The Hermitage Museum

Visiting one of Russia's great museums.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

The Hermitage Museum seen from across Palace Square.
The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is one of the world's great museums, housing examples of not just Russian work, but masterworks from all over the world. And it is big, really big. We spent about four hours inside the museum one afternoon, and I doubt that we saw more than one fourth of the works and exhibits. Any trip to St. Petersburg must include at least an afternoon, if not more, visiting this amazing place.

The Hermitage is located in the Winter Palace, built by Peter the Great. Just getting inside the place can be a little confusing; we had trouble finding the entrance. We first headed into a side door, thinking it to be an entrance, and were met by a very disapproving museum babushka who made it quite clear, even to someone who speaks no Russian, that we were in the wrong place.

These 'museum babushkas' as I called them, were a little strange to me at first. Often times they chided you rather sternly for anything from taking out a camera at the wrong time, to heading towards a display room that might be temporarily closed, even though this fact is not well marked. But as soon as they were done with a strong scolding, leaving you feeling like they really didn't like you at all, they would smile warmly, their eyes twinkling with maternal cheer, as if to say, "Okay my little one, now that I have scolded you go with my blessing, but watch yourself!" Eventually, I came to realize they meant absolutely no ill-will with their toughness, but perhaps knew what great treasures they were guarding and were simply making sure no harm could be done by a simple, clumsy American tourist.

Opposite the museum is the General Staff building.
Across from the Hermitage, on the opposite side of Palace Square, is the General Staffing building, built in 1819 to 1820 and designed by architect Carlo Rossi. The impressive archway enters onto the square, and it was through this entrance that the bolsheviks came through on that fateful night when they grabbed the Romanov's.

I stood in the square and tried to imagine what it must have been like on that night. So many of the places I visited in Russia had this duel identity, places of great beauty, but also of tragedy, histories of turbulence. This is not to say that this past takes away from the incredible beauty and impressive design of places like Palace Square, but as you stand in the place where such events took place you can't help but feel a ghost or two brush by you and whisper in your ear that the place has not always been so peaceful and content.

But on this day, of course, all was peaceful in St. Petersburg. In fact, there exists a striking contrast between Moscow and St. Petersburg that goes beyond just the architecture and visible elements of the two cities. Petersburg feels more vibrant, more hopeful than Moscow. Business enterprises along the Nevsky Prospekt, the main throughfare of the city, appear more natural and real, not strange like so many of the makeshift and alien looking enterprises in Moscow.

An instrument fit for Liberace.
Inside the Hermitage I was very happy to discover they do allow pictures in limited areas. They are forbidden, of course, in the rooms where paintings are displayed, but are allowed in many of the exhibits showing artifacts from Russian history.

At first glance, the sign in english stating that photographs were allowed seem to imply that a person would be charged five dollars for each photograph taken. This seemed outrageous even by current Russian standards. This was, however, just a bit of a grammatical twist on the part of the sign maker, and in fact the charge was five dollars for as many pictures as you cared to take. Naturally, as a non-citizen I was charged more for the price of admission, but that's typical at most tourist attractions all over Russia.

One thing that strikes you quite quickly as you make your way through the museum, which is housed in the Winter Palace, is how no space is left untouched by an artist's brush or decorated in some ornate fashion. I got the impression that Peter the Great must have walked through the place with his artists, designers and sculptors saying, "Here I'd like a statue of a lion eating an antelope, and here a picture of a dragon battling a knight. Over here paint a picture of a young woman putting a watermelon in her trousers."

Even the ceilings are amazing!
The first part of a tour through the Hermitage shows you many artifacts from recent Russian history and the Czars' rule. You quickly realize they led an incredibly extravagant life. It's impossible for me to even imagine living in such a place with servants to do everything for you from dressing in the morning to removing the lint from you're dinner jacket, while your wearing it.

Just walking down a hallway you pass a large vase with more intricate designs than you've ever seen before in your life. It's probably worth more than my house, my car, and my life. The painting to the right adorned one of the ceilings; just think of the poor guy who laid on his back for however long for that one. "Oh, Peter... Mr. Great? My back is beginning to ache a bit. Might I come down for a spot of tea?" To which the reply came, "Quiet, craftsman, I'm busy having someone brush out the hair on my legs. Now finish my painting."

A view from a window along a hallway.
A large portion of the Hermitage houses masterworks from all over the world, including a whole room of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. It was truly amazing to see these works in person and up close. Seeing paintings like these in books or on slides never does them justice; the true great impression of great masterworks must be seen in person to realize their beauty. I realized this many years ago when I went to Washington DC, and saw many works I had seen on slides in humanities classes in college. Seeing reprints of such work never prepares you for the tremendous impact they have seeing them in person.

However, I do wonder about the whole concept, though, of filling one place with so many of them to be viewed so rapidly and in quick succession. After a few hours in a place like the Hermitage, you tend to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of pieces you are viewing until they begin to lose some of their ability to impact you. Of course, the only alternative would either be to not see them at all, or ask one of the museum babushkas if you could borrow one to take home for a few months and hang on your own wall at home. I considered doing just that with da Vinci's The Litta Madonna, but then thought differently after a moment of reconsideration.

'Oh, Geeves, fetch my carriage.'
Arguments about how best to view the world's great works aside, the Hermitage is an incredible place. The sheer size is amazing in itself, and I got lost several times to prove it. The architecture is beautiful, inside and out, and walking along Palace Square, between the Winter Palace and the General Staffing building, you can truly feel the magnificence that Peter the Great intended and succeeded in building into his Venice of the North.

Indeed, the whole majesty and elegance of St. Petersburg is unique from the rest of Russia. The gray and looming Soviet buildings of Moscow might as well be on another planet when compared to the diverse and colorful buildings along Nevsky Prospekt, and other streets in the heart of Petersburg.

The citizens of St. Petersburg, I think, are fortunte to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and as I strolled the streets and looked around at this amazing place, I became convinced that as the Russian economy improves, and the country takes its place among the world markets, St. Petersburg will emerge as a truly great world class city. So much of what it needs is already there, and the people are eager to take advantage of the opportunities the changes are presenting to them. The people I met during my short stay in Petersburg had a sense that the future will be good to them and their city, and everywhere you could see a culture and people poised to claim a place next to the other great cities of the world. New York, Paris, London... 'Look out!'

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