- My Hermitage internship is going well; I've been busy translating stuff for their English newsletter from the original Russian. It's tedious work, but what internship isn't?
- I saw the Museum of Political History, with its truly massive collection of old Soviet propaganda posters, as well as the room which was Vladimir Lenin's former study, maintained almost exactly as he left it.
- I visited the Artillery Museum, where one can see the vehicles, arms, and munitions used by the Russian and Soviet armies from the first millenia to the present day. (pictures later!)
- I ate at a Kroshka Kartoshka, the potato-based Russian fast food chain, which truly has no American equivalent...the baked potato with cheese was truly amazing, although incredibly filling (like most Russian dishes, unfortunately).
- I also had my first experience with Russian vodka and Russians....I won't go into the details (especially since I can't remember most of them, anyway), but long story short, I woke up around noon the following day, feeling like I'd been kicked in the face with an iron boot.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Friday, October 23, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
- I had my first Russian theatre-going experience...went to see Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "The Tsar's Bride" at the Mikhailovsky Theater, which is next to the Russian Museum. The music was good, if a bit flowery for my taste, and the set was absolutely gorgeous. I honestly felt like I was in the throne room of Tsar Ivan, and I was sitting in the back row!
- I've toured three of the five major cathedrals of St. Petersburg: the elegant Kazansky Sobor, the massive and stately Isaakyevsky Sobor and the entrancingly beautiful Xram Spassa na Krovi (Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood). In Kazansky, I witnessed my first Orthodox liturgy, while in Isaakyevsky, I got to climb to the colonnade on the main dome and take pictures of what might be the finest view in the entire city. In Spilled Blood, I got to see the stunning interior of the most beautiful building in all Russia, as well as the site of Tsar Alexander II's assassination.
- I went to an Anglo-Russian pub with my friend Marina (not my host mother) to watch the World Cup qualifier between Russia and Germany...great game, with an unfortunate ending (Germany won), but I have never felt more Russian than when I sat with a bunch of drunken soccer hooligans laughing and cheering when the camera cut to Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin in the skybox, wearing their Team Russia scarves.
- Speaking of Putin and Medvedev, I went to see their presidential meeting hall, which is located at Konstantinskii Palace, in the southeastern suburbs. I even got to see Putin's private billiards room, which is as nice as you would imagine it to be.
- I'm making friends with some non-American students finally, and not only Russians, but also some Georgian and British students.
- I went to a Russian restaurant called Hot Wings, and ate - you guessed it - hot wings for the first time since leaving the states. And it was glorious...maybe not quite the same as in America, but my stomach wasn't picky.
- I have a volunteer internship at the State Hermitage Museum, one of the largest in the world, and might even get to write an article for their English newsletter.
- In another day or two, I travel to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, for a weekend...it ought to be a lot of fun, and I'll be sure to take a lot of pictures!
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Monday, October 5, 2009
To be fair, the Hermitage’s entire collection of Greek & Roman art is magnificent to look at, even if a fair number of them are actually Italian reproductions. The fact that you are looking at something more than two thousand years old, something which represents a completely different stage of human development, is a very moving experience. But in spite of that, a lot of the ancient sculptures have a very familiar quality to them, particularly the busts of the early Roman emperors. Nearly all of them are monuments of self-glorification (if not self-deification), portraying the rulers of Rome as handsome, dignified and heroic figures, filled with limitless strength and untold wisdom. The bust of Tiberius, for example, makes him look like a distinguished patrician, famed for his charity and judgment, when in reality, he was a paranoid and murderous old pervert. The robust and affable-looking Nero was actually a brutal megalomaniac (and serial rapist) who had Rome set on fire for his own amusement, then built a colossal palace over the ruins left behind. Even the bust of Caesar is misleading; while he was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant generals and statesmen in history, the means by which he achieved that reputation are far from noble. He was a ruthless political manipulator, and his conquest of Gaul is estimated to have killed over a million people. He was murdered because the senators of Rome feared he was plotting to overthrow the Republic (his nephew Augustus ended up doing just that).
All this is why I was so shocked when I entered one of the numerous exhibition rooms in the Hermitage and found myself in a room full of emperors from the 3rd Century. During a period dubbed “the Crisis of the 3rd Century”, the Roman Empire tottered on the brink of annihilation, subjected to a near endless parade of plagues, earthquakes, assassinations, slave revolts, hyperinflation, barbarian invasions and civil wars. Amidst this sea of calamities, there surfaced one positive development: Realism.
Looking at the busts of the 3rd Century emperors, I was struck by how much more honestly they were portrayed than their predecessors: some were fat, some were ugly, some were sickly, and some were disgustingly hairy. You can even see real emotions in some of their stony faces; the portly and unshaven Balbin looks like any middle-aged man might when receiving a piece of bad news (as well he might, since half the empire tried to secede during his reign). In the sightless marble eyes of Caracalla, you can see the naked cruelty and ambition that marked his tenure as emperor, as well as his rather awesome sideburns.
Perhaps the most interesting statue, for me at least, was that of Emperor Philippus Arabicus, more commonly known as Philip the Arab. He came to power at a particularly bleak time in Roman history, with the economy in ruins, the Persian army overrunning the eastern borders, and the powerful Dacian legions in open revolt. Philip’s statue shows a military man with a receding hairline, clearly uncomfortable with his new civilian dress and duties, who is just beginning to grow fat. His face is tired and worn, with fresh wrinkles appearing at the news of the latest disaster, and he has precious little time to waste posing for a sculptor, much less bothering to see whether he looks good. The Roman world, the only world he knows, is ending; a thousand years of civilization on the brink of destruction, and his job is to find some way to save it.
Whatever their other faults (of which there were many), the emperors of the 3rd Century didn’t try to conceal who or what they truly were. For that, if nothing else, perhaps we owe them the small courtesy of remembering them at all.