Travel: Scenes from a Tolstoy novel

Robin Buss hunts down the melancholy Russian soul and stumbles across it somewhere quite unexpected

A warm summer day in Moscow is like a dream. It makes you want to get away and discover something authentic - la Russie profonde, perhaps, or that much talked of but elusive entity: the Russian soul.

"Country life in such a house as the palace of Ostankino is usually only known to strangers through translations of the Russian novels..." Thus did AJC Hare write over 100 years ago in his Studies of Russia, urging visitors to brave the dirt roads and visit the palace of the Sheremetyev family. Already there was a feeling that the landed gentry were a class in decline from their heyday a century before. The melancholy tone of Russian novels, like Turgenev's A Nest of Gentlefolk, did nothing to contradict the notion. Long before the revolution of 1917 the country estates had sunk to the level of joyless museums.

And today? The only one of Moscow's country estates that I had previously seen was the tsarist estate and park at Kolomenskoye (it is a favourite among Muscovites because the metro goes almost to the gates), complete with distinctive church, put up to commemorate the birth of a little Tsar in 1532. He grew up to be Ivan IV, better known as "The Terrible".

Kolomenskoye may have produced one of Russia's favourite despots but it gave no sense of ever having been lived in. I wanted hints of imperial balls and serfdom on a colossal scale; surely the spirit of the 18th-century country estate was more likely to lurk in the great palaces of the Sheremetyev family at Ostankino and Kuskovo, and Prince Yusupov's house at Arkhangelskoye.

Oddly enough, while the church at Kolomenskoye is essentially a wooden church in stone, I was surprised to discover that the palaces at Ostankino and Kuskovo, large neo-classical buildings with stuccoed facades and columns, were actually built of wood. The Sheremetyevs, with their estimated 3 million acres in various parts of Russia, plus 300,000 serfs, lived and entertained in palaces that have to be closed to visitors when the humidity rises.

There is something theatrical about these showy but insubstantial structures; indeed, the centrepiece of the palace at Ostankino is its theatre. The guides tell you that when it was completed in the 1790s, Count Nikolai Sheremetyev had the trees in front of it cut down, then re-erected and held up by his serfs, so that when the Tsar arrived to view the count's new palace, this curtain of trees parted magically to reveal the building in all its glory. Nowadays, the Egyptian wing is undergoing restoration (a process that is likely to go on well into the next century), the theatre is not open except on Saturdays and Sundays, and the Italian wing can be visited only with a guide. My Russian wife remembered coming here on a school-trip in Soviet times, and there is still something regimented about the tour.

It is a sad building, too. Count Nikolai married one of his serf actresses, but she died in childbirth and he abandoned the palace. The road is much improved since Hare's day, but not the view: the building looks out on the soaring Ostankino television tower, put up in 1967.

The Sheremetyevs' other nearby palace, at Kuskovo, offers a far better day out. Bizarrely, the main palace even claims to have Russia's only hand-held recorded guide, in Russian and other languages, which takes you through the rooms with a commentary evoking life here in the late 17th century, which could have been written by someone from the National Trust. By contrast, the shop in the basement is run in robust Russian style. When, half an hour before the advertised closing time, we asked the assistant if we could look round, she turned her back and said: "No. Closed."

Luckily nobody comes to Russia to shop. In fact, the wooden palace is only the starting-point. Behind it is a formal garden, with a full complement of classical statues and, at the far end, the Orangery. Then there is the Dutch House. But whereas the Dutch themselves used their Delft tiles only for decorative effect around the fireplace, Count Sheremetyev decided to do the job properly and plastered three entire rooms with them - from wall to ceiling. The effect is impressive, though not very Dutch.

In the evening, they now hold concerts in the main drawing room of the palace, with a programme of international tourist baroque; but since the evening's event was sold out, we had to pass on Vivaldi, Purcell and Corelli until we could catch up with them again at St Martin's-in- the-Fields. Instead, we went to the cafe at the front gate, where they hold a summer barbecue with shashlik and sausages, and an unlimited supply of Russian wasps. We swatted away and watched the birds flying over the lake.

