Thank goodness Irina brought a car and driver with her today, Susan said. I don’t think I could walk another step – but she did, of course, plenty of them. We had lots of historical whodunnits to uncover.
We had booked our hotel through the Virginia office of Travel All Russia and they provided a guide or scheduled tours when we were not exploring on our own. They also took care of our Visa applications.
Irina would be our guide for the day, and what a day, with visits to cathedrals, a palace and an institute. We would go back in time to the tar yards of the 18th century and through the Russian Revolution and beyond.
The vision of Smolny Cathedral breaching the nighttime skyline of St. Petersburg was still haunting us, and that is the first of our historical whodunnits.
Cream puffs, Catherine the Great called the baroque creations of Italian architect Rastrelli: the Winter Palace, Peterhof, the Summer Palace in Pushkin, and Smolny Cathedral. Cream puffs maybe, but oh so delicious. Yes, Irina would take us by bus later in the day to see Smolny Cathedral.
The Cathedral is a short walk from the Neva River as it rounds a bend in northeastern St. Petersburg. Its name comes from the Russian meaning “place of pitch,” so called because the shipyard was here during Peter the Great’s reign. Hard to visualize pots of pitch and planked ships and laborers heaving and hauling in this quiet neighborhood, but Peter’s passionate love affair with the sea and sailing ships kept the shipyards busy.
Easier on the eyes is this cathedral with its convent built for Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth. No man had title enough to match hers, and without a marriage, it was off to the nunnery after her father’s death in 1725. Peter’s daughter in a convent? Not this willful, fun-loving, and vain character.
Fifteen years and some lovers later, she became empress through a coup. Lavish parties took priority over affairs of state, but Elizabeth was canny, and Russia prospered: new territories and a fresh bloom for arts and education.
Her nephew, Peter III, childish, loutish, succeeded her for just long enough to unravel political capital before his wife, a foreigner whose original name was Sophie, took the rule from him in a coup.
Empress Catherine the Great was a voracious reader, some might say a scholar. No surprise that educating young women was a priority for her. It happens that Smolny Institute, classic, trim, plain by baroque standards, is practically next door to Smolny Cathedral. It became a school for girls ages 5 to 18. How proud Catherine was of these girls, who, depending on station in life, learned fine arts or homemaking skills. The school operated until the opening shots of the Russian Revolution.
It’s a complex affair, this revolution, propelled by radical ideas, sputtery industrialization, a growing proletariat, a World War, and chaos in the capital. Chaos in the capital? Now that’s a juicy historical whodunnit. For that one, we go to Yusupov Palace.
The Yusupov’s, descended from a Muslim prince who served Ivan the terrible, were the richest family in Russia, philanthropists, art collectors, diplomats, and residents of the finest palace in the city on the banks of the Moika River.
Quintessential elegance and decadence, but all in good taste. A grand ballroom and banquet room, an ornate rococco private theatre.
Silk and gilt and frescoes and tapestries, but all in good taste. Lavish but not quite as overwhelming as Peter’s and Catherine’s palaces. People lived in this palace until the Russian Revolution, and the fine, well preserved interiors represent high life in the late 19th century.
Prince Felix Yusupov, the last of his line, was a goodhearted, high-society chap notorious for his escapades and extravagant crossdressing.
In 1914 he married shy Irina Alexandrovna, niece of Tsar Nicholas II, who gave the couple 29 uncut diamonds, each 3 to 7 carats, as a wedding gift. It was the society wedding of the year, the last such occasion before World War I.
Prince Felix didn’t serve in the war, but he opened a wing of the palace as a hospital for wounded veterans. A year later he was the father of a baby girl the couple would affectionately call Bebe during their long marriage.
Prince Felix: high-spirited, maybe, but not a murderer, certainly not somebody who would launch a revolution. Just the opposite. He wanted to preserve the monarchy, save Russia from being torn apart by the ‘mad monk’: Rasputin.
How the dickens did a guy with greasy hair get to be so powerful? He was the toast of Petersburg society, but it took more than that for him to make it to the history books.
It happened that, after the birth of four daughters, a son who could carry on the line and become the future tsar was born. Joy was tempered by worry when the royal family learned Alexei had hemophilia. Enter Rasputin who brings Alexei out of crisis more than once. Tsarina Alexandra, who doted on her son, came to idolize this strange man.
