A voyage to Russia in 1908 & 1965 (2)

Nevsky Prospect Leningrad 1960s
(thanks Transpress N.Z.)
This is the second part of an anonymous diary found in our archives (see part one.) It was written first by a young woman of about 20 in 1908. Here she returns in her mid 70s (by plane.) Leningrad has since become St. Petersburg and the Astoria has become very expensive...

Sunday 12th September, 1965

 Perfect flight from London taking less than seven hours including half-an-hour at Copenhagen. Wonderful cloud effects. We spent ages waiting at the Leningrad customs. On reaching the hotel Astoria unpacked and changed. We had an excellent luncheon at 1 o'clock; sprats, not unlike sardines, Chicken Kiev. Separate course of peas, (not very good) grapes. A white wine and a red wine. The latter good, the white not interesting.

 In the afternoon we went to St.lsaac's Cathedral, a monster of vulgarity - everything gilt or malachite, except two elegant columns of lapis and a wooden model of the cathedral; these were the only things that pleased me.
We had a good dinner, but oh, the slowness of the service! We went to bed early.

Monday 13th September

 In the morning we all drove in a large omnibus round Leningrad, while our charming guide, Elena
described the splendid buildings and who had built them; what they had been used for; what they are now used for. The outside of the Winter Palace, not part of the Hermitage, is all green and white and exquisite, being perfect Russian Baroque. The use of colour also in the great classic palaces is lovely - some are pale yellow or orange or blue and with white; lovely in proportion and built almost always towards the end of the 18th century. The great width of the river, the spaciousness of the lay-out of the city, the beauty of the buildings, makes Leningrad probably the loveliest city I have seen.

 After luncheon, which took an immensely long time during which we didn't get a great deal to eat, we went with our guide to the Hermitage where Monsieur Loevinson-Lessing, the Deputy Director of the museum, who had received a letter from Francis Watson introducing us, 'laid down six red carpets' and we were given a royal reception, were allowed to go anywhere, were shown in detail the marvellous rooms, and the many rooms containing the Scythian gold, after which we just glanced at the Italian pictures. Monsieur Loevinson-Lessing is a most charming old man, speaking perfect English, and we talked for quite a while in his own room. The Scythian gold, to which madame Edovina, (pronounced Yedovina, an enchanting woman and, apparently, Monsieur Loevinson-Lessing's right hand helper, she is always in his office) introduced us, then left us with an English speaking young girl, attached to the Hermitage, who was an expert on the Scythian gold. These objects date from 600 B.C. and are of staggering beauty, both in imaginative design and in incredibly perfect workmanship. My favourite object was the running deer. But all the other objects were of outstanding beauty; I am placing other photographs of the Scythian gold in the packet at the end of these notes. All are of great interest and beauty.

 We then had a short turn through the first rooms of the Italian Primitives. The picture that appealed to me most was a Madonna by Simone Martini; it is a very small picture which, immediately I saw it, made me think of my Madonna by the Master of the Bargello Tondo, though the Simone was painted one hundred years earlier.

 In the evening, after an early but prolonged meal of only one course each, but immensely costly, we went to the Circus. I loathe performing animals - but the troop of dogs, the innumerable bears, looking happy and in splendid condition, were the only performing animals. We had, thank God, no 'tamed and shabby tigers' - no lions, no elephants. The trapeze performers, as usual, made me feel ill; the clowns were disgusting and occupied half the programme, the acrobats and jugglers were superb. Though I am glad that I have been to this celebrated circus, nothing would lure me there again.

 Gratefully at midnight I lay down in my bed.

Tuesday 14th September

 A wonderful morning at the Hermitage seeing the most splendid Rembrandts, room after room of them, and the Houghton Van Dykes. Again we were received by Monsieur Loevinson-Lessing and Madame Edovina. Another English speaking young girl, attached to the Hermitage and specializing in painting, accompanied us, and showed us pictures not available to the public.

 After luncheon, as the sun was shining, we drove to Peterhof, where the (literally) thousand of fountains and gilded statues, and the trees, the Palace itself and the Gulf of Finland, spreading out at the end of great series of walks, combine to make this a mere fairy tale Palace than any Palace I have ever seen.

 On returning David Carritt took me to the flat of a famous Russian architect named Kraminski who had supervised most of the restoration of the great Leningrad buildings which the Germans had bombed. Leningrad was besieged by the Germans for three years but never gave in. During these three years nearly a million people died defending their great town, or died from bombs or from starvation. Monsieur Kraminski was a most charming, cultivated old man.    Here is an account from 'House and Garden' of his two roomed flat:

The flat of an Architect.

 'He has specialized for years in the restoration of the historic houses and churches of Leningrad and its environs. He is incomparably erudite on his subject, and knows and loves every stone of the original eighteenth and nineteenth century city, and just about every object in its many museums. He has collected fine furniture of the Paul I and Alexander I periods (late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,) charming pictures and objets d’art and many hundreds of books, which he appears to know by heart. A Bokhara carpet brightens that universal standby, the parquet floor.

 He lives in two communicating rooms in the six-roomed flat which was once his mother's (his wife, a doctor, died recently.) It is now a communal flat. In the other four rooms live two families and two single women; they all share one kitchen, one bathroom and one lavatory.

 One of his rooms is used as a dining-living room; the other one as a bed-sitting room. It is the latter which is shown opposite. A bed and a wardrobe are concealed by the screen; a second bed has a daytime life as a settee. Both of his rooms have that atmosphere which comes from personal possessions chosen with discriminating taste, and cherished over the years. There is a splendid chandelier in deep blue glass and bronze, an English grandfather clock, a Gothic screen, a fine glass-fronted bureau, handsome chairs and everywhere books .... books on architecture and art, as well as all the Russian classics, and the works, in translation, of that favourite British trio, Shakespeare, Dickens and Oscar Wilde (probably a Sherlock Holmes somewhere, too.)'

 His wife, a Doctor, died recently, and when he talked of her he wept and found my shoulder a sympathetic place on which to weep. Had he been English I fancy that I should have found this rather embarassing, but oddly enough, I just felt maternal and made consoling noises and movements.

 We dined at the Europa - an infinitely more agreeable hotel than the Astoria. When, or perhaps, I should say, if, I ever come again to Leningrad I shall insist upon staying at the Europa.

Wednesday 15th September

 We spent the morning at the Hermitage seeing the Italian pictures. Had a snack luncheon of caviar on bread at the Hermitage, and in the afternoon saw the French pictures, though, alas, many of the Impressionist and earlier French pictures were on loan to France.

 These collections are housed in the Winter Palace itself, which is composed of a series of vast rooms of the greatest ornate beauty. The pictures I now recall most vividly apart from the little Simone Martini, are a Giorgione ‘Madonna and Child,’ two small Botticelli paintings of ‘St. Jerome’ and ‘St. Dominic’ - perhaps they had been the side panels of a triptych, and a da Vinci ‘Madonna and Child’. There was also a portrait of a woman with a glorious deep golden brown drapery by Dosso Dossi, and a splendid portrait by Correggio of a serene woman in a most beautiful black and white dress. I should like to have that dress copied, and then peacock about in it at a great party in our old house in South Street!

 But perhaps the two Italian pictures I coveted most were a St. Sebastian by Titan, a large picture, painted with such freedom that every square inch of the painting could have been taken out and framed as a fragment of lovely painting, and a small ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Veronese, of exquisite beauty.

 The French paintings somehow did not move me so much, though I recall an enchanting small Watteau of a boy with a marmoset, and two Chardins.

 There were rooms of Picassos, rooms of Bonnards, rooms of Van Goghs, rooms of Gaugins, rooms of Derains, rooms of Matisses. The Renoirs, I think, are now on loan to Bordeaux, and then go on to Paris.

 The Impressionist picture that I loved most, although there were splendid Cezannes among these endless canvases, was a small painting by Monet (1866) of a woman with a parasol in a garden.

 There were also many very important French twentieth century pictures, yet none of these did I want to possess: my tastes are undoubtedly not contemporary.

 On returning to the Astoria we drove to the Europa hotel for dinner. After dinner we spoke to a charming couple, a Mr and Mrs Deskey (or Desbey) chiefly because my fellow travellers wanted to know their nationality; they gave me their address, Blanesfield House, Kirkeswald (?) Ayrshire, but I doubt if they were Scottish.

 It is surprising how little people resent an elderly, rather dowdy, but obviously respectable lady, coming, out of the blue, to speak to them.

Thursday 16th September

 First I should say something about the weather. When we arrived on Sunday the 12th the skies were dark and rain fell. The dreary weather continued until the afternoon of September 14th when we went to Peterhof, where the benediction of the sun shone on the vast fountains and the golden statues. Since then the sun has shone every day, but not until to-day have I seen a Russian sky so deeply blue, or Russian sunshine so golden.

 In the afternoon we dove out to the Pushkin museum, the breath-taking Palace, formerly Tsarkoie-Selo, a vast rococo, two-storeyed building, the outside painted blue and white, with all the great stucco figures and ornaments waiting to be gilded. During the three years’ siege of Leningrad the Germans lived in this Palace and, on leaving, filled it with incendiary bombs. Most of the rooms were destroyed by fire, and much of the great front, ornamented with caryatids and splendid stucco motifs joining up the windows, was also wrecked. But the original drawings by Rastelli and Cameron were safely in the National archives, and in the last twenty years, phoenix-like reconstruction has taken place, and craftsmen of the highest quality have raised up, from a burnt wreck, a Palace of incredible beauty.

 Alas, there used to be an "amber room," the whole walls panelled with carved amber, similar to the amber caskets at Bodnant - an "agate room," a "lapislazuli room" and a "silver room." These I fear can never be replaced, but the quantity of tables with lapis-lazuli or malachite or inlaid marble tops, and splendid furniture remain, for they were carried away to safety from Tsarkoie-Selo, the last load leaving just as the Germans arrived.

 We had a luncheon of sandwiches at the little Pushkin Museum bar, and then drove to the enchanting Palace Pavlovsk. Cameron designed most of it, and he also designed a delightful Gallery, like a long Orangerie with windows on both sides, where statues stood between the windows and where the ladies of the Court took exercise on rainy days.• The lake nearby is fed by pipes bringing water, and beside the lake is a delightful, small building, 'The Hermitage.' (The kitchen to serve 'The Hermitage' is two or three hundred yards away.)
 The Palace of Pavlovsk is composed of a flat central building with two great curved wings - all painted yellow and white. The curved wings contain room after room of small, ravishingly pretty rooms, decorated in lovely colours and containing very good Empire furniture. In these curved wings there is also on one side a great curved library, on the other side a great picture gallery, and outside each of these curved galleries are open air galleries covered with trellis work.

 The restoration here, again, confounds me. The beauty of the restoration; the wood carving, stucco, painting etc., - the colours, matched and put back, are breath taking. •. . God bless the keepers of the Archives who preserve such details, and craftsmen who can re-make them.

 Dined at the Astoria; food poor and service worse than usual.

Sunday 19th September

 We went to the Cathedral of St.Nicholas built from plans by Rastrelli in 1753. It is all blue with five golden domes and inside there is a lavish use of gold, both in the lower Church (the crypt?) and the great Church above. This is the only Greek Orthodox Cathedral functioning in Leningrad. In the lower Church dozens of babies, infants and older children, were being baptised, the infants wrapped in swaddling clothes, with blue ribbons for the boys, pink for the girls. In the main Church above, the Litany and Mass was being sung by most glorious voices. A Slav language, not Russian, is the language of the Church services, now known as the 'Church language.' The congregation was of rivetting interest: they completely filled the Church and unceasingly made the sign of the cross and bowed, touching the stone pavement with their foreheads. Towards the end of the service the sacramental wine was given, not only to men and women, but to tiny children of, perhaps, two years of age, who were brought to the priest in their mother's arms. Later piles of scraps of paper were delivered to two priests with the names of those who were ill, or of the dead, to be remembered during the mass. All the time the glorious choir sang in voices of the greatest beauty.

 All this we saw from an upper gallery where some head guardian of the Cathedral had shepherded us.

 We learned that the Cathedral and its services are supported entirely by the offerings of the congregation. These offerings pay for all that is needed - such as new vestments, etc. and what is left over is divided among the priests. In no country, anywhere, have I seen such signs of religious fervour. I noticed that there were about thirty women to every man; but this country seems to be run by women - they clean the streets, tend the gardens, sit as guardians in every room of every museum, where they are eagle-eyed; a finger near an object is firmly, but politely checked, and a foot on the marble floor, not on the carpet, earns a small rebuke. Women also manage the restaurants: there are few waiters, and women sit in the bureaux.

Monday 20th September

 In the morning we went to the School of Art, housed as usual in a lovely ex-Palace, where the room of Russian stoves, from early days to Empire stoves, appealed to me more than anything else. We were able to make a very brief visit as Francis Hawcroft was suffering from the beginnings of a dreadful chest cough. To-day he is drowning in a head cold.

 After enduring the School of Art, we went to the only antiquaire in Leningrad, which was crowded with Russian people. I burdened mysekf with a terracotta - French or perhaps Italian - about 1800, I think, of Una and the Lion from Spencer’s Faery Queen. I couldn’t resist acquiring this, for it seemed such an odd object to find in Leningrad. I am packing it among my clothes but probably it will be in fragments when I arrive in London.

 After lunching at the Astoria we went to the Hermitage to say good-bye to the charming director Monsieur Loevinson-Lessing and to Madame Edovina. We then saw the Flemish and German pictures, and also some of the five thousand pictures, not shown in the galleries, which are hung on great screens that one pulls out, up in the top storey. These pictures are most ingeniously stored and easily shown.

Tuesday 21st September

 In the morning we went to the Palais des Beaux Arts, where there is a fantastic collection of beautifully executed models in cork made for Catherine the Great; these are of classical buildings, because, not being able to travel, she wished to see the beauties of Roman buildings. And there were also eight feet high models of all the great Russian churches. These models open in the middle, so that one can walk through them and see the inside of the buildings.

$$  It has arrived safely. Mr Andrew Ciehanowiecki has given me the name of the Italian artist, circa 1800, who designed and signed the model.

 In the afternoon we drove out to Oranianbaum. The outside of the Palace is disappointing but the small blue and whirr Pavilion from which started the 'Montagne Russe' was ravishingly pretty. The 'Montagne Russe' was a gigantic up and down switchback, a wooden slide, stretching from the Pavilion, between avenues of trees, for nearly a quarter of a mile; now alas, it has decayed and vanished. Blackpool has never seen the like.

 We took sleepers about midnight to Moscow.

MOSCOWWednesday 22nd September

 The morning was spent in tedious waits to see if we could not leave the terrible Ukraine Hotel for the Nationale Hotel for which we had booked. Impossible: the State had taken over the Nationale for some delegation.

 In the afternoon we saw the Treasury in the Kremlin and in the evening went to a lovely performance of "La Dame au Pique" at the Bolshoi Theatre. The ugliness of much of Moscow makes me long to be back in Leningrad.

Thursday 23rd September

 In the morning we went to the Pushkin museum, where there are wonderful Cezannes, Monets, etc., and eighteenth century pictures collected by Serge Schutkin and Ivan Moresov who were the two great collectors of Impressionist pictures in the Hermitage and in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

 The Monet picture (Déjeuner) is outstandingly beautiful.

Friday 24th September

 Drove out to the only functioning male seminary in Western Russia, Zagorsk. The drive to Zagorsk is over flat, flat, flat country, with, from time to time dark pine woods, lightened by birch trees, breaking the flat plain. So, from a distance, one sees Zagorsks' blue onion domes covered with golden stars silhouetted against the skies. On arriving at Zagorsk one sees a great white wall surrounding the whole seminary, making it an enclosed city. Inside are five or six churches of different centuries, the earliest being, I think, of the 11th century. Black robed, black bearded, black hatted priests walk through this walled city, not looking pleased or welcoming to their visitors. The singing in the Churches is beautiful, but here the congregation, not a choir, answers the priests' beautifully sung, invocations. (This is not the right description, but, late at night, it is the best I can do.)

 In Zagorsk again, the priests live on the offerings of the faithful, and on selling relics: bones of Saints. (If rabbits get scarce in Russia what will the priests do for sacred relics? Thank God that cats are scarce, and, when seen, well cherished.)

 We had a very good luncheon at a small restaurant, the "Sever."

 Took the night sleeper back to lovely Leningrad.

LENINGRADSaturday 25th September

 Went to the Hermitage where dear Madame Edovina showed us all the treasures found in a tomb of an Altai nomad. We saw the mummified Chieftain, his horses, his sarcophagus, his furniture, carpets, gold ornaments for his horses, clothes, boots, etc. - all about 500 B.C. The carpets were beautiful both in design and workmanship.

 In the afternoon we re-visited Peterhof, where I left the others and examined more closely the statues and lovely fountains: marvellous.

Sunday 26th September

 Left the Astoria at 7 a.m. Had to spend about four hours at the airport, as the fog prevented our aeroplane landing - it had started from Moscow, and when it finally arrived the pilot was too exhausted to take us further than Copenhagen where we dined and spent the night, very comfortably at the Palace Hotel. Boarded our home-bound aeroplane at the airport at 10.45 a.m. Arrived at 11 p.m. at Gatwick airport after rather a bumpy flight.

 I confess that at the Leningrad airport there was a moment when Siberia loomed before me for I had lost a green paper; my permit to leave Russia, and the official said that I must return to Leningrad to apply for another permit. However I made the official laugh by explaining how very very old and fragile I was and by telling him how hard I had worked all my life, far harder than most Russian women. I described, with actions, how I had been a ballet dancer, had played the violin, had had five children etc., My miming amused him so much that he relented and gave me another green permit, also a wet kiss on my arm. No one in the queue behind minded this long conversation for everyone knew that we had hours to get through before the aeroplane would arrive, but I had to answer many questions as to what I had been discussing. I thought it wiser not to give the real reason so said that I wasn't allowed to reveal anything but that it had been important, as, indeed it had been to me! I rather fancy that those who didn't know me believed that I was in 'Intelligence.'


 This journey has been immensely interesting and rewarding. And I want to record the differences, all to the good, that I am aware of between the St.Petersburg I visited in 1908 and Leningrad to-day. To begin with one cannot imagine a cleaner, better cared for city than Leningrad: St. Petersburg was very dirty; thick mud lay on the roads; dust and paper blew about in the streets. The cabs, the droshkies, were shabby and not clean, their drivers, very far from clean. The rich drove by in grand carriages while the streets were crammed with the poorest looking people, apart from Moroccan beggars, that I have ever seen. Their clothes were ragged, often their shoes, when they had them, were pieces of cardboard or paper tied round their feet with string, and they looked fierce, yet ill; they frightened me. To-day the people in Moscow and Leningrad are dressed in good clothes, look well-fed and happy, smile a great deal and talk unceasingly. The children are charming. Groups of young children of different aged wearing bright clothes come to the gardens with one teacher for each group, who start them off playing games. They seem to be quite uninhibited but have good manners; they certainly enjoy themselves. Older children, as do masses of grown-ups, stream through all the many museums, in which they seem to take the greatest interest. There are few cinemas, no public houses, no bingo halls, so, perhaps, gazing at their property, once Ducal possessions, is their relaxation.

 I noticed a strange phenomenon. All the middle-aged and elderly men have the thick, short, squat bodies of peasants. Their children, young soldiers and sailors, are tall, with good figures and handsome faces. The girls, too, are very different in shape from their ungainly grandmothers, or even mothers. Is this all due to a better diet, or has Dr Pavlov or some scientist, discovered a new growth pill?

 If only the Soviet Government would concentrate on governing their vast slice of the world, and not try to control, or influence democratic countries such as Britain, I would be a thousand per cent for them. If they attempt to 'take over' Britain I will fight them to the last ditch, or niche. Meanwhile I honour and applaud them for what they have done for the People of Russia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *