Side Trips from St. Petersburg Experience

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The Story of the Amber Room

The original Amber Room panels, a masterpiece of amber carving, were presented to Peter the Great in 1716 by Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I in exchange for 55 "very tall" Russian soldiers (that was Friedrich's request). The panels were eventually incorporated in one of the numerous halls of Ekaterininsky Dvorets (Catherine Palace) in Tsarskoye Selo. After the Revolution of 1917, Catherine Palace was turned into a museum, and the public had its first chance to see the Amber Room. The Nazis looted the palace in 1941 and moved the contents of the Amber Room to what was then the German town of Königsberg. That town (soon to become the Russian town of Kaliningrad) was captured by the Soviets in 1945, but by the time the Soviet troops entered the city, the amber panels had disappeared.

It's believed that the panels were either destroyed by Allied bombing or were somehow hidden by the Nazis. For obvious reasons, the second theory has held the most appeal, and over the years it's given hope to eager treasure seekers. Some postulated that the amber could have been buried in a silver mine near Berlin, hidden on the shores of the Baltic Sea, or taken as far away as South America. Explorers have searched caves, jails, churches, salt mines, tunnels, bunkers, and ice cellars. For some, the quest was an obsession: Georg Stein, a former German soldier, searched for more than two decades, spent almost all his fortune, and in the end was found mysteriously murdered in a Bavarian forest in 1987. In 1991 the German magazine Der Spiegel organized its own archaeological expedition to search for the panels in the ruins of Lochstedt Castle in the Kaliningrad region. It failed to find them.

In 1979 the Soviet government gave up all hope of relocating the panels and initiated the reconstruction of the Amber Room, allocating about $8 million for the project. It would take another $3.5-million donation from the German company Ruhrgas AG in 1999 to complete the restoration work. More than 30 craftspeople worked tirelessly, some dedicating up to 20 years of their lives to the project. Using microscopes to make the tiniest engravings in the amber, many lost their vision over the years or suffered illness from inhaling amber dust. Ironically, most of the amber came from the world's largest deposit of the fossil resin, in Kaliningrad—the very place where the original amber panels had disappeared. After 25 years of work and 6 tons of amber (though 80% of this amber was waste product), the replica of the Amber Room was unveiled in 2003 in time for St. Petersburg's 300th-anniversary celebrations.

Covered with more than a ton of amber, the room embraces you with the warm glow of more than 13 hues of this stone, ranging from butter yellow to dark red. One panel, Smell and Touch, is an original, found in Bremen, Germany, in 1997; a German pensioner whose father had fought in the Soviet Union was caught trying to sell the panel.

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