Within these walls

In St Petersburg Robin Buss visits the apartments of Russia's great writers, and overleaf, Robin Blake seeks out the best private art collections in America
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
To The outsider, St Petersburg, with its broad avenues and classical facades, has much to support its pretensions as a cultural capital, and the proximity of Scandinavia somehow makes the city feel relatively open and relaxed. In summer the famous "white nights" (when it remains light until after midnight) encourage people to walk around the streets or go to watch the raising of the bridges across the Neva in the early hours. Of course, one hardly needs the warnings in the guide books to guess that the smarter new cafes are probably run by the Mafia and the showy older ones, like the Literary Cafe on Nevsky Prospekt, may be overpriced tourist traps; but a sense of past and present intellectual glasnost remains.

The reaction soon sets in, and has hit travellers to St Petersburg for at least 250 years. The Marquis de Custine, in the Letters from Russia which he wrote after his visit in 1839, had a bad attack of antipathy to the city, which left him feeling morose and even paranoid. For a start, the classical buildings struck him as entirely inappropriate to this northern setting, "like heroes held captive among their enemies" and "lacking in style, taste or historical meaning". Then he began to sense an element of brutality in the sheer scale of the achievement. Hundreds of workmen had died, for example, in the effort to rebuild the Winter Palace within two years, after the fire of 1837: "a ruler can be popular in Russia, Custine observed, "without attaching great value to the lives of Russians". Then he begins to fear that the authorities will become suspicious of him because he has shown too much interest in the history of the murdered Tsar, Ivan VI; he remembers the fate of the German poet August von Kotzebue, who spent a short exile in Siberia as a punishment for his indiscretions; and the Frenchman has a white night of his own, worrying that he might suffer a similar fate.

Russians have naturally been even more conscious of all the contradictions than foreigners. Pushkin's Bronze Horseman animates the grandiloquent equestrian statue of Peter the Great to make it a figure of nightmare, and there is nothing fortuitous in the fact that the Peters-burg in the novels of Dostoyevsky is a city of low dives and dingy apartments, as much as one of elegant, classical facades. The myth has always had its counter-myth, and St Petersburg - still the "Hero-City of Leningrad", according to the facade of the Oktyabrskaya Hotel - is an assemblage of sometimes contradictory associations. They can be explored in that typically Russian institution, the apartment-museum.

There is a story by the satirist Mikhail Zoshenko about a group of citizens eagerly trying to prove that their communal flat has associations - however distant - with Pushkin, so that it can be turned into a museum, allowing them to be rehoused. The former Soviet regime was favourable to this kind of relatively innocuous, educational institution, which bolstered its cultural credentials, while giving low-paid employment to the female warders who sit in the corner of each room.

As far as the museums are concerned, it is unwise to put too much faith in the guidebooks, several of which, for example, list the Literary Museum in the former Customs House on Vasilevsky Island. This is, in reality, an institute for literary studies which has long since ceased to operate as a museum. Instead, start your tour of literary Petersburg with the poet whose name will recur at intervals all along the way and whose apartment-museum is most likely to survive any budgetary cuts: Alexander Pushkin.

Although Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799, St Petersburg has better reason to claim him: "I love you, creation of Peter," he wrote. "I love your strict, harmonious look, your pensive nights, with their transparent dusk and moonless lustre when I in my room can write and read without a lamp ... " (admittedly, he wrote something along similar lines about Moscow). He was educated in Tsarskoe Selo (now Pushkin, 25km south of St Petersburg), at the lycee which is now a museum; lived in the city for much of his life (the guide to Pushkin's Lenin-grad published by Lenizdat in 1989 lists around 50 addresses with Pushkinian associations); and he died in the house a short walk from the Winter Palace, at Naberezhnaya Reki Moiki (number 12), which is now the Pushkin Apartment Museum.

The house in fact belonged to the Volkonsky family, from whom Pushkin rented the apartment. It had undergone substantial alteration by the time it was opened as a museum in 1925. It was further restored 10 years ago, as near as possible to its state in the few months that the poet spent there, before he set out, on 27 January, 1837, for his fatal duel with his newly acquired brother-in-law, Dantes.

The apartment has a far more authentic feel than Pushkin's house on the Arbat in Moscow, including a number of genuine relics (furniture, walking sticks, manuscripts, death mask and the waistcoat he was wearing on the day of the duel), as well as replicas of his vast library of books and portraits of his friends and fellow-writers. A guided visit of the apartment is followed by an opportunity to look round a two-room exhibition; the whole provides a good introduction to Pushkin and a glimpse of life in Petersburg in his time.

Like Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky lived in a number of houses around town, so the choice of the house in which he died in 1881 (at Kuznechniy Pereulok 5/2) is slightly arbitrary. Dostoyevsky was happily married: Tolstoy said (not without envy, perhaps) that "every writer should have a wife like Dostoyevky's", and among the exhibits in the flat are pages from the manuscript of The Brothers Karamazov, in Anna's shorthand: they met when she came to work as his secretary.

Altogether, this is an agreeable place, capturing something of the atmosphere of late 19th-century Petersburg life and a domesticity which is lacking from other museums on the route - with the writer's hat on a stand near the door, the children's toys and the touching little notes they used to push under the door of his study while he was working, to say "I love you" or "Daddy, give me a treat".

