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We started the day with a brief visit to Mikhailovsky Castle, the personal project of Tsar Paul I, one of the more sad and useless Tsars of the 18th century (his father, Peter III, being another of the “sad and useless” category; his mother, Catherine the Great, reigned between them and was extremely effective.) Mikhailovsky is architecturally very cool, with a huge octagonal courtyard at its heart and an exterior designed to display a different architectural style depending on which direction it’s viewed from. It was built mainly as a result of Paul’s paranoia about being assassinated in the Winter Palace. It didn’t work: he was assassinated at Mikhailovsky six weeks after moving in. His son and successor Alexander was actually in the building at the time, and immediately after doing Paul in the assassins came over to Alexander and told him “you’re it, boyo. Don’t disappoint.”
Right at the heart of St Petersburg, on its own island, is Petropavlovskaya Krepost – the Fortress of Peter and Paul. It sits across the Neva from the Admiralty and the Winter Palace, a big old trace-italienne fortress (literally, as Italian designers were brought in to lay it out): squat, angular, and still pretty formidable-looking after three hundred years. We walked along the sandy beaches around its sheer wall; artists were putting the finishing touches on entrants of a sand art competition and smart-looking Russian crows were playing and squabbling on the fortress’s walls and among the bits of driftwood the Neva brings down from Lake Ladoga.
Within the walls are a number of nice old buildings, mostly in the classical Russian white-and-pastel style which always reminds me of cakes. Among several buildings with attractive rococo domes is a very yellow church (a cathedral, technically) with a very tall, very gold spire; across the cobbles from it is a bizarre “anatomically correct” seated bronze of Peter the Great, a barrel-chested homunculus in a many-buttoned uniform with a tiny shrunken head and terrifying long spidery fingers worn bright and shiny by tourists inexplicably holding his hands. Brr.
We got some kvass from a street seller. It’s a sort of beery drink made of fermented bread, so low in alcohol that it counts as a soft drink under Russian law. I actually really liked it – the taste was oddly honeyed, although there’s no honey in there. Most of the museums inhabiting the walls and buildings looked both a bit pricey and a bit small-time, so we didn’t go into any of them, but the Mint shop buried in one of the walls had an intriguing selection of shiny, pretty coins.
The crownwork north of Peter & Paul is inhabited by the biggest and best collection of giant weapons I have ever seen in my life. It takes a lot – and I mean a lot – for me to go “cor, what’s this? Never seen one of those before…” at a military museum, and I was doing it roughly every five minutes of the hours we spent in the Artillery Museum. As the exhibition winds through the building’s huge wings, you work through a history of Slavic heavy weapons in chronological order – ancient handgonne-looking things, early muskets and cannon with angular Cyrillic letters cast on their bronze barrels, various weird and wonderful devices of the 17th and 18th century (a repeating grenade launcher with forty-eight little mortar cups mounted on top of a cartwheel), the heavily blinged semi-modern kit of the Napoleonic wars, guns and cannon from the World Wars and at last a huge indoor gallery full of truck-mounted rocket launchers. Highlights included a room containing every member of the Kalashnikov family, a giant statue of Pyotr Bagration down a side corridor for some reason, and the silliest artillery-themed ceremonial carriage ever: a sort of mad Cinderella fairytale thing slathered in gold leaf, its prow a two-headed eagle sitting on a nest full of cannon.
That was the interior, of course; all the guns too big to fit inside or weatherproof enough to be left to it are outside in a courtyard, and could collectively waste a city in one salvo. Off to one side I found the Decembrist memorial, a grey granite obelisk; next to it is a row of very old, very beautiful bronze cannon, no two the same, cast with the symbols of failed empires and forgotten kings.
We were in the area, and the Museum of Political History a short walk away (through a park where, of all things, some Native American buskers were doing their thing), so we headed there next. Outwardly a gorgeous art nouveau mansion,* inside it’s a very nice, modern, well-maintained if oddly laid out museum. The successor to the communist-era “Museum of the Revolution”, it’s been rebuilt with great care and attention and solid English translations; I wouldn’t want to be the one explaining the impossibly tangled clusterfuck of the Russian Civil War in my own language, let alone someone else’s (and, to my great joy and approval, they got the right rifles for all the various forces – Red, White, Green, Black, British, American, Japanese, Canadian, Czechoslovak Legion etc etc) and had some good artifacts (look, Richard Sorge’s greatcoat!) For my tastes, it was still just a bit weaselly with certain bits of history (particularly a description of the partition of Poland which described the Nazi side as an actual invasion, and then hedged with “the Red Army commenced military operations in eastern Poland that week”) but generally quite bloodless and even-handed, and very sensibly avoided dealing in detail with anything that’s happened since the 1990s. Parts of it were closed, but the Revolution and Civil War bits, which I was most interested in, were open and wonderful – but it it took until I got into actual Lenin’s actual office that I realised that this was the room the Revolution was planned in, with the balcony Lenin’s speaking from in all those paintings. That was quite something, really.
* The Bolsheviks used it as their HQ for much of the Revolution, having taken it from the famous ballerina Mathilde Kshesinskaya, a lover of the Tsar. She didn’t do badly, though; she ran away to Paris, married a prince, founded a ballet school and died aged 99.
Border crossing, monuments by night – Downtown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt