William Handyside – From Edinburgh to St Petersburg

As regular readers of these ramblings will be aware, Duck Holiday periodically takes a look at Scots who have made their name in Eastern Europe. We continue that occasional theme with another Scottish engineer who is better known in Russia than in the land of his birth.

William Handyside was born in Edinburgh in 1793. He was the nephew of another engineer, Charles Baird, who worked extensively in Russia, notably in St Petersburg. On a visit to Scotland in 1810, he invited his nephew, who was then training to be an architect, to join him in Russia.

Handyside quickly realised that engineering rather than architecture, was his true vocation. Within five years, he assisted in the building of the first steam vessel to navigate the Neva River and by 1824, had completed four suspension bridges. In a city of waterways, bridge building must have been a decidedly useful skill.

Despite the rivalry between Britain and Russia in the early decades of the nineteenth century, there was a good deal of co-operation between the two nations and a number of British engineers went to work on projects in Russia. This was a theme touched on by Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit, in which the talented and good-natured engineer Daniel Doyce departs for Russia, apparently with considerable success.

Handyside’s most notable project was St Isaac’s Cathedral. Working with the French Neoclassical architect Auguste de Montferrand, he undertook the construction of much of the stone and metal work of the cathedral. This was no small project; the colonnade alone was composed of no less than forty-eight granite pillars, each fifty-six feet long and eight feet in diameter. Another thirty-six pillars, only slightly smaller, were fitted around the base of the dome. He was also commissioned by the architect to build the huge cast and wrought-iron dome.

St Isaac’s Cathedral

After the completion of the cathedral, Handyside collaborated with de Montferrand once more, this time in the building of what was then the largest granite column in the world, dedicated to the recently-deceased emperor Alexander I. In 1832, the column was elevated in an astonishing twenty-five minutes, in front of the current emperor Nicholas and a vast crowd of military and civilian onlookers. The monument stands in the centre of Palace Square, in front of the Winter Palace.

Alexander Column

Sadly, the exertions of his many building projects took its tool on Handyside’s health and he returned to Scotland in the hope of recuperation and recovery. He never recovered his health and died in his native city of Edinburgh in 1850 at the age of fifty-seven.

Charles Cameron – Scottish Classicist

In our occasional series about Scottish influence in Eastern Europe, it would be highly irregular to overlook the contribution of Charles Cameron, who was offered the position of court architect to Catherine II (‘Catherine the Great’) and whose designs provide a Classicist look in contrast to the prevailing Baroque style of the period.

Cameron was, in fact, born in London in 1745, to Walter and Hannah Cameron. Walter was a Scottish builder and carpenter who had established himself in the English capital. The young Charles – possibly named in honour of the Jacobite prince – was apprenticed to his father and soon began to display considerable talent for design.

In the 1760s, Charles Cameron travelled to Rome and undertook a detailed study of Roman baths. On his return to London, he published the snappily-titled The Baths of the Romans explained and illustrated, with the Restorations of Palladio corrected and improved.

Despite its unwieldy title and somewhat esoteric nature, it seems likely that the book was instrumental in Cameron’s appointment to the Russian court. Certainly, his name was known around Europe and Catherine, eager to present Russia as a modern European country, scoured the continent for architects and designers to provide the expertise she desired.

Cameron’s most notable works were the gallery that bears his name at the Catherine Palace and the Pavlovsk Palace, built for the son of Catherine the Great. The Catherine Palace, incidentally, was built for the empress Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great.

Catherine the Great preferred the Classical style to the Baroque and Cameron was the man to deliver. He redecorated the interior of the Rococo Catherine Palace before setting to work on the new gallery and its attendant park. The gallery, with its myriad statues of poets and philosophers, became the favourite promenade of Catherine.

Cameron Gallery from above

Cameron Gallery from above

Cameron also designed the nearby Sophia Ascension Cathedral. Catherine was eager to build a church that resembled the vast Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The architect was not familiar with the great Byzantine church and the result was more in his usual Classical style.

Cameron Gallery facade

Cameron Gallery facade

Ironically, it was the Pavlovsk Palace, perhaps Cameron’s most famous work, that led to his fall from favour. Cameron built the original palace but fell out with the emperor (Paul) and empress (Maria) over costs. Cameron was dismissed by the emperor in 1796.

Pavlovsk courtyard

Pavlovsk courtyard

Pavlovsk Palace

Pavlovsk Palace

Paul’s successor, Alexander, was more well-disposed towards Cameron and the architect was reappointed as chief architect of the Russian Admiralty in 1801. He also designed the Naval Hospital at Oranienbaum before retiring in 1805.

Pavlovsk (is this Classical enough?)

Pavlovsk (is this Classical enough?)

Despite speaking no Russian and apparently having no Russian friends, he continued to live in Russia and died there in 1812, just before the invasion of Russia by Napoleon.

Barclay de Tolly – Russia’s Scottish-German General

Those who have read Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace will be familiar with Mikhail Kutuzov, the general widely acknowledged to have been responsible for repelling Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Indeed, Kutuzov is treated with great respect in the novel, portrayed as a man of considerable wisdom and foresight. If Kutuzov is seen as a little overly sentimental at times, this trait is represented as a positive attribute.

