silent flows the river don

russia-moscow-gay-pride-riot-ru192323This is a warning for visitors and tourists wanting to travel to Russia. Anything considered pro-gay, from gay-affirmative speech to gays holding hands in public to wearing rainbow suspenders is now illegal. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law on Monday one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet. Ironically the new law comes just seven months before Russia is set to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, expecting visitors and tourists from around the world. Additionally, the law has a provision permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners for up to 14 days before they would then be expelled from the country. It is now literally illegal in Russia to say that you are gay. It is illegal to kiss your partner in public – say, after you win a gold medal. It is illegal for a gay athlete to wear the rainbow flag. Or even to acknowledge during an interview that they are gay – or for the foreign press to acknowledge it – unless they mention gay sexual orientation in a negative way. Then there’s the seemingly officially sanctioned violence against gay, bisexual and transgendered people in Russia. It’s been made clear for years now that the Russian government will turn a blind eye towards anti-gay violence, and many have alleged that the Russian government is actually behind such violence. Will gay Olympic athletes and gay Olympic fans be targeted for violence while in Russia? No one knows. What we do know is that the International Olympic Committee’s response to the growing threat of violence against gay athletes and gay Olympics fans has been rather anemic to date. The IOC’s response has been so weak that Human Rights Watch recently sent the Olympic Committee a rather scathing letter demanding that the IOC take action to enforce their own charter, which bans discrimination. Activists are demanding cities like Los Angeles, Quebec and Paris should drop, or suspend, their Sister City relationships with Russian cities. More importantly, anyone thinking of attending the Olympics in Russia, should think twice about the message they’re sending to a country that appears to be rapidly sinking into its old authoritarian ways. Uncle Joe might be a distant memory to many contemporary Russians, but the countenance of Uncle Vlad is eerily familiar.


a revolutionary bolthole

vid-s-terrasy-prezidentskogo-lyuksaHome to both royalty and revolution, Rocco Forte’s Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg has unveiled an elegant, new Czar’s Suite as part of a multi-million dollar refurbishment timed to celebrate the hotel’s 100th anniversary. At more the 3,500 square feet it’s a far cry from the garret where John Reed penned Ten Days That Shook The World, his eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution. (In the early days of glasnost I had the serendipitous thrill of finding myself in Reed’s room, which more than made up for the cramped quarters; the bloody mob hit in the lobby … well, that’s a story for another time.) With a lounge overlooking St. Isaac’s Square and its glorious cathedral, a library stocked with Russian classics, and a fully equipped kitchen with a 16-seat dining room that doubles as a boardroom it’s not too hard to imagine what the Bolsheviks might make of such opulent surroundings. Antique pieces dating back to 1912, including gold lamps, candelabra, and red and gold striped arm chairs and sofas were returned to the hotel from President Putin’s Konstantinovsky Palace and installed in the suite alongside contemporary classic pieces, such as dramatic black and white prints of the Mariinsky, which – culture mavens take note – is as conveniently located as the nearby Hermitage. All that’s missing is the beluga.


i won’t go there

This isn’t a political blog by any means. It’s a travel blog. Yet it’s difficult to silently stand back and watch what is going on in one of my favorite cities in the world, St. Petersburg, Russia. In less than one week, lawmakers in St. Petersburg could silence millions of people by making it a crime to read, write or even discuss anything involving homosexuality. That’s right, a crime. Calls and letters have rolled in from around the world, but it’s not enough. So with your help, we’re going to hit the Governor of St. Petersburg where it counts: the pocketbook. Russia recently announced that it wants to spend $11 billion dollars over the next few years to attract tourists in concert with the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. We need to let the Governor of Peter the Great’s cosmopolitan “window on the west” know that we won’t go there if he turns the town into a gloomy center of censorship and intolerance. Russia’s second largest city thrives on its artistic reputation to attract tourists from around the world – a reputation that’s impossible to reconcile with a law that will muzzle artists, writers, musicians and ordinary citizens who live in – or visit – the city. Imagine for a moment the new Saint Petersburg, where an empowered “thought police” can fine you for any mention of the well-known fact that famed Russian composer Tchaikovksy, a Saint Petersburg native, was gay. Gogol himself couldn’t have created a more ridiculous mise-en-scene. And yet it is well on the way to becoming reality. Please, take a minute to tell Governor Poltavchenko “I won’t go there” if the bill passes. He holds the power to veto this bill – a law that will not only censor millions but also silence any and all human rights organizations in Russia fighting for equal rights. The great city of Pushkin, Akhmatova, Rastrelli and Brodsky has at times in history been shelled, strangled and besieged. To now silence it would be the cruelest injustice of all.


shining a light

Let’s face it: despite its warm and oh, so forgiving embrace, the soft light of an incandescent bulb will soon be something of a fond and distant memory. Compact fluorescent bulbs – also called CFLs – not only last up to ten times longer than your standard Edison invention, they also use 75% less energy. To put that in perspective, if every American home replaced just one incandescent light with a CFL, we would collectively save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, pocket an additional $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year – that’s the equivalent of about 800,000 cars. With those statistics in mind it’s no wonder the EU, Russia, and Canada have begun a formal once-and-for-all phase-out of the humble bulb. Unfortunately, the problem people have with most CFLs are not environmental but aesthetic: the tight coil of a standard CFL bulb produces a cold, full spectrum light that’s flat and dull at best – and highly unflattering, too. With the clock ticking down to the bulb’s outright ban in the EU, a group of designers at Hulger in London set about trying to bridge the gap between what will soon become a standardized design with the daily needs of humankind – while keeping aesthetics in mind, too, of course. A Herculean task – just think about what it might take to reinvent any item whose success we take for granted on a daily basis: a screw, the key and lock combo, credit cards – they somehow alighted on the Plumen, at once a low-wattage homage to its immediate predecessors and a boldly futuristic and practical design choice. Lowering the wattage to an unheard of 11, the CFL nevertheless emits a power of 630 lumen – the equivalent of a 55 watt bulb.  Unspooling the tight coil of a regulation fluorescent into a shape reminiscent of a standard issue incandescent allows the light to breathe, if that makes any sense. Rather than lighting out, like the rays of a two-dimensional sun, the Plumen light radiates both in and out, bouncing off an interior faux filament that makes all the difference – and a lampshade altogether unnecessary. It’s the light of the future. Even better, it’s by design.


the final frontier

Pravda reports the Moscow-based Orbital Technologies has sky-high hopes that its planned Commercial Space Station can serve as a tourism hub for well-heeled travelers and offer “overspill” accommodation for the International Space Station, as well as workspace for science projects.  It should have the so-called space hotel in orbit possibly by the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016, according the the Associated Press.

A cozy fit, the first module will measure just 20 cubic meters (706 cubic feet) and have four cabins, designed for up to seven passengers, who would go into orbit using the Soyuz shuttle, chief executive Kostenko said.

Up to now space tourists, who have included the Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberte, have squeezed into the International Space Station (ISS) along with cosmonauts and animal life, including fruit flies.  The new hotel promises more comforts than the ISS, but there’s no word yet on any amenities, let alone a space spa.


take the low road

Anyone planning on driving in or around the southern Russian city of Volgograd might want to take the low road, as it were.  Europe’s longest suspension bridge, which spans 4 miles across the Volga River, didn’t fair too well in strong winds the other day.  After visibly twisting, buckling and tossing cars into the breeze, the bridge was closed.  Plagued by delays and cost overruns, the thirteen-years-in-the-making structure can shave as much as 40 miles off a trip across the river and authorities insist with a frightening degree of certainty that it will reopen next week.  You might want to watch the video below – be sure to turn up the sound to hear what a mass of buckling steel sounds like – and take the advice of a woman quoted in Tuesday’s Moscow Times:  “I will still use it as needed, but I will keep the seat belt unbuckled and won’t lock the doors.”


kak po russki?

I’m reading Vera Pavlova’s amazing new book of poems, If There is Something to Desire:  100 Poems.  Simple, elegant, and direct, her verse storms the heart in highly disciplined miniatures that vibrate with emotion.  They are transporting – in that way you once hoped poetry could be:  mapping an inner landscape like a well-thumbed Michelin Guide.

It’s difficult to believe but Pavlova is the first contemporary Russian poet since Joseph Brodsky to have a solo collection of verse translated and published in English.  Thanks to my good friend Yelena Demikovsky of Red Palette Pictures for introducing me to this extraordinary artist.  Yelena made a short documentary film about Pavlova that is currently making the rounds of a few festivals.  You can view the trailer for it on the Red Palette site.

Here are three brief, sterling examples.  Read them and weep.

Then click the link above to buy the rest.

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When the very last grief

deadens all our pain,

I will follow you there

on the very next train,

not because I lack strength

to ponder the end result,

but maybe you forgot to bring

pills,  a necktie, razor blades……

‡ ‡


Why is the word yes so brief?

It should be

the longest,

the hardest,

so that you cold not decide in an instant to say it,

so that upon reflection you could stop

in the middle of saying it.

‡ ‡


Let us touch each other

while we still have hands,

palms, forearms, elbows . . .

Let us love each other for misery,

torture each other, torment,

disfigure, maim,

to remember better,

to part with less pain.


in the playground of the czars – part two

As if to draw this litany of magnificent creation to a close, Catherine commissioned another Italian architect, Giacomo Quarenghi, to build a palace next door, the Alexander Palace, for her favorite grandson, the future Alexander I, the one on whom she founded her greatest hopes.

Here, the principal apartments look over the park and in marked contrast to the almost overbearing baroque of the Catherine Palace, the interiors are relatively simple.  You can actually believe the tales of the czars doing their own accounts in comfort as well as elegance.

At the end of the 19th century, Nicholas II and Alexandra – whose portraits and personal effects hang there once more – chose the Alexander Palace as their principal residence.

Here, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia and the czarevich Alexis grew up in a happy family atmosphere, sadly overshadowed by the czarevitch’s illness, hemophilia.  Here, they spent the spring and summer of 1917 as virtual prisoners of the Bolsheviks.  It is also from here that they  began their journey toward a brutal end at Ekaterinburg.

Closed since the end of World War II, the palace has only recently (and partially) reopened.  Its lack of excess brings its humanity into focus; the scale is more intimate, more reserved.  The displays of photos, clothing, military dress and personal effects of the last czar and his family remind you in a palpable way that not too long ago real people lived here.

It is worth noting that the palace saw an unceasing flow of technological innovation.  In the 1840’s, it was equipped with a heating system and fitted with plumbing.  Russia’s first telegraph system was installed in Nicholas I’s study, linking the palace with St. Petersburg.  During the reign of the last czar, the palace was wired for electricity and furnished with a telephone system.  Even more, a screening room was built to show films for the imperial family.  The palace’s last commandant, Voyeykov, recalled the last screening in his memoirs:  “It was the film ‘Madame DuBarry,’ featuring all the horrors of the French Revolution, the guillotine, the people’s courts, the executions, etc….After this film,” he wrote “I felt an unbelievable weight on my soul.


During World War II – also known here as the Great Patriotic War – the German armies, who spent 900 days trying to capture St. Petersburg, turned on the palaces in defeat, slashing canvases, burning tapestries, looting everything of value.  What they couldn’t carry off, they destroyed.

After the war, the facades and interiors were painstakingly rebuilt and restored by a generation of craftsmen that hadn’t existed ten years earlier.  Most rooms display photographs showing the rooms as they looked before restorations.

Year after year, the work continues.  Right now, one can only imagine the glories of the Palace Chapel, Catherine’s private apartments, the full realization of the Amber Room, and on and on.

That the palaces have been rebuilt seems even more startling that their original construction.  The renovations speak volumes about Russian passion, spirit and national pride.  Peter (the great) would be proud.


