John Lichfield: There's no escaping big-screen royalty


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Like much of the rest of the world, I usually spend my holidays in France.

Sometimes, it is good to get away. My son, Charles, is studying at Moscow State University this year. Russia seemed to be a perfect place to hide from the royal wedding. I was also relieved to set aside, for a few days, the great, unanswerable questions of French life. When do you say "tu" or "vous"? Why is Johnny Hallyday still so popular after half a century? Why is Gérard Depardieu in almost every French movie? How many different French cheeses are there, really? And is Carla Bruni-Sarkozy pregnant?

Russia proved to be a good choice for escaping from Wills-and-Kate-mania. I turned for news of the event to Russia Today, a 24-hour, English-language TV channel, which broadcasts in Soviet style with the help of a sprinkling of British journalistic Burgesses and Macleans.

Its main report on The Wedding was a long interview with a young British dissident. Her boyfriend, she said, had been arrested in London for demonstrating against royalty and taken to an "undisclosed location". This was perhaps a reference to the British gulag, somewhere in the frozen tundra north of Bolton, which cannot usually be mentioned in the official UK media.

Walking that night through the surprisingly quiet streets of St Petersburg, we – that is, my son, wife and I – stared idly through the ground-floor windows of a hotel which was even posher than our own. Sitting comfortably in the bar, with two beautiful raven-haired women, was Gérard Depardieu. This just goes to show. It is possible to escape the most-talked-about wedding in history but not to escape Gérard.

What on earth, you will ask, was Mr Depardieu doing in St Petersburg? He was making a movie, of course. At the age of 62, France's best-known and most active actor is slowing down a little. He appeared in 11 movies in 2008, four in 2009 and five in 2010. He is scheduled to appear in another four this year but that does not include the Franco-Russian TV movie that he is making, on and off, in St Petersburg.

Mr Depardieu is taking the title role in a film about Grigori Rasputin, the mystic and allegedly oversexed monk who held the last Russian imperial family in his thrall. The movie will be shown in time for this year's 95th anniversary of Rasputin's prolonged murder, which happened in St Petersburg in December 1916.

The excellent French theatre and cinema actress Fanny Ardant will play the Tsarina Alexandra, who was, according to some accounts, one of Rasputin's many conquests.

A question arises, however. Rasputin was reputedly a tall and wiry man, with something of the look and build of Osama bin Laden. Mr Depardieu is tall but not wiry. Is he on a crash, monk-like diet? By my observation, no.

Time travel in comfort on closely observed trains

This was my first visit to Russia. It seemed like one of those parallel universes that exist in American comic books. It resembled our world, but not quite, as if it had taken a different evolutionary turning (which, of course, it did, several times). It was neither First World nor Third World; not quite Europe, certainly not Asia, definitely not the United States; no longer totalitarian, not quite free.

Some things are just as you expect. People do not smile much. The food is generally awful, except for the Georgian restaurants. Some things are not what you expect. Why was I not aware of the beauty of the Kremlin and its gardens?

As an unreconstructed trainspotter, I was much taken by the Russian railways and the extraordinary efficiency of the Moscow Metro. They also exist on a parallel planet, built to a 5ft gauge, instead of the 4ft 81/2in stubbornly used by most railways in the world. We travelled from Moscow to St Petersburg on a new, German-built high-speed train. The line – silver birches, ponds and wooden villages for 400 miles – is the same 19th-century route patronised by Tolstoy and his great heroine, Anna Karenina. It has been upgraded in places to allow the German train to run through the birch forests at 125mph to 150mph.

On the way back, we took an overnight sleeper. I had the most comfortable overnight train journey of my life. Two unsmiling young women in ill-fitting, tight uniforms ran our carriage. They strutted up and down the corridor as if on military parade. On arrival in Moscow, they – and other young women in ill-fitting tight uniforms – stood, unsmiling, in formationbeside each carriage.

The Moscow Metro is famous for its marble and chandeliers. Some of the stations are truly spectacular, like miniature, underground ballrooms. It is said that there is a 12th, secret line, between the Kremlin and the Defence Ministry. Does that also have marble and chandeliers?

But what impressed most, even after the Paris Metro, was the frequency and reliability of the underground trains. My wife and I waited for my son for 25 minutes at one station on a bank holiday Sunday morning. A train arrived at each platform face every two minutes.

Our only companions for much of that time were the eight – yes eight – policemen guarding the platform. Truly, a different planet.

Hatching a premier plan for a dynsaty of bling?

And is Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, 44, really pregnant this time? All the Kremlinological signs from within and without the Elysée Palace suggest that she probably is. The most recent rumour says that she is having twins.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, a great collector of trophy wives and Rolex watches, already has three sons from two previous marriages. Maybe he intends to found a Bling Dynasty.

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