Petropavlovskaya krepost and the journey home

Subbota (Saturday) in St Petersburg and Sunday in the air over Africa, 27-28 November 2004


See Introductory Note on first page above.

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


Visitors: 4077


Awake relatively early, I was suddenly aware that Sofia Yalysheva - our Mariinskiy prima donna, who sang at the Jarnovic concert - was performing on the television in a programme of Russian folk music.


The professor arrived at the appointed hour, armed with packing material for the Jarnovic portrait which I was to take back to South Africa. (I was having serious doubts as to how we were to get it to St Petersburg Airport in one piece, let alone how it would survive the journey down Africa, Amsterdam transfer and all...)


Vladimir had mapped out an excursion for the remainder of my time here: he would take me through the Peter and Paul Fortress, including the cathedral and a splendid museum alongside it, on a trip under the city on the Metro railway, with many additional landmarks, and a brunch, en route.


There was quite a bite to the air this morning - following a prediction that it would be colder, -6  to -8 degrees C. Clouds had lifted, and a stiff breeze sliced in from the north west. We walked up the east side of St Isaac’s and around the corner past the Admiralty.


Bronze Horseman


To the left lay the Ploshchad Dekabristov - Decembrists’ Square, where the Decembrists’ revolt took place in 1825; and beyond that, the Bronze Horseman, the famous equestrian statue of Peter the Great, mounted on a huge rock pedestal. It is inscribed, in Latin and Russkiy, “To Peter I from Catherine II” - having been commissioned by Catherine the Great, who in so many respects (it is often said) was Peter’s true political successor. A trampled snake representing evil (and Old Muscovy?) wriggles limply down the back of the pedestal (as a design element, it is critical to keeping the leaping horse and heroic rider aloft!). One writer, Andrei Bely, in his apocalyptic novel set in 1905, likens the statue to Russia itself on the verge of apocalypse: “Your two front hooves have leaped far off into the darkness, into the void, while your two rear hooves are firmly implanted in the granite soil.” The statue comes to life in Aleksandr Pushkin’s 1833 epic poem “The Bronze Horseman”, in which it features as one of the few survivors of the Great Flood of 1824.


Peter I wrestled with opposition even within his own family when he sought to turn his country from being an ultra-parochial and backward polity (called Muscovy) into an empire to be reckoned with (which he renamed Russia). His first wife was of an Old Muscovite family with Old Believer leanings, while his son Alexei, the Tsarevich, shared his mother’s anti-Western sentiments. The former was banished by Peter to a convent, while his son was lashed to death at the Peter and Paul fortress in 1718. Old Believers and Slavophiles regarded Peter I as having perverted the true Slavic destiny of the nation. Under xenophobic Soviet rule, Moscow was resuscitated as capital; and twice, at Stalin’s whim, Peter’s city - Leningrad - was purged: in 1934-5, when up to a quarter of the population were arrested (the majority destined for the Gulag); and again in1948, when thousands of Leningraders were rounded up in a witch-hunt following Zhdanov’s death. The history of this city has never been one of half measures. Most Russians, though, see Peter I as having been a great ruler who advanced the nation, even if he could be brutal, even if he set a dangerous precedent for autocratic rule.


The Admiralty was Peter the Great’s fortified shipyard, established in 1704. As a young man he had travelled incognito to Holland and England to study shipbuilding, and to work on the docks as an apprentice. On the embankment near the Dvortsoviy most (Palace Bridge - a “most” being a bridge) there is a statue of “Peter the Shipbuilder”, a gift from the city of Amsterdam. The Admiralty’s slender spire, sheathed in gold, dates from the 1820s, and is topped with a gilded weather vane in the shape of a frigate, now an emblem for St Petersburg. The first letter of Peter’s name, the Cyrillic/Greek "Pi", is encoded in the architecture of the building itself.


