Four Days & Four White Nights
by Kat Meads
Our itinerary, even for hyper, short-attention-span Americans, is absurd. Peter the Great's city in less than a work week: the red-eye from San Francisco to Paris to the Pulkovo Airport, a hasty check-in at the Hotel Astoria, then back to the backseat of a not-very-late model Mercedes, driver Sergei at the wheel, guide Irina riding shotgun, neither Russian deigning to wear a seatbelt.
We do. Wear seatbelts. And grip the door handles while Irina, turned full around in her seat, provides nonstop commentary. Over the next four days, on occasion, we will also close our eyes, but not to sleep, not to sleep. Sergei takes our full schedule seriously. Tight spaces, traffic snarls, do not deter Sergei. He will, by God, get us wherever, and fast.
Any visitor could, should, spend a month in Catherine the Great's Hermitage, another month on a cathedrals-only tour, but we have neither the vacation time nor funds to do true justice to the city of "glorious revolutionary traditions." What we have are four days and four white nights, fewer than 100 hours total to take in as much of St. Petersburg's history, art and architecture as we possibly can; to tour palaces, estates, gardens, churches, monuments, cemeteries, and museums; to see, smell, marvel and stutter at things Russian; and to sample as many varieties of vodka as digestion will allow.
For perhaps the first time in the whole of my life, sleep is not a top priority—a fortunate shift of desires in this June city of non-night night.
From 3 a.m. to 3:15, the St. Petersburg sky embodies a slightly darker undertone, but only slightly. Any nap requires drawing the hotel curtains and even then light gets around, under and in. Not that we're often in the room, to nap or otherwise. In our few hours apart from Sergei and Irina, we walk along the Moika Canal and the Neva's left bank. We watch the raising of the Dvortsovy Most at 1:30 a.m.—the reunification of that bridge span—slightly before five. We see ships and tankers pass. In Decembrists' Square, we count wedding bouquets piled at the base of the Bronze Horseman. We stroll the Admiralty Gardens. We circle St. Issac's Cathedral. At official dawn, we gaze up at the equestrian monument the Bolsheviks left standing in deference to its "technical wonder": a statue of a horse balanced on its back legs and on that horse a likeness of Tsar Nicholas I.
Bolshaya Morskaya branches off St. Issac's Square, and there, at number 47, until 1917, Vladimir Nabokov lived with his family when not vacationing at the country estate. Even before the Bolsheviks began to muck with his family's fortunes, the writer defined himself as a "poor go-to-sleeper." It's possible, when standing across the street from the pink granite townhouse immortalized in Speak, Memory, to zero in on the oriel window of the third-floor room in which the future author twisted in his sheets. The bottom-floor windows of the townhouse, now a museum, sport Bloomsday posters. Would the former resident approve? Highly doubtful. He certainly didn't applaud the entire Joycean oeuvre. Ulysses he called "brilliant"; Finnegans Wake, "a dull mass of phony folklore."
For in-flight reading, I brought along Lectures on Literature and in the hour before landing at Charles de Gaulle, read Nabokov's appreciative analysis of Swann's Way. Of Proust's opening salvo—"For a long time I used to go to bed early"— Nabokov writes with sympathy: "The boy tries to sleep." My other in-flight reading material is a pre-Perestroika, pre-Putin 1960s guidebook to Leningrad filled with such sweeping conclusions as: "The Great October Socialist Revolution … put an end to the exploitation of man by man." Native son Dostoevsky gets a listing in its index, but not Nabokov, who deemed Raskolnikov's creator "a cheap sensationalist."
St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and, in 1991, back to St. Petersburg. A city built on swamp and marshland and still infected with swamp and marshland varmints. Above the window seat of our elegant hotel room, a typed warning, in English: If you leave your windows open in the evening you may attract mosquitoes. A mosquito plug and tablet have been supplied for your use. Additional tablets are available from housekeeping.
Day Two, after a 7 a.m. buffet breakfast of blinis, mushrooms, sliced cucumbers and seriously strong tea, we meet Sergei and Irina in the lobby, and immediately set off for another 10 hours of steady tourist-ing. We gorge at breakfast because we were warned by our American travel agent—and have since learned for ourselves—that if we don't absolutely demand a lunch stop, the Russians won't take a break. They are indefatigable, the two of them, their stamina quite astounding.
"We are moving, yes?" Irina says, whenever the Americans in her charge begin to lag, drag or dawdle.
