the death of the ball turret gunner

“A ball turret was a Plexiglas sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine guns and one man, a short small man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the fetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose.”

past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks

A very cool thought which occasionally occurs to me: in a world which contains both the Channel Tunnel and the Trans-Siberian Railway, I can hop on a train on any station in Britain and, eventually, find myself in any other station in Europe and Asia, without ever leaving the railway network. And Railhead, the forthcoming book from the explosively talented Philip Reeve, is that thought writ on an enormous scale, where you can get on a train and find yourself on the other side of the galaxy.

It’s a return to more grown-up books for Mr Reeve, whose work over the last few years has been aimed at younger readers, with the jolly good (if snot-focused) Goblins series and the even younger, wonderfully illustrated collaborations with Sarah McIntyre (Oliver and the Seawigs: recommended even if you aren’t 8). Mortal Engines, which came out a bit before either the “YA” or the “steampunk” trends really took off, has been retroactively pigeonholed into both of them; arguing about genre is the dumbest thing ever and I won’t do it, but Railhead is Proper Sci-Fi by anyone’s definition (and presumably to be marketed as YA, because there’s murder but not sex), set in the future with spaceships and robots and stuff. A lot of modern science fiction trying to set space opera in The Future has been caught slightly flat-footed by how, between various bits of microtechnology and the internet, the modern world has basically become science fiction, and so needs to make up alternative histories to keep things analogue enough to force Star Wars into – but Railhead deftly builds on what we have now (drones and miniaturised terminals, the Datasea and its “spam-sharks that would hack your mind and fill your dreams with adverts”) without letting it get in the way of being a great big space opera where things explode excitingly and the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.

There’s a great cast of major and minor characters: our hero, Zen Starling, a thief trying to be tough but who really doesn’t mean badly; the magnificently named Threnody Noon, a thoroughly sympathetic spoilt-heiress type who develops hugely over the story; Flex, a gender-fluid graffiti artist who reminds me of Tim Maughan’s fantastic very-near-future science fiction; terrifying killer trains (you read that right), burned-out cops, monks made of insects, nuanced aristocrats, a man in black looking to pick a fight with the gods themselves. And the sense of detail and texture is superb: every concept has an underlying story, every glum little failed economy sits on a well-told history of how it ended up that way. This is (thankfully) not one of those books which has capital-T Themes, but touches quickly and convincingly on lots of them – automation and androids destroying jobs and livelihoods; great economic forces washing over worlds and societies, chewing through them and abandoning them; a power vacuum and the subsequent politicking between factions, shot through with the uneasy relationship between civil legitimacy and military force. Which makes it believable, because even when it’s about galactic emperors and hyper-intelligent close-to-goddesses, you can see echoes of the real world underneath.

And it’s full of great little Reeve-isms, double meanings and references to books and old bands and everything else. Robots are called Motorik, which sounds good in its own right, has a lovely double meaning if you know what it means in German, and an even better triple meaning if you know far too much Krautrock-related terminology. (Or Google it, as I did.) That sort of namedropping often comes off as a bit smug and trying-too-hard-to-be-clever in books (and especially games), but here, like in Mortal Engines (with “is this your first time on a harvester?” and an airship called Idiot Wind) it all fits seamlessly into the worldbuilding and adds texture and detail despite being a reference. A logo consisting of a pair of rails crossed by a lightning bolt carries a joke that will sadly be lost on non-Brits, but is still a perfectly good symbol for a future police force patrolling the rails. What I’m getting at is that this is a universe where trains are the most important form of transport, ruled by someone nicknamed the Fat Controller, and it’s a good nickname and gives the reader something even if they didn’t catch the joke.


I won’t spoil the plot (any more than the above vague allusions already have) but it’s very satisfying, twisting and turning without losing momentum, and culminating in the best sort of climax, a great explosive set-piece of resolutions and revelations where you can’t be sure, from page to page, who will come out on top – or who you really want to.

