The Kikin Mansion

Picture and Hyperlink - to a larger rear view of the Kikin Chambers, late in a January afternoon 2002    

Two views of the front, one with the old tan color scheme of the 1960's. Hyperlink is to a large (700x525) view of the front during May 2002.

In a city full of architectural treasures, this wonderful old baroque building dates back to the era of Peter I and it is possibly the oldest building in the city. But it has yet to be appreciated by the local governors or really discovered by the millions of tourists who descend upon Saint Petersburg each year.

The house was originally built by Andreas Schluter for Alexander Vasilevich Kikin in 1714. As a prominent boyar and close associate of Peter, Kikin was an official of the Admiralty and head of the nearby Tar Yard, until he sided with Tsarevich Alexis, Peter's son, in a dispute over succession to the throne. In 1718 Kikin was arrested after it was determined that he was one of those who advised the unhappy Alexis to abdicate. Kikin was sent to Moscow where he was tried and sentenced to die under slow torture. However, after two days of torture and direct intervention by Peter, he was mercifully executed by beheading in Red Square.


This palace, the Kikin Mansion, Kikin Chambers, or Kikiny Palaty [Кикины палаты] as it is sometimes known, can be found in open grounds at No.9 Ulitsa Stavrapolskaya and its front entrance faces ul. Shpalernaya at a point which is roughly midway between the Taurida Palace and Smolny Cathedral (less than 5 minutes walk to each). It is an incredible building to visit and explore, and if you are searching for ideal historical sites to visit whilst booking your airline tickets into St. Petersburg.

Few great houses of the bureaucrats from Peter I's era have survived, but it was due to Peter himself that this particular building outlasted most of the others. After Kikin's removal, the house was confiscated and taken over by the tsar's treasury, and Peter had a use for it. Peter had been avidly collecting rare objects and these were originally housed privately in rooms at the Summer Palace. The collection was growing rapidly and Peter decided to adapt the Kikin Mansion to be Russia's first public museum where all could see his library of rare books and assortment of wondrous objects. This first Kunstkamera was opened in 1719. In naming this first museum Kunstkamera, which is from the Dutch meaning cabinet of art, Peter revealed another example of how he was trying to make Russia more akin to the Western-Europeans.
The ordinary Russian people were not used to visiting such regal buildings, nor were they familiar with the likes of organized educational displays. But so keen was Peter for the masses to see his collection of curious exhibits that he actually paid the museums visitors, by providing wine, hot drinks and bread treats. The museum was open to all classes of people irrespective of their religion or roots. Exhibits came from all over Europe and many were shocking in the extreme. Pickled infants with two heads, and others with ghastly deformities were stuffed and preserved along with animals that had anatomical defects. It was not a place for the faint hearted.

Peter considered it to be his duty to educate his people and his determination led him to sign a declaration, which commanded his subjects to submit for Tsar's inspection, any obvious oddities that had been born into this world, as well as any old or wondrous curio or weapon. Travelers were ordered to purchase rare objects, and items soon appeared in great numbers from both domestic and foreign sources. The enlightenment of the people had begun.

The interior of this building has a large staircase and eight large halls. In its museum days each of the halls (or chambers), had a different theme and apart from the aforementioned exhibits that were quite shocking, many were equally pleasing by being artistic or naturally beautiful. One hall contained large cats, stuffed elephants and ornate items of ivory, another amber and similarly precious minerals. Further rooms displayed battle trophies from Peter's victorious army, butterflies and birds, rare books, and there was a separate room just for medals and mainly oriental coins (that were displayed in Peter's own Muntz Cabinet).

In many royal courts of that era, it was fashionable to display what we now call vertically challenged people and Peter was no exception to this. In the employ of the museum were resident "live" exhibits that were referred to as monsters or freaks. One such person was a giant of a man called Nicholas Bourgeois whom Peter brought back from a trip to France. Bourgeois stood seven feet and two inches in height (2m 27cm), and after his death his skeleton was added to the growing collection along with various organs of his that had been preserved in jars. Peter was fascinated by dwarfs all his life and the most famous of them was a midget called Foma Ignatiev who was only just over 4 feet and one inch (126cm) tall. Ignatiev was displayed along with the rest of the collection. It is recorded that another living exhibit was an hermaphrodite, of unknown gender!

Plaque on the extreme LH front facadeEven at the onset of Russia's first scientific complex, Peter knew a much larger building was needed to house all the displays and before the end of 1718 the construction of a new Kunstkamera began on the University Embankment of Vasilevsky Island. The new purpose-built Kunstkamera was not completed until 1734, but by 1728 exhibits had started arriving, both from the Kikin Chambers and from other new sources. 

plaque on the wall of the right front facade

After the new Kunstkamera was opened very little was recorded about events at the former home of Kikin, until barracks were built nearby and the building became a military hospital with subsequent extensive reconstruction. German bombing during the Second World War almost destroyed the building and it lay derelict until postwar restorer Irina Benois (from the illustrious family of architects), restored it to its original Petrine form between 1952 & 56. The color scheme has changed from yellow-cream to red and white in the late 1980's, but otherwise nothing else has since and it has for many years been a musical Lyceum for budding young pianists. Unless the weather is too severe, one can often hear the enchanting mellow tones of Chopin, Rachmaninov, or other aptly appropriate 'chamber music' being admirably played, via an open window.

The Kunstkamera at 3 Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya
Hyperlink to a view of the Kunstkamera from the Palace Bridge in winter

This uniquely styled baroque building on the banks of the Neva seems to vary between green and blue depending upon the light. Construction began in 1718 and it was not completed until 1734.Which was long after the death of Peter the Great, who had commissioned Geoge Mattarnovy to design this first purpose-built Russian State museum. Following Mattarnovy's death, he was was ably followed on the project by M. G. Zemtsov, N. F. Gerbel, and G. Chiaveri who were other notable architects of that era. In 1747 a terrible fire caused extensive damage to the structure of the building and many priceless collections were also destroyed. Restoration was slow and it was not until 1766 that the public were readmitted. However, the tower which had been destroyed was not replaced for exactly 200 years.

The symbolic significance of Kunstkamera as an educational center is expressed inside the central tower, which culminates in a lantern and globe representing Peter I's interest in the sciences. The tower contained an observatory which was used by Mikhail Lomonosov who was considered to be Russia's first great scientist. Today the Kunstkamera houses the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, as well as a memorial exhibition about Lomonosov and much of Peter's original collection. If you wish to know more about the contents and history of Kunstkamera, and you have a day or two to spare, click here for a link to its official site.

Entrance to the museum is from Mendeleyevskaya Liniya around to the side. The ticket office opens from 11:00-17:00 and the museum itself is open daily until 18:00 except closed on Thursdays. Nearest Metro, 'Nevsky Prospekt'.


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