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Visiting Leningrad

Peter Fraser

Visiting Leningrad

You never get all the answers. Perhaps you forget the best questions and remember them later. Perhaps there is no-one left, capable of answering correctly. So when the Bolsheviks came through the doors of the Winter Palace, which entrance did they use? It seems a fair question to me. Did they surge in through where the main doors are now, without paying for a ticket? Or did they find a more convenient entry? I isolated a museum official and put this question to her. “English? Only speak Bad English. Will get superior commissar for you.” Did she understand my query or did she just want to get away from me? A stout official appeared, she had a look of patience, an authority that could resolve any issue. “Lenin?” “Yeah.” ‘Tolstoy?” “No. Trotsky.” “Ah. And Stalin?” “Yeah.” She clearly knew the names. “Think. You be wanting the Museum of Politics, is out near the airport. This being the Hermitage Museum, as you be knowing. Is best in the world. On display is only a fraction of our exhibits, you will enjoy it.” She smiles with the satisfaction of an issue quickly resolved. I can’t return her official grin, I know I’ve been successfully avoided. There is a small crowd building around me. This place is incredibly busy, even in the middle of winter. “Try Hall 188, the small Dining Room, is where they actually took control.” A real answer, I think of another question and refuse to be ignored. “Would you know the room in which the Czar censored Pushkin’s poetry?” “Pushkin?” I was beginning to irritate. “Is an old Soviet hi rise suburb out on the way to Catherine’s Summer Palace.” “No. I mean the poet.” “Like the statues?” “Yeah.” “Is several through the city. And being a Museum as well. You will enjoy it.” Then added tentatively. “Died in a duel?” “Yeah. Him. Fought twenty-seven of them, they reckon.” She was not interested in my answer. “I’ll get you the address.” The curious around me took this as a signal the interview was terminated. I concurred but couldn’t believe my questions were eccentric. The guide returned with a map of the city in Russian. A chubby finger jabbed at an incomprehensible destination. “There. There.” She smiled responsibly, having carried out her duty, gave me the map and even added, ‘have a nice day’. I bought the entry ticket and began my compulsory exploration. This might be the purpose of the city. The first thing any local will ask is, ‘have you been to the Hermitage?’ There is an expectation you will answer in the affirmative or even better an effusive affirmative. Yet the whole city is a Museum, although one covered in snow. There is no ancient history, St. Petersburg wasn’t even founded until early 1700, there is no Russian Stonehenge here and despite the arctic isolation it has endured almost identical events as the West. But the Hermitage is so incomprehensibly large. There is room after exotic room stuffed with exhibit. My guidebook says the Romanov’s had sixteen palaces around St. Petersburg at the time of the Revolution. They were under pressure yet clearly had no intention of selling up and moving on and they had accumulated an astounding hoard of possessions. I don’t loiter, there is no real time to savour unexpected gems, I have to get on with it because I know I don’t have the concentration to get round to everything in one circuit. There is a large collection of seventeen century painting, with acres of Rembrandt and Rubens, then a comprehensive representation of every aspect of western art, including some excellent twentieth century works. A room of golden dinner plates and table ornaments stops me. Imagine eating a sandwich off a fantasy setting like this. Who would be trusted to wash them after a meal? What did the Bolsheviks think of them? How did they survive? But they are here, glowering innocently from a protective illuminated cabinet. I sense an international agreement on what we value. I might be in the Met or Louvre or Prado. I might walk through a door and find myself in the British Museum. There is a contract for all this cultural luxury. But outside it is a different world, even an alternative universe, where the similarities struggle to appear. I negotiate the ice and take a taxi back to my hotel, its 4p.m. so it’s quite dark. I sit in the bar with a black coffee and vodka. It seems I’m an oddity and the staff eventually want to test their English skills on me. They are a cheerful group of workers, most of them have picked up the rudiments of about four or five languages, while I can only speak one. Where do you come from? Have you been to the Hermitage? You like the cold? You really live in a country that is only hot? You like vodka? No, no, this is not cold, minus thirty is cold. All the canals are frozen. The rouble is in trouble. You think there will be war? They are uninhibited and curious, their skin almost a translucent white. After dinner I watch the English television channels, all of them leading with Ukranian war stories. All of them castigating Putin. I am on holiday, you only get six hours of daylight so you need to be organised for the next day. Daylight is not the word, the colour is a moody pervasive grey, without even a hint that there is a sun somewhere. By lunch I am idling down Nevsky Prospect, the main road through the city, originally planned by Peter the Great. I stop and take some pictures of the four bronze horses. Then choose a prosperous art deco bookshop with a restaurant above and enjoy an excellent meal, staring down on a frozen canal that leads to the Church of Spilled Blood. Perfect for a tourist. But I am not successful in tracking down some retail indulgence for myself after lunch. The best shopping I find is in a large ‘Galleria’, but every outlet is a popular western brand, there is