The Keila-Joa castle dates back as far as the Order of the Brothers of the Sword, at which time it belonged to the castle at Tallinn. Estonians called this place Joa, while the Germans called it Fall (“place of the waterfall” is the literal translation from Estonian).
For thousands of years, fish would swim up to the river mouth just below the falls to nest, so the earliest settlers of this place were most likely fishermen. In 1555, Heinrich von Galen, Master of the Order, granted ownership of the mill that had been constructed near the falls to Hans Nykerk for his services to the Order. In 1659, the castle was given to Lieutenant General Wilhelm Wrangel as a reward for his loyal service. In 1765, the castle belonged to the District Magistrate Count von Tiesenhausen. After that, the owners changed in rapid succession. In 1796, the castle went to the District Magistrate Jacob Georg von Berg, who sold it In 1827, to Adjutant General Count A. Benckendorff. In the same year, the castle became the seat of his lineage. The young architect Andrei Stackenschneider was tasked with designing the new castle house. A spot was selected on the tall bank of the river Keila, slightly downstream from the falls, and the architect designed the building in a Gothic Revival style. The nature park that sprawls for twenty hectares around the palace is an outstanding achievement of 19th century landscape architecture. With permission from the Czar, Benckendorff merged the lands of the Joa, Meremõisa and Käesalu villages into a majorat that he bequeathed to his wife. As there were no male heirs, after the wife’s death the castle passed In 1869, to her daughter, the Duchess Maria Volkonskaya. Maria’s son Pyotr Volkonsky (1843–1896) inherited it from his mother and passed it on to his son, Grigoriy Volkonsky (1870–1940), who was the last owner of the hereditary manor.
In 1917, hostile soldiers thoroughly ransacked the castle over a couple of days. The only remaining trace of its former glory was a jasper vase. In 1920, the castle was nationalized, as per the new agrarian reform. In 1927, the Estonian government turned the castle and its outbuildings (except for the church buildings) over to the Estonian Foreign Ministry. In 1931, Grigoriy Volkonsky was determined 9177.43 kroons as compensation for the castle. In 1935, thorough reconstruction of the castle began. In 1936, a local power plant began operating. On June 22nd, 1940, the Keila-Joa castle was taken over by the Red Army, and in 1941 it was occupied by the Germans. Because of the castle’s strategically beneficial location, during WWII it was used a training facility for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. In 1953, it was used as quarters for the Soviet Army’s 572nd fighter plane regiment. In 1960–1961, it hosted a regiment of anti-aircraft missile forces. In 1993, the castle was once again given the Estonian Foreign Ministry, after which time it stood unused for another 20 years or so.
On May 27th, 2010, the manor was sold. Three years later, on June 8th, 2013,the 180th anniversary of the manor were celebrated with open- air concert and the doors of the partly reconstructed manor of the Benckendorffs and Volkonskys were opened to the public. The opening ceremony and concert recalled the artistic and musical traditions that once reigned at the Keila-Joa palace. In August 2016, the restoration of dwellings of former owners located on the 2nd floor of the castle ended. As a result, the first luxurious Keila-Joa Palace hotel rooms were completed.
