A Russian trip experience…
My husband and I are wandering down the brightly lit corridors of the duty-free arcade in the Copenhagen airport. We have been flying for thirteen hours now and have a two-hour layover before the final leg of our trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. Passive as stunned rabbits, we stare blankly at displays of perfume and liquor and china. We don’t want to actually buy anything – this is the beginning of our trip, and besides, we have no idea what anything costs, as the prices are all in kronigs, not a currency I have set my nifty new calculator to compute. Finally, when we have sufficiently stretched our legs and whittled away another hour, we head for our plane. I leave Cliff at the door to the men’s room, saying I’ll find the women’s room and meet him at the gate in a few minutes. A look of apprehension crosses his eyes, but I tell him not to worry, I’m just going to the bathroom, and the gate is at most a hundred yards away.
The two stalls in the bathroom are actually separate little rooms with their own sinks. I admire, for the umpteenth time today, the Scandinavians. Unlike the american airlines, SAS provides an adequate number of bathrooms on their planes and they have bassinets that fold down from the bulkhead to accommodate parents flying with infants. They serve cognac with coffee after dinner, even in coach. What an efficient, civilized people, I am thinking, as I wash my hands. But — and here’s the part where our journey first veers into uncharted territory — when I try to leave, I discover that the deadbolt won’t open and I am imprisoned. I try the lock one way then the other, but it spins without catching, like the dial on a locker. Don’t panic, I tell myself. I try jiggling it, then I get a credit card out of my wallet and work it up and down the space between the door and the jamb. I seem to recall watching lots of movies where this worked, but here it doesn’t. I check my watch. Our flight leaves in less than twenty minutes. Don’t panic, I remind myself, and then make a mental note that this is exactly the kind of bathroom — small and featureless with floor-to-ceiling white tiles — that Hitchcock or Kafka would design. I try the lock again, spinning it hundreds of revolutions in each direction. I call out through the door, at first meekly cooing “hello?” but quickly switching to pounding, kicking, and yelling loudly for help.
The bathroom is a small one in a side concourse, but eventually someone comes in. I try to explain my predicament, but the woman on the other side of the door doesn’t speak English. She says something in what may be Danish, listens for awhile to my frantic gibberish about stripped deadbolts, says something else I don’t understand, and leaves. I don’t know if she has gone for help or decided to find a bathroom without a crazy lady. I spin the lock again and, looking in the mirror, notice that sweat is beading on my face. My husband will surely be panicked too; he is a reluctant traveler, and this is exactly the kind of nightmare scenario he has imagined in the weeks leading up to this trip: abandoned by wife in a foreign airport without so much as a goodbye or even a way to get home (I am carrying both our tickets and passports.)
The woman returns with another woman who speaks a little English. I am past the point where I can imagine how to explain my situation in rudimentary English and without the benefit of mime, but I try anyway, and then I ask her to please locate my husband, a blond man in a brown leather jacket at Gate D101. They leave again. When they return, they haven’t been able to find him, but they have called the airport police. My memory is a little blurry here – some indeterminate amount of time passes, and then my husband does find me. Having seen the same movies, he tells me to stand back, and tries to kick in the door, which is metal and admirably solid. I suggest he go to the gate and try to stop the plane – our flight to St. Petersburg is leaving in ten minutes – but he doesn’t want to leave me alone. “I’m not going anywhere,” I say, stating the obvious. And then airport security arrives. After a brief exchange, there is the sound of metal on metal, and the door swings open. We hurriedly thank my rescuers and run breathlessly for the gate. When we arrive, with mere minutes to spare, there are no airline personnel in sight, only passengers milling aimlessly and waiting for someone to show up and tell them what to do. After all my panic, another quarter hour passes before they begin boarding for the flight to Russia.
As we cross over the Gulf of Finland, I find my thoughts returning again and again to the fact that this happened in Copenhagen and not in Russia, where I have braced myself to expect such difficulties.
The novelist and philosopher Walker Percy wrote an essay in which he described the phenomenon by which travelers measure their experience against expectations, finding, for instance, the Grand Canyon beautiful “by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex.” No sightseer, he claims, will ever be able to really see the canyon in the way of the explorer who first discovered it because the experience has been co-opted and packaged. We compound our dissociation by signing up for tours, following the guides, and busily snapping photographs, and we struggle against a nagging sense that something is missing.
We may try to come at the experience indirectly by getting off the beaten track – a stratagem promoted without irony in countless numbers of travel books. Or we may stay on the path but recognize one’s fellow tourists as part of the experience, metaphorically “stand[ing] on their shoulders to see the canyon.”