Mikhail Barclay de Tolly does not fare so well in Tolstoy’s work, being seen as indecisive and dithering. Barclay fell from favour during the campaign, being superseded as Commander-in-Chief by Kutuzov and resigning from the army soon afterwards. After Napoleon’s defeat, Barclay’s popularity grew and he was restored to the military, taking over from Kutuzov following the latter’s death in 1813.

The two great leaders of the Napoleonic campaign, so often at odds with each other, now stand side by side outside the massive Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg, on the city’s most famous street, Nevsky Prospekt.

Statue at Kazan Cathedral (St Petersburg)

Statue at Kazan Cathedral (St Petersburg)

As regular readers of these notes will know, Duck Holiday is based in Scotland and is ever keen to investigate Scotland’s links with Eastern Europe. To claim that Mikhail Barclay de Tolly was a Scotsman would be stretching the truth more than a little. He was, however, a member of the noble Barclay clan from Aberdeenshire. There is some debate about his birthplace, but it is likely that he was born in what is now Lithuania and was raised in Livonia, which was then part of the Russian Empire and whose territory now straddles Latvia and Estonia.

Barclay was a German-speaking descendant of a Scottish family that had settled in Livonia in the 17th century. His grandfather was a mayor of Riga and his father was admitted into the ranks of the Russian nobility. The young Barclay joined the Imperial Russian army and saw his first action in the 1787-1791 Russo-Turkish war and the concurrent war against Sweden.

Portrait by George Dawe (Military Gallery of the Winter Palace)

Portrait by George Dawe (Military Gallery of the Winter Palace)

After distinguishing himself in the Polish campaign of 1794, Barclay rose through the ranks rapidly and became a major-general in 1799. During another Russo-Swedish war during 1808-1809, he distinguished himself by crossing the frozen Gulf of Bothnia near Kvarken, which allowed him to surprise the enemy and seize the town of Umeå in Sweden. In April 1809, he was made full General and commander-in-chief of Russian forces in Finland. A year later, he became Minister of War, launching an important series of military reforms while planning for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

After his reinstatement of 1814, Barclay commanded the taking of Paris and was made a Prince of the Russian Empire during the following year.

He died in Insterburg in Prussia in May 1818. His body – and later that of his wife – was buried in the Jõgeveste Manor Cemetery in Estonia.

Barclay de Tolly Mausoleum in Estonia

Barclay de Tolly Mausoleum in Estonia

Christina Robertson – Fife’s Unknown Artist

The Hermitage in St Petersburg stands apart, in so many ways, from even the finest art galleries in Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world. There is, however, one aspect that marks it as similar; there are few works of art by women. Female artists are, happily, much more commonplace these days, but it was not always so.

It comes as a surprise, then, to encounter works by women artists among the great collections. It comes as an even bigger surprise to note that one of the few women to be represented at The Hermitage – and who, indeed, became a favourite of the Russian royal court – was a native of Fife.

Christina Sanders was born in Kinghorn in 1796. Little seems to be known about her early life or her first forays into painting. There appears to have been some art connection, however, as she married the artist James Robertson in 1822. The couple settled in London and the marriage produced eight children, though four died in childhood.

What seems certain is that Christina must already have been quite a serious artist at the time of her marriage. In 1823, she was exhibiting works at the Royal Academy and by 1829, she had been elected as an honorary member of the Scottish Academy, a first for a woman.

Christina Robertson (self portrait)

Christina Robertson (self portrait)

By the 1830s, she was making her name as a portrait painter, her work featuring in several magazines and journals. Through these, she caught the attention of the Russian aristocracy in St Petersburg. In Paris in1837, she painted portraits of a number of Russian nobles and notables. Doubtless, her talents were reported back to the Imperial Court by one or more of her sitters.

Empress Alexandra Fedorovna

Empress Alexandra Fedorovna

It was a good time to be a British artist around the Russian court. Russian high society had developed a love of all things British and by 1839, Robertson had exhibited several works at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. The following year brought a major breakthrough when she was commissioned to paint full-length portraits of the Emperor Nicholas I and the Empress Alexandra. She received numerous other commissions and was soon elected an honorary member of the St Petersburg Academy before returning to Britain in 1841.

Empress Maria Aleksandrovna

Duchess Maria Aleksandrovna

Robertson was to visit St Petersburg again in 1847 and was to remain there until her death in 1854. Although relations between Britain and Russia were less than cordial – the Crimean War was looming – she remained a popular guest and continued to receive commissions from the Russian royal family. In particular, she painted several portraits of the Emperor’s daughter-in-law, the Grand Duchess Maria Aleksandrovna. She established her own studio in St Petersburg in 1849.

Duchesses Olga Nikolaevna and Alexandra Nikolaevna

Duchesses Olga Nikolaevna and Alexandra Nikolaevna

Sadly, Robertson’s health was failing by the early 1850s and with suggestions that a number of her clients were refusing to pay her, she may well have been struggling financially as well. She died in St. Petersburg, in 1854 and was buried in the city’s Volkovo Cemetery, the final resting place for many writers, scientists and other esteemed figures. The Crimean War had commenced in 1853, so while Britain and Russia may have been at war, there appears to have been no personal animosity towards Christina Robertson.

Even today, it could be argued that women are not fully recognised in the world of art. This was certainly true in the 19th century. A number of women were successful as novelists – though even a brilliant writer like George Eliot felt obliged to write under a male pseudonym – but very few even dared to embark on a career as a painter. Robertson was a rarity and there were few other women in her position. The Hungarian-born Serbian painter, Katarina Ivanovic, a younger contemporary, was one of the few, though she did not achieve the recognition of her Scottish counterpart, at least during her own lifetime.

Christina Robertson, though, remains prominent in Russia today, though understandably her popularity waned following the Revolution of 1917, when all things relating to the aristocracy suddenly suffered a diminution of interest. Some fifteen of her works can be seen in The Hermitage and several more are on permanent display in the other great art gallery of St Petersburg, the Russian Museum. That, alone, is a testimony to her skill as an artist. The fact that she achieved what she did in such a male-dominated world is astonishing – and particularly remarkable for a woman from a small coastal town in Fife.

Literature

There is nothing that Duck Holiday likes better than a classic novel (with the possible exception of a glass or two of very good quality beer). Eastern and Central Europe have produced their fair share of great writers and the time has come for a brief foray into the literary world.

These things are, of course, largely subjective. One person’s great novel is another’s unreadable bilge, but everyone has their own favourites and the following selection of works represent a mere handful of the preferences within the duck house.

Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad was born in 1857, in a Russian-occupied part of Poland. His Polish nationalist parents were persecuted by the Russians and died while their son was still a child. He left his native land when he was 17 and lived in France before joining the British merchant navy four years later. He was to spend some 20 years as a sailor.

Conrad, then, was a man who understood fully the concepts of colonialism and alienation. Not surprisingly, these facets loomed large in many of his novels and short stories (a wonderful example is to be found in his story Amy Foster, a deeply moving tale of the isolation of an Eastern European sailor stranded in England).

Nowhere better are the themes explored than in Heart of Darkness, published in 1899. Some modern critics have suggested that the novel is racist, but surely its message is the precise opposite. Conrad experienced first-hand the grasping brutality of colonialism – Belgian, in this case – during his own visit to the Congo in 1890. He was no imperialist; his own early experiences were to shape his outlook.

Conrad is a sardonic observer, all too aware that the so-called civilizing Europeans in Africa were little more than rapacious profiteers. Modern-day readers should bear in mind when the novel was written and place it in its proper historical context. Yes, there are words used that are completely unacceptable nowadays, but one should remember that they were current usage at the time. It is a grave mistake to apply 21st-century thinking to 19th-century literature (or, indeed, any other form of art).

With that in mind, Conrad’s work should be seen as radical, a work that challenges imperialism rather than reinforcing it. Nor should it be overlooked that Conrad was writing in a language that was not his first (nor second or third, for that matter). Heart of Darkness deserves its place among the classic works of 19th-century literature.

Picture 130

Franz Kafka – The Castle

It is only a select few writers whose names leave an adjective behind – Kafkaesque in the case of Franz Kafka – and this fact alone tends to demonstrate the uniqueness and importance of such writers.

Kafka’s characters, like Josef K in The Trial, find themselves in situations they cannot comprehend and which are beyond their control. Likewise, in The Castle, the character known only as K (that letter again!) is left bewildered, caught in a labyrinth from which he cannot escape. He cannot gain admittance of the mysterious castle at which he is supposed to be employed, nor can he go home. His world is populated by bureaucrats and administrators whose sole purpose appears to be to make his life difficult. When we finally see inside the castle, we witness people moving documents from one place to another, only to move them back to their original position. Those of us who have passed some of our years as civil servants can only smile wryly.

Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and died from tuberculosis in 1924. We are fortunate that his works still exist. Shortly before his death, he asked his friend, Max Brod, to ensure that all his writings be destroyed. Fortunately, Brod felt unable to carry out this request and The Castle, along with The Trial and several other works, was published posthumously.

Picture 128

Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Possessed

In 2001, The Guardian published a list of the 100 Greatest Works of Fiction of all time. A number of writers, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, were represented twice. William Shakespeare had three entries. The only four-timer, however, was Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Though born in Moscow, Dostoevsky spent much of his life in St Petersburg and his writing is irrevocably linked with that city. He also spent ten years in prison, a fate suffered by not a few Russian writers. He was, in fact, sentenced to death by firing squad, but this was commuted to penal servitude in Siberia. It is extraordinary to think that had the original punishment been carried out, there would have been no Crime and Punishment, no The Idiot, no The Possessed and no The Brothers Karamazov.

The first of these is undoubtedly the best-known work, but The Possessed is a dark and powerful novel, one based on the true story of a young revolutionary murdered by his comrades. Dostoevsky was in a good position to understand the circumstances; it was because of his youthful revolutionary ideals that he was imprisoned in the first place.

Though Dostoevsky writes from the more conservative standpoint he adopted later in life, The Possessed should not be viewed as reactionary. It provides a chilling preview of 20th-century totalitarianism and anyone who has ever belonged to a small political party will recognise the factionalism and in-fighting that seems almost inevitable in such a grouping.

