September 17, 2006

the hermit of the hermitage

hermitage-5 hermitage-18 hermitage-21

I am posting from an Internet cafe inside St. Petersburg's rather staggering Hermitage Museum.

I know, I should probably be looking at art. But one can only walk down so many colossal galleries, passages and corridors, beneath fifty-foot-high ceilings carved and gilded and filigreed and hung with chandeliers the size of Volkswagens, past what seems like half of all the world's classical (ie pre-1920) art, before one needs another breather.

To paraphrase my travelling companion M., one gets the sense that Peter the Great took his chief architect to Versailles and the Louvre, then turned to him and said, "You see? Like that. Only much bigger."

I'll probably upload pictures and expand this into a real post tonight.

eta: OK, pictures tomorrow. Most Russian internet cafes aren't so good at the extra services.

So I could totally live here. I mean, if I spoke Russian. And if it was always summer. It's all monuments and palaces and gardens (not parks) and ornate 19th century buildings, but it's really livable, too, cafes and bars and gathering places, majestic without resorting to the inhuman scale of, say, central Paris. And the blinys - Russian for "crepe" - are great. No Nutella, though, alas.

The whole city is crumbling, of course; and the whole city is being reborn ultramodern at the same time.

It's the little things, as always, that you notice. The massive drainpipes that carry rainwater from roofs down to ankle level, every fifty feet down every side of every block. The security booths in city parks, the wrinkled bureaucratic babushkas stationed as building security, and in virtually every room of the Hermitage, ready to snap at you if, God forbid, you rest your camera on an air conditioner for stability, or in some places if you go the wrong way through a room; relics of the authoritarian mentality. The profusion of marriages. The scarred walls from sixty-four years ago, when this city was victimized by one of the longest and most gruelling battles in history. (Hitler never actually conquered Leningrad, as it was then known, but his forces surrounded it and besieged it for "the 900 days." The only supply route was a winter-only road across a frozen lake. At one point the rations for residents were down to 200 grams (less than half a pound) of sawdust-thickened bread per day. But somehow they held out.)

Of course it's far from idyllic today. Last week a race riot broke out in a small town not too far from here, and the resulting pogrom drove every Caucasian (ironically, here that means "dark-skinned," as opposed to Slav "light-skinned") out of town; street gangs looted, burned, murdered. Homeless alcoholics stagger regularly past, even on glittering Nevsky Prospekt. Also last week, the deputy head of Russia's central bank was assassinated, presumably by mob figures irritated by his attempts to crack down on money laundering.

Still, it's got a definite decaying, skyrocketing, phoenix-like charm. We'll see if it's just St.P. or if it holds through the rest of the country. Tomorrow night to Moscow, in'shallah.


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