Gwen and I just got back from Russia.
We started in St. Petersburg where we stayed in a small hotel just across the little river from the Hermitage. Gwen had some meetings with publishing people, and I looked at paintings (they gave me a pass so I could go in and out of the staff entrances). When Gwen's meetings were over, we went back and looked at more paintings. The Hermitage has treasures, but it also has crowds, and the floor plan is difficult to follow.
(St. Petersburg is badly in need of public investment in its infrastructure; the place seems prosperous enough, but parts of it are crumbling. Unlike Moscow, where the government has turned the center of the city into a showplace.)
In the evenings, we went to concerts with one of the other museum couples travelling with us. St Petersburg audiences are passionate about classical music. They bring flowers for their favorite performers, they start clapping in unison to bring people out for encores, and they show more enthusiasm for music than I've ever seen in NY.
Because of the White Nights, St. Petersburg had several classical music festivals going on. We had a lot of concerts to choose from. The best was a performance of Mahler's 2d symphony, where we sat directly above and behind the orchestra, practically feeling every crash and bang the percussionists let loose.
Also because of the White Nights, we couldn't go to bed. It never gets dark. The sun is still high in the sky at 10:30 pm. By midnight, the sky is dusky, but that's about as dark as it ever gets. Sunlight is pouring in the windows again by 4:00 am, and possibly earlier. (There was one night I swore I didn't get to sleep.)
The Russians had a national holiday on Tuesday, June 12, and made a long weekend of it, so the Hermitage staff arranged for us to see Peter the Great's summer palace on the Gulf of Finland at Peterhof one day, and Catherine the Great's and Paul's palaces the next.
Peter's little summer retreat is the most tasteful royal palace I have ever seen. It is right by the sea, and it's done in a Dutch style with restraint not often seen in Russia.
Catherine's palace, by contrast, is pure excess. It is far larger than any palace in England. (I can't remember what Versailles was like, or even if I've ever seen it.) There is even a room completely decorated with amber.
After the palaces we went to Novgorod, a small city about 3 hours away, to see churches and icons. Novgorod was founded by Vikings who had a trade route to Byzantium, and it has a cathedral that was built in the 12th century. We heard part of a service with beautiful, haunting music. A lot of what makes the Russian art fascinating is the blend of Byzantine and Northern European influences, although you have to look hard to see the Viking influence, because the church did its best to adhere to the Byzantine forms.
Have you ever heard of the Old Testament Trinity? It's a popular theme in Russian art. (We think it refers to the angels who announced to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son, an "intervention" said to prefigure the birth of Christ in the Orthodox tradition.)
After Novgorod, we looked at St. Petersburg, tried to follow Raskolnikov through Crime and Punishment, and packed up for our 5-hour train journey to Moscow.
The first thing we did in Moscow, however, was to drive 3 hours to see the towns of Vladimir and Suzdal, where there are more important cathedrals and churches. Vladimir, like Novgorod, has a 12th century cathedral, with little gargoyles that would not look out of place in Paris or Oxford. Suzdal, a small town now, has almost more churches than people. All of these churches have some icons and wall paintings,
although the most important icons have been taken to the museums in Moscow.
Once we were back in Moscow, we went to see the Pushkin Museum, which has the best collection of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse paintings I have ever seen. These rooms are beautifully lit, simply laid out, and just have one masterpiece after another. We also saw the Tretyakov Museum with its religious art, and the Kremlin Museum with its
treasury of all the gold cases made for the icons. (The icons are in many places; the gold is all in the Kremlin.) We also got to the Bolshoi to see some ballet.
We spent our last day in Moscow looking at churches in the Kremlin. (4 cathedrals and 2 churches - inside the Kremlin itself. We didn't see all of them. One was under renovation.)
We found enough people who spoke English to get around. The hotel staff all speak English. Museum staff spoke either English or French. We all learned to read some of the Cyrillic signs by the time we left. (PECTOPAH means restaurant.) Most of the restaurant menus and museum signs used some English words in addition to the Russian.
Russia is not an easy place to visit, however. We had a lot of help from official organizers, who arranged for us to have cars and guides. Sometimes we had to wait in offices to talk to people, but never for long, and we never had to wait in any long lines to see anything. We would not have seen nearly as much as we did without all the help we received.
Russia is not exactly Western Europe, either. It has many peculiarities. Restaurants and street vendors often do not have all of the items they advertise. Prostitution is legal. Most restaurants have bouncers to see that drunk patrons do not cause disturbances. Restaurant food is good, but service is very slow by our standards.
There are different prices for Russians and for tourists. There are metal detectors and guards in all the museums, but the guards are bored, and enforcement is very erratic.
There is very little evidence of the Communist Party. There are some statues of Lenin, and carved hammer-and-sickle emblems on some buildings, and some of the older signs in the Kremlin museum were written by Marxists, but nobody talks about that period. (Many of the people we met were fairly young.) Now the official emphasis is Russian nationalism and the official emblem is the Romanov double-headed eagle.
Hard to go back to work after all that.