Picture 131

Nikolay Gogol – Dead Souls

A rather gentler dispute between Russian and Ukraine than the current conflict concerns the writer Nikolay Gogol. Gogol was born in Poltava Province, now part of Ukraine, but in Russia when Gogol was born in 1809. Being of Ukrainian and Polish ancestry, Gogol could not be described as a truly ‘Russian’ writer and indeed spent much of his short life in Western Europe.

A troubled man who suffered both mental and physical problems, Gogol died at the age of 42, but left behind one of the great 19th-century works in the shape of Dead Souls. The souls in question are those of dead serfs, still current on census rolls, whose names are steadily bought up by the mysterious Chichikov. The idea is that the owners of the serfs will not have to pay tax on them and that Chichikov can present a long list of ‘his’ serfs to the authorities so that he can re-invent himself as a gentleman landowner.

If the plot sounds absurd, that is because it is. The cast of characters is no less absurd, full of chancers, conmen, windbags, fantasists and liars. The novel mixes down to earth reality alongside utter surrealism. Imagine Sterne’s Tristram Shandy being relocated to Russia and given a few further odd twists.

Gogol does not have the status of Dostoevsky, nor does he leave such a substantial body of work, but one can see the influence of Gogol on his younger contemporary in his scathing satire as well of his use of location.

Picture 132

Robert Musil – The Man Without Qualities

Try to imagine Ulysses being transferred to Vienna, but spread over several months rather than a single day, take away a few of the bars, shift the characters up a few social notches and you might begin to form a picture of Robert Musil’s gargantuan work.

Born in Klagenfurt in 1880, Musil studied science and philosophy before embarking on a short-lived military career and pursuing a life in writing after the publication of his first novel in 1906. It is, then, no coincidence that the central character of The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich, is (you’ve guessed it) a former soldier, scientist and philosopher.

After serving in the First World War, Musil devoted much of his life to his masterwork and indeed the book remained unfinished. Quite how far he would have taken it is difficult to imagine. The action – though there is not a great deal of ‘action’ – is set in 1913, with the great, good and not so good of Viennese high society trying to devise ways of celebrating the 70th jubilee of the Emperor Franz Josef.

In the midst of it all, but somehow aloof, stands the hero/antihero Ulrich. The novel veers between satire, social observation, stream of consciousness and philosophical debate as ‘the man without qualities’ watches the intrigues, plots and one-upmanship revolving around him.

The book, not surprisingly, was banned by the Nazis and Musil managed to escape to Switzerland in 1938, living there until his death four years later.

Picture 129

Milan Kundera – Ignorance

While this is not Kundera’s best-known work – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being would vie for the title – it is a book that has special significance for this writer. The novel was a central part of a dissertation in which the student was required to choose one work of fiction and one non-fictional work to compare and contrast literary styles. Kundera’s beautiful prose made the assignment much easier for this particular student.

Remarkable, then, that the original was written in French, Kundera’s second language. He was born in Brno, then in Czechoslovakia and now in the Czech Republic, but has spent much of his adult life in France. Thus there is something of an autobiographical feel to Ignorance, whereby Irena, a Czech émigré resident in France, returns to her homeland after the end of the Communist era. The result is a moving novel full of nostalgia, memories – both real and imagined – and, indeed, a certain amount of laughter and forgetting.

Like Joseph Conrad, Kundera knows only too well the pain of exile and like Conrad, is able to express all its attendant emotions in a language not his own.

Picture 127

Great Museums – The Hermitage

 The State Hermitage Museum, to give it its official title, is quite simply the finest in the world. With more than three million exhibits spread across its five interlinked buildings containing over 400 halls, it is not small. Those wanting a quick visit should allow at least four hours. If you’re looking for something more substantial, but are restricted to a single day, Wednesday has the longest opening hours, with a start at half-past ten and a closing time of nine o’clock in the evening. As is standard practise for museums all over the world, the Hermitage is not open on Mondays.

The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace

On entering, it’s wise to pick up a plan of the museum at the reception desk. This shows the layout of the halls and their numbers. It might seem a bit geeky to tick off the halls as you make your way through the museum, but it’s not the worst idea, as it’s all too easy to end up going round in circles. There is also the possibility of running into large groups, so there are some rooms that you’ll probably want to revisit once they are a bit quieter.

We're in!

We’re in!

Even if the extraordinary collections were to be removed, the visitor would still be stunned by the décor. The buildings would be worth seeing purely for their magnificence, particularly in the original Winter Palace. The famous Jordan Staircase is a flamboyant concoction of marble and gold and the Pavilion Hall is looked over by 28 crystal chandeliers. It’s worth taking a little extra time to look at the exhibition halls in their own right, as one can be overwhelmed by the art displayed within them and to miss the sheer beauty innate to the halls.

Jordan Staircase

Jordan Staircase

The Pavilion Hall is home to the astonishing creation that is the Peacock Clock. It was designed by the London goldsmith James Cox and presented to Catherine the Great in 1781. The clock still functions, the huge gilded peacock spreading its wings as the other attendant creatures also perform for astonished visitors.