Across the road, Vladimir pointed out to me the headquarters of the Tsarist secret police, which from December 1917 to March 1918 was briefly and murderously the headquarters of the Bolshevik Cheka (short for “All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Counter-Revolution, Speculation and Sabotage”, and aptly meaning “linchpin” in Russkiy). The death penalty had been abolished, but the Cheka, under Felix Dzerzhinsky, a “steel-eyed, spade-bearded” Polish-Lithuanian, known for his “decisiveness and iron will”, had the right to “have recourse to a firing squad when it becomes obvious that there is no other way”. Incidentally, democratic elections were held, but the long-awaited Constituent Assembly met only once, in January 1918. Lenin regarded it as “an old fairytale which there is no reason to carry on further.” The Bolsheviks had received only a quarter of the vote.


The Strelka


We walked across the Dvortsoviy most (Palace Bridge), over the now frozen Neva. Apparently the river no longer freezes over as solidly as once it did (said Vladimir) - signs of climate change. Periodically the river rises and floods, and catastrophic flood events such as that of 1824 have caused much damage in the past.


Across the bridge is the Strelka (the eastern tip of  Vasilevskiy Island). Here is situated one of the campuses of the University of St Petersburg, surrounded by a clutch of museums including Peter the Great’s extraordinary Kunstkammer, where were exhibited whatever curiosities and freaks the Emperor was able to assemble. The university was a bastion of freethinking and radicalism in Tsarist times, and bore the brunt of purges in the Soviet era. It was here that Dmitri Mendeleyev devised the Periodic Table of Elements, while in March 1896 Alexander Popov successfully transmitted a radio signal from his lab on this campus, almost a year ahead of Marconi (but news of his achievement was slow to leave Russia!).


A pair of navigational beacons, the Rostral Columns, 32 m high, are decorated with the sawn-off prows of galleys, in bronze, to commemorate Russian naval victories. Peter the Great founded the Russian navy in 1696, when it consisted of one ship and three admirals! Of victories, there have been a few; but Russian naval defeats have been spectacular (as at the hands of the Japanese Navy, twice, in 1904-5); naval mutinies characterised the succeeding interlude; and red faces there have been in recent years over the loss of two submarines. Even so, St Petersburg turns out en masse to celebrate Navy Day - in this very vicinity - on the last Sunday of July each year.


Petropavlovskaya krepost: Peter and Paul Fortress


Across another bridge, Birzhevoy most, and one is in Petrograd Side, with the Peter and Paul Fortress, on Zayachiy (Hare) Island, close by. We entered the fortress via an ancient slippery wooden bridge, along a cobbled street, and in through an arched gateway, the Vasilevskiy Gate. A surprising amount of junk and muck lay around - bits of packing case, etc. Most tourists enter at the other end, but would normally exit here. Alongside us was the mint (where the world’s first lever press for coining money was devised in 1811). Around a corner and we were in a square facing the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, the Petropavlovskiy sobor, with its Dutch facade and golden spire piercing the sky. It was in this square, in January 1919, that the Bolsheviks shot four grand dukes, sentenced to death with other hostages, during the Red Terror and in retaliation for the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, radical socialists in Berlin. When Maxim Gorky pleaded for the life of the Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich, a liberal historian, Lenin responded: “The Revolution does not need historians”. The Rough Guide points out that much brutal history, both pre- and post-1917, has yet to be acknowledged here. The fortress’s use as a prison dates back to 1718. “Selective coverage aside, the Prison Museum [which we did not visit] fails to convey the full horror of conditions in Tsarist times.”


The fortress was built in 1703, anticipating the foundation of St Petersburg by a year. Forced labourers, who perished in their thousands, worked for seven months from dawn to dusk, erecting ramparts that were initially crude earthworks. Brick walls with granite facings, up to 4 m thick, replaced the original fort under the direction of Peter the Great’s architect Trezzini. The first wooden church was soon replaced by a cathedral (tower-first), and completed by Trezzini in 1733.


A small building in front of the cathedral, the Boat House, was built in the 1760s to house the boat in which Peter I made his first sailing trips on the River Yauza near Moscow (the original boat is now in the Naval Museum). The building, containing a replica of Peter’s boat, serves now as a ticket office and gift shop.


