||from "The Russia Diary"
We are staying part of the time in a flat in an ancient building that is in the Dostoevsky district along one of the many canals. The citizens refer to this as Old St. Petersburg, as opposed to the miles of massive high rise apartment buildings that form the suburbs. For this short stay, we are living only a few blocks from Kazan Cathedral. The wife of the faculty member who is hosting our trip tells us that the building we're staying in was supposedly the model that Dostoevsky used for the apartment where the old pawn broker lived. It is building number 13.
We are up on the fourth floor and look out over an inner, triangular yard. The sun never goes down so no matter when I look out the long large windows, I can still see rooftops and trees. The flat belongs to the grandmother of a faculty member, though the grandmother is in the country for the summer. Her flat is like walking back in time. That's not simply because it belongs to an eighty-year-old. The ceilings are very high and the wall paper thirty years old, at least. There are few possessions in the flat because the Russians still do not have a consumer economy, nor a consumer mentality. The floors are wooden and unwaxed. Everything is spare. I feel as if I could blow on the curtains and they would dissolve into the past.
The Institute I am visiting is on ulista Millionnaya on the Neva River. The Neva is the largest of the rivers in the city. The Institute is next to The Marble Palace, built for Catherine the Great's lover, Grigory Orlov, and where in its courtyard there once was displayed the armored car from which Lenin cried, "Long live socialist revolution." Now there is a very nice and rather stodgy statue of the a tzar or general or something, on horseback.
The Institute is four buildings down along the Neva River from the Hermitage Museum. It is also three or four blocks from Nevsky prospekt, the Park Avenue of St. Petersburg. If you walk from the Institute toward the prospekt, you pass through Mars Field, with an eternal flame, dedicated to those who perished in the revolution. Next comes the Cathedral of the Resurrection or the Church on the Blood. It was built over the paving stones where Alexander II was mortally wounded by a terrorist bomb. Moving past the church you come to the a canal and following the canal you end up at Nevsky prospekt and the House of Books, St. Petersburg's most famous bookstore. If you cross the street, you enter the semi-circle of columns that form the front of the Kazan Cathedral. Back at the Institute, if you turn left when you come out the front door and walk one block, you come to the Summer Garden of Peter the Great. Not far away, though I can't give you the directions, is the Pushkin flat, his last residence and the place where he die after being mortally wounded in a duel. The first Sunday we are in St. Petersburg is the 200th anniversary of Puskin's birth. As we walk by it, there are huge crowds surrounding the museum. Lastly, not far from any of these places is the poet Anna Akhmatova's museum, the flat where she lived in the Sheremetev Palace. It is close to Puskin's Flat and maybe three blocks from the Summer Garden.
Our first "excursion," provided by the Institute, is to the Church on the Blood, which is only a short walk across Mars Field. The church was built in the late 1800s and was closed down by the Soviets. It's open now, but not yet as a church where religious sevices are held since, as our guide tells us, it has not been reconsecrated. The church is situated at the center of a circular street. Its onion-shaped, golden and mosaic domes can be seen far into the city. It stands as a monument to Alexander II, who almost managed to to create a constitutional monarchy. His great achievements are immortalized on large plaques inset at the base of the church on the outside and go in a ring all the way around it. He's the tzar who freed the serfs. The exterior and interior of the church all together are one vast mosaic. It's the most stunning thing I've ever seen.
I go into the church with Natalie, who is a member of the international office at the Institute, with a translator, my son, and several students from Johnson County Community College, who are there on a student exchange program. Natalie is going to help me teach an online course for the Institute. She's only eighteen and speaks beautiful English, is beautiful herself and could pass for twenty-five. Our translator is also from the Institute where she is in her fourth year of language studies. The young women in Russia all wear dresses and skirts and suits. You seldom see them when they aren't dressed up, at least not at work or in downtown St. Petersburg. Our translator is tall and thin with very fair skin and dark tangled hair with lots of curl in it. Because she is so tall she has a tendency to bend her shoulders forward toward the people she is translating for so that it's almost as if everything she says she is offering to you as a suggestion. She is so incredibly beautiful. Her name is Katya and on this day she's wearing a dress made of orange chiffony material with thin spaghetti straps. On other women her clothes would look provocative but she seems merely more fragile.
