A Master Painter and His Aging Collective Bring Life and Color Back to the Catherine Palace

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Yakob Kazakov will never forget his first sight of the Catherine Palace when he returned to Leningrad after World War II. "All the glass in the windows was broken. The roofs were damaged or blown away by bombs. The wind and water had wandered through everything and frozen. The artworks were in terrible condition."

The architectural casualties inflicted by the occupying Germans on Peter the Great's prize city, the "Venice of the North," were horrific. The graceful monuments that give Leningrad its character—St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Hermitage, the Admiralty, the Russian Museum and General Staff buildings—had all been badly damaged, and the Fascists seemed to have taken special care to degrade the Catherine Palace. Set on the Izhorsk heights about 15 miles south of Leningrad, the original building was intended as a surprise for Peter the Great in 1723 by his commoner wife, Catherine I, and was expanded by Peter's daughter. The palace had been used by units of Hitler's army to stable their horses (in the Great Hall) and to garage their motor-cycles(in the domed Church of the Resurrection). Twenty-two amber panels in one room disappeared with the Germans. "They wanted to destroy our national culture," says Kazakov.

He decided then and there to become a restorer, and for the past 42 years the gentle 71-year-old artist has been painstakingly recreating the damaged baroque ceiling murals in the city's great churches and palaces. For most of those years he has been in charge of the same group of master painters, who are now part of the Catherine Palace's staff of 200 restorers. A mural on the Great Hall ceiling, The Triumph of Russia, took seven years to complete. They employ the styles, techniques and even materials (recreated in special artisans' workshops in Leningrad) of 17th-and 18th-century artists, and they perfect their work on canvas before painting on the ceiling. "Although we are seven, you cannot find where one stopped and another started," says Kazakov. "Ours is an extraordinarily complicated task. Each artist here must forego his ego and work as artists did in the past. Collectivism is very important to our efforts."

Though the Bolsheviks were intent on leveling the aristocracy as a class after the Revolution, their homes were preserved. Some buildings surrounding the Catherine Palace were briefly used as a children's sanitorium, but in 1918 the palace was opened to the public as a museum. After World War II the government formed an association devoted to restoration, which trained cadres of sculptors, artists, gilders and carvers. Says Kazakov, who was among the earliest recruits: "There were some skeptics who didn't think it could or should be done. We had to prove we were capable. We finished our first ceiling in the Shuvalov Palace in one year. Those first 20 years were schooling. We worked for 10 years on the murals in St. Isaac's Cathedral, four years on the Grand Palace at Petrodvorets. We relived the creative lives of artists two centuries ago. We studied their works, even the individual flowers of paintings from the period." In the Five Year Plan announced two years ago, the palace's restoration budget was increased from 11 million to 20 million rubles ($30 million).

Kazakov was suited ideally to the task. He had begun copying the work of old masters as a child in the town of Smolensk. Born two years before the Revolution, he scored such high marks at a specialized local trade school for the arts that he qualified for entrance to the prestigious Leningrad Institute of Arts. But World War II intervened, and he was sent to the Kalinin front south of Leningrad. Severely wounded by a bomb blast, he spent two years in a hospital having shrapnel picked out of his back. He married one of his nurses, Raisa, and after the war they moved back to Leningrad, where he took up his restoration studies and they raised three children.

Last year, for his lifelong work, Kazakov was given one of the state's highest awards, the Order of Lenin. He accepted it proudly for himself and his colleagues. But the aging collective now feels a special urgency about its uncompleted work. Young artists lack their experience and, says Kazakov sadly, "do not work as a unit like we do." At the same time, he hopes that history will make their specialty obsolete. "The war gave us lots of work," he says. "We dream there will be no wars in the future, that our work will not be necessary."

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