Petropavlovskiy sobor: the cathedral


From here we entered the cathedral. The tower was the first part to be built, with a gilded spire deliberately made higher than the Ivan the Great Bell Tower at the Kremlin in Moscow. Towering upwards 122 m, it remained the tallest structure in St Petersburg until 1962, when it was eclipsed by a television tower. It survived the Luftwaffe bombings during the Blokada by being camouflaged by alpine climbers. A tradition amongst climbers responsible for restoration work since then has developed, of leaving messages in bottles. A post-war note complained of low pay and time pressures!


Occupying a good deal of floor space within the cathedral, below the apse and around the sides of the nave, were the waist-high tombs of the Emperors and Empresses of Russia and their significant immediate family. Off-set from the centre is an elaborately decorated pulpit, which is an unusual feature in churches in Russia, a borrowing, as is the overall design, from the Protestant West. Apart from the mosaics and the gilt within, the whole feel of this cathedral is north west European (particularly Dutch). At the back of the cathedral, in a side chapel, are the tombs of the last Tsar (Nicholas II) and his family and faithful servants, who were re-interred here with great pomp in 1998, with Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin and other worthies in attendance. The Orthodox Church canonised them as Martyrs, but remains sufficiently doubtful of the DNA-assisted identification of the bones for them not to be declared as holy relics.


Ironically, the Rough Guide points out, Nicholas II, as a devout Slavophile, would probably have preferred being buried in Moscow (where rulers before Peter the Great were interred). He detested St Petersburg, and would probably have been no lover of a cathedral that looks more Protestant than Orthodox!


A side passage has photographs documenting the restoration of the cathedral, which is not used for regular services. There are photo portraits of the descendants of the Romanovs - a fairly varied lot, scattered about the world!


Buildings behind the cathedral are presently being restored. Across a cobbled street, there is a good cultural history museum in the Commandant’s House with displays spanning the last several thousand years of history, from pre-Slavic times to the early twentieth century: specially good are the revamped, brand new histories of the last 300 years, opened in the last few months. I made a note of clever display techniques and design.


“We cannot live in a cradle for ever”


We exited via the Peter Gate (Petrovskie vorota) and the Ivan Gate (Ioannovskie vorota). To the left of the latter, in a rampart dating from 1740, is a 1930s science laboratory turned museum, which is the rather unlikely setting where Russia’s first liquid-fueled rocket was developed in 1932-3. As the Astronautics Museum (which we had no time to visit, alas), it sets out the history of the Soviet space programme, from Sputnik to Mir; and pays homage to the scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. His was the idea, decades before the first satellite was put into orbit, of constructing multi-stage rockets to overcome the adverse mass/fuel ratio. Tsiolkovsky believed that “our planet is the cradle of reason, but we cannot live in a cradle for ever.” Russia, having been the first nation to put a man in space, contributed the term cosmonaut or “universe sailor” to international parlance, although “astronaut” has supplanted it. Either way, the nautical connotations would no doubt have pleased Peter the Great, the sailor; the Bronze Horseman leaping into the void.


The Leningrad Metro


Leaving the island over a wrought-iron footbridge at the east end, we walked across Alexander Park, to the Gorkovskaya Metro station (named after Maxim Gorky). Nearby is St Petersburg’s Mosque, built between 1910 and 1914, and recently restored (“its interior looks stunning”). With time ticking, we had to get back across the river, and no better way of doing it from here than via the underground Metro railway. Because of the watery environment and marshy subsoil of the Neva delta, the underground railway is perforce decidedly deep, 100 m below the surface. The first Metro was built in Stalin’s day, in the 1930s, and went by the grand name of “The Leningrad Metro in the name of Lenin with the Order of Lenin”. This particular line was of later vintage, opened on the anniversary of the revolution in 1967 (Vladimir had been present). Having purchased a ticket, one descends steeply on a fast moving escalator. Crowds of people descend with us and the underground tunnels and platforms are a great concourse: when the metro train rushes in and the doors slide open one finds oneself almost propelled into the packed space that is soon moving off again at speed, standing room only. Tannoy announcements warn passengers (in Russian) about the doors, which slam shut behind one. Several minutes later we were slowing rapidly. The train momentarily at rest, we alighted 100 m below Nevskiy prospekt. The architecture down here is itself grand in a 1960s Soviet kind of a way; marble and granite. Bas-reliefs and mosaics decorate some station vestibules and platforms.


