Sunday, September 09, 2007

Tsarist Russia is so opulent , so gigantic, so sophsticated, it's exhausting. No small part of that exhaustion is the acute contrast of the squalor and poverty that accompany the splendor, that go side by side with it, like creme fraiche and rye with beluga caviar. So to speak.

So to speak. But at any rate, after Swan Lake, the Nevsky Prospect, the Church of the Resurrection, the Admiralty, St. Isaac's Cathedral, The Smolny Convent, and the Cathedral of Kazan, each with its own awesome uniqueness, it was way past time to settle into the calmness and serenity of the great open air.

(I did not mention the stats on Peterhof: the "fountain" is referred to as the Grand Cascade is composed of three waterfalls, 64 fountains and 37 statues. Its system of waterworks has remained unchanged since 1721, conveying water over a distance of nearly 12 miles with of course, no pumping stations. He was not called Peter the Great because of his height.)

We embarked upon a journey to Moscow via a series of lakes, rivers and canals. We left St. Petersburg on the Neva River, enduring quite a middle of the night storm on Lake Ladoga, floating down the Svir River to Lake Onega. Here we entered the Volga-Baltic Waterway, an extended system of rivers, lakes and canals that link the Baltic Sea with the Volga River, with a total length of about 700 miles, St. Peterburg to the Rybinsk Reservoir. Here is the Dreamland, the Fairy Tale world of Russia.

It's this complex system of natural rivers and lakes, artificial reservoirs and canals that has made commercial travel between the two great cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg easy and commonplace and created the tourista bonanza that now exists here. Towns and villages once sequestered by the Iron Curtain now play host to the world, showing off exquisite and extraordinary monasteries, churches, museums and kremlins. Commercial investment in the west since perestroika is non-evident and the life of some of the people in these villages is not heart-wrenching, but troubling. Deeply troubling.

St. Petersburg provided us with one last OMIGOD moment after sailing; the city gave way to small settlements and dachas, with stand after stand of virgin timber and trees, the birch trees swaying in the soft summer air. Just as we burst upon immense horizon of Lake Ladoga, not only nicknamed 'The Street of Life' but also the largest lake in Europe, we sailed past Petrokrepost ('Peter's fortress'), a medieval fortress built in 1323. A man in a Scottish golf cap and camou stood on the rocks fishing, his bait in a plastic milk jug. It was not clear if this was real time, live or just a perfectly scripted, superbly cinematographed moment of sheer awe.

Because it was sheer awe.

The 'Kan EWA

Friday, September 07, 2007

No real discussion of St. Petersburg (originally, 'Petropo', then 'Pieterburgh') is complete without a nod to and props for Peterhof. Peterhof. God, where to begin....

'Petrodvorez' was commissioned in 1714, built on a steep hill overlooking the Baltic, some twenty miles from St. Petersburg. Peter the Great built it as respite from summer in the city and it was his ambition to rival Versailles. You might remember the reign of Peter the Great was the turning point in Russsia's history. He was the Great Change Agent, building factories and schools and universities, whole cities even (St. Petersburg?) , raising the first Russian army and creating the Russian fleet. So Peter was not unaccustomed to doing anything in a faltering or tentative manner. Peter had big ideas and vast resources. Hence, Peterhof.

The baroque gardens feature the most beautiful of fountains; they are an hydraulic marvel, bringing water in from the Bay of Finnland in a purely genius manner to make a bold artistic statement that is unrivaled. The fountains of Peterhof are grandeur personified.

The house, the royal residence, is no less. The crystal chandeliers are massive, weighing over 10 tons. The wooden floors are exquisite parqueted. The silks on the walls luscious in weave and color and the paintings expansive as the grounds.

The Throne Room is smaller than the Throne Room in St. Petersburg; this IS the summer palace after all, but gorgeously appropriate nevertheless. We did a true double take when we realized the portrait that hangs above the throne is that of Catherine the Great on her horse; Catherine was just not short on anything it took to be a member of the Russian royal family or a tsarina of Mother Russia.

I loved this room, The Picture Hall, because I have never seen anything like it. The ceiling features a magnificent scene of Peter himself, powerful and wise, cavorting with the gods. Apollo, Mars, Juno and Neptune that I could recognize. The walls are covered in their entirety of portraits of young girls. It's wild! Actually it was Catherine who commissioned the girls--they are in different garbs and native costumes, perhaps, in a variety of poses. They are atheletic, educated, afficionados of the arts and sciences, home and garden; some mythological.

