Farewell, St. Petersburg!

Wednesday, October 03, 2018
Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation
Just as we had erred in our understanding of the closing time of the Hermitage the previous day, we made a mistake about its opening time as well on Wednesday morning. But this one got us to the entrance a half hour earlier than opening time, but there was a murmur among those gathered there and this was not just about the rain falling down on them as well as the large square in front of the entrance. An air of confusion hung over the square with people muttering “closed today” or some such negative phrase. The multiple entrances to the museum and the lack of signage only added to the confusion. As we tried to make our way ahead at the place we had entered the previous afternoon, the staff pointed with their fingers to the next one and from there we were sent around the corner to the group entrance. We then realized that we were early and so waited out the remaining minutes in the rain as the queue grew behind us. The murmurs got louder and we heard weird phrases like “today only groups allowed, no individual tickets” and “Putin is here” etc. All of these sounded like typical pranks played by the mischievous elements for a laugh but we found out that there was much truth to these. No signs were put out in any language but we were told at the entrance (by another visitor) that “the President is having an important meeting inside and as a security measure, individual tickets are not allowed today. Tomorrow”. The staff did not bother with any niceties and simply told off visitors who had paid money for their tickets “Tomorrow!”.
Turns out that Putin was having a meeting with an Austrian official in one of the rooms inside. The Hermitage’s loss was Faberge Musuem’s gain. We quick footed our way to the Fontanka river where the former Neoclassical Shuvalov Palace (formerly owned by aristocratic families – Countess Maria Naryshkina was lady-in-waiting to Catherine the Great) – is now the site of a large collection of Faberge eggs and other such articles favored by the very wealthy. It served as the House of Peace and Friendship in Soviet times and in 2006, the palace was restored and the museum was opened to the public in 2013. It features a marble staircase, large ballroom, the Blue Drawing Room and 12 galleries displaying over 200 Faberge objects – acquired from the Forbes Foundation in New York for over $100 million. The museum collection also features paintings, enamel work, porcelain and textiles.
The House of Fabergé is a jewellery firm found in 1842 in St. Petersburg by Gustav Faberge. At its height, the firm employed 700 people across many factories and in four shops in Russia and one in London. His descendants followed him in running the business till it was nationalized by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The master jeweler Carl Fabergé, designed elaborate jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs for the tsar family. The tradition of tsars giving their wives jeweled Easter eggs began in 1885 when Alexander III commissioned the 37-year-old Peter Carl Fabergé to create a present for his Danish wife Maria Feodorovna. Their son, the last tsar Nicholas II, continued making eggs for his mother, now the dowager empress, and his own wife Alexandra Feodorovna. Apart from the intricate miniature work, the eggs featured “surprises” effected through clever mechanisms that revealed even smaller treasures within the eggs. The highlight of the museum is the room with 14 of these eggs (including 9 Easter eggs) displayed in glass containers that can be viewed 360 degrees. Even if one is put off by the lavishness of how the moneyed lived in Imperial times, the quality of the workmanship does merit admiration. Inside the museum are The Knights’ Hall – with precious wine goblets, drinking horns, silver vessels, military memorabilia and paintings, the Red Room – with silk walls and dark-stained walnut woodwork and more fine gold and silver work, from elaborate tankards to precious metals made to resemble wicker and cloth.
The Blue Room has the 14 Fabergé eggs, displayed in chronological order. The first egg (commissioned by Alexander III in 1885) held a golden yolk, which enclosed a golden hen concealing a diamond miniature of the royal crown and a ruby egg. Later eggs contain increasingly complex mechanisms. A miniature Jesus emerges from a tomb made of agates, a rose-colored egg contains a bud whose petals spring open with the press of a button to reveal a diamond crown. The coronation of Nicholas II is celebrated by an egg that reveals an astonishingly detailed miniature coronation carriage – complete with working wheels and suspension.
After this come the other rooms where there is more to see: snuff boxes, watches, belt buckles, paintings and icons. The Gold Room displays “cabinet gifts” presented by people who curried favor with the Romanovs. The Gothic Room is filled with exquisite icons. The White and Blue Room shows off shimmering enamel, silverwork, filigree and porcelain.
There are only so many museums one can visit in day and as we emerged outdoors to streets drying out the morning rain, we opted to walk through unexplored streets for the afternoon. We had run out of veggie-café chains, but we were well fed at Teremok – not a veggie-café chain but a chain with plenty of veggie friendly options without anything lost in translation. They served crepes and borscht – a must eat soup that is quintessentially Russian (and Eastern European) with its distinctive beetroot color caused by its main ingredient.