The escalator up to Nevskiy prospect was as vertiginous as the one descending at Gorkovskaya Station. Tannoy announcements and commercial advertisements along the steep ride were a measure of how much the economy has changed; formerly, perhaps, these soundbytes would have been of a political nature, keeping citizens marching to Moscow’s drum?


Around the corner, on the Griboedov embankment, we popped in at the fast food outlet that Stanislav and Vjera and I had visited earlier - and, there, enjoyed fish baked with cheese, with salad, rice, and a cup of tea. 


Along Nevskiy prospect Vladimir took me into a music shop which belongs to the Dom kompozitorov. I purchased a CD that he recommended, of Orthodox liturgical chants, and a historic Leningrad recording of the Leningrad Symphony by Shostakovich. 


When we arrived back at the Dom kompozitorov we found that a film shoot was in progress: by making its splendid facade and interiors available for ‘period’ shoots, the Dom is able to raise additional funds for supporting its rich musical life.


Taxi ride


Fetching my things we had to lug them up along Bolshaya Morskaya ulitsa to Isaakievskaya ploshchad (St Isaac’s Square), where we waited - for just a minute or two - at a bus stop. Our timing had been good. As appointed, a Mercedes taxi pulled up. It was now clear the Jarnovic portrait would not fit into the boot (as Vladimir thought it should); but fortunately we were able to squeeze it into the back seat area (Vladimir squeezing in behind it!). I was also clutching a rolled up pair of posters that had been printed to advertise the Jarnovic concert. We then sped off, and were soon driving up through history along Moskovsky prospekt - which Stalin had anticipated should become the main axis of post-War Leningrad, its modern Cyclopean reaches meant to outshine the older pre-revolutionary city. Naturally enough it was then known as Stalin Avenue (replacing the name given after the revolution, International Avenue). Stalin’s name was replaced in the wake of Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 (at which several delegates had heart attacks on the spot) when Stalin was linked with Kirov’s murder and details of other tyrannical deeds emerged.


I took numerous photographs through the partially snowed-up window.


At the airport, we went through a security checkpoint at the entrance (much like any airport checkpoint) and then through passport and customs control. The Jarnovic portrait had survived the taxi trip. Vladimir promised that, once through customs, one would be able to have it secured - and lo and behold a special packaging department was at hand to wrap anything one cares to have wrapped, in cellophane - for a small fee. Two helpful fellows even fashioned a convenient handle for me! I was most impressed.


It was time to say farewell and with a big Russian hug, thanking one another, and a comradely fist in the air from Vladimir, we went our separate ways. A duty free shop had, as Vladimir predicted, a range of Russian chocolates on which I spent some of my last Rubles. At a bar counter near the boarding point, and with a little time to spare, I tried a Russian draught beer - very good. Boarding announcements having been made, I soon found myself buckled up in a window seat ready for take-off for Amsterdam.


Farewell to Russia


It was already beginning to darken by the time we took off. The city lights were quickly lost from sight; we had risen above cloud within minutes. Presently, through gaps in the grey, cold rectangular snow fields and scattered towns, and a complex coastline, was probably southern Sweden.


I had, for reading, a copy of the St Petersburg Times. The front page carried political stories such as news of the contested election results in Ukraine, and uproar over Zhirinovsky’s latest antics; but, within, there were intriguing items such as on a fellow named Vladimir Molotsov, the ‘Highlander’ of St Petersburg, who would be playing the bagpipes at the St Andrew’s Day Ball at the Astoria Hotel; and on Mikhail Kalashnikov (85), inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, who recently attended the opening of an AK-47 exhibition at the St Petersburg Artillery Museum. “I developed this gun to defend my country,” he said. In its design, a combination of simplicity and reliability, requiring no modifications for the desert, tropical jungles or the North Pole, the rifle has remained essentially unaltered in 50 years. Once a Soviet military top secret, it could now be found globally, more than 50 million copies having been made. 


