Trip to Russia. Day 10. Saint Petersburg. Peterhof. Hermitage

Trip to Russia. Day 10. Saint Petersburg. Peterhof. Hermitage

The previous day, we probably walked the most on this trip. Naturally, we slept, as they say in Russia, without our hind legs. Worked out horses sleep with their hind legs so relaxed that, once awake, they can only get on their front ones and it takes a while for them to get the back legs going.

When our hind legs moved, we cleaned up the Georgian pies Shorena and Irina prepared for us the night before and took off.

On the way to the St. Petersburg State University, we crossed Academician Sakharov Square. This was the first Sakharov monument in Russia. It was built completely on donations of private citizens and installed here against the wishes of the local government and the university. Even Sakharov’s family was against this gesture, but for other reasons. Yelena Bonner, Sakharov’s wife, considered any monument to her husband in the current Russian political situation to be a hypocrisy.

No idea how Sakharov is related to St. Petersburg. Anyway, here he is.

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The Twelve Colleges building has been here since the times of Peter the Great. It housed the Senate, the Synod of Russian Orthodox Church, and all the ministries. All central government bodies formed by Peter were located here. Now this is the main building and administrative offices of the Saint Petersburg State University.

Some interesting people passed through these doors. Ivan Turgenev, Sergei Dyagilev, Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Blok, Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev

In front of the main entrance, the Flying Genius, a university student, is resting on the column of knowledge with torch in hand.

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Our next stop was The Kunstkamera — the very first Russian public museum — Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Peter the Great started this museum himself more than 300 years ago with a collection of human and animal fetuses carrying anatomical deformities which he originally kept in his summer residence and continued to expand.

For the most part, the Kunstkamera is similar to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City with collections from North America, Africa, China, Middle East, and so forth, aimed at Peter’s goal of achieving full knowledge of the world.

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One exhibit in the Kunstkamera is unique.

When Peter the Great was building Saint Petersburg and cutting his window to Europe, he frequently travelled to Amsterdam. The major purpose of those trips was to learn shipbuilding and most of the time the tsar spent in shipyards. Being curious about anything new and especially interested in science, he liked to walk around the city incognito accompanied by a couple of his guards, checking out local stores and galleries. He was drawn to anything educational or enlightening. Hard to imagine this 6-foot, 8-inch Russian tsar hiding in full view. Nevertheless.

One day, he walked into the store of Albertus Seba, a pharmacists who supplied Russia with medications. An avid collector of all things zoology, Seba showed Peter his assortment of mollusks, insects, and animals gathered from all over the world. The impressed tsar immediately purchased and brought it home. This collection became the beginning of the Kunstkamera.

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On another trip to Amsterdam, Peter met Frederick Ruysch, an anatomist with an amazing collection of human bodies and body parts. Those days in Russia, it was prohibited to dissect humans, so naturally Peter was shocked.

At the time Ruysch, the forensic pathologist for Amsterdam and head of the surgeons’ guild performing public dissections for the city, happened to be the best preserver of dead bodies in the world. Those perfect preservations were not only interesting from the scientific point of view, they looked like works of art. Ruysch’s artistry is what Honore de Balzac’s young hero in “The Skin of Shagreen” observed in a Paris boutique where he found the magic skin.

Naturally, Peter bought Ruysch’s collection and made it a second exhibit in the Kunstkamera. He opened the exhibit not only to medical professionals for educational purposes, but for regular people following Ruysch’s motto — “See for yourself and trust only your own eyes.”

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There was another part of the Ruysch collection. Ruysch taught anatomy at a midwives’ school and that gave him access to aborted embryos and stillborn babies. He used his embalming art to preserve them for science. Most of the items of his collection were normal fetuses with normal bodies — consequences of miscarriages or stillbirth. Occasionally, he received fetuses with abnormalities. He preserved them too, trying to figure out what caused deviations.

Being a hands on person, Peter learned the trade of embalming from Ruysch. When he returned to Russia, Peter issued a decree forbidding the burial of human infants or animals born as “monsters,” i.e. with deformities. He required their bodies to be sent for embalming to preserve in his private collection. There was even a price tag attached: this much for a conjoined puppy, that much for conjoined human babies. Unlike Ruysch, Peter started collecting abnormalities only. 

Back then, in Russia, “monstrous birth” was not something morbid and insulting but rather a scientific term for a variation in nature. Peter was so fixated on variations probably because, due to his unusual height, he viewed himself a variation. He wanted common people not to be afraid of different or consider it supernatural. This was his attempt to fight prejudice, to make people see and learn.

Peter’s embalmings became a third collection of the Kunstkamera — Peter the Great Collection of Monsters.

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One year after Peters death, an accidental fire destroyed the Kunstkamera. The collections were moved to the basement and forgotten. They would have stayed forgotten, gotten damaged or discarded if it hadn’t been for a German physiologist Caspar Friedrich Wolff. Considered a crazy scientist in Europe, Wolff came to Russia to find a job. What was crazy about Wolff? He did not agree with the then current thinking that babies when conceived looked like little Polly Pocket dolls that just grew larger in size. Wolff thought that humans grew from a cell or a seed and then changed following certain sequences.

In 1786, Wolff got a job with The Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg. One day, he accidentally walked into Peter’s collections in the basement. That collection became the first support for his theory on how variations happens in nature.

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The moment you see these jars, the original reaction is — what? why? Science can be awkward and uncomfortable. In short, this is the story of how a Dutch anatomist studying human bodies captured the interest of a Russian tsar fixated — for personal reasons — on human abnormalities, and how that fixation helped a German doctor to draw attention to human development. In a way, the science of preserving human bodies, anatomical collecting, curiosity about how the body is formed, all plowed the way to developmental embryology. It also became the beginning of how we learn to talk about and accept disability as a variation produced by nature.

Some of these fetuses are 200 years old and they look pretty good for their age.

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Driven by the idea to catch up and overtake Western Europe, Peter the Great got also drawn into the fashion of bringing dwarfs and giants to entertain royal courts. In early 1700’s, at a party in France, he bought a live human being and brought him to Russia. Nicolay Bourjous, the offspring of a dwarf, towered about 7’5” over the crowd. Nicolay’s mother got a lot of money and Nicolay moved in with the Russian court where he lived happily ever after. Once he passed away, his skeleton was preserved in the Kunstkamera for posterity to admire and learn.

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On the way out, we walked by table where members of the Russian Academy of Sciences studied the edict of Russian empress Elizaveta Petrovna, Peter’s daughter, on rules for admission to the Moscow State University, my alma mater.

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Our second day in St. Petersburg was so wonderfully warm and sunny and the Kunstkamera’s windows, with a view of the Neva and the Winter Palace, were open. The day was promising to be good.

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Rarely Tom makes a strong point of doing something or going somewhere — he leaves it for me and girls to make decisions. Occasionally there are exceptions. Back in New Jersey, Tom discovered a Saint Petersburg museum I did not know existed.

It turns out, the St. Petersburg State University houses a museum of the Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev. The university created a exhibition in the nine-room apartment where the scientist lived and worked, preserving his library, furniture, and paintings.

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To get in, we had to walk through security into the actual university building. The museum entrance was just a door like all the other office doors on that floor. A custodian unlocked it just for us, and the entire time we were the only visitors there.

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Mendeleev was born in the Siberian town of Tobolsk, the last of seventeen children. His father went blind and died when Dmitry was still very young. His mother supported the family for a while running a glass factory she inherited from her parents. When the factory accidentally burned down, she decided to take Dmitry out of Siberia, first to Moscow, where he unsuccessfully tried to join the Moscow State University, then to St. Petersburg, where he enrolled in the Pedagogical Institute. After a few years of teaching science, Mendeleev went back to school for his master’s degree and started research in organic chemistry. Once he got his doctoral degree, he started teaching at St. Petersburg State University.

Besides chemistry, Mendeleev had many other interests. He was fascinated with visual arts and was close with many Russian artists: Ivan Kramskoy, Arkhip Kuindzi, Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin. There are a few of Mendeleev’s portraits in this apartment created by famous painters. This is one by Niklolai Yaroshenko.

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At this apartment Mendeleev held weekly intellectual gatherings for artists, writers, and scientists called Mendeleev’s Wednesdays. On this tablecloth, guests would leave their signatures in chalk. The signatures were later embroidered in silk.

