Along with three days of screenings of a selection of 20 Russian indies available for distribution, Roskino packed our schedule with tourist activities. Each day started with a fab breakfast smorgasbord at Moscow’s Hotel Baltschug Kempinski; after the morning screenings, a lovely salad lunch was served around 2 in the afternoon at the red brick Digital October complex. The screenings often wound up with folks nodding through slow sections, especially in the late afternoon, when jet lag kicked in. And every night we repaired to a four-star restaurant dinner (and for the hardy, late night clubs).
Russia is a fascinating culture in transition. Capital Moscow, at least, as opposed to St. Petersburg, doesn’t seem to welcome tourists; security guards are everywhere, more per square inch than anywhere I’ve ever seen. I felt a certain frisson when we passed through the gates of the massive red brick Kremlin to view its ancient basilicas filled with art and icons, among them treasures sent to Moscow from towns across Russia for safekeeping during wartime. One precious icon was considered holy because it saved Moscow from a 13th century attack from the Tartars: after a night of praying, a holy vision came to the Tartar general and scared him into retreat.
We got our own tour of the splendid convent Novodevichy, built by the czars to house ex-wives and rich noblewomen with nowhere else to go; the building survived Napoleon because the nuns managed to extinguish fuses to the tubs of gunpowder in the basement set to explode on the General’s orders.
Russia’s history is colorful and violent. The czars built extraordinary palaces and churches, but the seismic Revolution and the Communist regime to follow almost destroyed them. We heard story after story of how the restoration of these great buildings came late–after much neglect and plundering, even on the part of the Russian government. For example, St. Petersburg’s stunning Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood, built around the actual stones that lay under the body of the slain Emperor Alexander in 1881, was for decades used as a storehouse for vegetables. Its impeccable vivid hand-crafted wall and ceiling mosaics survived, but many stolen crosses, artifacts and icons are still missing.
A series of trim red trams sped by the Roskino bus on the way to St. Petersburg, past acres of hulking housing projects. These trams helped to save the Russians in their war against Sweden, by ferrying munitions in and wounded out.
Our tour guide at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (renamed after a stint as Leningrad) became emotional as she described charity-minded Elizabeth, the sister of Alexandra, wife of Czar Nicholas, who was killed during the Revolution along with the rest of the Romanov family (including Anastasia). Elizabeth took care of the poor right up to her untimely end. The excesses of the aristocracy are what tourists flock to now, especially Peterhof Palace outside St. Petersburg, with its grand-scale sculpted upper and lower gardens, complete with gold gilt fountains, designed to outstrip Louis the XIV’s Versailles.
The high point of our St. Petersburg trip was a night at the Mikhailovsky Theater Ballet, sitting in a side box for Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Afterward we piled onto a boat (and under blankets) for St. Petersburg’s famed White Nights on the canals, as the sky stayed light past midnight. The Northern summer light is rosy and strange, an extended twilight magic hour. We passed through canals, under tunnels, and out to the open water where we could see the night-lit Hermitage and other grand buildings. On our way back all the boats assembled to watch the raising of the draw bridges. Glorious.
The next day during our speed tour of the famed Hermitage, we whizzed through the crowded winter palace with its long hallways, giant gold mirrors, inlaid floors mirroring the latticework ceilings high above, ornate chandeliers. tapestries, china and porcelain, statues, and endless walls of paintings: entire rooms were devoted to Titan, Reubens, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Matisse, Cezanne, Renoir, Gaugin, and Picasso. An embarrassment of riches.
Museums such as the Pushkin and Hermitage are hanging onto their hard-won art masterpieces, many of which no longer travel because countries like Germany might try to reclaim them. It’s also sobering to recall that Boris Pasternak’s novel “Dr. Zhivago,” which was turned into David Lean’s masterpiece, was banned by the Communists and wasn’t read in Russia (except by the intelligentsia, in secretly passed around xerox copies) until after Glastnost. Today, the Russians dismniss the movie as Hollywood fakery, including the casting of non-Russian Omar Sharif in the title role.
That’s what this unusual Russian education was designed to prevent: they seek an ideal of two mutually informed cultures coming together to tell stories that will appeal to both. Hard to achieve.