Journey to St Petersburg

21-22 November 2004


See Introductory Note on first page above.

Copyright: David Morris, Kimberley, South Africa, 1 May 2005


Visitors: 2906 



The journey to St Petersburg


Following a whirlwind of last-minute preparations, all was set.


[Drove from Kimberley to Johannesburg]


A ‘ratpack’ of useful extras, most kindly and thoughtfully put together by family members, was handed to me - chocolates and the like, scarf and woollen cap, an extra camera with flash, and more - all in a carry-bag that would also turn out to be extremely useful.


I left a batch of CDs featuring Jarnovic’s concertos and these would be used by Will Bernard of SAfM in two of his Sunday morning music programmes.


Farewells having been made, I boarded; and in due course the vast jet (I never did get to see what it looked like from the outside!) was rumbling out to the run-way and - at about twenty minutes before midnight - was thrusting its enormous mass skywards.


The bright lights of Gauteng fell behind us; the human footprint to the north, at night, was less and less electrical - and asleep! I got out the Rough Guide to St Petersburg, which my brother Michael had so kindly sent me - a treasured companion over the week to follow. Presently the lights were dimmed and I dozed - with headphones that offered some 13 channels of music - including a programme of Baroque and one hosted by Paavo Jarvi, Estonian-born resident conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which, as a prelude for me to Russia, featured some Stravinsky.


Journeying had been a feature of Jarnovic’s life, one reflected,  in days long before flight. Coach travel would have been slow and uncomfortable, and could be dangerous - outside passengers were known to have frozen to death in winter (as we are reminded by historian Paul Johnson), while roads, dusty, muddy, or buried in snow, were also bandit ridden in some regions. Flying north across the continent of Africa, I considered also that other recorded journey, that of Jarnovic’s great granddaughter Minnie Hull (who later married the Revd Henry Elliott Morris). She ventured by ship from the Cape to Britain and the Continent in the spring of 1876, on a pilgrimage - a ‘Grand Tour’ - to the opera, great cathedrals and art galleries. Her diary was transcribed by her son, my grandfather H.A. Morris.


Monday/Maandag (Amsterdam en route to Russia)

22 November 2004


Hours later the soft pink pre-dawn light caught the underside of the port wing and engine as we roared 1100 m over Chad and southern Libya.


A BBC programme on the in-flight TV channel featured, again with remarkable prescience, a Russian theme - the lifestyle and extravagance of the newly-rich in the ‘New Russia’. The topic revolved upon dealings in real estate by former Soviets, and upon their often profligate pursuit of material gain - a mimicking of the worst excesses of the old aristocracy - their latter-day palaces and dachas gilt-edged and gaudy. As in South Africa, there are extremes of wealth and poverty. As in Russia, certain of our erstwhile ‘struggle heroes’ now live more extravagantly than one might have thought was decent.


Presently the Mediterranean came within view. But now the blinds were lowered - many passengers were still asleep! I sneaked occasional glances - surmising that the coastline now below was the island of Sardinia [more properly Sardegna]. A while later, Europe was enveloped in cloud, but with the western snow-capped Alps thrusting through magnificently. Navigational aids are a sine qua non for flight hereabouts, one realised as we began the descent towards... well, somewhere beneath all that cloud lay Schiphol.




Breaking down through layers of grey, the greenness and wetness of polders and canals and densely built-up spaces announced the vicinity of Amsterdam. A gentle curve of grey coastline was thinly trimmed with whiteness of waves. On busy roads below, traffic seemed to be moving on the wrong side! Canals and watercourses sometimes snaked across the flat terrain in contrast to the more regular lay-out of urban and industrial spaces. Leafy green patches surrounded what were clearly grander, older buildings of a century or two or three ago. Boats and barges. Big trucks. Water, cloud. Descending lower, everything was wet and dirty green. Touch-down was smooth.


Docking at Schiphol, we alighted not onto the apron - no Papal kissing of soil possible here - but via a manoeuvrable tunnel straight into the great modern airport building. (This of course is standard for big jets at Johannesburg and St Petersburg as well - but all quite new to one who more usually flies in modest carriers from Kimberley’s small aerodrome!). In-flight TV screens had informed passengers about connecting flights. The KLM flight to St Petersburg was due to depart at 11:00. We had landed at about 09:30 local time.


