With our days dwindling in this wonderful city, we started prioritizing and packing our days as much as we could. While we could easily have done another day or two at the Hermitage, it would have been at the expense of so many other meaningful landmarks that we decided we had to leave that for next time…
The apartment where the greatest Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, had lived, and died, has been preserved as a museum. Compared to Shakespeare, his novels in verse include Eugene Onegin and he wrote the short story The Queen of Spades, both adapted as operas by Tchaichovsky. Prophetically, the action which propels the story of Eugene Onegin is the fighting of a duel. Pushkin, as a young man, was a great lover of women and was constantly falling head over heels in love, with little regard for the woman’s marital status. As a result, he himself was involved in several duels but none of those resulted in anyone’s death. However, he had perhaps laid the groundwork that compelled him to act later in life when the roles were reversed. His wife and the mother of his four children became the object of another man’s affections – and, for the sake of his wife’s and his own honour and reputation, Pushkin challenged him to a duel. Tragically, the man cheated and shot Pushkin before he had walked the full paces. Pushkin was shot in the abdomen and was carried back to his home, the museum we visited, where he took an agonizing 24 hours to die.
The museum was filled with his manuscripts and some of the books from his 4,000-book library as well as many personal artifacts. It was a moving visit, the more so having seen the opera The Queen of Spades earlier in the week.
Peter the Great, a few generations earlier, had a connection to Pushkin, without which I wonder whether we would have Pushkin’s literature today:
Peter rewarded merit and dedication over nobility. “Ibrahim Hannibal was a black Abyssinian prince brought as a slave to Constantinople where he was bought and sent to Peter as a present. The Tsar set him free and made him his godson, sent him to Paris to be educated, and eventually promoted him to General of the Artillery. Later, Hannibal was the maternal grandfather of Alexander Pushkin and the central figure in Pushkin’s (unfinished) novel, The Negro of Peter the Great.'”
(If you are interested in more on Pushkin you might like to read Dostoevsky’s famous speech advocating that Pushkin was the founding father of Russian literature. The full text is at http://www.linda-goodman.com/ubb/Forum7/HTML/010678.html)
Our next stop at The Bronze Horseman (itself the subject of a Pushkin poem) was no less moving for us, as both Shirley and I had read Robert Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great and were familiar with the magnificent bronze monument she had built to Peter the Great. Along the palace embankment, this sculpture is the single most beautiful and striking monument I have ever seen. Its design seems modern; it is hard for me to believe it was constructed so long ago, and the lines of the horse and rider so follow the shape of the rock that it seems they have been captured, frozen in time for only the briefest second and will spring back into motion instantly.
It was commissioned by Catherine the Great, perhaps to identify herself with Peter the Great and the Romanov dynasty, because she was only a relative by marriage. The Bronze Horseman depicts Peter the Great, his steed stomping on a serpent, his hand outstretched gesturing as a leader to the Peter and Paul Fortress and Europe beyond. (We noticed later in Moscow that earlier monuments of earlier Romanov Tsars held the same pose, so Catherine no doubt had that in mind.) Robert K. Massie states that “Catherine was Peter’s equal – his only equal – in vision, strength of purpose, and achievement during the centuries that Russia was ruled by tsars, emperors and empresses.”
The Base of the Monument
“While the collosal statue was being moulded, the sculptor and his patron (Catherine) were trying to find a base on which to mount the work. Prospectors searching in nearby Finnish Karelia for granite for the new Neva quays had discovered an enormous, monolithic rock, deeply embedded in marsh. When unearthed, it was twenty-two feet high, forty-two feet long, and thirty-four feet wide. Its weight, experts calculated, was fifteen hundred tons. Catherine decided that this Ice Age boulder must serve as the pedestal for her statue. To bring it to St. Petersburg, a system was worked out that in itself was an engineering feat…. It took captains, pulleys, and a thousand men to inch the stone along, a hundred yards a day.”
“The Image with an arm flung wide,
Sat on his brazen horse astride…
Him, Who moveless and aloft and dim
Our city by the sea had founded,
Whose will was Fate. Appalling there,
He sat, begirt with mist and air,
What thoughts engrave his brow!
What hidden Power and Authority He claims!
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden
Where leapest thou? And where, on whom
Wilt plant they hoof?”
The meaningful morning called for an appropriate feast and celebration. Shirley had discovered “The Business Lunch,” a fixed price, many coursed meal offered at many restaurants at very reasonable prices. The Stroganoff Steak House boasted the best Beef Stroganoff in town and so we were off. We sampled the best Russian vodka on offer which I was unable to down in a single shot in the traditional way, but it was delicious to sip. The Stroganoff lived up to its claim, it was fabulous, arriving hot on a griddle next to mashed potatoes with crispy onion rings. Salads and yummy desserts completed the feast.
Next we headed to our next-most important palace, the Yusopov. Another aristocratic Russian family built and lived in this magnificent Baroque palace. Room after sumptuous room unfolded before us, and more clandestine photographs could not be resisted. An interesting sidebar to this palace’s history is that in this palace Yusopov, with the help of his fellow noblemen, masterminded and carried out the murder of Rasputin, a mystic monk and social activist who had claimed to have cured the Emperor’s son of hemophelia. He was an activist leader who threatened the aristocracy, and his murder set into play a 1905 revolution and stirred the unrest that ultimately led to the 1917 great revolution of Russia.
Each palace has its special something, and in the Yusopov palace it was a small, elegant private theatre with seating for 180 guests. Filled with gold ornamentation and red velvet, it was beautiful and we lingered here. Before our trip we had watched a PBS Great Performances special (which is available on the pbs website) in which Renee Fleming performed opera favourites in several St. Petersburg palace theatres, and the Yusopov was one of these theatres. It was easy to imagine sitting here in a silk gown listening to a rich Tchaichovsky opera sung by a Russian mezzosoprano while sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar. Ahhhhh……