Alone in The Winter Palace

by Gae Rusk

It wasn't winter, it was August, but I was alone in the Winter Palace in downtown Leningrad –oops, St. Petersburg. That's its name again.

Anyway it was 1996, and I was alone in the Winter Palace and wasn't supposed to be. No one was supposed to be alone in that sprawl of an edifice complex unless they were employed there.

The husband and I were in St. Petersburg on a corporate reward trip. We sailed into town on an enormous luxury catamaran after leaving giant double-wakes across the Baltic from Stockholm. We were a well-fed bunch of catamaranites arriving at the most important port of the newly unscrambled and re-renamed nation of Russia.

The last time I was in Russia, it was the Soviet Union. That was in 1990, just half a year before the change. In 1990, the places I visited were filled with vital energy, and out in Siberia a fourth generation intelligencia throbbed the bass note of regional communism.

Six years later, we sailed into a ghost town. I could not believe the difference in such a short time. First we glided through a fleet of Soviet submarines floating upside down. Then we sailed by one disintegrating dock after another, by corpses of ships, barges, tugs, all rusting from waterline to deck.

The chatty passengers up on our forward deck were silenced by this apocalyptic scenery. I had to be shushed, because I was launched into the story of my still lost luggage and had not noticed the quiet, which was profound.

Our huge double hulls whispered through the water. Tenements near the docks defined derelict. We could see laundry hanging on balconies and bicycles leaning against walls, but no actual people although it was at least 9 am as we entered town.

We finally spied another ship aglow with white paint docked up ahead. A Swedish mother-ship, thank god! We sailed by, close. As we passed I was afraid we'd tip into each other, because every one aboard both boats rushed to the near rails, calling out hellos in every language I'd ever heard to break the muteness of abandoned enterprise and raging decay that went on mile after mile.

Our dock was in grave disrepair like all the others, but the band playing there was gifted and colorful, welcoming us at last, and we gathered and applauded every tune and showered tips on the conductor.

For four days we were bussed about this re-renamed city. Everywhere we went in St Petersburg, the totally brilliant stood next to total ruin, rubbing walls in mutual support, and then there was the Winter Palace. My god. There's a Summer Palace, too, about an hour south of town in a village named after a famous poet, and there is an enormous palace to the east of the city that would take two years to mop, but I like the Winter Palace best of all because it is earth's depository of forgotten art.

I relished this opportunity for another visit after six years. Our group was scheduled to tour the building and see a collection of Impressionist paintings that had been discovered just a year before in the palace basement. When curators located a forgotten room, they found dozens and dozens of these paintings leaning against its four cold walls, evidence indicating they had been stored there since World War I.

The rumor onboard ship was there were more lost rooms still to be found and opened in that sprawling building. It seemed visiting the Winter Palace again would be an island of grace in a city in shambles.

Our group was admitted an hour ahead of the general public. Once inside the chilly and cavernous foyer, we put on our coats and gratefully accepted hot tea, while our guide counted heads. Then we started our tour in a herd-like maneuver down an endless hall.

Half a dozen palatial rooms later, I realized the cup of tea had been a mistake. I needed to locate a toilet, and I knew from my last visit to the Winter Palace that they were few and widely scattered. My slightly panicky request for directions earned me an exasperated look from our guide. She pointed me toward a corridor with quick instructions and ordered me to hurry back.

After striding down that corridor and angling through two grand halls, I reached a room so ornate it completely stunned me still. When I could walk again, the toilet was off a passage beyond this bejeweled chamber, and suddenly I was at the river.

I peed on an elevated throne under a chandeliered ceiling surrounded by polished malachite walls. Tour boats passed by the four-meter windows.

Then, unbelievably, after I left the toilet and re-crossed that drop-dead regal room, the nyet-ladies at the door wouldn't let me back through. They denied me re-entry to the public side of the museum. I argued with them in sign language of the I-am-a-lonely-tourist variety, but they were unmoved.

I call them nyet-ladies because that's all they ever say. They said "Nyet!" to me and they really meant it, so it was clear I wasn't getting back through that door. I couldn't believe it. I turned around and surveyed the lofty and ornate rococo hall.

I have to admit, an unholy form of glee stirred inside me, raising its head, sniffing the air. There I was stuck on the private side of the Winter Palace with no choice but to walk away from all that was public. Realizing this opportunity was a gift from Russia's generously endowed god of art, I re-crossed that royal room in record time, veering left at the far side into a corridor that ended somewhere past Helsinki.

What was so odd, no one ever stopped me or questioned me. Hardly anyone even looked at me as I strolled along, which I got used to after a couple of miles. Then, feeling more secure, I began to venture into side rooms, coming upon parallel corridors just as broad, just as endless, following series of rooms leading one into another and a lot of them looking dusty and unexplored.

Have I mentioned art was everywhere? On every wall and around the doorways and freestanding, a winter pelt of art. I will never be able to verbalize everything I saw. When I try, I stutter. I experienced a lifespan of art-immersion in about ninety minutes, so I'm lucky me eyes didn't explode.

At one point, I had to sit down on a bench to catch my life force back into my chest. Flattened and high simultaneously from the ambush of long-unnoticed chroma, I grew giddy, so I lay down on that bench for a small nap, and no one who passed me said a word. When I arrived back at the front of the palace, I was still on the side closed to the public. I leaned out an open window over the square and could see the distant entrance. How I was going to get there was a conundrum that needed solving, but then I turned around and saw a staircase that rose and twisted into a vivid shower of light half a mile above me.

Beautifully lit from tall windows marching up the outside wall, it had rosy marble steps and filigreed rails, with massive newels of wood so black they became small columns sheening blue and green. Expecting a tsarina to descend this exquisite staircase at any moment, I truly could not help myself. Up it I went.

Here's the funny thing, at the top of this perfect ascent, I stepped into the middle of that Impressionist collection we had come to see. I had climbed those stairs to reach a series of exhibit rooms running halfway to Mokba, and they were filled with works by every Nineteenth century artist who'd ever attempted that style.

The space was saturated with their light as far as I could see. I surveyed the first room and could tell even from the doorway that each painting would be a re-education on color and technique. I knew those works would send me on mental journeys to blurred destinations where eye and soul crisscross.

Even more powerful was the knowledge that, until one day last year, when that boarded up door was pried open, no one alive had seen this collection. At this thought, I staggered sideways, catching myself on the door's gold leafed frame. I looked futilely for another bench.

Turns out, I beat my tour group to the exhibit by a good half hour. While waiting for them and wandering from room to room, I shot off a few photos before a nyet-lady threatened to take my camera. She was quite stern and made me sit in her chair till my group arrived.

My spouse couldn't believe it when he saw me sitting there surrounded by brand new Cézannes and Monets and Degas, and our guide was palpably relieved to find me. She stayed close the rest of the tour. She even walked me to the toilet near the public exit and waited politely for me just outside its door, making sure I was not alone again in the Winter Palace.


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