Today, we meet Ilya Repin, but first we must explore a historical whodunnit.
You can’t miss Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt with its colonnades and statues and roses still blooming in October. The church isn’t especially inviting, but people worship regularly here, and its icon, Our Lady of Kazan, is the warp and woof of Russian history.
Peter the Great built a wooden church here as a permanent home for Our Lady. Catherine the Great converted from Catholicism to Russian Orthodoxy and was married here. In 1801 her son, Paul commissioned a grand church, after St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, in honor of Our Lady.
We threaded our way around scaffolding and entered through the huge bronze doors recreated from Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the Florence Baptistry. How gloomy inside, even with filtered light from the great dome. I guess we expected the opulence of St. Isaac’s and Church on the Spilled Blood.
A long line, mostly older ladies in dark dresses, pious, waited patiently to kiss the icon of Our Lady. It’s not imposing at all, modest, a small stylized image of Mary with the Christ child standing, actually a copy, but that doesn’t seem to matter. We wondered about hygiene. Maybe piety prevents infection here.
What’s so special about Our Lady? In two words, history and power. She was brought to Russia from Constantinople in the 13th century, then went missing for hundreds of years.
One night a little girl in Kazan had a dream about her and led her mother to the house where it was buried. From Kazan Our Lady went on to St. Petersburg and became, in the hearts of the Russian people, the Holy Protectress of the country.
She holds the power of victory and defeat. In 1904 she is stolen and Russia loses its wars with Japan. She is part of a parade around Leningrad during World War II and Leningrad survives the 900-day siege.
Routinely she is brought to battlegrounds to bless the combatants.
In his darkest hours during the Patriotic War against Napoleon, General of the Russian armies, Mikhail Kutuzov, prayed to her, and she gave him victory. When Kutuzov, who is a central figure in War and Peace, dies a hero in 1813, he is buried in this church. And so the church has become a memorial to the War of 1812.
Vladimir Putin allegedly flew the icon over Crimea. To bless the Sochi games, or to propitiate his military operations? Or is rumor-based legend being spun today?
We were intruders. Out of respect, we would go no further. This church belongs to its devout worshippers who stand during services, as they always have, and pray for their people and their country. It does not belong to tourists who browse, flit in and out with check lists. We stood quietly in place for a few moments. Then we turned and left. We had our check lists.
And one item on the list was the Russian Museum. We didn’t know much about Russian art, except we loved the fine, imaginative detail and rich colors of the highly lacquered Palekh folk art.
We walked into a temporary exhibit by Arkady Plastov. Fate and Soil it was called. It bowled us over. In one glorious painting after another the artist invites us into the life of the peasant: shepherd boy, potato pickers, older sister dressing younger sister, mother with baby and child, a skinny boy, sublimely happy, basking in the sun. Everyday moments of life in his native Ukraine are rendered with such glowing light and color – and love — they became almost magical, though muted backgrounds keep viewers soberly rooted in the realities of peasant life.
We entered a large dim room featuring one colossal picture, the Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council. We had no idea what this picture of, maybe, seventy-five noblemen was about, but that didn’t matter. A symphony of red, wine, black and gold against a subdued ochre background of columns led us through the minutiae in this masterful group portrait. (Later we would learn it was commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the State Council.)
Yes, these participants were highly orchestrated. Each was a recognizable individual living at the time of the painting: features, uniforms, poses distinct yet bound by composition and color into a stunning presentation of ruling aristocracy.
Who did this painting? we asked.
And that was when we met Ilya Repin. Truly, this is a remarkable artist, we thought. And so he is, one of Russia’s greatest. He was a contemporary of Tolstoy (whom he painted often) and full partner in Russia’s 19th century intellectual and artistic flowering.
Which brings us to Repin’s most celebrated painting, Barge Haulers on the Volga.
The old Lucky Strike Hit Parade radio show pops into my head. What? We’re seeing dark figures, straining against straps in a bright world of sand, sea and sky, slaves pulling a trading ship, and I’m thinking pop tunes of the 1940’s.
Yo Ho Heave Ho we would sing ad infinitum as kids, the memorable line from Glenn Miller’s rendition of the Russian Song of the Volga Boatmen. It’s the only line I remember today. Who knew of the misery we were singing about, especially wrenching because, typical of Repin’s work, each slave is recognizable as a unique individual.
Interesting digression: Writers were persecuted. Artists, in general, were not. Their work, though it could be graphically critical, was tolerated more readily than the written word that had the power to disseminate powerful ideas efficiently. Artists and writers alike created out of love of homeland.
In the slice of an afternoon we’d discovered a small slice of Russian art. Much more lay beyond these walls in unseen collections and in other wings of the museum.
We had visited the Hermitage with a guide the previous day and here, too, had sampled only a fraction of the offerings. The Hermitage is not a museum like others we had visited, with arrangements of pictures on walls. Here the artwork is integrated into a magnificent setting that brings back an age of princes and princesses. On another level, it was just plain fun to see the originals of paintings we had pored over in books.
Now, here’s a bit of trivia. Alexander II used to walk his dog, Milord, along the latticed paths in the exclusive, open-to-nobles-only Summer Garden adjacent to Peter’s Summer Palace. At the time, Milord was the most famous dog in Russia.
The Garden is the oldest in St. Petersburg, about as old as the city itself (founded 1703) and in good weather, it was the center of social life. Military victories and birthdays were celebrated with special lighting and fireworks.
Those days it was a formal garden with strict geometric layout, manicured parterres, pleached treeslining paths, and treillage screens dividing gardens for privacy. Fountains and buildings were added early on, dress rehearsal for the dramatic water displays at Peterhof.
Landscaping trends were changing in the 18th century. To reflect new ideas the garden became more parklike, required less care, lost its formality but not its geometric design.
A lot can happen to a garden in 300 years. Floods in 1777 destroyed fountains and buildings, irreparably. During World War II the garden was bombed and lawns were dug to become kitchen gardens.
But not before the good people of Leningrad buried as much statuary and as many artifacts as they could, to be exhumed during reconstruction. That these gardens, Peterhof, Catherine Garden and Palace, and the Summer Garden have been recreated out of World War II ruins is mind-boggling.
These days, since the October revolution, the Summer Garden is open to everyone. It doesn’t have the eye-popping vistas of Peterhof and Catherine Garden, but it’s where people come to stroll on Sunday afternoons if they are not crowding the shops along Nevsky Prospekt.
Hallellujah, today, nobody is rushing. People are smiling and dawdling, stopping to take pictures and chat. Tall, slender, classy Russian women pass us. They look like runway models or future wives of the rich and powerful. Sigh. . .Do they eat lettuce to keep in shape?
And then there are strolling brides and grooms, everywhere it seems, flanked by their wedding parties, carefree, on top of the world. Less romantic but no less appealing are families with strollers and kids in tow. Maybe, once upon a time, these parents had strolled the paths in this garden on their wedding day.
Nobody seems to mind that it’s misting and the fountains are turned off and the statues look lost without their dancing waters and there is no color, except from autumn leaves. They are taking advantage of a last mild weekend before winter.
For our part, we can’t get used to the garden being wrapped in lattice. On this dingy day, it looks to us like the plants are in jail. We can’t see a thing, and it seems like a lot of work to hide plants. It’s historical, of course, but. . .
We stop at the coffee shop in the pavillion and decide the garden would look smashing on a fine summer day when the sun is shining and fountains are splashing and statues are shining and the imposing wrought iron gates invite you in to play.