Also fluent in German, Irina works as a translator in addition to guiding. She lives in a communal apartment shared by her two teenaged daughters, two elderly women who are not relatives and her ex-husband. The father of her children is "lazy," she says. Plus, he likes to drink. About those living arrangements and the difficulties and indignities they impose, she has become "philosophical." None of this personal information is volunteered. If I ask a question about her work or family, she will answer but she will not, unless further pressed, elaborate. Her grandmother was a doctor, her grandfather an engineer who "saved himself" and the couple's four children by signing the papers that "blamed" his wife during the Stalin era, endorsing the official view that she represented an Enemy of the People. Irina's grandmother was not killed but exiled to Siberia, where she survived but "never forgave," as Irina says, then repeats with emphasis: "Never forgave." Irina's parents, who lost the bulk of their pensions in more recent upheavals, now attempt to live on the equivalent of $200 a month. Before being hired on as a guide, she, herself, struggled financially. "But now is good," she says, before revising to: "Better. Is better now"—a woman too well versed in her country's history for unbridled optimism. As her tone makes abundantly clear, she isn't convinced, is in no way naïve enough to trust, that her "better" will last.
About her city's art, culture, customs, economics and politics, past and present, Irina cannot be stumped. She can discuss at length the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, the restoration of the Smolny Cathedral or President Putin's favorite restaurant on the outskirts of Tsarskoe Selo. She knows the origin and specs of every public artwork we stop at or speed by. During the Soviet era, more than 200 monuments of Comrade Lenin graced St. Petersburg. A mere nine remain, preserved as historical artifacts, Irina says, up to date on statue destruction as well. She can converse in depth on either tsars or Communists, and in the rare instance when she and Sergei clash on how best to escape traffic gridlock, it's the route she suggests that seems to carry the day.
"And now, please, we are looking to the right," she says and, like Sergei, we snap to.
To our knowledge, we have incurred Irina's disapproval only once, the cause our low-end, minimal souvenir-ing. Just as she knows where the good restrooms are throughout the city, she knows where upscale memorabilia, porcelain, fur and caviar can be purchased at "reasonable" prices, products and foodstuffs whose quality and craftsmanship "will not disappoint." But I'm not at all disappointed—quite the contrary—with my two street-vendor buys: a postcard repro of an anti-alcohol Soviet-era poster showing a young fellow rejecting a glass of vodka and a set of nesting dolls with Putin inside Gorbachev inside Yeltsin inside Stalin inside Lenin. My other souvenir comes courtesy of the Astoria: a postcard of the hotel, Stalin banner unfurled and flying, fourth floor to second.
Quite warm, the daylight hours. Yesterday, the temperature topped 90. The Hermitage isn't air-conditioned. Through the open windows, noise, grit and grime drift in. I must look outstandingly moist and flushed because one of the attendants, who seems more babushka than guard, reaches out as I pass and says (according to Irina's translation): "Come back to us in winter."
Of The Hermitage's 350 halls, 15,000 paintings, 12,000 sculptures, 600,000 drawings, million-plus coins and scads else, we have selected three must-sees and follow the crowd-parting Irina to stand within a nose of Da Vinci's Madonna and Child, Titian's St. Sebastian, and El Greco's exquisite Apostles Peter and Paul. In the Winter Palace section of the complex, we trot briskly through the living quarters of the last tsar and family, a little less briskly through the dining room where the Bolsheviks put an end to the Provisional Government, and then we're off to another Bartolomeo Rastrelli-designed baroque palace, the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, a supposedly forty-five minute journey south that Sergei completes in less than thirty-five.
Much in St. Petersburg proper was restored, refurbished and spruced up for the city's 2003 tercentennial celebrations, and the Catherine Palace seems to have benefited from the same showcasing trend. Plundered and bashed up by the Germans during World War II, the palace has since regained its luster. Very very blue, very very white, and very very gold, the Catherine Palace. Every surface and spiral gleams. I'm wearing sunglasses and a hat and still squint, taking in its 300+-meter façade. The famed Amber Room is overflowing with gawkers as we, two more gawkers and guide, pull in our arms and wedge inside. Between the heat and pace and lack of sleep, I require a recovery moment. In the gardens we bench sit while I guzzle water, Irina's commentary proceeding without interruption. The lilacs are in bloom, great purple profusions. A string quartet on a nearby balcony is playing "Blue Moon" to please and entertain visitors passing or sitting. Irina is quite willing, and obviously able, to walk the whole of the park but we beg off and stumble back toward Sergei and car. Leaving the village, we catch a brief glimpse, beyond a gate, between trees, of the Alexander Palace, home palace to Nicholas II and brood after the Bloody Sunday massacre turned Alexandra against their Winter Palace residence. Tomorrow we'll stand alongside the disinterred/reburied remains of all but two of those massacred royals.