Rasputin the itinerant peasant-preacher, unwashed visionary, charismatic quack, manipulative egomaniac, boorish libertine, master of debauchery, he whose name means “debauched,” held the confidence of a tsarina and mesmerized an entire society.
Under his aegis, Alexandra removed loyal public servants, replaced them with cronies, mostly inept. It was gentle Nicholas who carried out her wheedling demands, of course, because he did not like his wife to be cross.
When the troops left for World War I, Nicholas left too, in a misguided attempt to rally them. His presence on the battlefield could in no way relieve the desperation of soldiers suffering from lack of food and basic equipment (rifles and ammunition) and missing reinforcements. Yet they fought on, four million dead or wounded in one year. Meanwhile, Alexandra and Rasputin were left in charge while strikes and food riots broke out.
Rasputin was tough to murder. It happened on December 17, 1916. We descended palace stairs to the Turkish Room to hear the story of how Prince Felix invited Rasputin to the palace for a good time. Irina was supposed to be the lure for Rasputin, who had bedded half of St. Petersburg royalty (except for Irina), but a bad case of the jitters kept her out of town. So Felix fed Rasputin poison pastries while co-conspirators played a gramophone loudly upstairs, simulating a party.
When the arsenic didn’t work, the panicked conspirators shot the charlatan as he ran to escape. They rolled him in a blanket (Dead or alive? Not sure.) and dumped him in a hole in the frozen river.
The perpetrators were exiled by the tsar at once, a lucky stroke for them. They were gone from the city when the Bolsheviks revolted and murdered royalty and ransacked palaces.
Three months later Tsar Nicholas abdicated and a year and a half later, in 1918, the royal family was murdered gangster-style, fulfilling Rasputin’s prediction of the monarchy’s collapse if anyone dared murder him.
After our grab and go meals at McDonald’s and Russian-style fast-food cafes, we appreciated the leisurely lunch Irina arranged for us. Divine borscht that I would sip every day if I could, and wonderful chicken kiev.
A word about McDonald’s in this city: subdued lighting, dark brick walls brightened by occasional pieces of framed artwork, the antithesis of Golden Arches ambience. But the shrimp wraps were fabulous, it was handy to our hotel, and we enjoyed watching young people hang out.
For the record, we are walkers and snackers. Small samplings of native fare are quite enough to satisfy us, and hours of exploring give us little time for lengthy sit-down meals. Having said that, we have never lost weight on a trip. Must be those afternoon pastries.
Back to our historical whodunnits at the Smolny Institute. October 1917, the girls were out and Lenin and the Bolsheviks (meaning: majority) were in. It was a heady, creative time, fluid, charged with energy.
In the open halls were noisy meetings and long debates. Soldier, sailor, peasant, worker, anyone could take the podium and speak freely. Broadsides were cranked out almost daily. Peace, Land and Bread emerged as a slogan of the people. This yeasty fermentation of ideas continued for almost a month at the Institute, an arsenal of guns and ammo, but not always so much bread.
But behind the scenes, quietly, biding his time, was Lenin, who believed in tight centralized control by a few disciplined and dedicated revolutionaries. Patiently he waited until he could manipulate the uprising.
By November the Bolsheviks held most government offices and the Red Army was sabotaging railroads to keep loyal troops from retaking the city. On November 7, the cruiser Aurora, now in the hands of the Bolsheviks began firing on the Palace from the Neva River, probably blanks, damage was negligible.
Bolsheviks crowded the streets and surrounded the palace. By sheer numbers they pushed their way in. The takeover was practically bloodless. No one dared fire a pistol or launch a grenade, for fear of hitting a comrade.
Well, we all know how things worked out. Years of civil war and famine. Revolts by starving peasants who resented government seizures of their stores of grain exported to finance the growing of industry. A record drought. Government inaction. Millions dying during the greatest famine in recorded history, leaving a photographic record that is terrible to behold. Peace, Land and Bread, such simple, heartfelt requests, had been hijacked.
Grudgingly Lenin allowed outside agencies to bring in some aid. The American Relief Administration under the direction of Herbert Hoover engineered the largest relief effort ever up to that time, despite continual harassment and obstruction by secret police. The agency eventually served 11 million meals daily in 19,000 kitchens across the country, employing Russians as cooks and aides.
Quashing dissent and erasing vestiges of religion and royalty was more important than feeding a country. Churches were ransacked for their valuables, adding gold to communist coffers, but little of it was allotted for food. To weaken the influence of orthodox priests and promote the party line, churches became Museums of Religion and Atheism. During World War II they doubled as morgues and warehouses. Saviour on Spilled Blood was called, in typically sardonic Russian humor, Saviour on the Potato.
Palaces were stripped of their artwork and valuables. On a positive note, what was not destroyed was added to Catherine’s vast collections at the Hermitage, which remained open to the public. The Russian Museum was formally consolidated.
(Historical Whodunnit: The Mikhailovsky Castle, an elegant arm of the museum, is a curious mixture of architectural styles. Once upon a time it was an outlandish medieval castle with moats and drawbridges, well guarded by royal troops.
Paranoid Paul I, son of Catherine the Great and most hated tsar, had it built around 1800 to protect himself from assassins. Forty days after he moved in, Paul was murdered in his bedroom by his own councillors. (So much for security from terrorists.)
Skip to the late thirties and into the 21st century. A grand metro, still in process, was being created. Immaculate stations gleaming with chrome and chandeliers and stunning mosaics and sculpture and bas relief that celebrate the people’s revolution and honor its leaders. They are modern palaces–the people’s palaces, where workers sojourn to and from work. Mostly, we suspect, the average commuter barely notices the glitter in his hurry to get to his destination.
We, on the other hand, were tourists, so we lingered. It wasn’t till the end of our stay that we gathered courage to explore the metro. Getting lost underground was not on our list of things to do. We descended into a cavern so deep it seemed to be a puncture wound in middle-earth.
Remember, Petersburg is built on a swamp that is laced with rivers and streams. Shifting clays don’t make solid anchors. Digging deep was the only way to reach stable conditions.
An engineering marvel, the escalator we rode to the surface at Admiralteiskaya Station, finished in 2011, is the longest, 377 feet. During construction, tunneling proceeded at a pace of 25 feet a day.
Stations are clearly marked in arabic and cyrillic. Trains come often, and it is easy to change from one line to another. Some stations are more impressive than others.
We never got beyond counting stations to mark our progress, but we wondered why we had not tried this excursion earlier. If we had dared, we could easily have been all over town and Susan’s feet would be in good shape. Still, we congratulated ourselves on another coup, almost as fine as the coffee coup on our second day.
It was time to leave this great legend of a city with its layers of history and its remarkable culture. But we must first investigate one final historical whodunnit and offer a note of thanks.
Final Whodunnit: Whatever happened to the royalty whose palaces were seized? Two hundred thousand made haste to Europe with whatever they could carry in trunks, eventually settling in Paris, where they established a close-knit community. They had been in the habit of spending money but not earning it. When the rubles ran out, princesses became seamstresses and models (forerunners of today’s runway models), princes became waiters and dishwashers, and the White Guards who had fought the Reds, became taxi drivers.
As for Felix and Irina, when their cache of diamonds was gone, they opened a successful haute couture fashion house in 1924, a couple of years before Coco Chanel introduced the little black dress. The business closed seven years later, but the couple were never short of cash.
In 1933 they sued MGM for falsely portraying Irina as a victim of Rasputin in the movie, Rasputin and the Empress. The large settlement allowed them to live in style for the rest of their lives and, incidentally, gave rise to “all persons fictitious” disclosures in future movies.
We close with a posthumous note of thanks to Catherine the Great. When George III began fighting those rebellious colonies across the sea in 1775, he asked Catherine for the rental of 20,000 infantry and 1,000 Cossack Cavalry. Catherine was sympathetic, but she declined. Peace with the Turks after her successful war against them was beginning to unravel. She might (and did) need those troops in the future.
Knowing how fiercely the Russians could fight, even when deprived of food, and their penchant for plunder, we take great comfort that George hired the less enthusiastic Hessians. Thank you, Empress Catherine.
One last word. St. Petersburg seems of the ages, yet it is a young city, founded only three centuries ago in 1703. America was in its infancy then, casting for a future. A city and a country an ocean apart, growing and changing side by side in time, both caught in revolutions, both molded by the past, each following different trajectories. After a people’s revolution and unprecedented material progress, life in this eastern city still reflects centuries of deeply ingrained history and religion, while the western country, guided by its vision of Manifest Destiny, opened frontiers and forged new beginnings that had their foundations in Old World ways.