In Notre Dame fire, echoes of the 1837 blaze that destroyed Russia’s Winter Palace

In a city graced with remarkable architecture, the cathedral of Notre Dame may be Paris’ most striking edifice. So when it was engulfed by a fire that toppled its spire, it seemed as if more than a building had been scorched; the nation had lost a piece of its soul.

How can a country respond to witnessing the devastation of its most magnificent structure?

As I watched the images, I couldn’t help but think of a similar tragedy that took place in 19th-century Russia – a story I tell in a forthcoming book about how the year 1837 played a pivotal role in Russian history.

Like the people of France who are mourning the damage to Notre Dame, the Russians were rocked by the destruction of an iconic building. Their rebuilding effort might offer some inspiration for a French populace looking to pick up the pieces of their beloved cathedral.

A palace that symbolizes ‘all that is Russian’

On Dec. 17, 1837, a fire broke out at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Now the site of the famous State Hermitage Museum, back then it served as the primary residence of the czar and his family.

Standing in the heart of the Russian capital, with 60,000 square meters of floor space and 1,500 rooms, the Winter Palace was among the world’s grandest buildings. The Russian poet Vasilii Zhukovskii wrote that the palace was “the representation of all that is Russian, all that is ours, all that relates to the Fatherland.”

Originally completed in 1762, the palace had undergone a renovation just prior to the fire. Historians aren’t precisely sure how the fire started, but they do know that defects from the renovation allowed the flames to spread quickly through the palace’s attics. By evening the structure was completely ablaze, a spectacle visible from miles away.

Informed of the fire while at St. Petersburg’s Bolshoi Theatre, Czar Nicholas I rushed to the palace, only to learn that the building couldn’t be saved. The best the monarch and his personnel could do was salvage prized possessions and prevent the fire’s spread to the Hermitage, where the emperor’s art collection was housed.

By the morning of Dec. 19, only the structure’s skeleton remained and an unknown number of people had died. The ruined palace “stood sullenly like a warrior,” one witness observed, “powerful but covered with wounds and blackened by the smoke of unprecedented battle.”

“The northern capital has lost her greatest ornament,” a local newspaper lamented.

A blow to the ruling regime

For the czar and his regime, the fire presented a political challenge.

The palace – a symbol of autocratic monarchy in an age of revolution – was now in ruins. Might the swift destruction of the palace reflect the fragility of the czarist order?

An 1852 portrait of Czar Nicholas I by Franz Krüger. Hermitage Museum
As with Paris in 2019, people expressed disbelief. How was it possible that this magnificent edifice, this national symbol, could be consigned to such destruction? Nicholas himself fell into depression, haunted by even the whiff of smoke. There were murmurs that the conflagration was God’s punishment for the impieties of a secularizing age.