The Peacock Clock

The Peacock Clock

While it’s tempting to head straight for the paintings, there is a fine collection of antiquities to see. The Greek, Roman and Egyptian discoveries would make for an impressive museum by themselves. There is also a spectacular collection of gold, silver and royal jewels in the aptly named Treasure Gallery.

Jupiter

Jupiter

The first floor is, essentially, a Who’s Who of art. There is a solitary work by Michelangelo, his sculpture Crouching Boy, and this is possibly the most photographed piece in the entire museum. The muscle definition on the figure is remarkable, though note the unfinished feet!

From Italy, Tintoretto, Leonardo, Lippi, Caravaggio and Canaletto. From Spain, Goya, Velazquez, El Greco and Murillo. Flemish art is represented in large numbers by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, various members of the Brueghel clan and Rubens. Duck Holiday was especially delighted to see a work by the Dutch artist Jacob Duck. Even Britain, a country not renowned for producing great artists, shows what can be done in the shape of works by Morland, Reynolds and Gainsborough.

The empresses Elizabeth and Catherine were notable Francophiles and this is reflected in the huge French collection. Only the Louvre holds more French art than the Hermitage. The Renoir portraits are especially noteworthy and include his delightful Young Woman with a Fan. Other types of fans, those of Impressionism and post-Impressionism will have a field day among the Monets, Matisses, Cezannes and Gauguins on the museum’s second floor. The Impressionist gallery is not solely French; Picasso and van Gogh also feature strongly.

Renoir

Renoir

As residents of Fife, it was pleasing to see nine portraits by the Fife native Christina Robertson. She was highly respected at the Russian imperial court in the middle of the 19th century and ended her days in St Petersburg. Her grave is in the city. There are also four works, including a self-portrait, by another woman, the renowned Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman.

Another Briton, George Dawe, painted portraits of no less than 329 generals who were engaged in the campaign against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Like Christina Robertson, he relocated to St Petersburg and his work can be seen in the Military Gallery.

Military Gallery

Military Gallery

Back among the Italian collection, look out for the superlative view of Venice created by Canaletto, bearing the snappy title The Reception of the French Ambassador Jacques–Vincent Languet, Compte de Gergy at the Doge’s Palace, 4 November 1726. There is an interesting little exercise to undertake here. Walk slowly back and forth in front of the painting and keep your eyes focussed on the buildings. Their distance from the edge of the painting seems to change as you go from side to side.

Canaletto

Canaletto

Another diverting little game for the visitor from Britain is to look out for the collection of art acquired from Houghton Hall. This was the Norfolk home of the British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose legacy was somewhat squandered by his successors. The collection was sold to Catherine the Great, but as a BBC4 documentary revealed recently, some sketches were found at Houghton Hall, showing not only the paintings, but where they were located in the house. The Hermitage generously agreed to a request for a loan of the collection, and for a year, the pictures were restored to their original places on the walls of Houghton Hall. They are now back in St Petersburg, but the visitor can see from where paintings were acquired by the descriptions accompanying them. A considerable number of them are by Van Dyck, including the many portraits undertaken during his time as court painter to Charles I in England.

There are, naturally enough, several shops within the museum. These sell a wide range of books, prints, gifts and other artefacts and are not, in general, particularly expensive. The potential visitor should note, however, that it’s advisable to have a good breakfast if you’re intending to spend all day at the Hermitage. The café is, quite frankly, a bit rubbish and the queues can be rather long. The prices aren’t outrageous, but it’s not really up to much. Far better to hold on for a decent meal in one of the many excellent restaurants in St Petersburg. There should, after all, be plenty to discuss over a pleasant dinner and a bottle of Georgian wine. It’s best to prepare for a long day, but it should be a richly rewarding day.

Moscow Metro – Subterranean Art

Moscow’s underground system is cheap, efficient and a very good way of getting around in a city populated by millions of people. Trains appear every couple of minutes and the twelve lines shift an astonishing average of seven million people a day. The metro is also getting bigger, with considerable expansion currently taking place and a number of new stations due to be open by 2020.

For the art lover, however, the metro is a treasure trove waiting to be explored. The range of artwork is remarkable and varies from station to station. Stained-glass windows, mosaics, bronze sculptures, marble statues and paintings catch the eye in the early stations of the metro system.

The Koltsevaya, or Circle, is probably the most famous of the lines. It is not the oldest, having being built in the early 1950s, but this was at the peak of the Stalinist architecture period and any of the twelve stations are worth a look.

Novoslobodskaya is particularly notable for its stained-glass panels, which in turn are set in beautiful marble columns and surrounded by ornate brass borders. The station also displays a large mosaic by the artist Pavel Korin.

Novoslobodskaya

Novoslobodskaya

Novoslobodskaya window

Novoslobodskaya window

Novoslobodskaya mosaic

Novoslobodskaya mosaic

The next stop, going clockwise round the circle, is Prospekt Mira. This is also adorned with white marble columns and the décor is on the theme of the development of agriculture in the Soviet Union.