Here, everything was fast-moving! Flat ‘escalators’ facilitate even quicker movement. The rule on foot, as on roads, I was soon to realise, is Keep Right! A few near collisions! Perhaps I was written off as a Brit?


Hardly any time to take in this international corner of Amsterdam - KLM staff at ‘Gate D7’ were ready to process passengers to Russia.  Here was a smaller complement of people, of somewhat different character. (The flight from South Africa had been remarkably cosmopolitan - and, appropriately enough, it even included some musicians - a fellow with a guitar, and a whole choir of singers from Soweto). Gathering to board for St Petersburg, a group of school boys and girls, and their teachers, chattering away in Russian, excitedly trying out newly purchased CD walkmans and other gadgets and fashion accessories. There was also a loud clutch of Americans and their kids, who afterwards were in the business class section. At the appointed time we shuffled aboard. A rather sullen, balding man sat beside me - could have been Russian - didn’t respond to friendly overtures.


To Russia


The sun, as we rose into the air, was low in the sky. We had faced the western wind, climbing and circling back eastwards over the coast and above the clouds, and on over Hamburg and southern Sweden (so we were informed). I dozed. Probably over Estonia, there were gaps in the cloud and high smoke-stacks came into view spewing forth white steamy smoke. It looked cold. The outside temperature at Amsterdam had been, apparently, 12 degrees C. Now, beginning our descent, the usual statistics were given about conditions to be expected on the ground: there had been a light snow at St Petersburg, and the mercury, at mid-afternoon, stood at -6 degrees C. Descending through cloud, a very different landscape declared itself: white and cold and bleak! Industrial areas, railway lines, warehouses, thin stark birches in stands. It all appeared very severe. And different. Upon touching down the predominantly Russian passengers clapped their gratitude - for a safe flight, their return home.


To one side, as we taxied in, an abandoned circa 50s/60s-vintage airport building, bristling with old radio antennae - what Soviet era histories had hinged or unfolded there, one wondered? Alongside it, a clutter of broken helicopters. Sundry jets and helicopters on the apron. A snow-scraper on stand-by to keep the run-way clear. A jet-liner with its Cyrillic name emblazoned along the fuselage roared off, possibly to one or another of the States of the Federation. Once more we ported against one of those manoeuvrable passage-ways that guided passengers straight into the airport building. The latter was a few degrees cooler than the plane had been, for sure. Signs in Russian and English herded us in the direction of the Customs and Passport Control - where a rather stern uniformed young woman behind a glass partition looked me up and down and unsmilingly granted me access to her country. Having retrieved my suitcase from the baggage carousel - another of those global features associated with international flight - I headed out into the cavernous reception area which was the last buffer against the now darkening cold that was, finally, Russia. Here innumerable individuals stood with placards bearing the names of people they were meant to meet - these being no doubt tour operators, couriers for hotels, and the like. Perhaps an attache for the Americans - or were they possibly headed straight off south on a connecting flight to Kiev? (Where elections were in the process of going awry). I hadn’t my spectacles and briefly panicked at the array before me. Fortunately, close to hand, a big, hatted man held a piece of paper that was quite different from the rest - cleverly and unexpectedly it bore a picture, the only known likeness of our ancestor, Giornovichi, and, beneath it, the wording “JARNOVIC CONFERENCE”. This was Prof Dr Vladimir Gurevich, organizer of the bicentenary events.


Sankt Peterburg - Ponedelnik (Monday)


With a bold and generous handshake, Vladimir’s welcome (to “our conference”) was enthusiastic, if conveyed in somewhat broken English. Fetching up one of my bags, he led the way briskly into what could not be mistaken for cold! It was literally a shock to the system! (In Johannesburg I had put on a vest; and an anorak was near to hand for arrival here - not altogether adequate, but a help!). Thick muddy snow under foot, specks of white descending, the light failing rapidly (it was only 4 pm). Having located the car - a chauffer-driven black Merc (early 90s vintage?) apparently belonging to the Soyuz kompozitorov (Composers’ Union) - or was it just a taxi (I was not sure) -  we sped into town along sludgy brown-looking roads, joining rush-hour traffic down Moskovsky prospekt.


Some rudimentary knowledge of Greek characters gets one half way towards being able to read Cyrillic - which one tries to do, as if coming to grips, somehow, with the place. Pi, lambda and rho are the same, more or less. C is S; P is R; H is N; B is V; and a sort of a small b is, in fact, B. And then a few more characters have to be learned. N backwards is I; a kind of an upside down M is Sh (as in Shostakovich). A backwards R is Ya - and is the first letter for Jarnovic in Russian. But in a fast moving car the signs defy decipherment.