Like the Dostoyevsky children, visitors are not allowed to set foot in the writer's study, where the clock stands at the hour of his death. Across the landing from the apartment itself are two rooms that are being transformed into a museum annexe to the apartment. The process could be a long one, since it depends on funds, so for the time being the exhibition is only partly open to the public. You will be allowed to wander round by yourself, but at the slightest hint of interest you are liable to be cornered by an earnest young man, only too ready to explain the cases containing items to symbolise the themes of each of the major novels: a statuette of Napoleon, a set of dice, a crucifix.

Ideally, a visit to Dostoyevsky's house would be followed by one to that of his contemporary, Nikolai Nekrasov, who lived in the heart of 19th- century Petersburg intellectual life, on the Liteyniy Prospeckt, and edited the influential review Sovre-mennik from his house at number 32. Unfor- tunately, the apartment-museum was closed for refurbishment when I visited. Instead, from Dostoyevsky's house, take a short metro ride (station Dostoyevskaya to Sadovaya) to Sennaya Ploschad, the former hay market, in the district where Crime and Punishment was set. This, and Sadovaya Ulitsa, are less inpoverished than they were in the 19th century, but still seedy. Absorb the atmosphere while walking down Sadovaya ulitsa towards the Kryukova canal, then turn right alongside this until you reach ulitsa Dekabristov. The apartment- museum of the poet Alexander Blok is at the end of this at number 57, overlooking the Priazhka river.

In fact, the museum is divided between the first and third floors of the building. The visit starts on the first floor, with an exhibition illustrating the background to the Symbolist Movement, with manuscripts, drawings, portraits, photographs and editions of Blok's work. As is customary in Russian museums, visitors are required to put on soft felt overshoes to preserve the floors, and perhaps also the silence. The staff direct you to keep them on while you climb the stairs to the third-floor apartment, where Blok came to live with his wife, daughter of the chemist Mendeleev, in 1912. It was not a happy marriage. On his desk, you can see a small china dog which Blok acquired after seeing his wife Lyubov off at the station (she left him in 1913); afterwards, he wrote in his diary that the dog had a sad look, but that, seen from the right angle, its eyes still shone. The dog is still there, with its sad expression and shining eyes, and the woman who presides over the apartment will happily talk about the Blok family as if they had just gone out through the door.

"It was not Dantes' bullet that killed Pushkin," Blok wrote. "What killed him was lack of air." Despite his poem, "The Twelve", which was written here, Blok never entirely came to terms with the October Revolution. Lyubov Mendeleeva eventually returned to Blok and the family had to move down to the first floor, while the upstairs apartment became a communal flat. When you come down, in order to leave the overshoes and make your way out, you are directed into the room where the poet died, in 1921, which is now kept as a shrine, with his death mask and a few wreaths of flowers. Much of the preservation of the writer's (and her own) possessions was due to Lyubov.

Take the number 22 bus back to Nevsky Prospekt, then walk or take another bus up to the Liteyniy Prospekt, just past the Anichkov bridge. A couple of hundred yards down on the left-hand side is the back entrance to the Sheremetev Palace (Naberezhnaya Fontanki 34), where the poet Anna Akhmatova lived from 1933 to 1941 and again from 1944 to 1954; it was opened as a museum in 1989 to mark the centenary of her birth.

In fact, Akhmatova only occupied one of these six rooms (that containing her portrait by Modi-gliani), and the rooms have the feel of a committal apartment; but the exhibition commemorates her whole life from her first, unhappy marriage to the poet Nikolai Gumilyov (shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921), through her happier marriage to Nikolai Punin, the grim years of the Nazi blockade, per- secution in the final years of Stalin, her husband Punin's arrest, imprisonment and death, and the Khrushchev thaw, down to the gown in which she received her honorary degree at Oxford University and the manuscripts of her attempts to reconstruct from memory poems composed during the Stalin era, but not written down.

What is chiefly visible here, as in all the museums, is the vitality of Petersburg's intellectual life: the debate between the Symbolists (Blok) and the Acmists (Gumilyov) over the nature of poetry; the question of Russia's relations with Western culture in the 19th century; the pervading influence of Pushkin. But one does not have to look very hard to sense the darker side, the political constraints, the horrors of war, the gasping for air ...


Pushkin Museum (Naberezhuaya Reka Mulki, 12), open daily 11am to 5pm, except Tuesday and the last Friday in the month. Dostoyevsky Museum (Kuznechniy Pereulok, 5/2), open daily 11am to 6pm, except Monday and the last Wednesday in the month. Blok Museum (Ulitsa Dekabristov, 57), open Thursday to Monday 11am to 6pm, Tuesday 11am to 5pm, closed Wednesday and the last Tuesday in the month. Akhamatova Museum (Naberezhnaya Fontanki, 34), open daily 10am to 6pm, except Monday and the last Wednesday in the month. There is an admission charge for all the museums, usually around 10,000 roubles (pounds 1.50) for foreigners.

GETTING THERE: BA (0345 222111) flies Heathrow to Moscow, from around pounds 460 return. Multitours (0171 229 7000) offers an eight-day package to St Petersburg and Moscow from pounds 450.

FURTHER INFORMATION: A visa is required for travel to Russia. Russian Embassy, 0171 229 8027.