Last week was a gentle re-introduction to work after a lovely winter break. Business as usual in the INTO office, while at home I discovered two wonderful new TV series and am now completely hooked!
I’m writing this while waiting for ‘Deutschland 83’ to start – a German series about a young GDR lad sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi. 1983 was the year I started learning German at school, so quite nostalgic, in a weird way, what with old clips of Ronald Reagan and an ever-present fear of nuclear war – Nena’s ‘99 Luftballons’ playing in the background along with fabulous period furnishings … (Always wanted to be a spy, but would have been a rubbish one!)
Decided against a new version of ‘War and Peace’ that also started this week. It was never my favourite* when I was reading Russian at university, so I decided to brush up on Russian history instead with a series called ‘Empire of the Tsars: Romanov Russia’.
I first visited St Petersburg (although then of course it was called Leningrad) in 1987, when I was studying Russian at college. I returned in 1991 on an international workcamp, volunteering at an old people’s home for a month, and then visited a couple of times when I was living in Russia as part of my undergraduate degree.
When I was invited to speak about INTO on a cruise around the Baltic a few years ago, I jumped at the chance to visit again after 20 years. It was wonderful, as you can imagine, but that’s a whole other blog …
As part of my final lecture, I suggested to the passengers, many of them NTEWNI members, that they visit some UK National Trust places on their return from the cruise to awaken happy memories of the Baltic.
There are a surprising number of Russian objets in the Trust’s collections: these tiny Fabergé rabbits at Polesden Lacey were our daughter’s favourite thing ever for a while; there is a miniature of Alexander I in the Londonderry collection at Mount Stewart (the third Marquess was good friends with the Tsar – he even named his youngest daughter, Alexandrina, in honour of their friendship) and two pieces of Catherine the Great’s famous Bleu Celeste Sevres porcelain service mysteriously turned up in the collection of Lord Bearsted at Upton House after being stolen during a fire at the Winter Palace.
John Hobart, the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire, who lived at Blicking Hall was British ambassador to St Petersburg from 1762 to 1765 and when he left, Catherine the Great gave him a tapestry of Peter the Great defeating the Swedes at Poltawa!
And not far down the road in the Grand Dining Room at Wimpole Hall, there are two paintings of Russian scenes recalling the 4th Earl of Hardwicke’s stay at Peterhof in 1842 when he accompanied the King of Prussia on a visit to the Tsar. The other painting features Falconet’s famous statue of Peter the Great sitting atop a bulging eyed horse, pointing out across the wide River Neva to the West. And there’s also a copy of this at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire!
Most bizarrely, at St Catherine’s Down on the Isle of Wight, you will find the Hoy Monument, a 72 feet high monument erected by Michael Hoy, a successful St Petersburg merchant, to commemorate the visit to Britain, in 1814, of ‘His Imperial Majesty Alexander the 1st, Emperor of all the Russias’.
One of the reasons for watching this series about the Tsars is – apart from glorying in all the lovely places – was to try and unpick the Romanov family Who’s Who (or rather ‘Who Lived Where?’). We visited many wonderful palaces in St Petersburg, with complicated stories of murder, coup d’etats and family intrigue. I’m looking forward to the next two episodes which will hopefully clear a lot of this up – then perhaps I’ll write that other blog!
In the meantime, I’m planning a visit to Ham House. In the recent sumptuous film of Anna Karenina (a Tolstoy novel which I DO love), this red-brick mansion on the southern bank of the River Thames was transformed into Vronksy’s grand apartments. It’s high time for a fix of Baroque decor, gold-gilded panelling, fine oil paintings and parquet floor – and if it’s snowing by then like the weather men predict, it should feel just like St Petersburg!
*For the record, Chekhov is my favourite Russian author, a man ahead of his time in terms of environmentalism who, much like the founders of the National Trust, worried that ‘beautiful landscapes are disappearing forever’. In Uncle Vanya (the best Chekhov play), Dr Astrov says “Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now, he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined, and the land grows poorer and uglier every day … “