The Prospect is a broad boulevard, with a tramway running up and down the middle island, flashing sparks in the dusk and snow. Coated, fur-capped figures huddle awaiting a tram; or a trolley bus - for there are trolley buses as well, sharing part of the lattice of overhead cables. 


Vast blocks of apartments flank the road. The occasional square. A park-like space, frozen with bare trees to the right was, I later learned from Vladimir, one of the huge cemeteries where lie the war dead and those starved or frozen to death - in mass graves - victims of the nearly 900-day Siege of Leningrad. 670 000 people perished.


An impressive statue of Lenin dominates a square, in front of the monolithic House of Soviets, further in towards our destination; and on the left the huge new Russian National Library with great domes of glass and huge columns, unashamedly modern, but blending well with the historical architecture of the city.


At some point we skirted anti-clockwise around the Moscow Triumphal Arch, a vast cast iron monument erected in the 1830s to commemorate victories during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. In 1936 it was dismantled and put into storage on Stalin’s orders, but got out in bits, the huge iron plates stacked as anti-tank obstacles, during the Siege. It was restored and re-erected here in 1961.


The inner eighteenth century part of St Petersburg, to which we were heading, is characterized in tourist literature as an ‘open air museum’ - and so it is. But the term might be applied more widely, for the city had spread historically in concentric arcs - so that from the outside one traverses inwards between the massively plain buildings of the paranoid sixties and fifties (in the wake of Zhdanov’s purge, no hint of bourgeois frivolity in these gigantic piles); and pre-war blocks, almost as gaunt, ordained under Stalin, now apartments of some worth, by no means within the reach of any citizen. In due course the early twentieth century gives way, spatially, to the nineteenth; and at length, within the delta area, across the River Fontanka, and the Moyka, one is in amongst the proud palaces and mansions of the aristocracy and the wealthy city dwellers of former times.[1] On 16 May 1703, by legend, Peter the Great declared: “Here shall be a town”, and hence was founded St Petersburg. It was a strategic spot - but not much else could be said for it: stone for building was not readily to hand in the swampy Neva delta, frozen in winter: the making of the city would be costly in materials and human life. What arose, by imperial decree, was that earlier ‘New Russia’ that was founded and ostentatiously marbled and bronzed and gilded by Peter I and his Romanov successors and their circle. This was the show-piece, the spectacle, gateway to the west, the outward and visible manifestation of eighteenth century imperial Russia’s might. 


“I love you, Peter’s creation,” wrote Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), “I love your severe, graceful appearance...”: “...your tall and graceful palaces and towers cluster; ships from all the ends of the earth hasten in throngs to the rich quays; the Neva has clothed herself in granite; bridges hang above the waters; her islands have become covered with dark green gardens; and old Moscow has paled before the younger capital, like a dowager clad in purple before a new empress.” (Prologue, The Bronze Horseman, 1833).


To this day, it is said, Moscow, conservative, Russian, traditional and Slavic, presents a severe face to the liberal, European, avant-garde, artistic, cosmopolitan city that is St Petersburg. (See remarks by Johan Ragnevad:


Sankt Peterburg - a note on names


1703 the city is founded and named Sankt Peterburg

31 August 1914 Sankt Peterburg, too Germanic in wartime, becomes Petrograd. 

26 January 1924 Petrograd, inappropriate under Soviet rule, renamed Leningrad.

September 1991 Leningrad, shaking off its shackles, reverts to its original name, Sankt Peterburg.


Dom kompozitorov


Turning across the Moyka, we arrived at the entrance to Bolshaya Morskaya ulitsa - ulitsa meaning ‘street’. The Dom kompozitorov (House of Composers - home to the Composers’ Union), our accommodation, and conference and concert venue, was situated in this road. Road works currently necessitated walking the last 50 metres - my second encounter with the cold! (The vehicle was so well heated, I had at times been inclined to wind down the window a bit!). An entrance or two before the ‘House’, on the left, a plaque indicated the former dwelling of Nabakov, now a museum and research centre. Numerous similar plaques, and small special-interest museums, are dotted around the city. (St Petersburg has no less than140 museums and around 100 theatres...). Some steps further along, ‘our home’, as Vladimir put it - ‘home’ of course being a fair translation of ‘Dom’. The Soyuz kompozitorov, I later learned, was an organization formed in the 1930s as a Soviet musicians’ collective, with the leading lights in its establishment being Shostakovich, Khatchaturian and others. Across the road was a similar institution for architects (the Dom arkhitektorov). These buildings had apparently taken on much of their present appearance, including their interior decor and wood panelling, in the nineteenth century or earlier, and had remained essentially unchanged since then. In pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg the Dom kompozitorov had been the mansion of the socialite Princess Gagarina. Westwards along the ulitsa was a somewhat more recent edifice, a 1930s Constructivist building, grafted onto a pre-Revolution German church to become the Communications Workers’ Palace of Culture.


