Magazine article The Spectator

Off Nevsky Prospect

Magazine article The Spectator

Off Nevsky Prospect

Article excerpt

Thomas Eaton experiences a Russian immersion 80 'On the shore of desolate waves / he stood, full of lofty thoughts / and gazed afar.'

So begins Pushkin's epic poem 'The Bronze Horseman', with the legend of Peter the Great founding his new city in 1703. A remote and inhospitable swampland in north-western Russia was transformed into his 'window on the West', a Baroque and neo - classical masterpiece.

I came to St Petersburg to learn Russian. Enrolled for an intensive course at a private language school, I opted for full immersion and stayed with a local family for the two weeks.

At Pulkovo airport I was met by a representative and politely but firmly reminded that we would now only communicate in Russian. 'Da,' I agreed, not sure I could keep that up for very long. My hosts' flat was just off the immense Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg's main street. A stroke of luck, as I'd avoided being stuck out in a Soviet-era tower block in one of the city's identikit suburbs.

In the morning my landlady Irina woke me up with a breakfast of kasha (Russian porridge) and a glass of black tea, sweetened with jam. Then it was off to school. Mornings were taken up with classes, but in the afternoons I was free to explore the city.

And what a city it is: grand boulevards, criss-crossed with canals, a Venice of the north with more than 300 bridges.

The late autumn chill was turning wintry when I arrived and the river Neva was beginning to fill with ice.

The first stop for any self-respecting art lover is the State Hermitage, but its sheer scale is overwhelming.

The centrepiece of the museum is the Winter Palace, a riot of chandeliers, marble and gold leaf. The magnificent settings compete with and often eclipse the artworks themselves. I spent two afternoons there and barely scratched the surface; at any one time, less than 10 per cent of the collection is on show. The Hermitage has its origins in acquisitions made by Catherine the Great, including that of the art collection of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. It had devoured his fortune and was sold by his hard-up heirs to the Russian empress in 1779. The Hermitage grew under the Tsars and its collection of western European art is possibly the finest in the world. There are works by Leonardo and Raphael, roomfuls of Titians and Rembrandts.

Prerevolutionary private collections yielded galleries of Impressionists and modernist classics such as Matisse's 'Dance'. The 1812 War Gallery, with over 300 portraits of the generals who defeated Napoleon, reminded me of a War and Peace-themed Top Trumps, while Paulus Potter's 'Punishment of a Hunter' was a 17th-century animal rights manifesto, depicting the revenge of dumb beasts against man's cruelty.

The nearby Russian Museum, based in the former Mikhailovsky Palace, houses the city's major collection of domestic art, including Ilya Repin's realist classic 'Barge Haulers on the Volga'.

St Petersburg is stalked by the ghosts of Russia's literary past. Pushkin's former home is now a museum containing gloomy relics: his death mask, a lock of hair, and the bloodstained waistcoat he wore to his fatal duel. Dostoevsky is buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and the flat where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov has been recreated with period details. It doesn't require much imagination to see a furtive Raskolnikov emerging from one of the crumbling courtyards off the main streets.

Further tribute is paid in the form of The Idiot, a (mainly) vegetarian restaurant on the Moika Embankment. …

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