Hermitage, Platonov and the Midnight Tour
Tanya has taken to calling me Dushechka. This is because there is a famous story by Chekhov called Dushechka. (The other day I actually bought a collection of Chekhov’s stories in Russian which includes this one.)
As we get into the Hermitage – by the official entrance (because we have the passes) – we encounter the first example of a phenomenon peculiar to Russian museums which we name ‘the babushka’. The ‘babushkas’ of the Hermitage are usually middle-to-old-aged ladies who stand in various corners watching the visitors and occasionally offering advice and sometimes even delivering tours. The first babushka that we meet is one at ‘the wardrobe’ where we are meant to leave our coats (Russians have a thing about leaving their coats in designated areas in almost all public places). I’m thinking whether or not I should leave my coat while everybody else is already joining in the ritual, but then the ‘wardrobe babushka’ – who has obviously overheard Tanya talking to me – asks specifically for Dushechka’s coat.
Armed with my video camera, George and I decide to do our own tour of the museum. We start off slowly with the marble statues of Cain and Abel (pointed out by Neil who we bump into), but then get bored and decide to enact a scene from Godard’s Bande a Part and Bertolucci’s The Dreamers where the leading characters race through the Louvre in 9 min 45 sec. It turns out to be much fun and results in a near-hallucinatory experience featuring Napoleon and Voltaire and golden sledges and Poussain’s canvases and glimpses of inner gardens through massive windows all mixed up in one long take. This particular visual take is solely mental, as my camera couldn’t possibly deal with the actual speed at which we were going. Eventually we miraculously find ourselves back at the place where we started.
The other day Anya told us exactly how many years, months, days and hours it would take us to see the entire Hermitage properly, but I’ve forgotten. In any case, we’ve just done two out of three extended floors in under two hours and are sitting at a padded bench waiting for the rest of our jolly party. When they arrive they are indeed jolly and brimming with stories about babushkas and their individual encounters with them. Neil describes them in particularly graphic ways miming aspects of their physique. The only one that we actually registered properly on our trip was a younger looking one who approached us sternly, clutching her handbag, and motioned at us with a single terrifying jolt of her head, while we were taking a rest by sitting on an ornate radiator.
As Margaret, Neil and I have had a sudden urge to convene a brief working session, we all separate temporarily. We find a small café off the so-called Palace Square (in front of the Hermitage) and Neil and I proceed to chain-smoke while discussing in great depth various aspects of the play which this trip is meant to be inspiring (a play, which having been developed by all of us, will be written by Margaret and directed and designed by Neil). Ah, yes, by this point Neil IS chain-smoking, which works much better than my temporary nicotine-abstention in America. We have a very productive session and then go back to meet Pasha who has agreed to take us once again to the magical blinny and pelmeni place so that we can now try the branch which serves the ravioli. Neil enthuses at great length about his portion which actually features a salmon variety that is the speciality of this place in particular.
Back in the car, Neil and Margaret’s recurring discussions of the colour scheme of St Petersburg are finally evolving into a very interesting and quite technical speculation on how they might invent a new palette of paints to be marketed in England. We were going to continue working for another hour somewhere near the hotel, but instead we succumb to the urge to have an afternoon nap, while lovely Pasha offers to wait for us in his car! I’m very moved by this and Margaret and I talk about how wonderful he is. Margaret tells me interesting things she’s found out by talking to Pasha – how he is an avid volleyball-player and how he has been married twice and has a son.
In the evening we are back at the Maly theatre where we’re watching Platonov. The lead is the handsome guy who played Vanya the other night, and he’s brilliant once again. I enjoy this much more and even sneakily get my camera out to film the set. Then Neil points out a lady in the audience holding a bunch of lily of the valley. By now we all agree this is really spooky and I wonder whether we should rename the character of Anna in our play and call her Lily instead – maybe even Liliana? Neil says – 'that would add another fucking hour to the running time of the show'! I say – this has got to be ‘Neil’s quote of the week’.
George and I decide to go out on the town after the show, as this is his last night in St Pete. He’s arranged to meet some friends in front of the Marinski Theatre and we hail a car. In Russia you can take a taxi, or you can just hitchhike quite effortlessly. The car that we stop is driven by a guy who gives me the creeps – not least because when George greets him with a customary ‘you all right’, he makes a long pause before stating in a rather low tone that he is… all… right. George is completely oblivious to this as he’s still buzzing after the play and shrieking excitedly about all of his favourite moments etc. I hold my breath all the way through thinking of ways we can jump out if we need to. When we finally arrive at the Marinski I breathe out and leave the car as quickly as possible; George follows while still continuing to chirp. I suggest that we go and get something to eat while we wait, so we end up at a restaurant called Waterloo. They’ve obviously had a karaoke night tonight, but the place is empty. When Vlad and Misha arrive they order some Georgian wine (this is the first wine I’ve had in Russia), and it is really very good indeed. So we chat. Vlad is a PhD student in economics in London and Misha is a tourist guide in St Pete. We tell him about the babushkas at the Hermitage and he volunteers a number of his own stories (one about an Italian flicking at a statue by Michelangelo to check if it was real marble, and a babushka in the corner getting hysterical as a result). We talk about which club might be good to go to, but by the time we get our act together it seems it’s too late. To make matters worse it’s just gone 1am and I find out that we can’t get back to the hotel until 3am because we are on the wrong side and all the bridges on the river go up between 1 and 3am to let the tall ships pass. My heart sinks. I am chronically tired ever since setting off and cannot imagine having only 4 hours sleep. I moan, but there is nothing to be done. Misha however takes the initiative to make our time interesting – he gives us a tour of St Pete at night – and it really turns out to be a real treat. Finally I get to take in all the information I’m given, and Misha does make it sound very interesting, giving us the unofficial version of the city and lots of anecdotes concerning Peter and Catherine the Great. Eventually, we go back to the Palace Square once again, only this time it is empty, bedewed, covered in the peace of the night – there is only a lonely saxophone tune to be heard coming from the foot of the central tower. It feels very special and, in a funny way, this becomes one of my favourite moments in St Pete.