There had been a change of plan. From setting out to cruise the city in ‘V’s car, we had now detoured to collect his beaming, politely curious family who had decided to join us at the last minute. Conceding to my ever present discomfort in St.Petersburg’s tainted air, we were heading South, away from the city and into the Russian countryside. Somewhere perhaps where I could enjoy breathing again.
Rising on a gentle bluff out of town, I glanced at ‘V’s alert and followed his finger to survey the receding cityscape off to our right. The great spill of geometric concrete had splashed out into the fields and frozen as a tide of cold, grey lava; still with those stacked, habitable promontories served vein-like by a winding web of interconnecting roads and a lacing of telegraph poles.
A tide of lives ebbed and flowed behind those distant, blackened windows; people on similar and differing paths to my host and our opportunist colleagues. Fascinating lives, forever undocumented and unknown. I had to find out more about their history and psyche, and what it means to be them. My companions were all I had to learn from, so it was a pleasure to chat with them (as best as I could in Russian) In the hope of discovering more.
Even though they lived the run-down reality of St. Petersburg, away from its postcard vistas and tourist hotspots, their lives were still “much better now” than the existence they had left behind in Siberia. Yes, ‘V’ and his wife ‘L’ had ventured in from East of the Urals; the semi-official barrier that psychologically separates European Russia from vast Siberia, proper. ‘V’s work had brought them here, setting their lives on an upward trajectory, away from the sooted machinery of a communist mining foothold borne solely of practical, industrial convenience.
Aside from the ongoing collision of elements dragged from the Earth, with the brutal mechanisms that processed them; their soulless former home masqueraded as a place where humans could exist until the chance of a career offered ‘V’ and ‘L’ a way out. If St. Petersburg is heaven, what must their former hell have been like? I wondered, grimly. How did they get through the day?
“We are Orthodox Christians,” ‘V’ revealed, as he pulled a cross on a necklace out from behind his shirt collar, as if for proof. Religion? how did we get to this point? I’m unsure now but this was a clue to their makeup in any case. If we can believe in the majesty and benevolence of higher powers, then we have a candle through grim mundanity.
We arrived at Pushkin in the mid-afternoon, roughly 30 Km away from St.Petersburg. The town, formerly known as Tsarskoye Selo and Detskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village and Children’s Village, respectively) was renamed again in 1937 to honor one of Russia’s great literary sons and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. We were now on the outskirts amid the narrow, leafy streets that were a mere stone’s throw from our intended destination: Catherine Palace.
Until Catherine The Great’s death in 1796, the grand structure and its surroundings were the summer retreat of the Tsars. It saw a vast amount of wealth spent on its development and modification to suit the whims of Russian royalty, and also on its reconstruction having been damaged by fire in 1820 and wrecked by the Germans during the World War 2 (the “Great Patriotic War” to Russians).
“Don’t talk” said ‘V’ suddenly, gesturing silence as we headed for the entrance gate and ticket booth. Wise words; had the staff realised that I was a foreigner, I would have been blatantly overcharged. ‘V’ bought the tickets and I pretended to look as Russian as possible (?) whilst we traversed the entrance gates. There was a second set of tickets to buy if we wished to venture inside the Palace building itself. We didn’t, even though the ornate interior which contains the Amber Room is renowned for being quite remarkable. Wild ostentation does not move me but that particular chamber is incredible, even in photographs, so I have to say: “ok imperial Russia, you win on this occasion.” However I was subsequently disappointed to read the following on Emma’s Travel Tales:
“There is an extra charge if you wish to visit the Amber Room, which has been called the eighth wonder of the world”. So that’s 3 consecutive entrance charges to get to the main event – thank you, but no.
No, today was a day of wandering around the grounds in the late summer sun and enjoying the view. Various edifices along the park footpath are fashioned in styles borrowed from the outside world and Russian-ised to taste. There’s an “Egyptian” pyramid, but it’s really an 18th Century Russian interpretation of one; squat with an iron gate and some decidedly non-Egyptian roof-tiles. The same mode of thought produced the quaint Chinese house with it’s bold gold, red and white decor and the ornate, miniature mosque further along the trail route. In keeping with the Greco-Roman fashion of the 1700’s, numerous columns, including a beautiful, overgrown colonnade, classical-style statues and sculpted busts abound.
One of the main pleasures though, is the open park itself; lush, rich, with waterways and a multitude of trees throughout. It was a welcome change to the relentless industrial stone and brick that had been foisted upon me by the massive urban centre we had left behind. All too soon we would be returning though, having walked, talked, seen the views and taken some shamelessly ‘touristy’ photographs too. Well, under the circumstances it would be rude not too.
[Catherine Palace Lake House & Colonnade Photos by Bernard H.Wood]