Prospekt Mira

Prospekt Mira

Prospekt Mira chandeliers

Prospekt Mira chandeliers

One more stop brings us to Komsomolskaya, which stands out for its flamboyant, yellow Baroque ceiling. There is another outburst of marble columns and the station looks more like a St Petersburg ballroom than a Moscow underground station. Lenin looks out rather sternly from a bust at the end of the hall between the two platforms.

Komsomolskaya - Baroque alert!

Komsomolskaya – Baroque alert!

Komsomolskaya - Lenin

Komsomolskaya – Lenin

Komsomolskaya - it's that man again

Komsomolskaya – it’s that man again

Further round the circle, Kievskaya has a dazzling collection of even larger mosaics, set between marble arches and set under chandeliers that would not be out of place in an opera house. Another notable sight at Kievskaya is a large portrait of Lenin.

Uncle Joe's happy army

Uncle Joe’s happy army (Kievskaya)

Kievskaya - surely not Trotsky?

Kievskaya – surely not Trotsky?

Kievskaya - Vlad again

Kievskaya – Vlad again

Kievskaya - can't keep a good man down

Kievskaya – can’t keep a good man down

Kievskaya - wow!

Kievskaya – wow!

Away from the circle, on the Zamoskvoretskaya Line (green line), is the beautiful (and older) Mayakovskaya station. Changing from the circle at Belorusskaya, this is the next stop on the Zamoskvoretskaya, the columns in Mayakovskaya are particularly wonderful and the station has a charming elegance. This station has mosaics, too. They are in the ceiling and are firmly in the Soviet Realist tradition. The best view is obtained by lying flat on the ground and looking upwards, though this is only recommended when the station is fairly quiet.

Mayakovskaya

Mayakovskaya

Mayakovskaya - a ski jumper passes overhead

Mayakovskaya – a ski jumper passes overhead

One of the most famous stations requires another change of line. Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) station is on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line (blue line) and is another early 1950s construction. This is the ‘station of the bronze sculptures’, all 76 of them. Soldiers, workers, athletes and scientists stand guard at the two platforms and it is a remarkable sight. Note the statue of the guard with a dog whose nose has been discoloured and worn by the constant stream of people who rub it for good luck.

Ploshchad Revolyutsii - the glory of labour

Ploshchad Revolyutsii – the glory of labour

Ploshchad Revolyutsii - the glory of sport

Ploshchad Revolyutsii – the glory of sport

One other station (also on the on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line) worth a visit is Smolenskaya. It is another feast of white marble columns. The most striking artwork is a bas-relief entitled ‘The Defenders of Russia, depicting the Red Army, or at least a small portion of it, in action.

Smolenskaya station

Smolenskaya station

Smolenskaya - ceiling detail

Smolenskaya – ceiling detail

Smolenskaya - the Defenders of Russia

Smolenskaya – the Defenders of Russia

Trooping from metro station to metro station might seem, frankly, like a rather strange way of spending one’s time. However, some of the stations and their artwork are so stunning that it is worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. It’s good value too – assuming that you don’t leave any of the stations you visit, you’ll only need to buy a single ticket.

There are sometimes complaints from English speakers that there are no signs or announcements in English on the metro. For goodness’ sake, this is another country with its own language and script. Would these same people expect to see and hear Russian and Cyrillic on the London Underground? The Russian alphabet has only 33 letters, many of which are the same as in the Latin script. It is not that difficult and surely part of the pleasure of travelling is taking in new experiences. Exploration is much more rewarding when you have some idea of where you are going and a little bit of effort enhances the reward.

St Petersburg – All Baroqued Out

The train trip from Moscow is fast and comfortable, but is unlikely to find its way into a list of scenic rail journeys. The flatness of the countryside gives one the feeling of travelling across East Anglia or the Netherlands, but without any agricultural land or windmills to enliven proceedings. Four hours and ten minutes is impressively quick, though the non-stop trains reduce that time by half an hour. The Moskovsky railway station, twin of Moscow’s Leningradsky, awaits the traveller.

From the Moskovsky, which is very centrally situated, it’s a short hop to the most famous thoroughfare in St Petersburg, Nevsky Prospect. The street, long and straight, appears with regularity in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and despite its modern day plethora of unimpressive restaurants and faux English and Irish pubs, retains a certain grandeur.

The vast neo-Classical Kazan Cathedral is impossible to miss as you venture along Nevsky. Its design was based on St Peter’s in Rome. Shortly after it was built, the cathedral became essentially a monument to the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812. The two large statues outside the cathedral depict the victorious military commanders Kutuzov and de Tolly.

Kazan Cathedral

Kazan Cathedral

St Petersburg does not lack for cathedrals. The biggest is St Isaac’s, also a huge neo-Classical edifice, built some years after the Kazan. The oldest is the cathedral at the Peter and Paul Fortress and it is here that most of Russia’s emperors and empresses were buried. Even by the lavish standards of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Peter and Paul Cathedral is magnificently decorated and features an unusual and decorative iconostasis.

St Isaac's Cathedral

St Isaac’s Cathedral

Peter and Paul Cathedral

Peter and Paul Cathedral

It is, though, Baroque that dominates the city. Baroque is everywhere, and in the park near to St Isaac’s Cathedral is a beautiful little building that turns out to be…a public lavatory. Yes, even the toilets are Baroque.

Baroque bog

Baroque bog

At the other end of the size scale, but also undeniably Baroque, is the Winter Palace, the largest building of the complex that makes up the Hermitage. The Winter Palace was designed by the prolific architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who was responsible for many outstanding Baroque structures in Eastern Europe.

Winter Palace

Winter Palace

Ironically, while the Winter Palace and Hermitage are associated with Catherine II (‘the Great’), the empress was not a fan of the Baroque. It was the previous empress, Elizabeth, who commissioned the Winter Palace, as well as the Smolny Convent, where the empress intended to spend her final days as a nun. However, she died before the completion of the convent.

Another of Rastrelli’s great Baroque works is the Catherine Palace, situated in the town of Pushkin, about fifteen miles from St Petersburg. The present palace is not the original, built for Catherine I. It was completely rebuilt, on the orders of Elizabeth, by Rastrelli and is quite simply an outrageous, over the top, glorious and ridiculous monument to the excesses of imperial grandeur.

Catherine Palace

Catherine Palace

The Grand Hall is a breathtaking and vast ballroom of ornamentation, mirrors, chandeliers and gilded carvings. The Palace’s best-known room, though, is probably the Amber Room, now restored after being looted by the Nazis during the Second World War and taken to Königsberg. The refurbishment was, ironically, completed with amber from the Baltic region, much of it from the city of Kaliningrad, formerly known as the German city of Königsberg and now part of a small enclave of Russia,.

The Grand Hall

The Grand Hall

If the rooms at the palace are lavish, so too the grounds. Gardens, lakes and pavilions stretch out over a large area in a further display of aristocratic decadence. Strolling around the gardens, one noticeable feature is how tame many of the wild birds are, testament to the sheer number of visitors the palace attracts.

The Mariinsky Theatre rivals Moscow’s Bolshoi. It was named after its patron, the Empress Maria Alexandrovna and is a huge building that mingles the Baroque and Neo-Classical. There are regular operas, ballets and orchestral performances, though those wishing to view a performance should note that there is a second and new hall, the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall that is not as aesthetically pleasing as the original.

Mariinsky Theatre

Mariinsky Theatre

St Petersburg, like Moscow, is not cheap when it comes to dining out. It is, though, generally a little less expensive than the capital. Being quite a cosmopolitan place, there are plenty of options for the vegetarian. One of these is The Idiot, one of many establishments that tip their hat in the direction of Dostoevsky. There menu is varied, with a fine array of vegetarian options, including a delicious borsch. Prices are not extortionate; around 25 pounds for three courses and three beers is most respectable. The Idiot also sells very palatable Georgian wine.

The best-known Indian restaurant is Tandoor, which is, like The Idiot, close to St Isaac’s. The vegetarian options are a bit limited, but virtually next door is Tandoori Nights, which has an abundance of vegetable dishes. In an inversion of the usual situation, the beer here is relatively cheap.

There are several establishments that deal in beer, great quantities of it, in fact. Unfortunately, there seems to be something of an obsession for cod Irish and English pubs and while some of them at least have the decency to sell reasonably good beer, those with taste may prefer somewhere like the Craft Bier Café, where the atmosphere is more leisurely and civilised. With 40 or so beers on tap, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to find something to suit.

Those with extremely fussy palates can always try Pivnaya Karta (‘Beer Card’), which has an extraordinary selection of more than 400 different beers. For a nightcap – though definitely not as a session ale – try one of the array of Russian Imperial stouts on offer. Both Pivnaya Karta and the Craft Bier Café are close to Chernyshevskaya metro station, a blessing for over-indulgers.

The St Petersburg metro is relatively new, having started in the 1950s. It is growing ever larger, with further expansion planned. Because of the city’s location – it is essentially in the middle of a coastal wetland – most of the stations, even outlying ones, are very deep. As with Moscow, some of the stations are worth visiting purely from an aesthetic point of view. It is, though, one of the few ‘shallow’ stations that is perhaps the most attractive. Avtovo has a Neo-Classical façade and inside, there are white marble columns and ornate chandeliers, along with a mosaic depicting the blockade of the city from 1941 to 1944.

Two-metre Peter

Two-metre Peter

Those travelling to or from the airport will pass a war memorial and a brief schooling in the Cyrillic script will tell you that it refers to Leningrad, the name of the city from 1924 to 1991. A quick glance at your boarding card will reveal the airline code ‘LED’, so at least in international airline terms, the city retains something of its former name.

Lenin points the way

Lenin points the way

That sums up something of St Petersburg’s character. The city is full of statues; Peter the Great, Lenin, Gogol, Glinka, Catherine the Great, Gorky, Nobel, Dostoevsky, Nicholas I, Pushkin and a cast of many others. Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia, industrial Russia and cultural Russia all meet in St Petersburg. With its rivers, canals, beautiful buildings and wonderful museums, it is little wonder that so many people undertake that bureaucratic joy that is completing the form for a Russian visa.

Moscow – East Meets West

The official population of Moscow is just over 11 and a half million people. The real population is acknowledged to be somewhere around 15 million and during the journey from the airport to the city centre, it can feel like 90% of that number are on the roads.

Thankfully for locals and visitors alike, Moscow has an extensive and reliable metro system. The metro map is a colourful and easy to understand affair that acknowledges the brilliantly simple topological map designed for the London Underground by Harry Beck. Lines of different colours branch out from the centre and there is a circle – a genuine, concentric circle, as opposed to London’s squashed and wobbly circle – at the heart, Moscow’s circle line being brown rather than yellow.

Moscow’s underground is also a good deal cheaper than that of London, a single journey costing less than a pound, multiple journeys being even cheaper. Not only is the metro thoroughly efficient, with trains running every two minutes, it is also an alternative art gallery that can be visited for the price of a single ticket. Space limits further detail here, as this is a worthy of a full article at a later date.

Red Square - State Historical Museum

Red Square – State Historical Museum

However hard one tries not to be an obvious tourist, it’s almost impossible not to start with Red Square and the neighbouring Kremlin. The eye is naturally drawn to the crazy fairytale castle that is St Basil’s Cathedral. Even by the standards of the Orthodox Church, this is one weird building, defying any attempt to ascribe an architectural style to it. It almost seems as if Byzantine architects undertook a full-scale tour of India and the Far East before selecting the bits they liked best.

St Basil's

St Basil’s

The cathedral was, in fact, a collection of churches around a central one, further adding to its idiosyncratic nature. There are no services at the cathedral now. It functions as a museum and is almost certainly the most-photographed building in Moscow.

The towers of the Kremlin are also the subjects of many photos. There are 20 of them and no two towers are the same. The highlight of the Kremlin, though, is its Armoury. The name is something of a misnomer. It’s true that you will find weapons and armour here, but the Armoury contains much more.

The Armoury is the Kremlin’s museum and is packed with the trappings of imperial splendour. The collection of carriages, including sleds, is particularly impressive and it’s clear that the ruling dynasties spared no expense on their own comforts. The sheer weight of gold, silver, diamonds and gems is breathtaking. Perhaps only Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace houses a collection of such ostentatious wealth.

The Armoury

The Armoury

Among the array of imperial clothing is a pair of boots belonging to Peter the Great. The boots are very large, as indeed was their owner, who was believed to have been around six feet eight inches tall. Two metre Peter, in fact.

If the confectionary box that is St Basil’s no longer functions as a place of worship, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour most certainly does. Situated by the Moscow River, it is the world’s tallest Orthodox Christian church and its appearance owes something to the great church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia. The present church, however, is not the original. Stalin had the first reduced to a heap of rubble and the current building, astonishingly, is brand new. There is a strict security check for visitors, but this is designed not so much to stop the destructive urges of political leaders as to prevent idealistic young women with guitars performing protest songs inside the church.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Moscow has a fine and varied selection of museums. For Russian art, the Tretyakov Gallery is a must see museum. The vast majority of the 170,000 or so works are by Russian artists and the collection is strong on portraits. Naturally, emperors and empresses feature strongly, but for literature lovers, there are some real delights. The Kipresky portrait of Pushkin shows the poet in a gloriously Byronic pose, draped in a tartan shawl. Dostoyevsky is captured brilliantly by Perov, the writer seemingly caught in a moment of intense thought. A rather foppish Gogol is portrayed by Moller and the author’s New Romantic-style appearance was surely to provide some form of inspiration for the Human League’s Phil Oakey 140 years later.

Tretyakov Gallery

Tretyakov Gallery

The State Museum of Contemporary Russian History, still known by its former name of the Revolution Museum, is a substantial, though slightly chaotic and disorganised melange of exhibits from the failed revolution of 1905 through to the end of the Soviet era in the 1990s. With a touch of Russian ironic humour, the location is a building formerly known as the English Club, a place where the wealthy and privileged met in pre-revolutionary days before 1917.

Museum of Revolution

Museum of Revolution

Moscow has a reputation for being a very expensive place to visit and in some respects, this is true. It is certainly not cheap for eating and drinking in restaurants and bars. This is not too much of a problem if you are only there for a few days. For those staying for a longer period or those on very tight budgets, there is consolation. The prices in shops and supermarkets are considerably cheaper. For example, a half litre of beer in a pub might well set you back at least five pounds, but a half litre bottle in a shop shouldn’t cost more than a pound and may well be a good deal less. The same rule applies to food.

Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi Theatre

There are nine main railway stations in Moscow. One of the most attractive is the Baroque Belorusskaya, from where trains depart for – no shocks, here – Belarus and numerous countries to the west. The elegant Rizhsky runs trains to Riga and also houses the Moscow Railway Museum.

Trans-Siberian trains leave from the rather quaint Yaroslavsky station, one of three stations on Komsomolskaya Square. Kazansky provides services to the distant Russian cities of, yes, Kazan and Ekaterinburg. The St Petersburg trains depart from Leningradsky station. Passengers arriving at St Petersburg will find themselves looking at the station’s identical twin, the Moskovsky.

Those passengers include Duck Holiday, who will resume the story in St Petersburg.