It’s due to arrive for real in October. I hope there’s another one along soon.

the trees can’t grow without the sun in their eyes

Finally watched Elysium. Ambivalent about it. Aesthetically, it’s perfect: almost every shot feels like a classic sci-fi novel cover, shining primary colours and blocky-but-detailed buildings and spaceships with big numbers on them, but all realised in lovely modern HD and with odd bits of characterful South African flair rather than the usual American boilerplate. (And the guns were great, which is always a plus.) There was a definite feeling of fanfic-y wish fulfilment underlying it (“so now Sharlto Copley the grizzled mercenary villain with the regenerating beard is dramatically leaping, katana drawn, over a precarious walkway in the underfloor refinery district of a giant space station. Reckon we can shoehorn in some drifting cherry blossoms? Also, combat droids with tacky golden bling”), but that’s fine when coupled with a decent imagination and production values (see: why Jupiter Ascending was not a completely worthless film.)

But the worldbuilding is just a bit too OTT and silly, and it all ultimately falls flat, because taking a Hot Button Issue, dressing it up in loads of sci-fi and turning all parties involved into absurd caricatures of themselves doesn’t actually count as “commentary”, even less so with a panacea ending. District 9 had the same problem, but halfway through it gave up on the documentary premise and the “aliens are here, but they’re really shit and we have no idea what to do with them” social metaphor to turn into a brainless but solid action flick with an Afrikaner twist. This… doesn’t manage it, not because the action is weak, but because space is a lot less compellingly new and weird to the Western moviegoer than Johannesburg.

Also, it’s an obnoxiously Tumblr look-how-right-on-I-am thing to say, but why would you write your Spanish-speaking working-class-hero, who was raised by Mexican nuns, who represents Mexico in the agonisingly obvious metaphor (“undocumented spaceships”, really?), whose pals (including the cute one from Y Tu Mama Tambien) are all Hispanic gangsters… and then cast Matt Damon, the most generically Aryan man ever?

“…some radiant joy will gaily flash past.”

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I love cities at night, and St Petersburg is as magical as any of them – the vast palaces and government buildings floodlit under the moody clouds, Petropavlovsk’s walls picked out with an illuminated strip, the golden spires above the Admiralty and Cathedral of Peter & Paul shining bright as daytime. St Isaac’s muted and half in shadow, the streets around it filled with young women on horses offering rides to tourists and boy racers in black Jaguars weaving through traffic like they’re in a Bond movie and accelerating like they’re in a MiG-25. Nevsky Prospekt shines with ten thousand points of night. On a Friday night in summer, warm and slightly muggy, the streets are full of nightclub spillover: drunks tripping over fences and flirting loudly in several languages, pouty young people swaggering as if they’re the most beautiful things ever made. Passing the roadside bars, holding anyone’s gaze feels uncomfortable; the girls look at you like they’re about to name a price and the boys look at you like they’re about to shout “davai, cyka” and shank you. Club music and flavoured spirits pollute the air.

The many bridges of the Neva, low and flat like those of the Thames or the Seine, have a secret which is not obvious to the casual observer: they lift up, Tower Bridge-style (but without any of the magnificent yet structurally superfluous Victorian bling.) Not as and when boats arrive – as if they’d disrupt traffic to let any old tramp freighter mess up the view of the Winter Palace – but all together, in a nightly sequence which is apparently worth celebrating all on its own, when all the freighters stacked up outside are allowed to come through and head up towards Lake Ladoga.

The waterfront by the Hermitage at 0130 hours is a more local, more authentic-feeling scene than the clubs, which could be literally anywhere in Europe: numbers of the more sober(ly dressed) tourists, trios of Russian men pouring vodka into three cups and chatting seriously, the entire riverbank flashing yellow with the hazard lights of people pretending they’re not parked illegally. The mighty bascules of Trinity Bridge lift up, red lights shining at their tips, and a vast fleet of riverboats streams through, gunwales crowded with partying Russians, filling the Neva with running lights and diesel smoke. Someone lets off some fireworks, Chinese lanterns drift into the air, and the boats actually big enough to need the bridge lifted, a string of hefty Baltic coasters straight out of Tintin, grumble from bridge to bridge in line astern.

We wandered there for a while, just enjoying the activity: a group of Russians having a sing-along, street-sellers flogging candy-floss and boiled corn, couples dancing energetically by the roadside, a band of boys in wifebeaters with electric guitars rocking out under the sightless eyes of the statues on the Winter Palace.



