and kept his name. Ivan Fomin was the architect, and the Polovtsov dacha became probably the best and most complete creation of his pre-revolutionary, neoclassical period, all the more so since he designed the interiors as well. And oddly enough, his studio was the one commissioned to convert the palace into a sanatorium during the 1920’s.

Which brings us to what happened after the revolution. The dacha was confiscated by the government in 1918. Two years later it was decided to take 30 such confiscated palaces on Stone Island and convert them into a “Collective House of Rest for the Workers.”
Winter Garden. Lenin lays it out for the people.
Lenin came from Moscow (his last trip to Petrograd) for the opening celebration. As an interesting note, a few years later Herbert Wells spent a few days at the dacha during his trip to Russia.

Starting in the 1960’s, Stone Island became a popular spot for top party officials to live. Several large residences were built behind high brick walls. Gradually the labor unions and their aging House of Rest were driven off the island, leaving many of the palaces in limbo. Some fell into disrepair, and these were mostly left to decay in peace.

In the last couple years though, Stone Island’s become a hot real estate market; there’s some elite condos going up on the north side and there’s been something of a legal and political struggle to decide who controls what. The dilapidated buildings have been razed, removing much of the mystery and atmosphere from the island. The Polovtsov dacha has been luckier than those buildings, but I think the day is soon coming when there won’t be a friendly and chatty “Commendant” to let you inside for a look if he likes you.

Location: Russia / St. Petersburg / Stone Island

Photography: Summer 2003