The Chesme Hall features massive depictions of the naval victories over Turkey. These are awesome in the real sense of the word. They are so big that as you gaze upon the oil of 'The Burning of the Turkish Fleet in Chesme Harbour', it is like looking at it from a balcony, as if the harbor and this furnace of battle are 50 yards on the horizon. You smell the smoke. Then you realize, you don't. Awesome, as it's said.

Because the house was built by Peter, but augmented and expanded by Catherine, it is a tantalizing mixture of masculine and feminine taste. The Divan Room is divine. The walls are covered in exquisite Chinese silk, the floors are covered with beautiful wood from the Russian forrests laid in a geometric maze, and the room features large feather pillows and an immense Turkish sofa, hence the name. It's a Girlfriends' Paradise.

I do have to say my favorite room in the whole house is Peter's study. I loved his bedroom but walking through his study gave me goosebumps: just imagine what ideas he nursed and flogged to fruition here. What plans he laid and what revisions and and amendments he made as the updates became available. Such a thinker. Such an innovator. This was his private space. One of the world's all time great leaders.

As it's said, there's no place like home.

After all of Peterhof, the Hermitage, St. Peter and Paul and so much more to boot, we were sated. We were exhausted. We were ready to sail. We stocked up on Russian vodka and headed back to our boat. The crew gathered up the gang plank, put on the sailing music and we were off. Dreamland awaited.

The 'Kan EWA

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

By now, much of it seems like a dream and the edges of the startling contrasts of beauty and ugly are softened by my memory. I would go back to Russia next week. It was that poignant, that exquisite, that haunting. St. Petersburg opened the curtain on the adventure of a lifetime.

We arrived in St. Petersburg expecting nothing; but still the poverty and the desolation of the streets blinded sided us and kept us off balance because the other parts of St. Petersburg were so damn gorgeous. What a town! The Rolling Stones had played there the evening before we arrived, nuts!, and the town was still a little buzzy after what I am sure was a supernaturally heady experience for the locals. Mick! Keith! They played here

which is the palace square of the Winter Palace of the Tsars, now a piece of the extraordinary Hermitage Museum. My dreams came true when we visited the Hermitage, initiated by Catherine the Great with a purchase of 289 paintings. These days the collection numbers 3,000,000 pieces acquired over 3 centuries. The Louvre, the Vatican, the Met pale by comparison. It was not only the art of the Hermitage, the Monets, the Delacroix, the Renoirs, the Pissarros, the Degas, the Cezannes, the Van Goghs, the Gauguins, the Picassos, the Matisses, the Rodins, the Kadinskys, the Rembrandts, the Da Vincis, but it was the house itself, the trappings of Tsarist Russia and their culture and faith, oh those Icons, that made it all that it was and more. So much more. And again, shocking details at every juncture. This art is hung similarly to how I would hang it in my living room, with wire and nail, and you can walk right up to it and get in the face of Van Gogh in his artistic fury. That's right. There are no ropes. There is no plexiglass. There is no security except for glaring Russsian women with thin, red lipsticked lips who squint and murmur, nyet, nyet, nyet. They sit in every room and examine each visitor with eyes of steel. Nothing gets past these women.

Russians, by and large, act like ladies and gentlemen; their culture not being graced with the beneficence of freedom of speech and other liberties assured them by their founding fathers. Their airports are like the American airports of our youth, when we used to breeze in 10 minutes before the flight. The Russians, of course, don't have terrorists hunting them down so they don't need to enact extraordinary measures of security. People wouldn't think of acting hostilely in museums because of the secret police. It's not what would happen to you if you defaced and damaged a piece of the collection of the Hermitage, it's what would happen to you and your family. So built in to the Russian culture are "safeguards" which allow them to live in remarkable freedom. Of a sort. We have different freedoms in this country, yet their life seems simpler on a number of levels.

We went to Catherine's Summer Palace outside of St. Petersburg and the singularly remarkable Peterhof, Peter the Great's summer residence. You decide for your self:

nice, eh? Those nouveau riche schmucks on Lake Coeur d'Alene don't know their front doors from their septic tanks when it comes to summering in style.

The 'Kan EWa
More St. Petersburg
It's a challenge to pick just a few pictures; click on any of these to see the detail.

Italian Skylight Hall The Hermitage

Raphael Room The Hermitage

Raphael Loggias The Hermitage

the bath part i The Hermitage

the bath part ii The Hermitage

the Pavillion Hall of The Hermitage

the front door of the Winter Palace
(The Hermitage)

my favorite
The Green Dining Room
Summer Palace

Catherine The Great

The 'Kan EWA