Other City sights
Ostrovsky Square (Ploschad Ostrovskogo), created by the architect Carlo Rossi (1775-1849) is anchored by a huge statue of Catherine the Great on top of her many trusted advisers – Prince Grigory Potemkin is the one to her right. He gave rise to the term “Potemkin village” that stands for a construction (literal or figurative) that is intended to deceive others. In this case, Catherine the Great, for all her astuteness, is supposed to have been deceived by Potemkin into believing that the makeshift villages he created in the Crimean peninsula (after the Russo-Turkish war) were real. He apparently had them dismantled as she passed through and had them re-staged and populated by “Russian villagers” further along her route. This story sounds far-fetched (and it probably is) but it is still a good one to tell. In 1972, when Nixon visited the city, Nevsky Prospekt was spruced up to disguise the USSR’s economic hardships. Since he viewed the street from a limo, only the bottom two floors of each façade was spruced up.
Behind the square is the Alexandrinsky Theater, a Neoclassical yellow building erected by Rossi in 1828. The portico of six Corinthian columns is crowned by a chariot of Apollo, patron of the arts. The theater is named after Alexandra, wife of Nicholas I. It is the oldest drama theater in Russia. This is where, in 1896, Anton Chekhov premiered The Seagull, not initially well received by critics or the public. Gogol’s The Inspector General (1836) was also premiered here. Behind the theater, the famous Ulitsa Rossi stretches from Ostrovsky to Lomonosov Squares. This exceptional looking street was designed by Rossi to follow the canons of classical antiquity – its height and width are identical at 22 metres and its length is exactly 10 times the width. At No. 2 on this street is the home of the former Imperial School of Ballet, named after the teacher Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951), one of the few dancers not to emigrate after the Revolution. It has produced many of Russia’s celebrated dancers including Pavlova and Nureyev.
Sennaya Ploschad (a busy square and the only one with 3 metro lines running underneath) is one of St. Petersburg's oldest squares. Its name (“Haymarket”) derives from the original market where livestock, fodder and firewood were sold when it opened in the 1730s. By the 19th century, it had become synonymous with dirt, squalor, crime and vice. It was immortalized by Dostoevsky, who lived all over the neighbourhood and set Crime and Punishment here. During the Soviet era, the square was given a new image and stallholders were banished. It was optimistically renamed Ploschad Mira (Peace). This is the name by which Anthony Burgess refers to it in his nightmarish vision of the Soviet regime in his 1963 novel Honey for the Bears. Still, until very recently the square was overloaded with makeshift kiosks and market stalls, which made it a magnet for the undesirable elements. It was cleaned up in 2003 but still retains a fundamental air of roughness.
Not sure what to expect, we covered the short distance from Nevsky to a busy square with people quite different from those on Nevsky and other areas frequented by tourists. A Peruvian group was entertaining a small crowd on the square. Shops with a middle-eastern flavor with languages and people from that region could be seen and heard. After a brief excursion through a shopping center and watching the scene at the square, we walked up Sadovaya street to Gostiny Dvor and even shopped for neck attire for V inside!
Back on Nevsky as we exited Gostiny Dvor, we kept good on our mental note to visit Yelisevey’s Emporium two days ago. It is housed in a strikingly decorated Art Noveau building on Nevsky Prospekt. Once the purveyor of fine food to the Russian aristocracy, it was demoted during the Soviet era into a grocery store. Today it is a boutique deli with astoundingly colorful displays of cheese and chocolates. V was very taken with the massive pineapple that stood at the centre of the café.
Ironically, the last location we visited in the city was among the first we saw when we arrived Sunday morning. The distinctive oxidized-copper tower of the Art Nouveau building on the corner of Griboyedov Canal and Nevsky Prospekt is the Singer House (Russian HQ of the sewing machine company) which houses Dom Knigi (“House of Books”). After browsing through the bookstore we quickly headed upstairs to the café where we sampled some kvass – traditional Russian fermented beverage made from rye bread while watching busy Nevsky below and majestic Kazan cathedral across as the evening yielded to darkness and brought an end to our 4 day St. Petersburg visit. As the night came on, we walked back to Art Rachmaninov to collect our bags and caught a bus back to Moskovsky Vokzal to catch our train to Moscow.
Other Entries