In 1898 Nicholas II turned the stupendously majestic neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace (Mikhailovsky Dvorets) into what has become one of the country's most important art galleries. He did so in tribute to his father, Alexander III, who had a special regard for Russian art and regretted, after seeing Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery, that St. Petersburg had nothing like it.
The collection at what's sometimes just called the Russian Museum is now four times greater than that at the Tretyakov Gallery, with scores of masterpieces on display. Outstanding icons include the 14th-century Boris and Gleb and the 15th-century Angel Miracle of St. George. Both 17th- and 18th-century paintings are also well represented, especially with portraiture. One of the most famous 18th-century works here is Ivan Nikitin's The Field Hetman. By far the most important works are from the 19th century—huge canvases by Repin, many fine portraits by Serov (his beautiful Countess Orlova
and the equally beautiful, utterly different portrait of the dancer Ida Rubinstein), and Mikhail Vrubel's strange, disturbing Demon Cast Down. For many years much of this work was unknown in the West, and it's fascinating to see the stylistic parallels and the incorporation of outside influences into a Russian framework. Painters of the World of Art movement—Bakst, Benois, and Somov—are also here. There are several examples of 20th-century art, with works by Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. Natan Altman's striking portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova is in Room 77. The museum usually has at least one excellent special exhibit in place, and there's a treasure gallery here as well (guided tours only; you need a special ticket that you can only get before noon). The Marble Palace, Engineer's Castle, and Stroganov Palace are all branches of the museum.
The square in front of the palace was originally named Mikhailovsky Ploshchad for Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich (1798–1849), the younger brother of Alexander I and Nicholas I and resident of the palace. The square's appearance is the work of Carlo Rossi, who designed the facade of each building encircling it as well as the Mikhailovsky Palace. Each structure, as well as the plaza itself, was made to complement Mikhail's residence on its north side. The palace, which was built between 1819 and 1825, comprises a principal house and two service wings. The central portico, with eight Corinthian columns, faces a large courtyard now enclosed by a fine art nouveau railing, a late (1903) addition. The statue of Alexander Pushkin in the center of the plaza was designed by Mikhail Anikushin and erected in 1957.