It's a bit of a mind-spin—and would be, I suspect, even for the well-rested. The Peter and Paul Fortress/Cathedral/political prison and Royal Mint all together on an island in the Neva. The fortress was Peter the Great's first building project, also where he incarcerated and tortured his son, Alexis. Peter's marble sarcophagus lies with five other Romanov rulers, including Catherine the Great, on one end of the cathedral, and on the other, in a roped-off room, since 1998, the remains of Nicholas II's immediate family, minus the tsarevich and one of his sisters, whose bones have not been found. Imprisoned on this island at one time or other, a who's who of revolutionaries and revolution sympathizers: Gorky, Dostoevsky, Trotsky, Lenin's brother Alexander Ulyanov. Irina leads us to the Nevsky Gate, the south gate, also known as the "death gate" because it was through this gate prisoners marked for death and exile passed. It is a lovely spot, regardless, overlooking the widest part of the Neva. On the stone embankments on either side, citizens sunbathe in bikinis and speedos.
Back in the car and moving, yes?, Irina points toward the Sheremetev Palace on the Fontanka, inside which Anna Akhmatova lived off and on in a communal apartment, plagued by Stalin and sleeplessness. "I know, if anyone does," writes the poetess, "the trails and cliffs of insomnia." "We only dream the cock's crow/ … / the night …. goes on and on."
The spectacularly garish Cathedral on Spilled Blood marks the spot where Alexander II, who survived numerous assassination attempts, finally lost his luck and life. Afterwards we tour the utilitarian Cruiser Aurora, walk the grounds of the Smolny Convent and the Summer Garden, stop for photo ops at the Chesme Church and House of Soviets, then zoom west to Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland. And there we walk and walk and walk till dinner time.
On our own, we've investigated portions of Nevsky Prospekt, but at rush hour we're more than grateful to have Sergei in charge of navigations. It's crazy out there—a mad dash of man, woman and machine. The three-mile-long street is and ever has been the city's main thoroughfare. Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya used to live on Nevsky Prospekt in a three-room apartment with her widowed mother, Yelizaveta. Once upon a time wolves of the lupine variety roamed this roadway. In Gogol's era, prostitutes doing penance swept clean the morning streets.
"Nevsky Prospekt deceives," Gogol wrote in a short story whose main character suffered—what else?—insomnia.
At the southeast tip of the street: the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, built in 1713 by Peter the Great to commemorate the spot where Alexander of Novgorod supposedly defeated the Swedes in the thirteenth century, also serves as a burial spot for the city's most illustrious, including Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. Irina elbows her way to the front of the ticket line and flashes her guide pass. Both arms raised, she beckons to us to make tracks. In front of Trinity Cathedral, she points toward a cluster of comparatively new graves which she calls "Communist Square." Atheists or no, the Party's higher-ups wanted their bones to rest among the prominent. In a smaller plot, behind the cathedral, lie monks the Bolsheviks murdered.
Romanov rule symbolically, if not literally, ended with an act meant to save it: the murder of Rasputin at the Yusupov Palace on the Moika during one late night/early morning of December, 1916. In the cellar of the palace, Prince Felix II and pals poisoned, shot and bludgeoned the tsar and tsarina's spiritual advisor, described in my Leningrad guidebook as the "profligate sectarian priest" who "posed as a saint."
The wildly wealthy Yusupovs owned estates, factories, mines, distilleries, museums' worth of art and so many palaces and estates scattered throughout Russia that heir Felix had never laid eyes on much of the family's real estate. From the outside, the Moika palace is rather sedate. Neoclassical lines, pale yellow in color. Inside, anything goes. Baroque and Empire architecture, Moorish decor, Oriental bric-a-brac, interior decoration by whim though not on the cheap.
Even moving at a much slower clip, we could not take in everything there is to see on the ceilings, on the walls, on the floors, in the foreground, in the background, on the stairs and in the corners of the Yusupovs' Moika palace. Vases, statues, candelabra, wallpaper, curtains, chandeliers, tapestries, lamps, coats of arms, marble, silk, silver, onyx, mirrors, jewels, mosaics, prints and paintings galore. A separate and special reception room for the tsar and tsarina, when they desired or deigned to visit, several great halls and ballrooms, a commodious private theatre on whose stage Anna Pavlova danced.
When we pass a portrait Irina identifies as Felix II's grandmother, Princess Zenaide Ivanovna Yusupov, our guide unexpectedly sighs.
"Imagine," she says, "finding love again at 50."
Love with a sting.
"Legendary beauty" Princess Zenaide had a fling with Nicholas I, according to grandson Felix, and lived, all in all, "a very gay life." After her first husband died, she grew bored with Russia and moved to Paris where she spurned the advances of Napoleon III in favor of a much younger Frenchmen of "modest extraction." For that lad, she wrangled the title Comte de Chauveau. She also bought him a chateau. They married and when he too died, the Comtesse de Chauveau discovered the chateau she'd purchased had been bequeathed to her dead husband's mistress. The Comte de Chauveau must have been either an extraordinarily brave or an extraordinarily foolish fellow. Even in a two-dimensional oil rendering, Zenaide comes across as no one to trifle with—most particularly, one suspects, in the areas of cash and affection.
