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St. Petersburg, Day 3

Due to the fact that we were attending a black-tie, New Year’s Eve event tonight, we didn’t have much planned.  After another excellent lecture, we climbed on to the bus and set off for Pavlovsk.  This was the first time we’d been out in the Russian countryside during what passes for daytime over here (sunrise, 11:00 A.M., sunset 5:40 P.M.).  Light snow from the night before dusted the stark winter trees and gentled the barren fields.

Nearly all of the Russian royalty and nobility had summer palaces (with gardens and beautiful things to do) and winter palaces (to while away the long cold days and nights).  Today’s palace was built by Catherine the Great’s son Paul.  Paul completely loathed his mother, who had sent him off to a bevy of nurses at his birth; she saw him for the first time when he was three months old and then not again until he was six months old.  He was deeply in love with his first wife but when she died in childbirth, and with her the child, he was forced to remarry for the sake of heirs.

In those days, the way one met prospective brides was through the medium of miniature portraits, which were sent to the prospective bridegroom.  The ladies who looked most interesting, and who also had the most appropriate lineage, were invited for a visit.  Most of the women who married into the Russian royal and noble families were German (there were, our guide Larissa told us, “a lot of German Princesses”).  In order to make those marriages, they were required to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith and be re-baptized with Russian names.

In spite of the fact that Catherine had a magnificent summer palace, Paul refused to live there, instead building his own not far away and as different from hers as possible.

During World War II, the Germans occupied these and other palaces, but as they advanced, loyal Russians evacuated as many of the treasures as possible, saving almost 70% of those from Paul’s summer palace (although only 30% from Catherine’s summer palace).  Most of these pieces were sent to Siberia for the duration, although some, mainly the sculptures, were hidden in the cellars of the palace and the entry bricked over.  Such was their haste that the rescuers took only one of each item if there were more of that item (for example a chandelier).  The most important thing they rescued were all the archives, detailing palace plans and lists of the items, with original letters and sketches.

As an aside, we crossed the line of the front between the Russians and Germans on our way to Pavlovsk, a front valiantly maintained by the Russians during the nearly 3-year siege of Leningrad. Hundreds of thousands of Russians died during that siege, with some figures estimated to be up into the 80-100 thousand mark, and whole families still do not know where their loved ones are buried.  Our guide’s mother lived through that siege, and she lost many family members.  She is still extraordinarily careful with food.

After the Germans were repulsed, they set fire to the palaces.  Paul’s palace burned for three days because there wasn’t enough water to put out the fire.

During the restoration of the palace, the sculptures were recovered from the cellars, and some of those bear the dark marks of fire.  Although they were not destroyed, they were badly damaged.

For some reason, the palace was a very popular destination that day, and in order to gain entrance, we waited an hour or so in line.  This gave us an opportunity to wander round and take photos (a much warmer activity than standing in line!).

Once inside, those of us who wished to do so purchased the inevitable photography permit and we all went into the inevitable cloakroom to hand off our jackets and then donned the inevitable shoe covers.  These, however, were not the charmingly antique felt-and-elastic ones from Menshikov Palace but modern ones made of the sort of material one finds in tarps and with elastic all around the tops.  They stayed on very well, but I missed the other ones.

One of the things I found fascinating about this palace was the fact that in many of the rooms were enlarged black-and-white photographs from before its restoration.

Some of us had wanted to go shopping between the time of returning to the hotel and when we needed to leave for the Tsar’s Ball, but the delay in entering the palace also narrowed the shopping window by about an hour.  I still wanted to shop, but it turned out that I was the only one, with everyone else voting to shop the following day (another day of lighter activity).  So I descended and was shown how to get back to the hotel (it wasn’t very far).

The name of the shop was “Red October” (umm … really?).  I went inside to find I was the only customer (rather disconcerting!).  Three young men were on duty, and they kindly let me wander for a bit before asking if they could help.  I said I wanted a traditional Russian fur hat for my daughter.  They showed me the women’s hats.  No, I really wanted the men’s hats, the ones with the flaps that can come down round one’s ears but be tied up on top of the hat. They showed me hats, their English accented and eager.  While I dithered about color and price, and whether to pay by credit card or in rubles, one of them asked me how much I had in rubles. Shocked into honesty (and very entertained by the naivety of that question), I retorted, “I’m not going to tell you THAT!”, at which point all of them burst out laughing.  I told them that when one goes to buy a car in America, very often a salesman will ask how much one is willing to pay.  “Ah,” said one, still laughing, “our friend here is from Latin America, where they stand on corners and wave things to be sold.”  Another outburst of merriment.  I paid for the hats and opened the door to leave, but one of the young men called out to me to wait.  He had gone in the back and put some Russian candies in a bag for me to give to my daughter.

Getting back to the hotel was very easy, about a 15-minute walk.  As I crossed the lobby, I was hailed by several members of the group with something amounting to relief; they felt I was very intrepid to have undertaken that shopping trip and walk on my own.  I was very flattered!

One comment on “St. Petersburg, Day 3

  1. You have a gift for interesting prose, my dear. Would you mind if I shared your blogs with the two friends I’m travelling with in June?
    (Glad your layers of clothing are doing the trick). Nice first day here. No frost.

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