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Mendeleev turned to publishing out of need for money. His first book was written here at this desk and published in 1861. It turned out to be the first Russian book on organic chemistry. A few years later he would write a book on inorganic chemistry.

He wrote at this desk standing. It is here Mendeleev worked on his famous Periodic Law and Periodic System of Chemical Elements.

A conversation back from the 1990’s between Tom and Anton came to mind. It was the time when Pokemon games were picking up steam in the US. Kids were so engrossed in them, the games clouded everything so much, that schools were sending letters home prohibiting Pokemon cards. With that, Anton tried to involve Tom into the Pokemon extravaganza at home. The game required memorizing all the creatures of the game and their transformations. Anton was getting impatient and Tom made a deal:

— I will memorize all the Pokemon cards if you memorize the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements.

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This is Mendeleev’s office with original pen, glasses, paperweights, and rules on his other desk.

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On these walls, there are portraits not only of scientists, but of artists, poets, composers. The owner had a broad range of interests.

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The library here is incredible! It covers not only a wide array of interests but also languages. It holds not only books but letters, articles, diaries, notes. And everything is systematized and arranged just like the Periodic Table — either by the author or subject.

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A collection of Mendeleev’s own works is in his office — and it’s not just scientific manuscripts, but poetry, portraits, drawings.

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His last words at his last lecture at the Saint Petersburg University were:

— I have achieved an inner freedom. There is nothing in this world that I fear to say. No one, not anything, can silence me. It is a good feeling. This is the feeling of a human.

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At this point of the day, the clock really started ticking and we took a cab from the Mendeleev Museum to the Palace Embankment, where the next part of our adventures would start.

Off the Palace Bridge, I looked back at the Kunstkamera thinking how Peter the Great Collection of Curiosities shocked but did not destroy me when I was little. It triggered interest.

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St. Petersburg is known for its suburbs as much as it’s known for its downtown places of interest. There is Pushkin, or Tsar’s Village, with the Catherine Palace that includes the famous Amber Room, with the Imperial Lyceum that gave Russia Alexander Pushkin. There’s Pavlovsk, another major residence of the Russian royal family during the times of Paul I. There’s Kronstadt, Crown City, founded by Peter the Great as a major fortress. And Gatchina, the town four Russian tsars considered their residence. There’s Oraniebaum, obscure, but so special for Russian history — Menshikov Palace and lands handed to the unfortunate Peter III, and later handled by his wife, a German princess who became known as Catherine the Great. Catherine made this place her summer residence. There’s Olgino — the notorious lair of Russian trolls that currently terrorize the Internet. All these suburbs were equally tempting.

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We only had enough time for one town and it was Peterhof, a.k.a. Petrodvorets, a.k.a. Russian Versailles. This was a summer residence of Peter the Great and later the Romanovs, known for its fountains. World travelers say that the comparison to Versailles in terms of grandeur and scope does a disservice to Versailles but I wouldn’t know. France is still on my bucket list.

And here we are — on a meteor — en route to Peterhof — slicing the waters of the Finnish Bay.

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We got off the meteor and bought our tickets for the fountain gardens. Looks like there are lot of things not allowed in Peterhof.

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Peterhof was built in 1709 as the summer residence for Russian royalty. It was a symbol of Russian victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War and Russia gaining an access to the Baltic Sea.

The Grand Palace is the centerpiece with the Lower and Upper Gardens to the north and south. We only had time to explore the Lower ones famous for its fountains.

Peterhof is first and foremost fountains. The key feature of these fountains is that none of them — none! — uses any kind of a pump. Peter the Great and his engineers created a 50 kilometer water flow that originates in Ropshinsky Heights and includes multiple natural springs, rivers, manmade channels, different ponds and basins containing over 1.5 million cubic meters of water. This water flow is based on the concept of communicating vessels — high school physics — when water from higher little streams and rivers get collected in natural ponds or manmade basins from which lower narrow channels carry it to the fountains under increased pressure.

Off the meteor, we walked along the Valley of Fountains. This main approach to the Grand Palace and the Lower Park runs along the water canal and is framed on both sides by alleys of eleven jets on each side shooting straight up.