St Petersburg 2015

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

he who has an army has one hand; he who has a navy has both

(Click on the images for full-sized versions. I’m trying something new with a gallery for the Krasin pics, too…)


Peter the Great, without whom “Russian Navy” would mean as much as “Mongolian Coast Guard”.

The Central Naval Museum in St Petersburg is, in the Russian style, the largest naval museum in the world. It plays the same cheeky shit regarding “Tickets: 400 ru! билеты 150p” and then not having any signs in English; but thanks to Misha the first wasn’t an issue, and thanks to Dr Boff, there is nothing which floats and kills whose function and history I can’t at least make a decent guess at.

These, for instance, are model ships.

The galleries were mainly ruled by model ships, some as big as minibuses, crowded around the fringes by one-in-the-world historical artefacts: massive two-headed eagles, a showcase full of undersea telegraph gauges, stout brass Gatling guns, kayak-sized midget submarines. They had an actual spar torpedo, a model of a ship designed to use them, and a painting of one in use – I had a lot of fun explaining the utter insanity of spar torpedoes to Misha and Olga.* Rather than the comely lasses with big bare knockers Britain favoured, Russian figureheads seem mainly to be large hairy men with holy books and phallic weapons. Draw your own conclusions.

All I know about Russian naval history is the endless violent tragedies and disasters, and the museum was brilliant for filling in the rest – especially Russia’s Baltic struggle with the Swedes. But there were plenty of disasters too; the Russo-Japanese War display was particularly good, one room for the ships that got bottled up and wasted at Port Arthur and Vladivostok (with sad poignant paintings of dozens of masts and funnels poking up from the bottom of a bay) and another room for the ships they sent to rescue them, which got slaughtered at Tsushima, with lurid propaganda posters of exploding pre-dreadnoughts.** There was a spiral staircase off the battleship Potemkin (namedrop!) with some shell holes, and an entire gallery of Aurora memorabilia.

The Potemkin Steps. No, not those Potemkin Steps. The other ones.

We had some borscht and sandwiches in the cafe, then drove west down Vasilievsky Island’s southern embankment. This part of St Petersburg has a genuinely nautical character rather than just happening to be a city on the sea; the cruise ships like to moor here, the western horizon is crowded with immense forests of dockyard cranes, and on the far shore, immense flo-flo mobile dockyards and dismembered sections of submarines sit gently rusting. With limited time, we had to pick how to round off our navy day: the submarine S-189 or the icebreaker Krasin.

Note the weird ice-humping hull shape and unbelievably strong hull.

The  Krasin has been everywhere and done everything. Her original hull was built in Newcastle, as the Svyatogor; her most expensive refit was in the USA during WW2, and most of her superstructure and modern fittings are East German postwar reparations, but most of her life has been in Russian service crushing Russian ice. She was jacked by the Royal Navy to fight the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, scuttled to blockade Arkhangelsk, then raised again and, on His Majesty’s service, used to crush submarine barriers around Scapa Flow. Handed back to the Russians in a deal negotiated by one Leonid Krasin, the Svyatogor was renamed after him in the twenties. In one of the true adventure-novel moments of the twentieth century, she rescued a lost Italian polar expedition when their airship crashed, and at another point rescued another icebreaker which wasn’t icebreaky enough. She’s been about as close to both poles as it’s possible for a surface ship to be; during the war she took a trip across the entire US for refit and gave the Panama Canal a rare sight of an icebreaker, on her way to armed convoy duty in the Arctic circle. In declining years, as the new generations of nuclear icebreakers replaced her and changes in the world meant ice just didn’t need as much breaking, reducing her at one point to hauling used cars; she was only saved from the breaker’s yard by Russian historic nostalgia. But she’s been refitted magnificently, all polished brass and lovely wooden panelling, and is apparently now back to working order. Not a fitting end; a fitting continuation.

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* It’s seriously just a massive bomb on the end of a stick. Many larger, more heavily armoured ships of the period were designed to simply ram instead – no guns, just armour and engine. Mid-late 19th century naval tech was weird.

** Fun fact! A significant proportion the ships on both sides of the Russo-Japanese War were built in Britain. You really can’t trust perfidious Albion.



