Monday, 11 June 2018


I was only in St. Petersburg for three and a half days, but I made many pages of notes, most of which will never make it into these blog posts. Sometimes, though, these small observations can be telling, although I am aware of the danger of the "all sheep in Scotland are black" syndrome [1]. I was astonished, for example, to find that most Russians no longer smoke. Who'd have thought it? Certainly, the Poles who have come to Britain in such numbers in recent years seem to smoke continually. I was also intrigued by the crude, large-bore downpipes that seem to have been bolted on to most city-centre buildings as an afterthought. I mean large: often about 30 cm or more across. The intriguing thing is that they go nowhere, other than splashing straight onto the pavement: there seems to be no sub-surface drainage system in St.Petersburg. It must be tricky, negotiating the pavements in a heavy downpour or a big snowmelt. If it all refreezes overnight, you probably need skates to get to work. Which reminds me that there appear to be no speed limits on Russian roads, or much by way of rules, either – it was easily the worst, most aggressive driving I've seen anywhere in Europe. Crunched cars abandoned by the roadside are, unsurprisingly, a common sight. Oh, and none of the cars are Russian: it's all Hondas, Toyotas, Renaults, Volkswagens, Jeeps, and Skodas, just like here at home.

My partner did stay on longer, but she had work to do; my visit, and my visa, were conditional upon hers. Have you ever applied for a Russian visa? The curious thing is that you can't just want to visit Russia, you have to be invited into the country by someone. Just like, um, a vampire. In the case of most tourists, this invitation will come (at a small fee) from the hotel they have booked, or intend to book, or are pretending to be going to book (there are "easy visa" websites offering precisely this latter service, which feels more than a little fraudulent). But apparently Russians are used to this: you just need to put something down, anything, to satisfy the bureaucracy. It doesn't matter if it's not strictly true; the appearance of compliance is what matters. Which, to a Brit, feels like walking into a trap.

In our case, we had an official "humanitarian" invitation from the Ministry of Internal Affairs which, you would have thought, would be a real red-carpet, jump-the-queue sort of ticket: this way, professor! In fact, the form to be filled out for a "scholarly-technical relations" visa was twice as onerous and intrusive as that for a regular tourist (I mean, honestly: Dates of parents' deaths? Children's addresses and passport numbers? All visits abroad in the last ten years, with dates?), and even then we still had to hang around all afternoon in the visa office in London. You'd almost think they don't really want you to to come... No wonder numbers are down for the World Cup: I don't think most Ingerland football supporters could manage the visa process without succumbing to despair.

A highlight of any visit to St. Petersburg has to be the Hermitage Museum (Ermitazh in Russian, mimicking the French pronunciation), which is truly prodigious. Is there a word that combines "cavernous" with "palatial" and "baroque"? If there is, then that is the word for the Hermitage. "Hermitageous", perhaps. The place is full of gorgeous and interesting stuff (as well as an awful lot of gilded tat), and yet so BIG that some of the huge salons still seem practically empty. We made two visits and barely scratched the surface of what is in there. An unfortunate metaphor, that, in the context: I was amazed at how vulnerable most of the exhibits were to wear and tear and malicious intent. I suppose, with that amount of stuff, you can afford to take a Stalingrad-style view of the rate of attrition: there's plenty more where that came from. But it's the first time I've visited any major gallery or museum where attendants open the windows when it gets a bit hot, letting in the traffic fumes and insects to perform their destructive alchemy on the exposed paintings, furniture, and tapestries. Maybe that's why nearly everything that can be gilded or gold-plated is gilded or gold-plated. The Hermitage really is Bling Central; gold, gold, gold!

The palace is also packed with visitors. More full, even, than the Uffizi or the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum, which I would not have thought possible. Curiously, a clear majority of these visitors are Chinese. I have to say, one of the main impressions we took away from our two Hermitage visits was: what are all these Chinese doing here? [2]. On one occasion, attempting to enter a room, we stood back to allow a large guided group of Chinese to exit. But this exodus went on for so long – several minutes – that it actually became hilarious. We estimated this single group must have numbered 300, at least. Many of these visitors are very elderly, and not a few seemed confused to the point of distress. Loud and acrimonious disputes would erupt – uninhibited shouting is not something you often hear in a museum – and you'd regularly encounter some ancient person staggering about in a state of utter bafflement. It was clear they had little interest in the Hermitage's contents, as they were shepherded to and fro, beyond ticking off a Leonardo or two. Is it possible the Chinese government has outsourced the care of its elderly population to the world's museums and galleries, forcing them to eternally wander the parquet corridors until they drop? It certainly looks that way.