Knight of the Order for Bravery with Three Golden Swords Russian military leader and statesman, Count Konstantin Alexander Karl Wilhelm Christoph von Benckendorff (in Russian custom, Aleksandr Konstantinovich Benckendorf) (23.06.1781–11.09.1844), was a famous hero in the Patriotic War of 1812 and the European campaigns of Russian forces in 1813-1814. He received the Award for Bravery with three golden swords. For his services in battle, he received multiple foreign and Russian high honours, including the Order of St. George of the third degree. A portrait of General Benckendorff was displayed in the gallery of war heroes at the Winter Palace. He was a senator and a member of the State Council, and in 1832, he was made a count. Alexander Benckendorff started his military service in 1798 as a non-commissioned officer in the Semyonov Guards regiment, fought in the Caucasus in 1803, and participated in the campaigns against Napoleon in 1806-1807. Over his ten years of service, he was promoted seven times, reaching the rank of colonel by 26. During the patriotic war of 1812, he showed remarkable talent as a military leader, and also fought in partisan regiments. He conducted daring raids behind enemy lines, capturing several hundred Frenchmen. For his bravery, he was soon promoted to Major General. On the marble plaques that were placed in the church of Christ the Redeemer to commemorate the war of 1812-1814, and carried the names of soldiers who were wounded or behaved outstandingly in the war, his name appears in eight places. The Cossacks under Benckendorff’s command undertook a famous voyage in 1813, through Germany, Holland and Belgium. During those foreign campaigns, he became famous as the liberator of Amsterdam and Breda. He turned over the power in Holland to William, prince of Orange, who became the Dutch king. In gratitude, the citizens of the Dutch capital named the Russian general an honorary citizen. The king gifted him a sword, on which was inscribed “Amsterdam and Breda”, while the regent of Great Britain gifted him a golden sword with the inscription “For heroic deeds in 1813”. Alexander Benckendorff’s great-grandson S. Volkonsky recalled that the iron bas-relief on the left side of the façade of the Keila-Joa palace, which showed the liberation of Amsterdam, also included a portrait of Benckendorff. In 1819, Benckendorff became Adjutant General, and was assigned as Chief of Staff of the Guards Corps. In 1821, he was promoted to Lieutenant General, and placed in charge of the 1st Cuirassier division. On December 14th, 1825, when the Decembrist rebellion began on Senate Square in St Petersburg, he commanded a government military unit, and later sat on the committee that investigated the Decembrist case. Czar Nicholas I valued Benckendorff’s achievements highly, and in 1826, made him head of the Corps of Gendarmes, as well as placing him charge of the Imperial Army Headquarters and the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery. Thus Benckendorff became Nicholas I’s main confidant, who constantly followed the Czar on his trips around Russia and abroad. An assessment of Benckendorff’s actions comes from the words of the Czar himself, uttered after visiting Benckendorff on his death bed: “In eleven years, he never brought me into conflict with anyone, but reconciled me with many.”
Creator of Poetic Architecture Andrei Ivanovich Stackenschneider (1802–1865) was a Russian architect who designed remarkable palace ensembles and proud interiors. Andrei Stackenschneider came from a russified German family. His parents noticed his talent for drawing early, and enrolled him in the Imperial Arts Academy when he was 13. In 1828, Stackenschneider began working as an architect-draughtsman for the St Isaac’s Cathedral building committee. Auguste de Montferrand promoted Stackenchneider from among his pupils and invited him to work at the Winter Palace, then recommended the services of the talented young architect to Count A. Benckendorff for the creation of the Keila-Joa palace. Stackenschneider did not stick to just one style in his projects, and because of his talent, this led to unexpected and original results, exhibiting a harmony among discordant elements. This was the principle he followed while planning the Gothic Revival palace at Keila-Joa as well. Benckendorff was happy with his work, and presented the young architect to Nicholas I when the Czar visited Keila-Joa. Benckendorff’s palace was completed in 1833, and in 1834 Stackenschneider was named a member of the Academy. In 1844, he became a professor, and by 1848 he was the architect to the Imperial Court. Stackenschneider’s talent was expressed most vividly in the St Petersburg palaces created according to his designs. The greatest of these is the Mariinsky Palace near St Isaac’s Square, which Czar Nicholas I commissioned as a gift for his beloved daughter, Great Duchess Maria Nikolayevna, on the occasion of her betrothal. Once she became the lady of the palace, the grateful Maria Nikolayevna commissioned the sculptor N. Pimenov to create a bust of Stackenschneider, which was installed in one of the palace’s great halls within the architect’s lifetime. St Petersburg and its surroundings were graced with many other Stackenschneider works: the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, the New Michael Palace, and other buildings. Memorials to Stackenschneider’s talents that survive to this day include the buildings he created in Crimea, Novgorod, Pavlovsk, Peterhof, and of course Keila-Joa. These examples of harmony and beauty carry the memory of their former masters, as well as the talented architect. Andrei Stackenschneider died on August 8th, 1865. His memory lives on in his architectural creations, which are still being enjoyed by the people of the 21st century.