nothing that could not be found in any large international city. I look in vain for something uniquely Russian but only find some coffee cups with Vladimir Putin posing outlandishly on the outside. No, I don’t think so. That night I go to the ballet at the Old Mariinsky Theatre. It is one cool piece of ancient architecture. I know nothing about ballet but the place is packed. Ninety minutes flick by in an instant. The stage is burning with healthy young dancers, skilled enough to bring the audience to their feet by the end. Back at my hotel I finish the night with a few vodkas. At breakfast I often seem to be the only customer, in a hotel that must have at least a hundred rooms, if not more. There is a staff of six or seven, so my every imagined whim is dissected and satisfied. I leave bloated then peer into the darkness from the front doors. There are workers shovelling the overnight snow. There is a wealth of sites to be tracked down and consumed, across the city. I go to the origin of the place, the Peter and Paul Fortress, built on an island in the river Neve. It was begun in 1703 by the mythical czar Peter the Great as a garrison and political prison, where over time it held dissidents such as Gorky, Dostoyevsky and Trotsky. I cross the bridge to the entrance and watch fishermen on the frozen Neve working from holes drilled in the ice. While inside, it is a world frozen around 1800, almost a village that has repelled any change. The exotic Peter and Paul cathedral holds a comprehensive collection of imperial remains, including some of the last Romanov’s. The prison is a medieval nightmare. And there is an endless assemblage of the past. All collected since Peter the Great turned the first icy sod. All this traffic of hard culture making Saint Petersburg its final destination. In the Shuvalov Palace the Faberge Museum is an astounding collection of wealth and fine art. The centrepiece, a portion of the Faberge Egg collection was bought by a Russian billionaire, from America, a decade ago and repatriated to Saint Petersburg. The Soviet government had sold them during the 1920’s and 30’s but they are now on display for everyone to witness and possibly reveal more about the Czars than their numerous palaces. I follow a Russian guide around the luxurious rooms, without understanding one word. As the tour finishes she enquires, “English?” “Yeah.” “Is be sorry. Only speak bad English.” I didn’t mind. Faberge was initiating imperial patronage just as Fyodor Dostoyevsky died across town at Kuznechny Lane, in 1881. The Czar had intruded into his life as well, he was pardoned from a firing squad and then sentenced to five years in Siberia where his hands and feet were continually manacled. His last home is another Petersburg Museum. The place is filled with American kids. Where the hell did they come from? I thought the city was almost devoid of Western tourism, perhaps I was wrong. Dostoyevsky spent the last three years of his life here. Just to stand in the room where he wrote the Brothers Karamazov or walk up the steps he would have daily negotiated justifies all this relentless tourism. And I do get an eerie feeling of his presence. There are numerous names connected to the city. I also go to the Yusupov Palace and observe the site of the Siberian peasant, Grigory Rasputin’s murder. In the bar at my hotel they all ask where I’ve been during the day. They nod in understanding although I suspect they don’t comprehend my eccentric investigation. And the barman finds my vodka drinking unworldly. “No. No. Is swallowed in one go. No sipping. Is thunder.” But I’m unable to conform. It’s just a neutral spirit to my taste. Not a very Russian response. The serious tourist is not here to relax. There are no tropical beaches in this neighbourhood. My time is finite. I leave the city and head for the outer suburban countryside. I visit Tsarskoye Selo or the Catherine Palace and then the Pavlovsk Palace. I might be an expert in all this by now. The rococo indulgence, the bloated size, the sensual interiors, the pleasure grounds, the quality architecture, the remaining art works and the buildings sheer uninhibited presence. Why did it take the Bolsheviks so long to rebel against all this? I feel satiated. But it’s all still here. The Soviets might not have got it right, but they did not obliterate their past. I tell the barman I am leaving in the morning, I’m catching a train to Helsinki. “Finland? Can’t speak the language there.” “What language? Russian?” “No. No. The biggest language in the world.” “The biggest? Say Chinese or English or Spanish?” “No. None of them. You really don’t know the answer?” “No. I guess I don’t.” “Bad English. The world’s biggest language.” I buy a vodka and consume it in one gulp. I thought the three and a half hour trip to Helsinki would be picturesque, but an unlimited vista of snow can feel repetitive. I turn Saint Petersburg over in my mind, it is a unique destination, but still a parallel universe. I bounce from Peter the Great to Lenin, right into the present. I’m overcome by the history, the observable catalogue that is the present city. Lenin would have would have used this route, in 1917, when he hid out in Finland after fearing for his life in Petrograd. The Nazi Germans wanted the place so much they kept the city under siege for two and a half years. The aristocrats left their haunted palaces for future tourists. Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin expected the workers of the world to unite and join them. Money was abolished. Private property was abolished. The Red Army took control. Two cheerful Russian customs officers inspect my passport and then stamp it. The train is speeding towards Helsinki, there’s only snow outside, it would seem I’m no longer in Russia.

2000 words

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