Znamenskoe-Raek: The Faded Glory
of the Russian Country Estate
by William Brumfield
(Left)The Palladian splendour of Znamenskoe-Raek in Russia has survived the ravages of time and war.
Photo: William Brumfield
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The Russian countryside was once dotted with estate houses that belonged to the gentry and prosperous merchants. Most of the houses were built of wood and modest in size and appearance, such as the family estates of the poet Alexander Pushkin at Boldino and Mikhailovskoe.
Others, such as Leo Tolstoy's house at Yasnaya polyana, were more imposing. And a few of these houses were palatial. The upheavals of the 20th century dealt harshly with these relics of a bygone social order and only a few survived in recognisable form.
Fortunately, one of the grandest is still standing at the village of Raek (Ra-YOK), to the south of Torzhok not far from the Moscow-St Petersburg highway. The estate, formally known as Znamenskoe-Raek, includes a landscaped park extending to the small Logovezh River. Although some of the park pavilions were damaged or destroyed during the Second World War, the main house and its attached buildings are intact.
Between 1787 and the 1790s the estate was the scene of intensive construction. Its patron, general and senator Fedor Glebov, wanted to create an idyllic retreat for receiving important guests, and gave the prominent architect Nikolai Lvov full rein for a grand mansion in the Italian style.
Lvov – like the other major Palladian architects in Russia, Giacomo Quarenghi and Charles Cameron – was interested primarily in Palladio's "rural" architecture, and above all the villas. At Raek the Italian style is particularly evident in the rotunda that rises above the two-storey mansion.
On the interior the rotunda provides natural light for the ballroom at the centre of the second (main) floor. All flanking rooms are subordinate to this square space – a clear indication of the house's purpose as a centre of reception and entertainment.
The most distinctive feature of Lvov's design is a grand colonnade that encloses the cour d'honneur in front of the house. It is flanked on either side with pavilions and service buildings that are closely integrated into the colonnade. The centre of the colonnade opposite the mansion is a monumental entrance arch.
There is nothing else quite like it in Russia, yet in some respects this extraordinary entrance court reminds of Thomas Jefferson's design for the colonnaded lawn at the University of Virginia. At Znamenskoe-Raek, Lvov created a distinctive approach for the adaptation of the natural setting to the architectural forms of the neoclassical manor and its auxiliary buildings.
At this time the concept of landscape design centred on the contemplation of "unfettered" nature, whose eternal laws were supposed to complement the natural logic and meaning of neoclassical architecture. Lvov's grand colonnade facilitates that union by providing forest vistas through the classical entrance arch and the colonnade itself, a rare achievement through which artifice and nature are both delineated and at the same time fused.
The Znamenskoe-Raek estate, whose survival is little short of miraculous, is undergoing a careful restoration and is open to visitors. It should be visited by anyone with an interest in the former glory of Russia's estate culture.