St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by nightDowntown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery MuseumNevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt

to show everything in a false light

Nevsky Prospekt! St Petersburg’s high street, the gold-spired Admiralty building at one end, the long journey to Moscow at the other. The prospekt never sleeps, said Gogol in his short story of the same name,* and it’s as true now as it was 180 years ago. By day the eight lanes growl with ceaseless traffic and the pavements are thronged with shoppers; at night, a million coloured lights illuminate the grand facades and the swarms of happy drunks. Colossal buildings of varied architecture and great beauty, mostly unchanged since Tsarist times, line the prospekt: the glorious art nouveau Singer building;**  the imposing St-Peter’s-Basilica-of-the-North Kazan Cathedral; the Great Gostiny Dvor, an 18th-century shopping centre whose cream-and-yellow arcade seems to go on for miles and miles.

and miles and miles and miles (nb: this is the short side)

and miles and miles and miles (nb: this is the shortest side)

We started by the statue of Chizhik-Pyzhik, a little bronze siskin on a plinth jutting out of a canal wall; locals drop coins on the statue for good luck, hoping that one will stay on the little platform. Nearby, the Summer Gardens, a lovely formal maze of trellises and fountains, is scattered with weirdly bad imitation-classical sculptures; various lissom Ladies of Legend with bulging eyes and inconsistent detail pose on plinths, having their marble nipples bitten by doves and asps. As it turns out, the statues are recent replicas, with the originals (Venetian, from the 1710s) moved indoors.

It's not "I could do better than this with a spoon in mashed potato" bad, it's just not great. Especially by local standards.

It’s not “I could do better than this with a spoon in mashed potato” bad, it’s just not great. Especially by local standards.

Via the Field of Mars (once the Place of the Victims of Revolution, once the Tsarina’s Meadow, once the Amusement Field; these places have as many names as Transylvanian border towns) and Millionnaya Street, lined with unusually ornate buildings even for St Petersburg, we crossed the vast Palace Square, passed through the triumphal arches built into the General Staff building, and turned onto Nevsky Prospekt itself in time for lunch.

Atlas statues at the Hermitage, at the end of Millionnaya Street.

Atlas statues at the Hermitage, at the end of Millionnaya Street.

Declining a “traditional English pub” (with your-face-here boards starring Queen Liz and a Beefeater), we had blinis from a blini hut in on a side street, and were accosted by a pack of quite fearless sparrows. Exploring a bit, we found that most curious of things in Russia, a shopping centre with 1920s-style architecture.*** Further on, construction hoardings hid most of the once-glorious imperial stables, across a full of tourist buses opposite Jamie’s Italian.

Not-St-Basil's, feat. paintings of itself.

Not-St-Basil’s, feat. paintings of itself.

The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (henceforth Not-St-Basil’s) is a magical thing, clearly taking some design cues from a certain giant red cathedral in Moscow, but both more muted in its colours and even more insanely ornate in its detailing. Not-St-Basil’s is recent; when Tsar Alexander II was grenaded by an anarchist in 18whenever, it was considered only proper to reroute three roads and a canal in order to build a gigantic billion-rouble pimp-cathedral on the spot, which has stood ever since. The centrepiece is a shrine over the original cobbles where Alex II was fatally wounded. The communists, with their usual utilitarian churlishness, used it to store potatoes.


Inside, it is (like everything Orthodox), fabulously ornate; the structural design is quite simple, with flat walls and wide arches, but every surface is covered with mosaics of staggering beauty. The central screen is a medley of gorgeous precious and semi-precious stones, with information boards in several languages explaining where all the different fancy rocks came from. The canal beside it is lined with market stalls selling Soviet tat, painters flogging canal views, buskers playing violins and musical saws, a woman trying to get people to ride the pony she was leading around.

It was actually the second attack, too; Alexander got out of the carriage to shout at the failed first bomber, and the second shouted "it's too early to thank God!" and naded him.

It was actually the second attack, too; Alexander got out of the carriage to shout at the failed first bomber, and the second shouted “it’s too early to thank God!” and naded him.

