St. Petersburg: Land of So Many Contrasts That It All Blurred Together
August 24, 2009
Top down, bottom up. Top down, bottom up. That’s the phrase that came to my mind, over and over, as we toured St. Petersburg. The push of dictators, the push back from the people below them. The revolutionaries become the oppressors, up goes down, down goes up.
Our steady American democracy, however balky it sometimes feels, has nothing in it to match the sort of ferocious upheaval that Russia has experienced. Our watery borders give us such an advantage–when I heard that it takes maybe four hours to drive across Estonia, I realized how vulnerable some of these European countries were. Four hours from Nashville puts me in Memphis. I haven’t even left the STATE. I have my bone to pick with Memphis, but I don’t especially feel like INVADING it.
I couldn’t wait to see St. Petersburg, even if at a trot. I had lined up three days of wandering around with a guide and a driver. The driver was clearly a spy: sunglasses the whole time. I’m sure he was a spy.
We had just come off a day of stories about Estonian heroism in the face of Russian tyranny, of Latvians and Lithuanians and Estonians holding hands, across 400 miles, across their countries to protest for freedom. It was a perfect time to tour the palaces of the tsars, because I was pretty much ready to pass out torches and pitchforks for a revolution. Never mind that all the palaces are now museums, and the government views palaces as a lure for tourists–I was ready for some outrage!
I’d been trying in fits and starts to bone up on Russian history all summer–Robert Massie’s Peter the Great had taken me through the reign of the Big Guy who founded the city of St. Petersburg in 1703. He was the one who pushed to introduce the ideas and styles of western Europe to eastern, smoky old Russia. He was six foot seven, he was an avid amateur dentist, and he loved above all things boats, shipbuilding, and the sea. Russia didn’t have a port city in the West, so he built a hut on the shore of the swampy low land at the mouth of the Neva, and got busy.
Palaces: The Things They Think You Want to See
We decided to forego a visit to see Peter the Great’s collection of teeth that he gleefully extracted from his courtiers. That museum also contained the pickled privates of the mysterious Rasputin, and I was not going to risk even a chance encounter with that thing, so we headed out of town to see some tsarist lifestyle.
We saw several billion dollars’ worth of palaces, and I can honestly tell you that you need to see only one palace in St. Petersburg, not four. You start hating everybody around you, and you begin to feel a lot of scorn for herdlike movement through room after room–until you look across the ballroom and see yourself in the mirror, chewing your cud and mooing right in there with them. This was not my idea of a good time.
Astonishingly conspicuous consumption is actually a pretty straightforward thing.
If you have a wall, embellish it.
If you have a ceiling, put stuff on it.
If you have a floor, cover it in parquet.
If you have a canal, put a charming pavilion over it.
As I gazed at this particular folly (it’s at the Tsarskoe Selo, at the Catherine Palace if you’re keeping track), I looked down and noticed a railing.
How spectacular! How genuinely delightful! I realized that I’d been looking at all this stuff the wrong way: it was the details that were going to be beautiful, not the numbing scale of these palaces. Suddenly, everything was lovely, once I thought about the craftspeople who had done all this work. The Hermitage museum is full of Titian and Rembrandt, but it’s those nameless scaffold-climbing painters and railing makers that I wish I could know.
And the sculptor who managed to make fabric flow through a piece of marble.
Speaking of Modest . . .
At Peter the Great’s summer palace, Peterhof, there’s a little minipalace, Monplaisir, away from the big house. Peter preferred this place, apparently–a few rooms in the Dutch style that he liked because he had spent time in Holland learning shipbuilding. Monplaisir was at least halfway human in scale.
The ceiling is so LOW. They almost didn’t need a scaffold.
Such a modest amount of lacquerwork here. Just a daily dose.
My favorite room of all turned out to be this charming room. When I asked, it turned out that this was Peter the Great’s PANTRY.
I’ll leave you today with the thing we all loved the most. Peter the Great engineered an insane park of fountains, all run by gravity.
It wasn’t the grand ones, like these:
It was these that we liked:
Some of them have mysterious features.
Yes, I tried it, and yes, my dry children were smug at how bad I was at navigating the stones.
(And if you know the secret of the stepping-stone fountains, I FORBID you from revealing it here! I’ll yank your teeth!)
Back on the Hyatt Regency of the Seas
Just when I thought my head would snap off from all the visual clutter we had absorbed, St. Petersburg saved the day by providing us with this:
A rainfall so absent of wind that you could actually hear the sound of a million raindrops falling on the water.
Next up: Chowhounding and a Product Endorsement