Only a few visitors at a time are allowed access to the infamous cellar for good reason: there simply isn't space for more. From the upstairs' vast expanse, we descend to a narrow (though elaborately-painted) tunnel and then to an even more claustrophobic stairway. Suddenly we find ourselves reflected in the eight round mirrors, each covering a door. I have no idea which door we came through, much less which leads to the prince's private "male apartments," as Irina calls them, but the benefit of trick doors for a cross-dressing prince about town seem fairly obvious.
The first "murder" room we enter, the room directly above where Felix supped with Rasputin, where his co-conspirators nervously waited for the deed to be done, comes as a bit of a shock. Not because of the room's history but because that history is so cheesily rendered. Three wax figures, two at a table set for tea, the third at the curtained window. On the level below, wax Rasputin fingers the tendrils of his beard. He's dressed in a peach-colored silk shirt and sits in front of wax stand-ins representing the ineffectually poisoned pastries. Waxen Prince Felix stands, hand on chair, looking elsewhere—in panic, misgiving or to avoid Grigory Efimovich's famously hypnotic stare?
Edvard Radzinsky, Alex de Jonge, Robert Massie and other historians have described in detail the clumsy amateurishness with which Rasputin was dispatched. In Lost Splendor, the prince offers his version of the event—and it's a sudsy one. In situ, his "head swam," his "ears rang"; he could "scarcely walk." At one point during the ordeal, he swooned. His intended victim, the monk, was made of tougher stuff. Drugged, shot and clubbed, Rasputin still managed to get himself out of the cellar maze and to the far side of an inner courtyard before a second shot brought him down—brought him down, but failed to kill him. Still breathing, he was dumped into the Little Neva and in those waters ultimately drowned.
Composed in Paris and published when the prince was in his sixties, the prince's memoir has the gushy, breezy tone of a much younger being. Felix was fond of dressing extravagantly, sometimes as a woman. As did Rasputin; he liked to party with the gypsies. In the book, he denies the rumor that he "disliked" women, clarifying: "I like them when they are nice." (One exception: Alexandra Fedorovna. Whether or not the tsarina played nice, the prince loathed her.) His own wife, Princess Irina, Felix praises for possessing none of the "feminine failings" that so "put (him) off." Among that list, the high-strung narcissism he seems to prize in himself.
In recounting the city's triumphs, defeats, heroics and scandals, our guide Irina has been scrupulously nonpartisan, nonsectarian, non-sensationalist and dryly objective. But after four days of escorting a couple of fly in/fly out Americans, she seems to be tiring of the objectivity effort. Her love-after-50 comment represents, I now perceive, the first curving away from the purely factual.
Her Rasputin defense.
"A great tragedy," she says. "A terrible misunderstanding," she says. "He drank, yes, but the rest…fairy tales," she says.
In the palace cellar, we are, of necessity, huddled so close together, I fear she overhears the startle in my throat. I am trying to figure out how to inquire, without giving grave offense, whether the fairy tale opinion is the prevailing opinion among St. Peterburgians in 2006 when she bolts for the stairs with, "We are moving, yes?"
This time when we speed past the Winter Palace and square where the tsar's Cossacks fired on Father Gapon's delegation, a sound stage is going up. Tiers of lights are being strung around the Alexander Column. All part of the Crimson Sails event celebrating summer, celebrating white nights, celebrating the end of the academic year, Irina explains.
Yes, her daughters will attend the concert, she says, and permits herself another sigh.
They will come to the Palace Square to drink and dance and stay out late and she will call them on the cell phone because they will not call her, and when they answer they will be laughing and they will say: "Yes, yes, Mama, we are here. We are happy. We are dancing. We are having fun. Do not worry, Mama."
—Or so Irina predicts, fretting in advance.
Sergei sympathetically nods. I feel the need to apologize on a variety of fronts, for a multitude of sins, chief among them the implicit arrogance of a fly in/fly out contract because after another long, tedious day in the company of Americans, guide Irina is preparing for a longer night in a city where so many have gone sleepless, waiting for children, parents, husbands, wives, lovers, comrades, assassins, tsars, conspirators and profligate priests to return, not all of those granted safe passage.
Kat Meads's most recent book publication is a novel, The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan (Chiasmus Press). She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and nonfiction awards from Drunken Boat and New Letters. Recent essays have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Agni Online and Pilgrimage. Duquesne University Press published her nonfiction collection Born Southern and Restless. She can be found online at www.katmeads.com.
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