Sunday June 4
We make our way again to Tsarskoye Selo, the palace of Catherine the Great, determined to see the Amber Room. We do so, but under less-than-ideal circumstances. We can’t wander through the palace like The Hermitage; groups are only allowed in on tours. Visitors are allocated a portable radio, tuned to a tour guide who describes the palace in Russian. We could’ve got an audio-guide in English, but we didn’t know we needed one. We try to leave the tour and skip ahead, but we’re told by one of the many room attendants (by gesture) that we’re going to wrong way. So we stick with the tour and see room after room of opulent, decadent, baroque dining, dancing and study rooms. The Amber Room is the highlight: made entirely from chips of amber, it forms picture frames and actual pictures in shades of orangey-gold. It was destroyed during the Nazi occupation, and a German gas company has entirely funded the restoration. Reparations work very differently these days. I don’t learn very much else, other than that I’m beginning to tire of tsarist playgrounds:
We take a minibus back into town and go to St. Isaac’s cathedral, up the colonnade to get some views of the city.
Then we walk to find an internet cafe. At the Kazan Cathedral, an aged concrete copy of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, complete with a half-crescent of columns:
We wander inside, M. choosing to ignore the ‘cover your head’ rule. The interior is dark – the brilliant nighttime sunlight (more on that later) not illuminating much inside. It lends the candles a beautiful glow, reflected on the wizened faces of souvenir-sellers and candle-snifters. There’s a constant chant, presumably in Latin, from an unseen priest; the brown and grey columns rise to the picture of clouds on the ceiling; Mary and the baby Jesus, and orthodox saints pointing to heaven with one finger, are everywhere. The silver altar isn’t sculpture but paintings. I always think churches are great places to admire the art and architecture and forget the heavy religiosity that inspires them; although, to be accurate, this isn’t about someone’s personal connection with God, far from it. It’s about the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was briefly tempered in the 1930s when the cathedral was turned into a ‘Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism’. I would’ve loved to have seen that, and it bothered me that the leaders of the God-fearing had got their hands on it again.
That night we had sweet-cheese perogies and mushroom perogies from the supermarket, bought at 10:30pm – it was still crowded at that hour.