Nothing in Russia has only one name.  Technically, the town is still called by its imperial name, Tsarskoe Selo, though the railway stop is called by its revolutionary name, Detskoi Selo (which means “children’s village,” after a large children’s facility there).  Most people call the place by its post-revolutionary name, Pushkin, which commemorates the poet-laureate, who was schooled and had a dacha there.


in the playground of the czars – part one

In search of a pair of imperial Russian palaces, I find myself hopelessly lost amid the wild brambles of Alexander Park.  Someone told me there is a way to enter through the gardens so you come upon the palaces – the Alexander and the Catherine – much the way the czars did, when, fleeing the formality and intrigue of court life at St. Petersburg, they took up residence here.

I’m doing this all backwards, I think as I slog my way past yet another folly/pavilion/victory column/caprice.  Finally, I figure I’m getting close.  Approaching from behind what I recognize as the Chinese Theater, the onion domes of the palace chapel suddenly blaze, golden, in the cloudless sky.  Crossing around and behind the theater brings me out on to the Grand Allee that leads directly into the gilded courtyard of the Catherine Palace, the eyes of the imperial eagle meeting mine.  Caught in its fierce double-headed glare, it’s difficult not to feel like a serf.

Ghosts are everywhere here:  Catherine the Great and her coterie of famous lovers; Rasputin; the poet-laureate Alexander Pushkin; Nicholas and Alexandra and their doomed children.  Different centuries, different times; two palaces:  Tsarkoe Selo, the imperial town.  One cannot help but feel invited, implored even, to enter the picture and touch what still remains, to hear the music and listen to the whispers.

What has become almost overwhelmingly grand started rather simply – or as simple as these things ever are.  In 1710, Peter the Great made a small gift to his wife, Empress Catherine, of an estate south of St. Petersburg, Tsarkoe Selo, or Village of the Czar.  Imperial architects built her a single story palace.

But a residence of such modest scale was not enough to satisfy her daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who took the place over in 1741.  She enlarged the palace twice and named it after her mother, employing the Italian architect Rastrelli to endow it with the outlines and splendor it retains today.

The lavish gilding of the facades was echoed by a precession of state rooms known as the Golden Enfilade, which runs the length of the palace – an astonishing 1,000 feet.  A series of five huge antechambers, now closed for renovations, in which the visitors would wait to be received by the empress, leads into the Great Hall, itself more that 164 feet long and abundantly ornate.  For court balls and masquerades, the room was lit by more than 60,000 candles.  Across the ceiling spans a monumental fresco, the “Triumph of Russia,” glorifying the nations achievements.

There is room after room of opulent moldings, intricate parquets and a vast display of wealth:  the Green and Raspberry Pilaster Rooms, the Portrait Room, the Picture Hall, with some 130 canvases crowding the walls.  The Amber Room, still being refurbished and only partly restored, once housed a spectacular series of amber panels that were looted by the Nazis.

In 1762, the palace came into the hands of Catherine the Great, who was to make it her favorite residence for more than 30 years, arriving every spring in time to celebrate her birthday.

Greatly influenced by the new vogue for “antique” looks, the empress commissioned the Scottish architect Charles Cameron to carry out the decorations.  He produced a decor of great sophistication, covering the walls and ceilings with opaline glass and Lyons silks and sprinkling them with friezes and delicate patterns in bronze gilt.

Walk through the Buffet and you come to the Green Dining Room, Cameron’s first in a suite of salons; the Blue Drawing Room, with its turquoise inlays, blue crystal floor lamps and stellar painted ceiling; the Chinese Blue Drawing Room, walled with hand-painted Chinese landscapes.

Cameron went on to build the adjoining Agate Rooms, which flaunted the natural wealth of the empire, with an abundance of malachite, alabaster, porphyry, jasper, agate, amber and lapis lazuli.

As if to draw this litany of magnificent creation to a close, Catherine commissioned another Italian architect, Giacomo Quarenghi, to build a palace next door, the Alexander Palace, for her favorite grandson, the future Alexander I, the one on whom she founded her greatest hopes.


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