Happiest Days In his memoirs, Alexander Benckendorff wrote that he believed that if he was ever to marry, it would only be to improve his financial situation. But when he saw the widow of the deceased Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Bibikov, Yelizaveta, mother of two little girls, he fell in love at first sight. They were engaged on November 19th, 1817. As is appropriate for a military man, the majority of the invited guests were Benckendorff’s old comrades in arms. He became an exemplary stepfather to both of his stepdaughters. The marriage produced three daughters: Anna (1818–1900) married the Austrian ambassador, Count Rudolf Apponyi, who hailed from a prominent Hungarian noble family. Anna lived abroad for many years, and therefore could not claim the right of inheritance to Keila-Joa. She had an extraordinarily beautiful singing voice, and was the first one to publicly perform the Russian anthem, “God Save the Czar”. Maria (1820–1880) was a lady in waiting to the Czarina. She married Grigoriy Volkonsky and inherited the manor at Keila-Joa. Sofia (1825–1875) was originally married to Demidov, then to Kochubey. Her two marriages produced four sons. After the completion of the palace, Yelizaveta Benckendorff and her daughters spent the summer months at Keila-Joa. Alexander Benckendorff recalled: “The happiest days of my entire life were those that I managed, on a few occasions, to spend with my wife and children at my beautiful little manor… For days on end, I busied myself with building my home and working in the garden.” Benckendorff commissioned a triple portrait of his daughters from the artist O. Kiprensky. The writer Faddey Bulgarin wrote about the painting: “This family picture does honour to the artist. How well he managed to convey the childish carelessness on these dear faces! If we did not know that the artist painted from life, we might think that he attempted to imagine through the smallest child an infant innocence, through the blonde girl – modesty, and through the dark-haired one – earnestness. These little faces are very expressive.” The artist Elizabeth Rigby, an Englishwoman who visited Keila-Joa, did a pencil sketch of Benckendorff and his spouse. In her memoirs she writes that the portrait depicts a man who knows and keeps all of Russia’s secrets, while the Countess was a grand woman, whose looks had not waned. Rigby’s pencil also captured the newlyweds: the 18-year-old Countess Maria Benckendorff, a thoughtful, pale, very fine-featured young woman, and her husband, Duke Grigoriy Volkonsky. Alexander Benckendorff lived to see his first grandchild, Yelizaveta, whose childhood was spent in Italy. She returned to Keila-Joa with her husband, Mikhail Volkonsky, son of the Decembrist Sergey Volkonsky. Sometimes, quite strange family relations occur…
The Volkonskys of Keila-Joa His Grace the Duke Pyotr Mikhaylovich Volkonsky (1776–1852) was married to Sofia Grigoryevna, sister of the Decembrist Sergey Volkosnky (1785–1868). On January 12th, 1938, the high noble Dukes Volkonsky became related to the family of Count Benckendorff, when Maria (1820-1880), who was the daughter of Alexander Benckendorff and served as a lady in waiting to the Empress, married Grigoriy Petrovich Volkonsky (1808–1882). Grigoriy Volkonsky’s magnificent low voice could be frequently heard at the Keila-Joa palace, accompanied on the piano by his young and talented wife. It was this couple that founded the palace’s musical tradition, and “passed the palace on” to the Volkonsky family. When the children were born, they were named after their grandparents: Pyotr (1843–1986) was named after His Grace the Duke Pyotr Mikhaylovich Volkonsky, while Yelizaveta (1838–1897) was named after the Countess Yelizaveta Andreyevna Benckendorff. This Volkonsky generation continued their parents’ love for Keila-Joa. Yelizaveta Grigoryevna, grandchild of the palace’s first owner, painted the firs and chestnut trees growing in the Keila-Joa park with great care and affection, subtitling the drawings not just with the names of the tree types, but also the Latin epithet, “Fallesis”. As a scion of Duke Volkonsky, she gathered valuable material for the book “Clan Volkonsky”. In 1859, Yelizaveta Volkonskaya married Mikhail Sergeyevich Volkonsky (1832–1909), whose father, the Decembrist Sergey Volkonsky, was an old war comrade of Yelizaveta’s grandfather Alexander Benckendorff – an odd coincidence, to be sure. As per her father’s will, Maria Volkonskaya left Keila-Joa to her son, Pyotr Grigoryevich Volkonsky (1843–1896), who in turn left it to his son, Grigoriy Petrovich Volkonsky (1870–1940), who was the last master of the Keila-Joa manor. Grigoriy Volkonsky did a lot to keep Keila-Joa in good condition, as it was a very dear place for everyone in the Benckendorf and Volkonsky families. He fought for every building and scrap of land in the manor. Being an intelligent and persistent person, he learned the Estonian language, and conducted the necessary correspondence in Estonian. Several generations of Volkonskys lived at Keila-Joa, and it has been the site of many of the family’s important events. It has become a true seat of the clan, initially created for his heirs by Alexander Benckendorff. The Volkonskys fulfilled his dreams. Marina Tsvetayeva was right when she wrote: “Such fields as are at Keila-Joa… do not simply appear, they require the work of several generations… The manor had been passed from progenitor to successor… for every master of a family manor, it is a double responsibility: they had to preserve what was there, and develop it further…”
None Among Them Were Less Than Remarkable The Volkonskys were talented personalities from an aristocratic family of dukes. The heiress of Keila-Joa, Maria Vokonskaya (born Benckendorff), was married to His Grace the Duke Grigoriy Petrovich Volkonsky, a man with a magnificent low singing voice. He was part of the circle of the brothers Vielgorsky, which was actually Russia’s first musical society. The daughter of Maria and Grigoriy Volkonsky, Yelizaveta Grigoryevna (1838–1897), wrote poetry and studied the history of the Volkonsky clan. She became famous as Russia’s first female cleric, was a religious scholar, and a friend of cleric and philosopher Vladimir Solovyev. He called her a woman of great spiritual strength and sincere heart. Yelizaveta Volkonskaya’s book “About the Church: A Historical Overview” astounded her contemporaries. The main goal of her work became the proclamation of spiritual freedom in matters of faith, the notion that everyone must have the right to believe according to their conscience – not according to external prescription. Duchess Yelizaveta Volkonskaya died in 1897, and is buried at Keila-Joa, next to her mother. Yelizaveta Volkonskaya’s son Sergey Mikhaylovich Volkonsky (1860–1937) was born at Keila-Joa. He was a fascinating conversation partner, an educator, critic, director, author of memoirs and articles dealing with philosophy, religion, history, and acting techniques. In the two years (1899–1901) that Sergey Volkonsky was in charge of the Imperial Theatres, the field saw a series of progressive changes. Duke Volkonsky became famous as an organizer of musical and rhythmic upbringing based on the method of Emile Jacques-Dalcroze. He was the only representative of Russia at the congress of faiths held in Chicago. He was the first Russian to conduct an extensive lecture tour in Europe and the USA. He was the head of the Russian Conservatory in Paris, and a teacher at several dance and ballet schools. The Volkonsky cultural tradition continued into the 20th century. Renowned 60s philosopher, musician and composer Andrei Mikhaylovich Volkonsky (1933–2008) was the great-grandson of Yelizaveta Grigoryevna and Mikhail Sergeyevich Volkonsky, and the son of Mikhail Volkonski (1891–1961), who was born at Keila-Joa and sang at the Belgrade and Paris operas. Andrei Volkonsky was an expert and performer of old music. The Soviet intelligentsia gladly listened to his harpsichord recitals, enjoyed the film music he created, and attended the concerts of Madrigal, his band. In 1973, Andrei Volkonsky emigrated to France. His son Peeter Volkonski is an Estonian actor, director, rock musician, composer and playwright. When asked in an interview whether he felt a connection to the Volkonsky clan, Peeter responded: “Counting from Rurik, I represent the 33rd generation of my lineage. I find the magic number 33 to be very significant.” (Den za Dnjom, March 14th, 1995) At the 180th anniversary of the home of the Benckendorffs and Volkonskys, it was Peeter Volkonsky himself who stood on the balcony of the palace as it was being renovated, and read extracts from the memoirs of his ancestor Sergey Volkonsky. None of these were anything less than remarkable people.