From Russia with love…

I have recently returned from a lovely week in Russia. After visiting St. Petersburg on my honeymoon, I’ve been hoping for another chance to visit, and it didn’t disappoint. We had a few days in Moscow first, which I loved, and was very impressed by Moscow State University (picture right). A friend said that although Petersburg was beautiful, she preferred Moscow because it’s more Russian, and I agree, I think. The city smells of fuel and fried potatoes; it was unfeasibly warm when we arrived, and the traffic is appalling, but it’s just such an amazing city, and has an indefinable buzz about it – much as I find in London. We did the usual tourist stuff – the Kremlin (see photo left), the Tretyakov gallery of Russian art (which I’ll post seperately), the Novodevichiy convent, Red Square etc. I think the convent was one of my favourite places, actually: such peace in the heart of the city (yes, a cliché, I know, but it’s true) and the architecture and colours of the Russian Orthodox church, with the gilding, the icons, the faint smell of incense – to me it seems so utterly foreign and exotic, and very appealing. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is particularly beautiful, brilliantly-gilded and adorned with ikons inside, and is apparently where Medvedev attends services, yet there were young women in headscarves standing in front of the ikons in genuine devotion, ignoring the tourists.
The Russians certainly revere their artists and writers, which the cemetery next to the convent displays; there are extravagent monuments to Russian writers, artists, actors, dancers (see grave of Galina Ulanova, right), as well as politicians, surgeons and scientists. The reverence for Pushkin is also striking, and admirable – it seems less aimed at tourists than, say “Shakespeare’s Stratford” and “Jane Austen’s Hampshire”, as British tourist boards clunkily define them, and more about a deep local respect for their own. I read some of Eugene Onegin whilst travelling, since my knowledge of Pushkin is limited, and it’s incredible – the facility of expression, the sparkling, butterfly nature of the subject matter – and that’s reading it in translation, which I gather is almost impossible since Pushkin’s fluid use of Russian not only forged a new poetic sensibility in the nineteenth century but also made him extremely difficult to translate. I am working on my Russian now with the aim of one day reading himin the original! (On the left is a pic of a statue of Pushkin.)
St. Petersburg seems (as Jonathan Dimbleby says) to be more Western-facing, somehow superficial city – the facades of the palaces along the Neva seem to be part of the display put on for the tourists. However, I’m reluctant to see the city as only the playground of socialites (despite Onegin’s propensity to do so) because it has had a much more complex history than this; thousands of serfs died during the founding of the city; and more recently, as Leningrad it was besieged by the Nazis during World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians term it). Our guide told us a great deal about the damage done to palaces and historic monuments by the Nazi occupiers as they attempted to close in on the city, and about the starvation and bravery of the citizens (“Some people froze to death but would not burn their libraries”, she said; “This is how they looked to the future, and preserved their heritage”.) Many palaces, such as Pavluvsk, Catherine’s Palace and even the Peterhof, are still undergoing restoration more than sixty years later. The staff at the palaces took photographs and hid artefacts before the Nazis took over, and from these they are still gradually rebuilding and restoring. Life is, perhaps, cheaper in Russia than in Europe, but heritage is precious, and highly valued. Holding onto the past for the sake of the future is clearly important, and not just for the tourist industry; Russians genuinely feel their history in a way that not even the British do, I think.

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