Wandering through the dvori (courtyards/mews at the centre of residential blocks), with their graffiti, hidden churches and statues of Pushkin, we stumbled on the Russian Museum by happy accident. Despite the name, it’s a thoroughbred art gallery, its collection incredibly varied and deeply Russian: paintings and statues of centuries of ugly nobles, wooden altarpieces of blank-faced saints being hideously tortured, paintings depicting the ever-smiling Suvorov urging his men over the Alps, or fleets of stripy 18th-century warships like seventy-four-gun humbugs. It’s all fairly recent, Russian Russian rather than Novgorod or Kievan, the only real pre-Peter stuff being the green-skinned, fish-eyed Mary and Jesus altarpieces from a time before anatomy.

"This is fine. I'm fine."

“This is fine. I’m fine.”

As well as the tsars and tsarinas, it celebrates Russian creators: we found a jovial, flaky-looking bronze of Repin, a smooth, blank-eyed marble of a shirtless Gogol. The taste for openly sexualised depictions of underage boys was a bit odd, but I suppose that’s the 18th century for you. On a plinth, under a glass dome, is a plaster cast of Peter the Great’s surprisingly tiny head. The prestige piece actually took me by surprise: the Reply of the Zaphorozian Cossacks, which [for my money] is the joint best painting (alongside Ivan the Terrible) by Ilya Repin, who [for my money] is the joint best painter to come out of Russia (alongside Vasily Vereshchagin). Do click the link – the story behind the painting is hilarious, and the painting itself – even in digital format – is an incredible mix of expressive characters.

Reppin' Repin.

Reppin’ Repin.

Oddly for such a prestigious collection, most of the paintings are very poorly lit and displayed; many (including the Cossacks) hang opposite windows, meaning you get terrible glare off the shiny oilpaint and aren’t able to appreciate the whole painting at once. I’m used to the National Gallery, which was purpose-built to house art and has its lighting overhead, while the Russian Museum is a converted palace and so can’t help its window placement.


It had rained while we were in the gallery, and a rainbow shone over the prospekt; the Singer building and Kazan Cathedral both looked striking in the golden post-storm light. Footsore and arted-out, we headed on home, dreaming of black tea with honey and bowls of candied cranberries (Russia has found a way to make cranberries edible: coat them in so much sugar they resemble mint imperials. It’s genius.) Behind us, Nevsky Prospekt bustled with ceaseless life.



* Which is hilarious, and definitely the most Russian love story I’ve ever read. The short story is worth tracking down, but if you can’t be bothered, the Wikipedia summary is almost as funny.

** As in, the sewing machine company. I only know about them because my mum had one.

*** Odd, because the exterior looks very 1920s-30s, a period when Russia’s new management were not the type to build shopping centres – they didn’t even acknowledge the necessity of money for a while. I did some research, and it turned out to be pre-Revolution; the almost-Art-Deco architecture was simply ahead of its time.



St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by nightDowntown 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 KrasinNeva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt

with all the poise of a cannonball

(Click the images for full-size versions!)

Tsar Paul the Forgettable.

Tsar Paul the Forgettable.

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.”

Fortress of Peter & Paul. The crownwork (horseshoe-shaped building at the top) houses the Artillery Museum.

Fortress of Peter & Paul. The crownwork (horseshoe-shaped building at the top) houses the Artillery Museum.

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.

Big ol' eagle above the fortress gate.

Big ol’ eagle above the fortress gate.

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.

Peter the Great. Note his mutant spider fingers and inexplicable female fanclub.

Peter the Great. Note his mutant spider fingers and inexplicable female fanclub.

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.

"And the war came, with a curse and a caterwaul..."

“And the war came, with a curse and a caterwaul…”

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.

I see literally no way this could possibly be a bad idea.

I see literally no way this could possibly be a bad idea.



"Pimp my ride" just isn't adequate to describe this.

“Pimp my ride” just isn’t adequate to describe this.

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.

This one's Swedish, I think.

This one’s Swedish, I think.

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.

"I want to be in The room where it happens, The room where it happens, The room where it happens..."

“I want to be in
The room where it happens,
The room where it happens,
The room where it happens…”

* 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.


St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by nightDowntown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian MuseumCentral Naval Museum, Icebreaker KrasinNeva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt