After taking in the Kremlin’s immense, impersonal government buildings, arriving at Assumption Cathedral, which is tucked deeper inside, is like falling back in time. Its exterior is a battered, undressed stone that evokes a pre-Christian desert landscape. And its interior — every square inch — is covered in jewel-hued frescoes that tell the story of the church. These aren’t like the frescoes in Renaissance churches, that open windows into fictive space. These are paintings stacked one upon the other, wrapping the walls and crawling up onto the ceiling vaults. Populated with flattened figures in airless gold backgrounds, they’re like very sacred cartoons, rich with knowledge from another age.
The way the embellishment overwhelms the architecture made me think, as I had many, many times during my trip, that Russia not part of Europe but part of Asia. In many ways the country reminds me of India. It’s huge, deeply diverse in culture, and moving boldly into the new century while also remaining stubbornly the same. In Moscow there’s a barely-concealed sense of chaos coursing below the streets that once senses could, at any moment, simply erupt. This latent (and sometimes not) disorder seems like an essential part of the culture.
I went to Florence and didn’t see the Uffizi, I went to Brugge and didn’t see the Leonardo Madonna, and I went to Moscow and didn’t see Lenin’s Tomb, though it was no fault of my own — that part of Red Square was closed off to prepare for a national holiday. But I felt more torn up about not seeing the house of modern architect Konstantin Melnikov, which had been preserved as a museum like the John Soane house in London. Melnikov’s house, just off Arbaty, Moscow’s main shopping street, was closed. Nonetheless I lingered around the sidewalk in front and took some unremarkable through-the-fence-and-foliage photos of it.
A gentleman passing by explained that Melnikov’s family owned the house and were currently raising funds to have it refurbished. It looked terribly run down, with peeling paint and boarded windows, and spookily overgrown trees and bushes. The house consists of two cylinders stacked like the figure 8 in plan. They’re built entirely of brick, and adorned with rows of small, space-age hexagonal windows. Only the back of the house, which faces a yard, is opened with a large picture window. From archival photos what’s most fascinating is the way the acoutrements of everyday life (curtains, tables, lamps) rest so uneasily inside the structure. At Soane’s house there’s no distinction between architecture and furnishing, between building and life; the place is one thick, voluptuous substance. The Melnikov House seems inviolable, as if it wouldn’t lend itself so easily to occupation.
I had a high school history teacher who told us that history was a story, and another who told us that history was people. I would like to believe the latter. Visiting the Armoury Chamber, the Kremlin’s national history museum, I was mesmerized by those objects (robes, slippers, mirrors, thrones, carriages, … ) that had been belonged to the tsars and tsarinas. There’s a pair of black leather over-the-knees boots worn by Peter the Great when he was supervising the construction of St. Petersburg, whose size (they nearly reached my hips) gives a sense of how Great he really was. They’re punkish, with chunky heels and a soft patina, covered with a film of St. Petersburg muck. And they’re both identical, because, apparently, while the Russians had the ability to dredge the canals of St. Petersburg, they didn’t have the ability to design left and right shoes.
Most enchanting were the objects of the young tsars. There’s a sleigh carriage used by Peter’s son Alexey, whose small size (it is also hip-high) gives it a toy-like grace. It’s windows are sealed with micah rather than glass, which must have given the boy a strange, softened view of the world outside. Because of uncertainties in succession the Russians sometimes crowned boys tsars and, at least once, in 1682, two at the same time. That was when Peter (he was ten) was crowned alongside his less robust brother Ivan (he was fifteen). Inside the museum there’s the lovely twin throne they shared at the coronation. And there are the crowns they wore: the traditional Crown of Monomakh (above) for Ivan and, for Peter, a smaller, fancier replica. They’re dreamy. To see them is to feel, whatever one’s political inclinations, like a royalist.
Though St. Petersburg is extravagantly picturesque, offering the pedestrian winding canals, candy-colored buildings, and fancy-capped churches each way she turns, I’ll remember the city for the decoration of its interiors, particularly the stonework in its churches.
Inside Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral on the island fortress, there are monolithic tombs for Alexander II and Empress Maria carved from deep green jasper and mottled pink rhodonite whose otherworldly hues and markings befit a tsar and his wife. The chunks of stone are very literally magnetic, drawing one forward. The inside of the Cathedral of Our Lady of St. Kazan is crowded with religious paintings, gilded trim, brass chandeliers, wreaths of lit candles, bearded priests, and praying babushkas. And the walls and floors are lined with stones the likes of which I have never seen before. The floor is a mosaic of different dark, tumultuously-patterned varieties, the tiles of each worn to different depth because of its unique hardnesses. There are pilasters flanking the altar carved from lapis lazuli and malachite, their blue and green the strongest, purist colors I’ve ever seen. It’s suddenly obvious why the stones are precious, and why they’re employed here in the service of the divine. There’s something in the way strongly colored and patterned stones are used so liberally in (many are mined in the Urals) that’s particularly revealing. The stone isn’t subservient to the architecture or ornament; it remains a substance with marvelous properties.
One thing I did not see nearly enough of in Russia was Bad Communist Architecture. You know, the sort of overbearing, rationalist, concrete megaliths we associate with the cold war. There were, in the parts of St. Petersburg I visited, precious few communist-era buildings to be seen, and those were sedately neoclassical. The entire city seems to have been restored to its picturesque eighteenth-century origins. It wasn’t until we arrived at St. Petersburg’s Moscow Station (Moskovsky Vokzal) that I found what I’d been searching for.
While the main station is from the nineteenth century, the small hall from which we departed is from 1912. It’s a simple concrete shell with bare walls, clerestory windows, and a triangulated concrete ceiling, anchored by a giant bust of Peter the Great raised on a pillar right in the middle. (The bust was added in 1993.) Light from the clerestories threw delicate shadows across the concrete, giving the entire space a special softness. The design isn’t terribly complicated (just compare this ceiling to the triangulated concrete ceilings of Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery), but it’s simple, handsome and well-proportioned. Peter the Great’s presence is a bit bombastic but adds warmth, focus, and a sense of history. Maybe without it the hall would have felt exactly like one of the sturdy, unglamorous communist buildings I was romanticizing.
If you love a man or woman in a uniform, then you will love the crowds of them milling about Plaza Square in St. Petersburg, near the naval training academy (Admiralty). Both the men and women wear dark olive jackets embellished with red trim. The men top off the look with big, round concave hats that rise dramatically in front and frame their faces like halos. (Their shape reminds me of the asymmetrical bowls that trendy pan-Asian restaurants serve noodles in.) The men in the city’s police force wear similar hats, in black. The women soldiers and officers, rather sadly, wear peaked flight-attendant-style caps that don’t do justice to their powerful roles.
After arriving in Russia I was starved to see those things that were authentically Russian, and these hats struck me so. They’re modern, exotic, and old-school communist. Each time I saw a man wearing one I had to stop and stare and say a silent prayer in appreciation. It’s easy to sport a hat that’s practical (like a knit skullcap) or fashionable (like a baseball hat). But the men wearing these sloping-bowl-hats are going out on a limb, wearing an accessory, like a bustle or heels, that isn’t absolutely necessary and that requires considerable poise. In St. Petersbirg the men in uniform are participating hard in fashion.
After seeing the rooms of the Winter Palace, two Leonardo da Vinci canvases, and twenty-six Rembrandt canvases, museum fatigue set in and I was ready to leave the Hermitage. Just then our guide dropped us off on the third floor, where the modern paintings are, and my energy level exploded. The thirty-seven small galleries here are crammed with pieces from Picasso, Chagall, Cezanne and other masters. They rival the selection of modern paintings on display at MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago.
At the heart of the collection are a number of groundbreaking works by Henri Matisse, including Dance and Red Room. Seeing Dance for the first time, after knowing it from reproductions, was convulsive. It’s huge, like a mural, and rendered in sour, unpretty reddish hues. Seen at this scale, practically life-size, the flatness of the rendering is incredibly brazen. It’s not pictorial really and not graphic really and yet it depicts a world that is, dramatically and spatially, complete. The canvas was coursing with energy, as if it would burst from the wall. (It would certainly benefit from being moved to a larger gallery.) My favorite Matisse was Game of Bowls, a smaller canvas that shows three boys playing on the lawn. The composition is simple, strange and calm. There is something primal about the means — smears of color — with which the boys are rendered, and with which their joy is captured. Standing in front, I felt the jolt that turn-of-the-century Parisians must have felt when encountering modern painting for the first time.
There are museums and then there is the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Even the names of its rooms make magic, like The Twenty-Column Hall, The Raphael Loggias, and The Blackamoor Dining-Room. The galleries are so opulent that the collections of artwork they house, which are superb, might be beside the point. This museum is an immense, multi-courtyarded complex that overlooks Plaza Square on one side and the Neva River on the other. On the outside, it’s formidable, with an endless facade that’s been restored to a delicate tint of blue-green that evokes both sea and sky.
On the inside, particularly in those rooms that were originally part of the Romanovs’ Winter Palace, it’s decorated with fairytale splendor. To visit the Hermitage is to move from one astoundingly furnished gallery to the next. They are dressed with gilded and coffered and vaulted ceilings, tapestries and bas-reliefs, wood parquetry and tile mosaics, and chandeliers exploding with crystals. There doesn’t seem to be any architecture present — every surface dissolves into ornament. And the ornament is executed with such fineness that it’s never over-sweet; it all seems, somehow, entirely appropriate. (The ornament seems, also, more Asian in spirit than European.) The highlight might be St. George Hall, the room where the Romanovs held their coronations. It’s finished in a frosted palette of blue and white, with gold accents that shimmer in the white daylight. The museum’s astonishing interior design that offers a seamless dream of royal Russia.