Or if we are lucky, he adds, we may recover the place by some external glitch in which things don’t go as planned: freakish weather drives off the other sightseers or the car breaks down and strands one miles from the intended destination – or the lock in the airport bathroom jams.
It is hard to imagine anyone going on a trip carrying more preconceived ideas about one’s destination than I had. If they could be weighed, I would have been charged for excess baggage. I had recently completed a novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, that is set largely in St. Petersburg. The main character, Marina, is a guide at the Hermitage Museum when war breaks out with Nazi Germany. She helps to pack and evacuate the millions of paintings and art objects in the collection and then, during the first winter of the siege, lives in the cellars beneath the emptied museum, alongside other members of the staff and their families.
At the outset of this project, I knew next to nothing about Russia’s role in World War II, or as they call it, The Great Patriotic War. I had only recently heard about the siege of Leningrad, a nearly three-year horror during which upwards of a million people starved to death. My knowledge of art history was general, I neither spoke nor read Russian, and I had never even set foot in the country. In short, I was supremely unqualified.
A logical first step would be to visit the city, go to the Hermitage Museum, talk to the people, get a feel for the place. However, I couldn’t afford the trip. All the money I could scrape together would have to go towards buying myself the time off to write. (I was relieved to learn later that I had precedent on my side – apparently, J.M. Coetzee wrote his novel about Dostoevsky, The Master of Petersburg, without ever seeing the city.) If I had fully believed that anyone would ever publish the novel, I might never have had the hubris to attempt it. But I was captivated by what little I knew of the history, and a story had taken root in my brain and wouldn’t go away.
So over the course of a couple of years, I read histories of the war and the siege. I studied wartime photographs and maps of the city. I spent scores of hours on the Hermitage’s website, looking up paintings, learning the layout of the museum, and viewing video footage of the rooms. By the time the book was finished, I felt I knew the place, at least as it existed during the war.
Then the novel was bought. As thrilled as I was (and there is no way to exaggerate my giddiness), there was also a small corner of my brain — the neurotic, killjoy part — that was already fantasizing about how the book would come out and I would be exposed as a fraud. The publisher’s generous advance meant I could now afford a trip to St. Petersburg — just to make sure I got it right. I was finally going to see the city where I had been living in my imagination off and on for several years.
Walking down the main boulevard of Nevsky Prospect on our first morning there, I was struck by a powerful déjà vu. We passed hunched babushkas sweeping the sidewalks and knots of soldiers in greatcoats. If one looked past the new signs advertising Subway and KFC and Baskin-Robbins (in Cyrillic, but unmistakable nonetheless), it might even be 1941.
We crossed the street to the Kazan Cathedral. Its exterior is crumbling, the stone sooty and pocked, and the tops of its Corinthian columns sheathed in protective netting, but like seemingly every third building in St. Petersburg, it is being restored, and that morning, we passed workers doing something industrious with a heap of stone. Inside the dark cathedral, morning mass had just started. A priest stood on a raised dais, reciting the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, a rapid-fire rhythm of repeating syllables that sounded to my American ears like the incomprehensible drone of an auctioneer. Every few rounds, a second, bearded priest emerged from a door to the left of the altar. He would take up the chanting for a few minutes and then exit through a door on the right, like a figure on a Swiss clock striking the hour.
Standing before the candlelit icon of Our Lady of Kazan, listening to the murmur of the mass, I was completely unprepared for the cascade of tears that began streaming down my cheeks and the tremors that shook my body. I tried to get a hold of myself: you’re not Catholic, I reasoned, you were raised Presbyterian, a sect that frowns on public displays of emotion. But try as I might, I couldn’t shut off the faucets. Great, I thought, and to make matters worse, you forgot your Kleenex. Back in the States, I had been warned to pack tissue, not against an onslaught of snot-nosed hysteria but because toilet paper isn’t always where you might expect it to be.
Perhaps it was coming face to face with my first Russian Madonna. Perhaps it was a muted northern strain of the psychosomatic condition that sometimes overcomes visitors to Florence, nicknamed Stendhal Syndrome: dizziness, faintness or even hallucinations brought on by a sensory overload of magnificent art. If so, the locals in St. Petersburg seem not to be immune. Walking down Nevsky on another morning, I observed a craggy-faced Russian step out of the stream of pedestrians heading to work and stop before St. Pietr’s church. He dropped his head into his hands as though suddenly overcome by grief. A moment later, he lifted his head and moved on. Whatever the cause of my tears, this turned out to be the first of several crying jags that overtook me while we were in the city. I was continually overwhelmed by the beauty of St. Petersburg and the strange confluences of a place that was both completely foreign and eerily familiar.