Zaterdag at Schiphol


We touched down gently at Schiphol. By local clocks, it appeared, only an hour had passed, while in fact it was an approximately two-hour flight. As I had to overnight here, I checked accommodation possibilities - all quite pricey - and decided upon the option of using a central Relaxation area where reclining seats allow one to lie back and snooze. There were still many shops open and I browsed around the bookstalls before having a bite to eat and a beer.


I had picked up a copy of Azar Nafisi’s book “Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books”, an engaging account by an inspired and defiant teacher of English literature - forbidden literature of the West (Jane Austen, Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Vladimir Nabakov) - in revolutionary Iran in the late twentieth century. Expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil, and holding out through the worst of the revolution in her quest for intellectual freedom, she eventually left for the United States in 1997. Author of a critical study of Nabokov’s novels, she is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University. This book on life under a particular repressive regime seemed, in a general way, a peculiarly appropriate read following a visit to a place that had suffered so much repression, and while living in a world where repression prevails so widely and defines episodes of our own pasts. Henry James’ goal, to produce “art as a human complication and social stumbling block”, and Nabakov’s observation that “curiosity is insubordination in its purest form”, highlight reasons why, under authoritarian rule, writers, artists, scientists, the intelligentsia as a whole, have often borne the brunt of censorship, curtailment, and purges- as they certainly did under Stalin and his henchmen. (Earlier, under Tsarist rule, Dostoevsky was banished to Siberia, and Pushkin to the Black Sea).



Schiphol to Johannesburg

and then to Kimberley on Monday


The reclining seats were not very comfortable, I have to say; but I had some sleep. Remarkably, the whole airport seems to shut down at about 10 at night. Things began to stir again at around 6 o’clock the next morning. Having freshened up at the ablutions and dressed more appropriately for Johannesburg heat, I sought out some coffee, and presently ambled along to the designated departure gate. At the Duty Free shop nearby I purchased some Dutch cheeses and other small gifts.


When we boarded the 747 400 there were not as many passengers as on the outward flight. I had a window seat just aft of the port wing (almost identical to where I had sat on the earlier flight), with two empty seats beside me - so I could spread my things a bit. In due course we were aloft.


One of the most thrilling aspects of the return flight was the music - one of the channels one could listen to over headphones was another selection of favourites chosen and introduced by the Estonian conductor Paavo Jarvi - this time, Berlioz, Borodin, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Glinka, Chaikovsky! The Chaikovsky was none other than the ballroom waltz from Evgeniy Onigen! And the Borodin was the Polovstian Dances sung by the chorus of the Mariinskiy Theatre! Nothing like hearing native speakers of Russian, he said, singing such works: the language gives its own sound - a Russian performance is fruitier, has more colour, more vibrato. It was marvellous.


The scenery was breath-taking, too. Cloud covered over most of Europe, but the Alps offered up spectacular views, small towns dotted along valleys, the snow piled up against their high northern slopes. The Mediterranean coastline was that at Nice, with humanity tightly packed twixt mountain and sea. Boats on the blue. On the island of Sardegna we over-flew an impressive field of giant wind generators, their huge blades swinging in the breeze. We traversed most of Africa in daylight, at times seeing the shadow of our own vapour trail ploughing across the sands of the Sahara. Out of this immense sea of sand stick cruel jagged mountains, in places like a giant bed of nails, between which the traces of any human presence are extremely minimal, and, at this height, invisible. Dirty greys, browns, mustard, yellow, white and reddish sands accentuate the aridity, windswept as far as the eye can see. Great jutting pinnacles cast shadows that confirm their extraordinary height. Presently the landscape softens and huge lunate dunes become the only discernible features, until these are smudged and erased by dust, got up by wind. This smudge gives way to a uniformity of bush and trees. Much later, much further south, and after dark, the moon reflects upwards, most unexpectedly, off Lake Kariba! Lusaka flickers in the dark.