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The full name of the central fountain is “Samson Rending the Lion’s Jaws,” or “Samson” for short. This fountain is the city’s hallmark. Samson became the symbol the victorious Battle of Poltava in the war with the Swedes.

Behind Samson there is the Grand Cascade Fountain with grottoes, stairs, two hundred sculptures, and hundreds of water jets.

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On each side of the Grand Cascade, at the foot of the Grand Palace, there are the Bowl Fountains. They are situated in identical rectangular flower beds — to the west and to the east. Interestingly, although almost identical, one was designed by an Italian and the other by a French architect. Huge streams of water shoot into the sky from massive marble bowls.

This is the French one with the Peterhof Church in the background, built following the sketches of Peter the Great.

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This is Triton Fountain honoring Russia gaining access to the Baltic Sea. A jet shoots from the mouth of a reptilian monster torn apart by a kneeling Triton. There are four turtle fountains along the perimeter shooting water up as well.

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The Roman Fountains are so called for their resemblance to the fountains in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Each one includes a pyramid and two flat bowls of different sizes through which water drapes flow into the pool.

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Now imagine this. You are walking down the lane minding your business, enjoying the weather, suddenly, out of nowhere, a stream of water covers you. This is Peter the Great playing his jokes on you. The tsar did like to play tricks on other people and ordered eight so-called fountain-tricksters. This is one of them. It’s called the Benches. Rumor has it, that if you step on one of these cobblestones the water will start shooting from behind the benches. There are always people here trying to figure out which stone makes the water shoot. My dad and I spent many a times trying to find the stone and got plenty wet. Some say there’s no such stone and it’s just a man sitting nearby and turning on the fountain on and off at random.

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The Umbrella Fountain. As soon as visitors enter and sit down to rest, vertical streams of water begin to beat along the edge of the roof. They rush to the ground from thin metal tubes and form a dense flowing water curtain. From the inside, it seems as if there is a real downpour outside. It is impossible to get out without getting wet and you have to stay under until the water turns off.

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The Water Way is another trickster fountain. It goes off three times a day for one minute. There are 150 jets on each side of the road that shoot water from the top and from the sides, so it is impossible to get out of this place dry.

Peter the Great got this idea in Versailles, where Louis XIV played a similar joke on him in the park. Excited Peter ordered a similar fountain in his summer residence so he could play the same tricks on his courtiers and European visitors. Peter himself took an active part in the construction of these tricky fountains. He invented some of them and made adjustments to the projects prepared by his court architects.


The Sun Fountain. At first, Peter the Great bred swans and raised sturgeon in this pond and, to the side of it, kept a menagerie. Later, the menagerie was taken down and a bathhouse was building in its place. A bronze column of a fountain crowned with three golden discs with dozens of holes in each appeared in the center of the pond. Transparent thin jets erupt from the holes like rays, creating the effect of a solar circle.

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The Pyramid Fountain. This water cannon in the Lower Park is another celebration of Russian victory in the Great Northern War. It has the highest water consumption in the park. Visually, it resembles a crystal spruce fenced by a white balustrade.

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One of the cascades of the Lower Park resembles a chessboard and is accordingly called the Chess Mountain Fountain. A the top of the cascade, there is a stone grotto, the entrance to which is guarded by mythical dragons. Water gushes out of the monsters’ mouths and slowly flows down onto the chess slopes. Ancient gods and priestesses are guarding both sides of the stairs.

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According to Peter’s plans, Peterhof parks had to be decorated with flowers and plants from all over the world. That called for a greenhouse where artificial climate could preserve growing seedlings and protect mature plants from severe Russian winters. During summers, exotic plants would be carried outside in tubs and pots and placed along the buildings and fountains. Those plants survived winter weather in the comfort of the Grand Greenhouse.

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This is the tallest part of the Grand Peterhof Palace that spreads along this 16-meter high terrace for as long as 300 meters. Peter the Great got it started, but many other Russian royals preferred Peterhof for their summer vacations. They continued decorating and changing the Palace and the land each to their liking.

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Here is the second Bowl Fountain, the Italian one.

