From Russia With Blood, Beauty, and Beasts

Nazi Masterpieces
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 24 2009 7:13 AM

From Russia With Blood, Beauty, and Beasts

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"We need Europe for a few decades, and then we'll show it our ass."—Peter the Great

It should be axiomatic that if you happen upon a swath of land that it is uninhabited, there's probably a good reason why. But governments never seem to learn. From the desert plateau of Brasîlia, to the sheep farm outback of Canberra, Australia, to the humid swamps of Washington, D.C., countries seem compelled to set up capitals in God-forsaken locales. But the granddaddy of ignoring quality of life for political purposes is the fetid bogland of St. Petersburg, which was Russia's capital for two centuries. No one is more aware of this than Petersburgers themselves.

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One night, a young IT manager was giving me a ride back to my hotel. We discussed politics for a while ("Putin has been much better for me than Yeltsin," he told me), until he asked the question I was most frequently asked in St. Petersburg: "What do you think of our city?"

"It's gorgeous," I said.

"Yes," he sighed. "But the weather is awful."

Not only is the weather awful, it's also dangerous. St. Petersburg was built below sea level, a fact Peter the Great must have known, because the city's first flood, just three months after he started construction in 1703, swept away his building materials. Floods of varying degrees of destruction are annual affairs. The worst one (1824) was so tragic—the whole city went under water, 462 buildings were destroyed—that it inspired Pushkin to write his masterpiece "The Bronze Horseman": "Peter, by whose fatal enterprise/ This city under sea took ground." In short, St. Petersburg combines the climate of Helsinki with the safety of New Orleans.

My guide for the day was Anya—straight black hair and those expressionless, angular Slavic features that have been melting the wallets of Western strip-club patrons since the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was, of course, wearing knee-high black leather boots, which are so ubiquitous in St. Petersburg that it must be illegal for women to wear anything else.

Since she was the first English-speaking Russian I'd encountered, I asked her the question I most had on my mind: "Who do you think is in charge: Putin or Medvedev?"

"More and more I think maybe Medvedev," she replied. "I listen to his speeches closely, and his confidence I think increases."

Then she asked me the question she most had on her mind: "How long will this last?"

By this, I knew exactly what she meant. Since I live in Manhattan, ground zero for the financial epidemic, people elsewhere always assume I possess special knowledge about the toxic disease. I don't (and neither, it seems, does the Fed), but I have a few banker friends who tell me this is the end of the world as we know it. Russia has been particularly hard hit by the crisis and the fall in oil prices, having to close down its stock market several times.

"I have no idea," I said. "Maybe two to five years. Depends on how truly magical Barack Obama is."

"Your election surprised us," she said approvingly. "We did not believe America had the strongness to choose a black man."

"Neither did I."

The tour for the day was the Hermitage museum, which started as the personal art collection of Catherine the Great. She is my favorite Romanov ruler, because her political philosophy was Denis Diderot, and her personal life was Dashiell Hammett. Born a minor German princess, this femme fatale was married off to Peter III, heir to the Russian throne. For 18 years, she dreaded the day he would take power, because Junior was boorish, crass, mentally unstable, pro-Prussian, and, if that wasn't enough, impotent. In other words, proof of what I call the Stupid Son Theorem of Monarchy: the more enlightened a ruler, the more idiotic his or her offspring. (Draw your own modern parallels.)

When Junior finally gained power, Catherine let him offend all the major Russian power bases and then had her lover, who just happened to be a dashing young captain of the guards, lead the coup that ended with her husband's death in 1762. (European wits referred to Russia's government as "despotism tempered by assassination.") Empress Catherine went on to shag pretty much any young stud who could move. Such was her reputation that an urban legend grew that she had died while attempting sex with a stallion, making her the patron saint of both bad girls and horny horses.

Catherine didn't know much about art, but she did know how to buy massive collections from distressed European aristocrats. Anya and I arrived in time to experience the turning of the Peacock clock, a masterful construction from the age when the accurate marking of time was still a marvel. The rest of the museum is filled with expected company: the Raphaels, the Rembrandts, the Michelangelos, the Goyas, the El Grecos. I was most struck by Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna and child, breast-feeding. Forgive me, Lord, but it was strangely erotic.

But the best part of the Hermitage is closed off to photography. I know because a babushka nearly tore off my arm when I pulled out my camera in the "special" section. To help me recover from my shock, Anya explained: "The Russian army found these works in the basement of the Reichstag. It is where the Nazis hid all the artwork they stole. Its fate must, I think, be negotiated by governments at the highest level."

"It's been 60 years," I said, staring in amazement at the various van Goghs, Monets, and Cézannes. (Happening upon a treasure trove of Nazi-owned masterpieces is almost as awesome as discovering Hitler's gold.) "How long could it take?"

"We don't forget," Anya said and—perhaps in remembrance of the 900-day Nazi siege of the city that killed more than half the population—added, "And we don't forgive."