The next day we found our way to Arkhangelskoye. The writer Alexander Herzen recalled the 80-year-old Prince Yusupov at the palace, which he had bought from Prince Nikolai Golitsyn in 1810, "... sitting in splendour, surrounded by beauty in marble and colour, and also in flesh and blood". This cultured bon vivant had been a friend of Voltaire and Diderot; Pushkin also used to visit and attend performances at the theatre. In the park, Yusupov erected columns recording the visits of Tsars Alexander I in 1816 and Nikolai I in 1826 for dinner. From the start, Yusupov opened the art collection and grounds to the public and meant the estate to be a centre of culture and enlightenment (though it is said that the theatrical performances included nude dancing).

To reach Arkhangelskoye by public transport, I followed a slow but leisurely journey by underground and local bus. It got me there in the end. The old guidebooks promise magnificent reception rooms and Prince Yusupov's collection of paintings in the main house. But since the main palace is being restored, you can only stand in the courtyard and wonder where the builders have got to.

The glory of Arkhangelskoye, however, is its park, which by the latter part of August was already showing signs of autumn. From the terrace in front of the main palace, I wandered down into a splendid formal garden, with statues and flowerbeds, leading to the two huge buildings of the military sanatorium, put up in the 1930s in reasonably harmonious neo- classical style. For the benefit of the convalescent patients, there are maps and signs in the park showing the different routes that they can walk as part of their cure.

The terrace in front of the sanatorium has a splendid view over the river. I walked right down to the river bank, where there were tennis courts and areas for exercise and weight-training. There was the occasional French or American couple, but the vast majority were Russians - like the two young men we met drinking Baltika beer, who came from a village a few kilometres up the road. They asked us to translate a French inscription on one of the monuments and said that they had never been here before but that they thought it was fabulous.

They were right. At Arkhangelskoye, as at Kuskovo, it comes not from the historical interest of the buildings, but from the immediate, present pleasure of strolling through the grounds and catching a glimpse of pink or yellow plaster through gaps in the trees; discovering a covered alleyway, half-overgrown, a Greek god or a grotto, and enjoying the magnificent views that so attracted the Sheremetyevs and the others.

In the evening, we went to a concert at the Colonnade (in fact, a family mausoleum built just before the 1917 revolution). We sat at the front of the room, beside a charming, Romantic portrait by Mme Elisabeth Vigee- Lebrun, no doubt part of Prince Yusupov's collection, and listened to the Twins Quartet give a performance of Shostakovich's eighth string quartet, Memorial to the Victims of Fascism. It left the audience momentarily stunned and one of the Isayenkova twins with tears in her eyes. Perhaps this was la Russie profonde.

RUSSIA

GETTING THERE

Interchange (tel: 0181-681 3612) offers short packages in Moscow. A three- night break in September with return flights on British Airways, transfers and taxes and bed and breakfast accommodation at the central Hotel Rossiya costs pounds 445 per person, based on two sharing. Interchange can also arrange your visa for you for pounds 50. If you want to arrange your flights separately, it is usually possible to find flights to Moscow from around pounds 200.

GETTING AROUND

Kolomenskoye: Metro Kolonienskoye. Open all year, Tuesday-Sunday.

Kuskovo: Metro Ryazansky Prospekt, then 20 minutes by bus 133 or 208. Open all year, Wednesday-Saturday.

Ostankino: Metro V.D.N.Kh. then walk or take tram 11 or 17. Open 18 May to 1 October, daily.

Arkhangelskoye: Metro Tushinskaya, then bus 549. Open all year, Wednesday to Sunday.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Obtaining a Russian visa is still quite a nuisance and the easiest solution is to let your tour operator arrange it. Otherwise, contact the consular section of the Russian embassy in London at 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QS (tel: 0171- 229 8027). Open 10am to 12-30pm, closed Wednesdays.

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