The choir of boys and girls broke into African song (not their first language) as we touched down at Johannesburg International. It was a longish wait at the baggage carousel, and then there was a moment of consternation when all bags had been claimed but there was no sign of the Jarnovic portrait! Upon enquiry, however, it turned out it had been routed separately off the plane, being something of an abnormal object, and was safely awaiting me to one side! With suitcase, two bags, poster roll, and the Jarnovic portrait (encased in its backing boards, pink ribbon and St Petersburg Airport wrapping - it survived the journey entirely intact!), all heaped up on an airport trolley, I negotiated customs, and made it eventually through to the arrival hall, where Kate and Jeanette and Rainer were waiting and probably getting a little worried at my delayed appearance! It was good to be back on African soil, if not quite yet at home! The temperature difference was palpable: from -6 degrees C at St Petersburg, to 9 degrees at Schiphol, to certainly the upper 10s at night in Johannesburg! The next day, on the road to Kimberley, it would be well into the 30s.


It was late in the afternoon of the following day when I finally pulled in to Kimberley and was reunited with family.


+ + +


This account was completed in January 2005. In the interim I had been in touch with the family and also made contact with Vladimir in St Petersburg, and with Stanislav and Vjera in Zagreb.


As far as Jarnovic goes, for my part, I had revised the article, “The daughters of Jarnovic”, which has now appeared in the Zagreb-based musicology journal Arti Musices, in the same issue as Vjera’s piece on our ancestor’s visit to Dublin (together with a full English translation of his only surviving letter, the one he sent to Mimi [Mary Giornovichi] in 1797). It remains to be seen to what extent the 21st century brings increased interest in the life and work of Jarnovic. The St Petersburg meeting advanced the cause in bringing together some of the role players, in this (dare one say?) nascent revival. And it provided the first opportunity in South Africa for Jarnovic works to be aired over the radio - two concertos (Nos 6 & 10) were broadcast on successive Sundays, 28 November and 5 December 2004.


The opportunity didn’t arise at the meeting for me to formally propose setting up a Jarnovic Violin Scholarship that might, for instance, benefit young players from disadvantaged backgrounds in South Africa. (Jarnovic himself had taught the part-African prodigy George Bridgetower). It was not a forum awash in funds, I realised.


A matter which I did discuss with Stanislav and Vjera was that of trying to trace the Maggini violin which had been Jarnovic’s instrument, and which was preserved in the family of Count Lvov in St Petersburg from the early nineteenth century until it was smuggled out of Russia to England following the 1917 Revolution. This violin later belonged to Sybil Eaton (for whom Gerald Finzi composed his violin concerto); to Charles Pollard, now in Jakarta; to Helmut Stern of the Berlin Philharmonic. Its present whereabouts is not certain. Our goal here would be not merely to track it down (I have been corresponding with Charles Pollard on this), but also formally to suggest renaming the instrument as the “Jarnovic Maggini”.


There is a slight chance that in 2007, which (according to the Palermo evidence) would be the 260th anniversary of Jarnovic’s birth, there could be a follow-up conference in Zagreb. A cherry on the top could be to have the Maggini there as well!


+ + +


With the echoes of St Petersburg receding, a great deal of the experience lives on in memory. There remains so much to read. Five days was hardly sufficient to even begin to appreciate so extraordinary a city. But I was blessed! Two great classics of the Russian opera repertoire; museums staggering in their wealth and singularity; a cityscape, under snow, nothing short of spectacular; new friendships; a rare twist of insider and outsider perspectives; an opportunity to represent a family at a bicentenary event, and, in the quiet of St Catherine’s Church, newly re-consecrated, to offer votive candles on the anniversaries of an ancestor’s death (23 Nov 1804) and of his daughter’s birth (25 Nov 1794)! ...To walk a little way in the footsteps of Jarnovic and to hear his music played in a city that once was entranced by his own playing.


Chiefly, I was blessed having many family members who helped so very generously to make this journey possible. To them all, and to my wife Noeleen and sons Jonathan and Benjamin, who were not able to accompany me, I dedicate these recollections, with gratitude!