Walker Percy was right: it is hard to see past one’s expectations. Contrary to my spontaneous meltdown at the Kazan, I had anticipated key moments when I would be swept away. My husband had even faced down his discomfort with flying and traveled halfway across the globe because, as he said, he didn’t want to miss the moment when I first laid eyes on the Hermitage. As for myself, I had imagined walking into the museum, getting passes from the American Friends of the Hermitage kiosk located in the front lobby, and then guiding Cliff from room to room just as my main character, Marina, had guided visitors before the war. It is an enormous museum, but I had it all worked out. We would go up the Jordan Staircase, take a left at the top of the stairs, pass through the grand State rooms and start with the galleries on the first floor.
We left my script well before we even got into the building. The Winter Palace, the largest of the five contiguous museum buildings, was designed to face onto the Neva River, with its back to the center of the city. To reach the grand entrance, one crossed the vast Palace Square and then walked around the south end of the museum and halfway down its length. I took Cliff this route, but we kept walking and walking, disconcertingly alone on the shadowed sidewalk. We passed a set of impressive doors but they were behind locked iron gates. Slowly it dawned on me that they had moved the entrance. I remembered reading somewhere that this was being considered, but the museum website and all of my several maps did not yet reflect the change. We walked the remaining circumference of the museum, about two city blocks, and eventually found the new entrance, though not the kiosk. It no longer existed. An hour and several language-hampered exchanges later, we finally secured our passes and entered the museum through a back door. I had entirely lost my bearings, both geographically and emotionally. As I studied the maps again, I discovered that, inexplicably, I had written passages in my novel wherein the characters passed from a room on the ground floor into a room directly above without the benefit of stairs. Standing at the foot of the majestic Jordan Staircase, surrounded by a swirl of international tourists, I burst into tears again, this time the tears of a frustrated child.
Even after I recovered my wits, I found that I had difficulty really seeing the museum. Like one of Percy’s hapless tourists, I moved through the stupendous rooms, taking photographs (an unpardonable sin in most museums, but perfectly kosher here, provided one paid a separate fee) and mentally checking off the contents. Here’s the Majolica Room, just as I’ve described it in the novel. Good. Ah, and there’s Rembrandt’s Danae. Snap, snap. Yep. Looks just like the reproductions, only bigger. And here’s Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonnas, the actual paintings. I’m actually standing in front of the actual paintings. Hmmm. Well, well. I had come prepared to be spiritually transported but my initial experience was more akin to that of an accountant taking inventory.
Fortunately, the Hermitage is too vast and splendid to be confined within the circumference of anyone’s expectations. It is a stunning place. When asked if it is the greatest museum in the world, the director, Mikhail Borisovitch Piotrovsky, responded, “I don’t know if it is the greatest, but it is not second.” The museum’s holdings are so huge that many exquisite paintings, obscenely lavish trinkets created for the former czars, ancient carpets and pottery — what would be the centerpieces of another collection — don’t even rate a mention in the museum guidebooks. You have to be there, to see them for yourself. Even this, it turns out, is beyond the scope of the possible. It is said that if a person spent one minute looking at each art object in the Hermitage, it would take five full years to see it all.
I didn’t have five years, but I had more than enough time to stumble onto unanticipated wonders. Because I had limited my research to the rooms and paintings my novel’s main character would have known, I was unfamiliar with large swaths of the collection, including, for instance, the Impressionist collection. (Stalin regarded the Impressionists as decadent and so scores of masterpieces were hidden from public view for decades.) Among my more vivid memories is turning into a long, unmarked hall and being surprised by dozens of Picassos and Matisses (again, they were not where my maps said they should be). Here were Matisse’s iconic Greek dancers and his Red Room, but even more intriguingly, paintings I had never heard of before. They were not necessarily obscure or minor pieces — I was particularly taken with a painting from Picasso’s blue period, a wrenchingly mournful rendition of two sisters, a whore and a nun, titled The Meeting — but they were new to me, and as such, I could see them fresh and be delighted by the surprises.
But what most took my breath away were sights not on anyone’s “must see” list. The museum generously provided a docent to show us around, the real life equivalent of my main character. Like Marina, Valentina’s knowledge was encyclopedic and she was eager to share the wonders of the Hermitage. She often prefaced her comments by saying “I like this very much” — it was clearly an admission of something very personal. Or in the course of our conversation, she would suddenly say, “Oh, there is something I would like to show you. May I?” and we would find ourselves following her at a brisk trot to another part of the museum. On one of these sojourns, we were cutting through a back hallway and I was brought up short by three enormous empty gilt frames leaning against a wall. I stopped dead in my tracks, and Valentina, holding open a door, waited, puzzled. “It is in my novel,” I tried to explain. “The empty frames.”
