Russia · Travel

In the Hermitage and at the ballet in Russia’s city of culture

Back home in Brisbane after our European summer break, we watched a movie one cold winter’s evening called Russian Ark. It’s set in the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, somewhere we’d visited on the Russian leg of our trip, and it’s unusual for having been shot in one ninety-six-minute-long continuous take. In the film a snooty (one imagines there is no other kind) 19th-century French aristocrat wanders through the rooms of the Hermitage, sometimes interacting with the occupants, sometimes going unnoticed.

Many of the people he sees or meets represent aspects and epochs of the city’s three-hundred year history, for instance the Siege of Leningrad, which is represented by a man making his own coffin, or the era of Catherine the Great, in which we see the great woman herself struggling to find the nearest toilet, on which account we could sympathise with the fearsome empire-builder.

Inside the Hermitage
The Raphael Loggias in the Hermitage

For our visit to the Hermitage we managed a bit longer than an hour and a half, but not much more. We couldn’t. It was truly exhausting, the more so since in many of the more famous rooms we were buffeted by strong currents of visitors pushing and pulling us as they, and we, tried to photograph or simply just appreciate some of the three million items spread across the 120 different rooms in this, one of the two or three biggest museums in the world. I’m someone who, now I find myself working near Brisbane’s Southbank, ends up going to the Queensland Art Gallery regularly, and I always find new things to see. The QAG has around 8 (admittedly very big) rooms. The Hermitage beat us. We’ll be back though, just not in the middle of June.

In the Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Eoin faces the camera while I can’t make up my mind whether to look at the the ceiling, the paintings, or just admire the statue ‘The Death of Adonis’

We took in a few other museums in the five or so days we had in St. Petersburg. The Central Naval Museum had the best collection of models we’d seen since the Museu de Marinha in Belém, Lisbon – even better, I’d say, since Portugal’s glory days were long gone whereas the models of Russia’s ocean-going hardware – nuclear subs, etc. – were a lot more recent and sexy.

The nearby Siege of Leningrad Museum gave us our first glimpse of a phenomenon common in Russian museums, to wit: the Insistent Old Lady who Works There. These old dears may not appear, at first blush, to be the most polished of operators, but what they lack in finesse, and working English, they make up for with soul. They actually want you to see stuff. Get off your arse and keep moving! We had a siege here! Regardless that you are collapsed in a chair, giving your middle-aged back a break, trying to process the fifteen rooms full of stuff you’ve just seen, they will press on you a Russian-language sheaf of dog-eared A4s about the adjacent Rumyantsev Mansion and expect you to jump to it. Neither language barriers nor swooning teenagers on an adjacent bench phase these importunate biddies, bless them.

Central Naval Museum
Central Naval Museum, St. Petersburg

That particular museum, incidentally, had the poignant story of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony: how it had been both written, then dutifully played by the city’s famished musicians, during the Wehrmacht’s nine-hundred-day siege. In Helsinki we’d played Sibelius in our room; Shostakovich’s 9th was a strong candidate for our room music in St. Pete’s, but in the event I thought it might be a tad bleak, so we kept the more romantic Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky favourites on the virtual turntable.

I have to admit, I hadn’t particularly been looking forward to the ballet. But the idea of it made sense for our short week in St. Petersburg, considering what we’d want to look back on and be able to say we did there. Once inside the Mikhailovsky Theatre, however, which is off Nevsky Prospekt, just down the canal from the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood (behind Tina and me in this blog post’s main picture), the whole feeling being right up in the highest tier, watching the orchestra warm up, seeing the audience slowly settle, all that relaxed me, and I let go and began to enjoy myself.

After the show
At the Mikhailovsky Theatre

At the end, people clapped and the performers did their curtain call. The applause died down and people reached for their coats. Whereupon another round of ‘Bravo!‘s started up, then died down. And another. The usual stuff. Then it seemed to stop. One guy, however, kept it up. I looked down and saw him clapping and stamping his feet; he looked the sort of guy who if you passed in the street you’d say to yourself, “I bet that guy never goes to the ballet.” He kept up his applause, just him, until the ballerina and leading man came out one last time, in front of the curtain this time, and gave a final bow. And then everyone joined in the applause again. Bravo! to that guy, I thought. And Bravo!, too, to Tina, for dragging us along.

After the show we were instinctively inclined to get a Yandex taxi home. But walking around Mikhailovsky Square it was still so bright despite the hour. As Gogol asked in his eponymous short story about the street, who wouldn’t want to walk down Nevsky Prospekt on a summer evening, especially during White Nights? We’d forego the taxi.

Walking past the monument to Catherine II, near the Alexandrinsky Theatre, I reflected on a satisfying evening. My (and the boys’) morbid fear of being bored had been allayed by the relative brevity of the performance (and the length of the interval). The music and dancing hadn’t been bad either, I had to admit. Best of all, though, was seeing Tina, so happy to be dressed up and out on a summer’s night in St. Petersburg at the ballet.