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The Whale Fountain. The jet of the central water cannon is surrounded by four small bronze dolphins and shoots water in the shape of a transparent bell. Initially, in the center of this composition was a mythical animal resembling a whale. The whale is gone and now the base of the fountain is a standard tuff-covered pipe.

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The Menager Fountains. The name of these two fountains comes from the French word ménager, to conserve. There are no sculptures here, but these fountains are considered the most interesting. They were invented by Peter the Great himself, a great lover of hydrotechnical innovations. Water is supplied from thin pipes arranged in a circle with a diameter of 30 cm. Special nozzles create the visual effect of one huge solid water column while in reality it is just a thin circle. The visual is enhanced, but water consumption is decreased.

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The Golden Mountain Fountain. This cascade got its name when sculptures and staircase steps were covered with a layer of gold. The upper part of the stairs is an attic bridge with sea gods. Three fountain streams pour from gilded mascarons onto the staircase. Over time, golden sculptures were replaced by white marble figures, but the name “Golden Mountain” remained to this day.

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The Triton Bell Fountains. There are four of them in a row. Boys with fish tails are holding flat bowls over their heads and the water is flowing in a shape of transparent bell.

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The Lion Cascade Fountain. This cascade is unusual. Its water doesn’t flow from the top but rather shoots from the bottom out of marble cups that are placed between the columns and cascades down the steps. The columns remind of those around Roman Forum in Italy. On each corner of the cascade, a bronze lion sits — thus, the name.

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This is one of the pair of fountains called Adam and Eve in the Lower Garden’s central alley. Each statue is surrounded by sixteen water streams that create large droplets. These are two of the few original statues that survived the Second World War. These figures were buried underground for safekeeping. They were in so deep, that when the Germans dug a bomb shelter right above Eve, they still did not reach the statue.

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We had to limit our time in Peterhof to the Lower Garden only. The train to Moscow was departing at 10 pm and we had more ground to cover.

When our meteor docked back by the Palace Embankment the first thought was food.

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A brewery called “Tolstiy Fraer” — The Fat Dude — got our attention. it was close to our next destination, the menu looked interesting, and the prices were right. More tired than hungry, we shared a couple of dishes. One of them was hot smoked mackerel with green salt and hot sauce a.k.a. adjika.

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Then there were lamb sausages with tomato sauce and home fries. Interestingly, that Fat Dude is a brewing franchise established by a famous Russian singer and composer Alexander Rosenbaum, known for his songs about criminal subculture and urban underworld known for their particular kind of humor.

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Next and last on our agenda was the Hermitage. We planned four hours for it. Yes, it’s a laughable amount of time, but that’s all we had. Better than nothing.

What can one say about the Hermitage? What pictures can one take? It’s that vast situation when it’s better to say nothing. I just took a few pictures that brought back some memories or pulled in some associations.

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One of the most expensive objects in the museum is the Malachite Rotonda given to Tsar Nikolai I by a merchant from the Ural Mountains. Originally, it was a gazebo in an outdoor garden. At some point, the rotonda was moved into one of the cathedrals of Alexander Nevsky Lavra for the tsar to sit in during religious services. In 1950’s, the Soviet government placed it here, in the Hermitage.

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My favorite Hermitage room is the Malachite Chamber. The technique used to cover columns, fireplaces, and so on with malachite is called the Russian mosaic. This is when thin layers of malachite are glued to the base and seams are filled with the malachite powder. All that is polished so that no one could ever tell that it is not a solid piece of malachite.

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Russian interiors of the 19th century. A sitting room that has a harp in the center to remind of the owners’ hobbies.

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Another example of the 19th century room. This one is with the furniture made from Karelian birch. It reminded me of our cork floored kitchen back home in New Jersey.

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Nicolas I was interested in art and architecture of Pompeii, Italy. Upon his request, Russian artist Alexander Briullov, who spent several years in Italy studying art, created the Pompeii Dining Room. This vase was made for the tsar by the masters of the Imperial China Factory. Behind it, two tables have female sphinxes that were supposed to resemble those found in Pompeii.

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When I was in the fifth grade, one of my classmates told me that I looked like Thomas Gainsborough’s The Duchess of Beaufort. Not that I took it seriously but I did cut out the picture from a magazine and kept in my room. Although, now I see some Lizzie’s and Charlotte’s features in this portrait.

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The Terebenevskaya Staircase served as an entrance to New Hermitage. It was added in 1852 as a reflection of the staircase that led to the Acropolis in Athens. These granite columns — ten on each side — make it grand. If you stand at the very bottom of this staircase and count the stairs, you will see that each next flight is shorter than the previous one. This creates an illusion of an eternal route to the top.

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This is just a simple foyer before the entrance into the Hermitage theatre.

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Madonna Litta. This painting is in the New Hermitage room overlooking the Neva River. Always short for time, dad and I would enter the museum from the Jordan Staircase off the embankment and head right through the Winter Palace all the way around it towards this painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. We did not walk slow, we did not walk fast. We’d pause if something caught our attention. From Madonna we’d continue our route towards Shuvalovsky Proezd exit. This would take good five to six hours and we would see a lot along the way to Madonna. That was my dad’s scientific approach to get the most out little time we had.

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And here’s Nevskaya Enfilade that runs through rooms housing Italian art of 15-16th centuries. The walls here are covered with white, green, and pink marble. Wooden floors are meant to resemble carpet.

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Here’s one of the medieval stained glass windows — the Descent from the Cross.

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The Twenty Column Hall of the Winter Palace. These columns made of solid granite pieces impress me more than ancient Etruscan vases they were installed to adorn.

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We walked out of the Hermitage through the halls of ancient Greece. Of course I snapped a picture of Terpsichore, the inventor and protector of dance. I had to.

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And here’s Euterpe, a muse who discovered musical instruments. It’s a flute in her hand and not a clarinet. Close enough.

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The sun was going down on the Palace Square when we got outside.

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Don’t look back. No. One last look at the Winter Palace that used to be so close and always available just a train ride away. Now it is far and out of easy reach.

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We headed back to the Moscow Train station along Gorokhovaya Street.

If a Moscow map looks like a bull’s eye with the Kremlin in the center, St. Petersburg looks more like a fan with three major streets radiating from the Admiralty in different directions. The northern one is Nevsky Prospect, the middle one is Gorokhovaya — or Pea — Street, the one that goes south is Voznesensky Prospect.

Studded with the most expensive and fancy shops, Gorokhovaya Street was and is one of the most prestigious streets to live on. Nikolay Gogol, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Ivan Turgenev lived here. So did ballerina Galina Ulanova. Gogol described this street in his story “Diary of a Madman.” Fedor Dostoyevsky mentioned it in his “Idiot” and “Poor Folk.

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We walked by the house where, for three years, the favorite of the last imperial family lived at #64. “Velikii Starets” — the Magnificent Elder. So many legends surround Grigory Rasputin’s life and death.

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The Moyka River. On December 30, 1916, after being poisoned — survived — shot — survived, Rasputin ended up drowning in this waters. They say he was still alive for sometime submerged under the ice.

In a letter to Nicholas II, Rasputin predicted that by the end of 1916 he would be killed, and if his “brothers” did it not much would follow, but if it was the “boyars,” that would be the end of the Romanov dynasty and Russia. Duke Felix Yusupov, member of State Duma Vladimir Purishkevich, and Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, the masterminds behind the murder, happened to be the latter.

Think of it what you want. But that’s what happened.

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At Pyat’ Uglov — Five Corners — intersection where four different streets cross and five triangular buildings flatiron into each other, we got off Gorokhovaya and headed towards our train.

“U Pyati Uglov” — at the Five Corners — is a legendary place. Ganya Ivolgin from Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot” lived across from this building. It is here Nastasia Philippovna threw the money bundle into the fireplace and took off with Rogozhin to Ekateringof. Yuri Zivago mentions this spot a number of times.

This is the original Flatiron building at the most beautiful intersection in this city.

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It was a long and busy day. We were ready and excited to finally reach the train and our compartment. And beds.

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On the way back, we got the compartment all to ourselves. My companions settled on their shelves, as they call beds on Russian trains, with their devices. And I couldn’t fall asleep for a long time, wishing it was a train to Simferopol and we had two full nights and one full day ahead of us before we reach the Black Sea.

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