Into The Bleak.

Out of the hotel room, I see two or three men huddling around a bin fire. Although no snow is blowing around, it is inches and inches deep on the ground. Night has quite set in by this point, and I feel awfully glad of my bed, despite the characterless decor and undrinkable tap water from the bathroom.

The next morning, I awake my comrade by playing ‘The Soviet National Anthem’ – a rousing tune by anyone’s standards – but she disapproves greatly, thinking post-Communist St Petersburg would too. Even though it is bitterly, bitingly cold outside, I discard my thermal vest on dressing, finding it warming abilities an uncomfortable test of my body’s acclimatisation. We breakfast looking over the River Neva, with the Cruiser Aurora in the distance. It is a long way from the soggy green garden at home. At this stage of the Russian winter, the Neva has frozen over, and tracks of one man can be seen in the thick snow. He had trekked straight over the river, without a care the ice might collapse.

That day was a visit to the Winter Palace. The Winter Palace! This is the stuff of revolutionary legends, and it is quite surreal walking into the grand, audacious, and, quite frankly, ridiculously over the top – palace. That word fits it stunningly well. No expense has been spared on its decor, and the monstrous gap between the luxuries of the royals and the dire life of the poor was more crude and poignant than ever. There were some parts of St Petersburg that looked like Dostoyevsky had just written about them, ‘Notes From The Underground’ did not first emerge 150 years ago, and the Tsar was still on the throne. It looks, to put it plainly, like there has been no real equality here at all.

Eleven PM. Our Sleeper Train waits patiently at the station as we flap about with heavy bags and, for some slightly less bright ones, stilettos. Nothing yells “tourist!” more than multi-coloured coats and inappropriate footwear. All aboard, I hope for some stray Russian called Sasha to be carrying a ukulele, and maybe we could all have a nice sing-song, reminiscent of something from the war, but sleep seems to be on everyone else’s minds. I take the occasion to stay awake, looking out of the window, as each station we rattled past was lit up brilliantly for a moment, then lost again in the quiet darkness. The gentle rocking of the carriage, and the somewhat intense (yet very welcome) heating soon takes its hold over me, and we awake a few hours later, all a little groggy and sleepy, in a rather foreign place called Moscow.

(Russian Travels, February 2004)


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