Arguably the most iconic Russian novel of all time, War and Peace offers a fascinating insight into life in Russia during a dramatic period in the county’s past. Set in the early 19th century, the story follows the interwoven lives of five aristocratic Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. The BBC’s recent adaptation takes viewers on a journey through love, loss, passion and power, where St Petersburg provides a magical backdrop. With its grand imperial palaces and striking colourful architecture, the city sets the scene for many of the television show’s most memorable moments. Following the finale, we travel to St Petersburg to explore the most iconic War and Peace filming locations to visit next time you’re in Russia.
Rarely has approval been given to film at State Hermitage Museum, but this is exactly how filming began for the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. As the snow fell over the Winter Palace, the crew shot its first scene – a sleigh outside the former imperial residence, the building’s distinctive green and white façade clearly visible on screen. Visitors to St Petersburg can follow in the footsteps of the stars of the television show by exploring the museum, which is one of the largest in the world. With over three million artefacts on display, it’s easy to spend a whole day getting lost in the palace’s exquisite halls and chambers.
One of the key scenes in War and Peace is when Natasha Rostova (played by Lily James) dances with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) for the first time in a gold ballroom – a moment that kick-starts the pair’s complicated relationship. This scene is filmed in the mirrored ballroom at Catherine Palace, the former summer residence of royal Tsars. Named after the second wife of Peter the Great, the baroque-style palace is one of the most beautiful in Russia. It’s so well protected that in order to light the scene, the production crew had to create special light bulbs that appeared to flicker, instead of using naked candle flames, as would have been the norm in the 19th century. Visitors can visit the baroque-style palace at Tsarskoe Selo, just outside of St Petersburg, and explore its beautiful interiors and gardens.
Despite much change over the centuries, St Petersburg still manages to look like a royal city to this day, and by walking through the city centre you’ll come across a number of decadent palaces and mansions. Yusupov Palace, home of the aristocratic Yusupov family, is one such building. What makes the palace particularly special are its original interiors, a rare find in modern St Petersburg, which made it the ideal setting for shooting some of the indoor scenes of the BBC’s War and Peace series. As well as being beautiful, the palace, set on Moika River, has a fascinating history. It was the place at which Grigori Rasputin was famously assassinated in 1916, just a year before Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. The palace has since been converted into a museum and visitors can enjoy guided tours of its decadent rooms or attend concerts in its grand halls.
Another location that appears on-screen is the Russian Museum at Mikhailovsky Palace, the former residence of Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich of Russia and his family. When not being used as a film set, it functions as the largest museum dedicated to Russian art in the world. With a huge selection of permanent and temporary exhibitions, spanning ancient paintings from the 12th century to more contemporary 20th century works, the Russian Museum is a must-see for art enthusiasts.
When in St Petersburg, live like the aristocratic families of War and Peace at Hotel Astoria. A city landmark in its own right, the hotel is located just a short walk from filming locations Yusupov Palace and the State Hermitage Museum.
Image credits: Catherine Palace © iStock/Anna_Pakutina, Russian Museum © iStock/Anna_Pakutina, The Hermitage © iStock/BrianRaisbeck, Yusupov Palace © iStock/konstantinks