"It was wrong, all wrong,"  I thought.

The outfits? Too Disney. The girl? Too much makeup. 

To top it off, if she were trying to portray a young Catherine the Great, with which this palace in Pushkin was usually associated, then she looked too Slavic to be Germanic. 

Indeed, her features were somewhat common, peasantly: she even had the famous Russian "duck nose," unlike the country's nobility, if physiognomic studies of portraiture were to be believed.

And what were they dancing, anyway? Mazurka? The Polonaise? Was this, at least, historically accurate? The latter, of course, was a sign of my own ignorance, but who'd want to admit that

There was something about the Rococo spirit of this place itself that made me feel rather haughty (more so than usual!). "Well, at least the lighting is nice," I finally admitted.

White Nights

With days waning and nights getting longer--it's even more apparent in the prairies than in the mountains--I realized that I never shared any White-Nights images from Russia's northern capital (apart from mobile shots on social networks).

In June, even after 10 o'clock at night, the sky remains light, and everything around--churches, statues, bridges, and you--acquires a honeyed glow. Couples stroll, and sea gulls hunt in this seemingly neverending golden hour, whereas austere stone looks as gilded as the dome of St. Isaac's cathedral eclipsing Saint Petersburg's skyline.    

Everything is reduced to two royal shades: blue and gold. 

This, perhaps, is one of the reasons Peter I chose this location to construct his imperial capital just over three hundred years ago.

A Real-Life "Russian Ark"

Whenever I mention that I've finally had the chance to visit the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg and, what's more--photograph it with virtually no one around (a rarity!), chances are that the subject of the Russian Ark comes up.

The film received substantial acclaim at the time of its release (2002). Created by a renowned director Sokurov using a single-sequence shot and featuring the music of Glinka, the Russian Ark offered an unusual and somewhat voyeuristic look at the 300-year history of St. Petersburg by traveling through the Winter Palace (now part of the Hermitage) and examining various episodes linked to the structure thereby weaving its cultural topography.

Truth be told, I remember the experience of viewing the film more than the film itself. After all: having relocated to Toronto, Canada at that time, this was my very first chance to attend a large bona-fide international film festival!

So the day I viewed the Russian Ark was the day that I discovered an entire world of worthwhile cinema outside of the Hollywood mainstream.  (Indeed, as I say all too often--that particular aspect of culture is the one thing I miss about living in a North American metropolis, and so I'm tempted to hop on a plane and go to Seattle or New York, Montreal or even Toronto itself.)

It was only a decade later that I got another chance--the chance to wander the almost-empty rooms and corridors of the Winter Palace early in the morning and feel a bit like the ghostly narrator of the Russian Ark. And like the Russian Ark--out of chronological order--this was a decade that occurred somewhere far away and comprised a lifetime of people, places, and never enough sleep, but seemed to pass by in a moment.

And what of St. Petersburg? Inevitably compared to Moscow as our "most European city,"  I was a bit concerned that it was, but it felt Russian enough.

It felt like home.

I say that as a staunch Muscovite, born and raised, and I think the Russian Ark helped!


The Crow of Peterhof

"I am a Eurasian hooded crow, just chilling here--literally--by the Gulf of Finland, hanging out outside of Peter the Great's palatial complex in Peterhof."

"I like it here up north: when it gets hot for those few days in the summer, I refresh myself in the royal fountains. How many avians can attest to that? In fact, I prefer the cascades perching atop golden Samson glistening in the sun. (His post-WWII replacement, that is, since the Nazis stole the real one, and it's never been recovered.)

And best of all, I watch silly tourists from all over the world attempting to toss coins into Peter's boots (those of his statue, but it might as well be real Peter, since he was nearly seven feet tall!). Their tour guides tell them that it's for good luck. Good luck for me--I've already amassed a small fortune from all the coins that missed!

So I'd retire in the Maldives, but I prefer the local climate. And besides, who's going to keep all the tourists in check?"


Farewell to Slavianka

June 7, 2013. It's nearly 11 o'clock at night, but completely light outside.

White nights in the St. Petersburg area. 

We are leaving Catherine's Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, having been wined and entertained (as I wrote earlier ) by a classical concert and a petite lady in red making an occasional appearance--and the walls of the great palatial hall shake with her operatic shrieks competing with a nightingale. 

Like this

It's always the tiny ones, isn't it? 


As I walk toward the gate, I am using my telephoto lens to shoot closeups of imperial heraldry over the palace with the dual-headed eagle and the black-gold-and-white flag.

Then I hear it. One of my favorite military marches!

The trumpeters who greeted us as we entered are now saying "goodbye" with, well, Farewell to Slavianka. The latter is an imperial-turned-Soviet march that now exists in numerous instrumental, vocal, and lyrical varieties. 

So when you look at the image below, this is what you should hear. Well, perhaps, you should envision a tank, too. And a bear, to make it extra-Russian! 


Criminal Physiognamy?

Peter-and-Paul is the original fortress of St. Petersburg constructed by Peter the Great on the shores of Neva River for the sake of defending the newly founded city. Today, it houses several museums and curiosities. One of them is the museum of medieval torture primarily focused on judicial corporal punishment in Europe and Russia in the late medieval and early modern period. Like many similar establishments, it contains both historic artifacts and wax models. Some of the latter are so realistic that they could be used in film and photography. 

I felt particularly inspired by one specimen that was meant to illustrate a Russian criminal with facial branding indicating the types of crimes of which he was convicted. So I sketched him:

Charming Kitsch

Had lunch. Then conquered a village. 


I've been using the word "kitsch" a lot lately, haven't I? Today's impromptu visit to Shuvalovka, an ideal reenactment of a traditional Russian village in the St. Petersburg area, was a welcome break from a heavily loaded schedule of a typical tourist. Named after the Shuvalov noble family, the village comprised quaint wooden houses with folk Russian carving, small cattle, amazing birds of prey like falcons and owls, birches--the quintessential Russian tree immortalized by the likes of Sergei Esenin, blacksmith's workshop, sauna, mill, and a wooden and brightly painted replica of a medieval Slavic ship!

Even my mobile photographs (though I took some with my fisheye lens as well) resemble Russian lacquer boxes with idyllic summer scenes of the country side. This village was a simulacrum that exists only in folk tales, and yet I wanted to stay.

Champagne at the Palace

For someone who generally prefers minimalism in interior design--such as yours truly--the exuberance of late Baroque and Rococo of Catherine's Palace in Tsarskoe Selo just outside of St. Petersburg can be overwhelming. In fact, the same could be said of many famous attractions in the former capital of the north. Yet it is precisely this level of exuberance that makes one appreciate its aesthetics despite having divergent taste. Best known for its Amber Room, we, too, felt a bit like royalty in the Palace, a certain degree of mandatory kitsch and artifice notwithstanding, as we were treated to a classical-music concert, which included Strauss and Brahms, among others, to go along with our champagne.

P.S. All images are mobile shots via an iPad.