The way into the accommodation section was via a dark broad cobbled former carriage entrance - a great wooden door stood more or less permanently ajar. A few metres in was a distinctly unattractive steel security gate, via which, stepping over a steel bar, one gained access to a large snow bedecked courtyard. Such courtyards, seemingly, are a regular feature of the buildings of the Fontanka (this inner older part of the city). Off it, a double doorway - an outer and an inner door - led to the apartments. Once inside, there is central heating and one can shed one’s outer coat, scarf and headgear right away. The Cyrillic for “Administration” is easily deciphered above the doorway to the more luxury ground floor section, with its wall-to-wall carpeting. The administrator (or security lady - and there was a different one every day of the week) spoke no English, but was always very obliging. Vladimir guided me to my room, indicating the communal bathroom and ‘kitchen’ area along the way. The room was smallish, with two single beds (sheets, a pillow, a duvet and a bedspread - quite adequate on account of the central heating), a wardrobe and a basin. A kettle and two cups. A television set - with about 15 channels, all Russian. The technical term for this accommodation arrangement is kommunalka - a flat in which several tenants or families share a communal bathroom, kitchen and corridor. Doors open outwards onto the passage - the only other place where I had encountered this previously was at the Prinzessen Ruprechtsheim in Swakopmund, Namibia! 


Vladimir had brought along the conference programme - also all in Cyrillic! Following introductions, I recognised the spelling of my name in Cyrillic, indicating that I was to be first up to speak - as a descendant of Jarnovic - once proceedings were under way the following day.


The bathroom - again doors opening outwards onto the passage - had all the basics (but no bath!). The hot water tap in the shower produces nearly boiling water almost instantly. There is, however, a distinctive aroma to the water, which reminded me to check to what extent one could drink it out of taps. It was safe, apparently, when boiled - and I was to have numerous cups of enjoyable tea in my little room over the next few days. (It is said that Chaikovsky - whose apartment was but a few blocks away in Malaya Morskaya ulitsa - died (in 1893) from cholera after drinking a glass of unboiled water - so the problem is not new).


I had now also learned that Stanislav Tuksar and Vjera Katalinic from Zagreb occupied a room down the passage - husband and wife musicologists and Jarnovic scholars with whom I had been in correspondence since 1999. It was with great delight that I met them in person; and we headed next door for supper together that evening at the restaurant within the Dom. They had spent the day sight-seeing in the company of a young Russian student named Tatyana, who was fluent in English, and who now also joined us for supper and provided much insider insight into innumerable local topics - from, indeed, the matter of water, to Russian cuisine, to the changes that were now occurring in St Petersburg (which right from its inception at the start of the eighteenth century had been a most cosmopolitan city). She is part of a huge population of students, studying literature at the University of St Petersburg. She had travelled to the United States and had spent time in Germany. Formerly, Russians learnt French and German as second and/or third languages, but today many of the youth choose English - Hollywood and the Internet doubtless having much to do with this. The restaurant, appropriately enough for a musical establishment (it is situated in the basement under the concert hall), is called the Pizzicato. It specializes, as the name implies, in pizzas! Only two obviously Russian items were on the menu - Borsch (beetroot soup) and Bifstroganov - which in fact we all felt more or less obliged to have - without any regrets whatever! Oddly, though, the beef came without any veg until we requested it, and in due course Baklazhan (sliced eggplant), fried in olive oil, complemented the meal superbly.


That night I needed no rocking to sleep! But not before going over my speech for the morning; and dipping into the Rough Guide to get some sense of where I was.

[1] Today the city is located on 44 islands formed by the Neva River and 90 more rivers and canals. The islands are linked by 308 bridges within the city proper, with a further 226 bridges in the suburbs.


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