The Hermitage is so enormous, however, that there's a sort of M25 motorway effect: you get pulses of intense congestion, rendering everyone immobile, and then it will clear miraculously, so that you have the room to yourself for an entire minute. However, we discovered that one way to have the place permanently all to yourself is to go down to the basement galleries housing the amazing archaeological treasures excavated from prehistoric nomadic burials preserved in the Siberian permafrost. The guided tours give these a miss, but they're a revelation: I've never seen so much perfectly preserved wood and fabric, all elaborately carved and woven, including the oldest knotted carpet discovered anywhere in the world, from around 500 BC. It makes you realise how little material culture survives under normal circumstances, and how much this skews our view of the past, as if the clothing you are wearing today were to be reconstructed in the future from a belt buckle and a few buttons and eyelets ("The god Levi Strauss appears to have been widely worshipped").

The biggest surprise, though, was the famous golden peacock. If you've seen Eisenstein's film October, you will doubtless remember the montage scene where wicked Tsar Kerensky [Tsar? Fact check this, please! Ed.] is compared, mockingly, to a mechanical peacock found in the Winter Palace (a large component of today's Hermitage). I had always imagined this clockwork novelty to be about a foot or so tall, with the tail adding a bit more height when erected, the sort of thing that would sit comfortably on, say, a large bookcase. Wrong. It's still there in the Winter Palace and it's a lot bigger than that – in fact it occupies its own grand room – and is just one part of an extraordinary mechanical clock, entirely covered in gold, naturally: a scenario of a peacock, an owl, and a rooster perched on the branches of a golden tree, about six feet or more tall. It is without doubt the ultimate piece of bling in a treasure-house of imperial bling, teetering ludicrously but awesomely on that baroque edge between fine craftsmanship and vulgar, over-elaborate, and pointless ostentation. I dread to think what the crowd is like in that room on a Wednesday, the one day each week when the gilded clockwork combo is allowed to do its tail-spreading, head-spinning, clock-striking, wacky automaton thing.

In some ways more compelling than the Hermitage, however, is the Ethnographic Museum, which celebrates and documents the ethnic diversity of Russia and the various folkways that used to exist across the length and breadth of that enormous and varied landmass before sovietization and a one-size-fits-all modernity stamped them out. It's a bit exhausting, but a real treasure-trove of vernacular weirdness.

If you recall my drawings of imaginary "clumsy guitars", you can imagine the delight with which I discovered these home-made stringed instruments, complete with slack strings and cracked soundboards:

And my even greater delight in finding a gallery of tableaux – Weird Scenes Inside the Izba – that such instruments must once have been used to accompany. Ah, the world we have lost! Well, you've got to do something to keep you entertained on those long, dark winter evenings... This is a game called "Tell Me Again That I Don't Make Kasha Like Your Mamma Used To Make":

Looks fun, doesn't it? And this is a bentbark hat, as worn by all properly-accoutred Aleutian seal hunters, from up Alaska way:

Curiously, although the modern day Aleut wears a Berghaus parka, rather than the traditional coat stitched together out of seal-gut, he still seems to favour this striking headgear, at least if the accompanying photos are to be trusted. It makes for an odd combination, breathable Gore-Tex and birch-bark party hat, but, doubtless, like all the best idiotic hats, it serves a purpose far greater and more mysterious than merely keeping the rain off or the sun out of the eyes. It's also possible, I suppose, that seals can be rendered helpless by laughter.

Naturally, these Arctic peoples turned out shedloads of these traditional engraved walrus tusks or whale-teeth, depicting hunting scenes from time immemorial. But... Wait a minute... Isn't that Trotsky there in the middle? WTF! Send for the Director!

1. I was sure I must have told this joke before, but can't find it anywhere. It is a Great Teaching:
Four scientists, a mathematician, a physicist, a biologist, and an astronomer, go on a trip to Scotland. As they cross the border, they see a black sheep in a field.
"Amazing", says the astronomer, "All the sheep in Scotland are black!"
"Don't be silly", says the biologist, "It would be more accurate to say that some sheep in Scotland are black".
"Nonsense", says the physicist, "All we can say with certainty, at most, is that one sheep in Scotland is black!"
The mathematician sighs. "You people make me laugh with your sloppy talk... The best we can say is that there is one field in Scotland which contains one sheep, one half of which is black!"
2. I believe it's OK, these days, mandatory even, to be a little racist about the Chinese, in the same way it's apparently OK to mock us white, middle-class males: something to do with asymmetric power relations. You want to run the world? OK, then at least we get to take the piss.


Julian Behrisch Elce said...

Another great post- thanks! Nice pictures and very funny writing. I also really like the pictures of your Art as well.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Julian. I think that's probably it for St.Petersburg, but I'm sure I'll think of something else to write about...