I am currently writing a trilogy — The Aikenhead Honours — which is set in various locations around Europe. Part of one of the stories is set in Russia, in St Petersburg. (This is the famous frontage of the Winter Palace, alongside the Hermitage, taken from the river Neva.)
I hadn’t ever been to Russia, so I arranged to go on a trip to the Baltic last summer, including three days in St Petersburg. I planned to do the same kind of research I always try to do. I do lots of reading beforehand. Then, on the spot, I take pictures and make tape recordings of information about the places I’m in. I also keep a detailed travel journal, and gather books, leaflets and souvenirs. My baggage always weighs far more on the trip home than it did on the way out, largely because it’s full of books.
It all started out really well. I had with me one of those tiny digital recorders and had managed to record much of the information the various guides were telling me. And I’d taken loads of pictures. Then, disaster. I dropped my camera while it was in the middle of saving a photograph. I’d dropped it before and it had survived OK. But not this time. Its close encounter with a granite path was fatal. The camera’s zoom stopped working properly and the focus became unreliable. Believe me, I could have wept. What’s the point in making a research trip to St Petersburg if you don’t have a working camera?
I resolved to do the best I could with what I had. Point, shoot, and hope. Result? I have loads of pictures, but many of them are unusable. Still, I do have some that are in focus, as you can see.
St Petersburg is an amazing place to visit. It suffered greatly during the Second World War and many of its palaces and monuments were destroyed. These have been painstakingly restored by Russian experts over the last 50 years at huge cost.
Palaces like the Peterhof (left) show visitors the lavish lifestyle of the Russian monarchy and aristocracy. Peter the Great intended it to rival Versailles. It certainly has some of the most impressive fountain systems that I have ever seen.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Russians measured their wealth by the number of serfs they owned. Edward Clark recorded in 1810 that some of the nobles had “70,000 or 100,000 peasants, paying, on average, 10 roubles annually, in specie.” Huge incomes were needed to support palaces like this, Tsarskoye Selo, originally built for the wife of Peter the Great.
Below is the Cameron Gallery, added by Catherine the Great, who spent huge sums on her palaces and their grounds. Unusually, this piece of architecture is plain white, in the Greek style.
And if you’re wondering why everything is painted is such bright colours, I’ll give you the explanation that the guide gave to me. In St Petersburg, the sun shines for fewer than 20 days a year so the buildings are painted to add a little brightness to life.