Here I am, my last full day in St. Petersburg, and it seems as if I’ve just arrived. This has been an unbelievable whirlwind of a tour, with a group of people I liked more and more as we all got to know one another.
We had our last lecture, as always fascinating not only by the quality of the subject but by the sheer ability of our lecturer to share that information in a clever and succinct style.
The morning’s excursion was to the Russian Art Museum, another vast and beautiful palace near the Mariinsky Theatre. Although it had rained all night (not snowed, darn it!) and continued to do so, the sidewalks were very slippery, and most of us performed a sort of cautious step, slide and windmilling arms dance up to the entrance. I learned that bare sidewalk and slush are perfectly safe to walk on but nothing else is, unless you can see there’s been salt applied, and even then it’s no guarantee. The walk was punctuated by shouts of “Whoa!” “Aaaaah!” and “Are you all right?” with quick hands flying out to steady the skidding person.
As it is school holidays, the museum was very busy. We turned over our coats and struggled up the stairs, trying to stay together. From the outset, the travel/study program had provided very excellent headsets with wireless receivers so that we could hear our guide clearly, and we learned to keep up with her, since if we didn’t, the transmission cut out and failed.
The tour began with the icons, some from the 12th century. Larissa explained that icons were always painted without dimension, because they were meant to be a sort of veil between the holy spiritual world and the secular world.
Beautifully laid out, the museum traces the history of Russian art, all clearly labeled in Russian (Cyrillic, not Latin) and English. As always seemed to be the case, we had an immense amount of art to cover and very little time to do so. We progressed from icons all the way through Russian impressionists, to modern art (I guess I’m old-fashioned, but a black circle on a field of white is not fascinating nor … dare I say … something I consider “art”). We ended at the period of Soviet art, most of which was well done and evocative of the era; one, entitled “Queue”, showed a line of women, with some men, standing in a line that went off out of sight.
After, there were three options. Some of us wanted to continue shopping, some to eat and a few wanted to go back to the hotel and rest before the final excursion. I, of course, elected to shop.
Getting from the museum to the shop took us through a small park (yes, it was still raining) with the same hazardous icy conditions. Inside the shop was nice and warm, too warm, as always. Eventually others from our group straggled in and wandered around. I acquired a few more souvenirs and decided to take a walk to cool off. The fresh air felt good and the precipitation wavered between rain and large fat snowflakes. Halfway down the sidewalk I realized I might not have made the best choice of exercise, because not only was it just as slippery but I now had several bags of souvenirs, some of which would not take kindly to crashing down with me. I turned back, slipping, sliding and sloshing through puddles at intersections.
Our final stop was Yusupov Palace, a place that has gone down in infamy thanks to the fact that it was the site of Rasputin’s murder in 1916. The Yusupov family allegedly descended from the 10th century Tatars and originally followed the Islamic faith. Some centuries later, they converted to the Russian Orthodox faith and legend has it that they were then cursed by this decision, so that only one child of each generation would survive to produce the next generation. And so it has proved to this day. Yet each year they became wealthier and wealthier, so that by the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were arguable the wealthiest family in Russia.
In 1916 Felix Yusupov, the only surviving heir (his older brother had died in a duel at age 26) bought his place in history for his part in the assassination of Rasputin.
I won’t go into the entire story here, since it’s pretty common knowledge that Rasputin was poisoned (potassium cyanide), shot and left for dead, rediscovered (by Felix) to be still alive and after trying to strangle Felix released him and crawled up the stairs to escape, after which he was shot three more times and beaten. What actually killed him was being thrown into the river in front of the palace, where he drowned.
We began our tour with the coat check and tarp-and-elastic shoes, bought our photography permits, and descended into the world of Rasputin’s murder. There are two rooms to see, the drawing room where four of the conspirators are recreated as wax figures and the upstairs dining room where Prince Felix and Rasputin ate, their own wax figures lending an eerie sort of fascination to the room.
We passed through the wine cellars and into the main part of the palace, leaving behind the darkness of death and legend and stepping into the palace entrance, with its grand staircase.
Here was the home of generations of Yusupovs, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit of perplexity that the tour started with the sordid murder story and ended in the privileged light and air of Russian aristocracy. That said, the palace is a beautiful thing, another that survived the carnage of the 20th century mostly intact. There is a lovely theater, and during World War II a shell crashed into the Prince’s box but didn’t explode. Two extraordinarily brave men carefully pried it out, cautiously managed to get it down the stairs and into the courtyard, where a deep hole had been dug. It was then set off and the resulting explosion shattered all the windows, but the theater and most of the palace was saved.
One of the rooms I found most fascinating was the library, with its rows of glassed-in bookshelves and beautifully preserved books … and a fascinating story. Knowing that the Bolsheviks were seizing palaces and their contents, Prince Felix stashed some of the most valuable items in hidden rooms, one in the library and another under the billiard table in the next room. Sadly, these rooms were discovered and the contents pillaged. When the Prince fled to France, he was only allowed to keep two Rembrandts and some small pieces of jewellery. His bad fortune did not end there, because when he attempted to sell the paintings he received nothing even close to their true value, so he and his family lived in much reduced circumstances.
Our farewell dinner, at the Stroganoff (Stroganov) Palace, echoed with excellent food and camaraderie and the inevitable sadness that results from the end of such a mutual and powerful experience.
Some of us, however, are going to spend the next three nights in Moscow.