Here are the very paving stones on which the shattered body of Alexander II lay, I'm told. Years ago, I'm thinking, one day in Victorian literature class we were discussing Tennyson's "In Memoriam." And toward the beginning of the poem, the young hero, so wounded by the death of his friend, walks along the street to his friend's house and looks at the front door and then looks down the street at the gray weather. My professor commented that to him this is what shattered faith looks like: it's like looking down a street of time where every day is like every other in an endless series of gray doors, where every day is like every other and nothing ever changes. Then up over the gray paving stones and their enormous canopy of black marble rises the Church of the Resurrection. The center of the church is held up by four huge columns and rising up and up are the domes. The front altar screens are covered in icons. The topmost parts of the church have windows and from these fall the most heavenly light. In mosiacs upon the walls of the church from the floor to the ceiling are stories of Christ. And the great pillars and other parts of the church have depictions of two hundred saints of the church, all in mosaic. Each saint, all the great persons in the stories, have halos of gold mosaic. So even in the deepest shadow of the church, when you can't make out who they are or what has been depicted on the wall or pillar, the light will catch the halos and the darkness gleams with gold.
The official Russian guide is very intent on telling us about the materials out of which the church was made. She is interested in dimensions and dates and the names of artists. And our translator leans slightly forward to talk to us in her struggling English and carefully tells us all these dimensions. At one point we are standing where sunlight is cascading down into the sanctuary and it lights Katya from behind, catching all her beautiful dark hair in its light. This living, breathing, quiet girl standing there intently amidst ancient stories of death and victory suddenly seems as much a part of the mosaics as anything her lyric voice describes.
Immediately following our visit to the Church on the Blood we go to Pushkin's apartment. This is where he spent the last several years of his life and where he died after being mortally wounded in a duel. When we enter the apartment, the Russian tour guide here is a grim guy. As we wander to various places in the museum, he continuously narrates the duel and the events subsequent to it. We look at the pistols, at the pictures of those in the duel and their seconds. By the way, the duel was fought over the honor of Pushkin's wife. The rooms are low and beautiful, full of antique furniture and hushed voices. Because this is the day after the two- hundredeth anniverary of his birth, every room in his apartment has fresh flowers. They aren't funereal. There's a small bouquet of lilacs on a table or a bowl of pink lilies on a floor next to a book case. You almost miss them if you aren't looking. They're the kind of flowers that aren't for ornament but make the museum apartment seem as if it might actually have once been a home. Very little else in the apartment does.
The entire narrative of the apartment is about death, about where Puskin was carried in, about where his wife waited for news of his condition, about the door on which was posted news of Pushkin's health, about the couch on which he died. There is never a sense that he lived. He wrote the poem about Peter the Great called "The Bronze Horseman" which is about a statue of Peter that towers over a bank on the Neva River. During the Seige of Leningrad, the citizens built a structure around the statue and sandbagged it so that the Nazi bombs wouldn't destroy it.
Earlier at one of the museums I saw a photo of the uncovering of the statue of Peter at the end of the war. The citizens of St. Petersburg revere Pushkin. I think he is something like a saint to them and that may be why his death is narrated so explicitly and so relentlessly at the museum. His apartment is a relic. His real, living legacy, however, is in the Summer Garden, which is just a few blocks from his flat. During the Seige the Nazis completely cut off the city. There was no electricity or water or food. The people had to survive on the supplies at hand. Most people had to burn their furniture in order to stay warm in the winter of 1942, which was so horrendous that it killed hundreds and thousands of people and froze Lake Ladoga to such a depth that trucks could be driven across it. But no one cut the trees down in the Summer Garden and used them for fire wood. The Summer Garden remains as it did in the time of Puskin. And the reason for this is the citizens knew that Pushkin had looked out from his apartment to the trees in the park. They were Pushkin's view of St. Petersburg and for that reason, no one disturbed them.