Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Five - 28 May 2004

Dostoyevski, Dostoyevski and Blinnaya again


Interestingly I’m the first to come out for breakfast. Neil follows but he’s a bit crestfallen. We talk about the last night and he tells me how they went for vodka afterwards and how Tanya got a bit tipsy and due to her argument with the taxi driver in the process of which she mistranslated, he ended up giving the taxi driver 2000 instead of 200 roubles. (This is the equivalent of £40 instead of £4). Tanya arrives half way through the story, saying she’ll make it up to us.


I’m thinking about my afternoon nap which I’m already really looking forward to. But there is the Crime and Punishment tour to do first. Tanya and Pasha work it out using Margaret’s guidebook and then take us to various courtyards and into houses which are meant to have been the sites of various events in the book. We’re all very disappointed as none of this matches any of our mental pictures of the places. But the trail is interesting and quite atmospheric. At some point it seems that we’ve all spontaneously given up on the idea of continuing with this tour and we sit down to have coffee in a makeshift pavement café. We discuss which of St Petersburg many museums we should see today – I mean in addition to what you’d expect there is also the Museum of the Siege, the Museum of Chocolate, the Museum of Dreams, the Museum of Monsters and many more to choose from. Neil has been going on about the Museum of Monsters ever since it was first pointed out to him on Day 1. Now he’s also keen on the Museum of the Siege which Tanya and Pasha have been advocating very strongly. I fancy the Museum of Dreams but nobody wants to take the risk. So we get up and go to the Dostoyevski house-museum first. We’re given walkmans with an audio tour. Margaret and I do this in detail going through various exhibits – and I find the tour a very inspiring and moving experience. I suggest that we should use the principle of the audio tour in one of the installations which will accompany our production, but Neil is put off by the required number of walkmans.


As soon as we are out we demand that Pasha takes us to the blinny and pelmeni place again, but this time we can’t decide which one to go to. I’m really keen on the blinny one and everyone else seems keen on the pelmeni (ravioli), so I go to the blinny one on my own. Soon however, Margaret changes her mind and comes to join me. We are sitting in amongst all these Russian people on their lunch break and just having a nice chat. Several days later, reflecting on this experience, Margaret says it actually felt to her like we were really living in St Petersburg.


We’ve been hoping to go for an afternoon nap but Pasha and Tanya suggest that we go to the Museum of the Siege first. We say maybe we should go to the Monsters’ Museum as well in that case, and as it is the closest we go there first. This is actually what is known as the Kunst Camera – a museum of ethnography founded by Peter the Great. In addition to various items from all over the world, there is also a particular room featuring deformed human or animal foetuses. Peter the Great apparently wanted to dispel superstition by getting people to understand that foetal deformation was 'caused by the mother’s lifestyle' rather than being a result of black magic. He encouraged people to bring him samples of such creatures and he would reward them by giving them a walrus horn (which at the time was believed to be a valuable amulet and which Peter the Great had a great collection of)!


I’m really enjoying this museum as every exhibit seems slightly different from each other, and they are all amazingly well preserved. I’m also getting more and more interested in this Peter the Great who we’ve heard so much about and who seems to have been a real Renaissance man (190cm tall, as we’ve been told many times) – skilled at ruling as well as shipbuilding, writing, carpentry and even dentistry – he pulled his subjects’ teeth out with his own hands - and you can even see some of those teeth on display here.  However, suddenly, Neil has completely lost interest in this and he’s really impatient to go to the Museum of the Siege now.


When we finally get there, I recognize it as a kind of monument you find in much of Eastern Europe – a memorial centre to the victims of WW2 – rather imposing and solemn, featuring bullet-ridden exhibits and documents, as well as documentary film-footage. The people of St Petersburg (or rather Leningrad) were under siege for 900 days during WW2, starving, dying and/or even being forced to resort to cannibalism in extreme cases. Tanya cries as she translates a diary entry belonging to a teenage girl. Pasha is also very, very sad. Later, when we come out, he tells me that his grandmother who died last year was a teenager in Leningrad at the time. We keep quiet a lot about what we’ve just seen.


Being about to go and have our afternoon nap, we need to tell Pasha what time we need picking up to go for a boat trip in the evening before going to a restaurant that Tanya has found and booked for us for 9.30. We can’t find a phone number to ring the boat service so Pasha decides to drive us to a dock where we can find out. And we arrive at a fortress that Anya took us to on Day 1, and this time in front of the church where all of the Romanoffs were buried there is a military orchestra playing numbers from My Fair Lady. We’re all wincing while waiting for Tanya and when she arrives she tells us that there is a boat leaving in 15 minutes. After some deliberation we decide to go straightaway and as we walk to the dock Neil is distracted by a stall selling Russian wooden toys. Feisty Tanya shouts at him to hurry up, but then we end up sitting on the boat for another 15 minutes waiting for it to fill up with random passengers before setting off. St Pete from the boat looks absolutely amazing. As we sail along, in amongst many wonderful sights, we also see what is probably the wedding party number nine so far in the last few days with a bride and groom on horses at the top of a bridge. The Church of Spilt Blood is also top of our list in terms of the most spectacular sites to be seen from this perspective, and we spend a lot of time admiring it.


It’s about 7pm when we are eventually reunited with Pasha. I suggest that maybe we should try to change our booking at the restaurant (called simply the Restaurant, and situated next to the Monsters’ Museum) and go straightaway. Tanya tries to do it by phone, but has no success; she says they are overbooked. Pasha suggests that we call in there anyway as it’s on the way. As Tanya and I get through the doors, a stern looking man demands our coats. The Restaurant is breathtaking at the first glance and only semi-full. The manager says he can squeeze us in after all. I say to Neil to get his camera ready as my battery has gone off, and at first he sneers at a bankomat next to a pile of wood in a small entrance hall, but as we walk through a spotless whitewashed space with wooden tables and massive windows through which the White Night evening sunlight is streaming in – we are all quite speechless. The space is actually a designer space and there is a little plaque next to the entrance testifying to this.


The food – well I have no superlatives left – but what can you expect by now. Our starter arrives while Tanya is in the toilet, but all the same, I try to offload some fish that she really likes onto her plate. By physical laws unknown to humankind, the fish (which is actually dead) slides off my fork, flips in the air and lands headfirst into my glass of vodka and tonic. The waiter – Maxim – happens to be there at the moment and there are massive gasps of wonder and delight all around the table. Maxim offers to get me another glass, but I’m really curious as to whether I might have unwittingly invented a new vodka flavour, so I keep it.


When Tanya comes back from the toilet, she declares that 'the bathroom is a poem'! In the course of the evening we go to check this claim, but are all a bit disillusioned and proceed to qualify what kind of a poem it might be. For me it is closest to Mayakovski. Which is more than can be said about our conversation that night which mostly consisted of: ‘extraordinary’ and 'staggeringly beautiful’ (Neil), ‘wonderful’ (Margaret) and ‘amazing’ (me).


Full of dead fishes soaked in vodka – Neil actually had an entire chicken (with four legs, according to Tanya), laid flat on his plate – we attempt to walk back, but give up and travel back to our hotel in a cab.

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