This is a true story: when the staff of the Hermitage museum packed up all the treasures in the museum, they left the empty frames hanging on the walls. Depending on which version you believe, this was either a pledge that the art would return or it was a practical move to speed up rehanging later). Though there was nothing left to see, visitors continued to show up at the museum throughout the war, and one of the curators occasionally gave tours, leading ragged groups of starving Leningraders through the deserted halls and describing the paintings that had once hung inside the frames. It was said he described the missing paintings so well that his listeners swore that they could see the images.
I’m sure Valentina was equally bemused by my request to be taken to the entrance to Bomb Shelter #3, one of the cellars beneath the museum where my characters — and nearly two thousand real people — rode out the first winter of the war. I had been told in advance that no visitors were allowed in the cellars but I wanted to see the entrance, just to confirm that I had its location right in the novel. After consulting briefly with a guard, she led me to a window through which we could see out into a disheveled and muddy courtyard. It was just starting to snow. She pointed to some nondescript stone steps leading down into the cellars. In all of my research, I had never seen a photograph of this entrance, and before I knew it, tears were welling up in my eyes again. The reality of the siege I had fictionalized undid me.
The ghosts of St. Petersburg are everywhere, and for those who are looking, the history of the siege is as visible as the paintings inside the empty frames. Though the Hermitage itself was largely spared the devastation visited on so much of the city’s architecture, one of the granite musclemen, the Atlantes, that support the portico at the entrance to the New Hermitage building retains a battle wound from a shell he took in the shin. Throughout the city, buildings damaged by German bombs are being restored to their former glory, and everywhere one looks, workers are cleaning and repairing stonework or gilding French doors. At the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, just outside the city, an army of workers continues the years-long restoration of the bombed palace. Its most famous feature, the Amber Room, was a gift from the King of Prussia to Peter the Great and was so named because its walls were composed of amber mosaic. The little room, about ten square feet, was dismantled and stolen by the German army, and disappeared after the war. After years of fruitless treasure hunting, the government finally commissioned the construction of a replica, a painstaking labor that took millions of dollars and nearly thirty years to complete. Olga, the guide assigned to show me around, pointed out that the project, like so many others, was subsidized by a German corporation. When I expressed surprise, she demurred. “There is a long history of closeness with the German peoples,” she said. “During the war, my grandmother took in a German boy and shared with him her rations.” It turns out, this grandmother lost three of her own children to starvation during the siege. “She didn’t talk about the war. When I was a child,” Olga confided, “I once asked her if she ate people. She didn’t answer me, and said only that terrible things happened.” Her eyes misted at the memory.
This is not a dead past being embalmed for the tourists. Coming from a country that isn’t terribly interested in its own history, it is astonishing to visit a city where the locals readily point out Rasputin’s apartment or the rooms where the poet Pushkin died after dueling for the honor of his wife. The citizens of St. Petersburg are aware of living in the moving stream of history.
I spent one afternoon in the company of a woman, Nadezhda, whose name I had been given by mutual friends. She offered to take me out to the Nevsky monastery where she worked and help me purchase gifts to take home and an icon of the Madonna for myself. Riding the subway, we discovered that we had something else in common: as children growing up during the Cold War, we had each had recurring nightmares that we would be bombed into nuclear oblivion by the other’s government. She told me what a shock it had been when she met her first Americans and they were not barbarians as she had been led to expect. In turn, I told her that I had never been taught in school about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War, that I had never heard about the siege of Leningrad. “But we stopped Hitler,” she said, dumbfounded. “Over two million people died.”
About the siege, she told me that I must make it clear in my novel that “we never gave up hope,” that they always knew they would win in the end. I tried to explain that the novel was already written, but she shook her head. She was firm on this point.
I don’t know if Nadezhda will approve of The Madonnas of Leningrad. I don’t even know whether she will see it. But she is in there. So are Olga and Valentina and the attendant at the Russian Museum who responded so generously to my pathetic Russian with a spontaneous tour of the room she was guarding. (Prikrasna, meaning “it’s beautiful,” was one of the few phrases I knew, but that and “thank you” (spasiba) often got me through the day.) The women who so proudly shared with me the glories of their city… – they were already in the book. To them, I say spasiba, pri krasna.