- By Robert Coalson
- Jul. 08 2000 00:00
Inexorably, St. Petersburg has been opening up over the last few years. Its greatest museums, the Hermitage and the Russian Museum, have opened new galleries and display space in some of the city's most beautiful buildings. Many fabulous palaces have been restored to house banks, restaurants and casinos, their doors thrown open to the public. But the process is only just beginning. Tourists and residents alike still find themselves over and over again standing in front of locked gates muttering, "I wonder what it's like inside."
That is why an album with a title like Katya Galitzine's "St. Petersburg: The Hidden Interiors" can't help but fire one's imagination. One opens this lavish, full-sized art album and stares at the richly textured photographs with the enthusiasm born of years of pent-up frustration. However, although this is a beautiful and interesting book, it simply does not live up to the promise of its title. Only about 10 percent of the buildings covered here are generally inaccessible to the public, and Galitzine has seen fit to include many buildings such as the Grand Hotel Europe, the Vitebsky Railroad Station and the Eliseevsky grocery store on Nevsky Prospekt, all of which are wonderful architectural monuments worthy of examination, but can hardly be called "hidden interiors."
Once one gets beyond this initial disappointment, though, Galitzine's book unfolds as a truly interesting and enjoyable tour of this endlessly fascinating city. Leonid Bogdanov has contributed a portfolio of stunning photographs that unfailingly capture the varied moods and unique lighting of this northern city. The album presents two to four page spreads of some 80 important landmarks. Inevitably, there are gaps and the buildings sometimes seem randomly chosen, but on the whole St. Petersburg's remarkable history and lingering beauty are artfully rendered.
Galitzine accompanies the photographs with short, evocative sketches that present some of the charm of each building. Her style is accessible and conversational. A proud descendent of one of Russia's most renowned noble families f the name is more commonly transliterated as Golitsyn f the author can't resist constantly throwing in tidbits of family lore. Discovering the city and discovering her illustrious roots were simultaneous processes for the author, who grew up in England and moved to St. Petersburg in 1989. However, both this volume and her family would have been better served if she had written two separate books.
Nevertheless, "St. Petersburg: The Hidden Interiors" is a pleasure to read as well as to look at. Generally, Galitzine manages both to convey a sense of the history of each building and to update us on how it is faring today. She has interpreted her mission very broadly, including such landmarks as the Botanical Garden and the cruiser Aurora. Unfortunately, she has also chosen to spice her book with brief thematic essays on characteristic phenomena of Russian life such as the Orthodox Church, the dacha and the market. These essays, often not even mentioning St. Petersburg, are so general that anyone who knows anything about Russia will almost certainly find them tedious. It would have been far better to use this space to cover more of the city's architectural inheritance. Alternatively, it would also be interesting to read about how the book itself was made and especially to learn which buildings (if any) remained out of bounds.
"The Hidden Interiors" does open a few doors that had previously remained stubbornly closed. The most important of these is the Admiralty, which despite being virtually synonymous with the city itself, is nothing but a beautiful facade even to longtime city residents. In this case, as in many others, Galitzine has the sad duty of informing us that many of the Admiralty's interiors were damaged beyond repair during the World War II. Hearing such news about these remarkable buildings is like being suddenly told that a long-missing relative is definitely dead.
Another important discovery in Galitzine's album is the Grand Duke Aleksei's palace at the far northern end of the Moika Canal. The Grand Duke, an uncle of Tsar Nicholas II, bought several existing buildings at the end of the last century and commissioned an architect to combine them and completely redo the interiors. However, the building has been largely empty since Aleksei's death in 1909. Its interiors have survived remarkably well, but the building currently stands vacant and closed.
"The Hidden Interiors" is unfortunately marred by some embarrassing factual errors that undermine one's confidence in the more obscure information that Galitzine presents. She states, for instance, that St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd after the abdication of Nicholas II instead of the correct date of 1914. She also says that the train carriage in which Lenin arrived in the city in 1917 is preserved at the Finland Station, when in reality it is the engine that stands there.
Most annoying, though, is the lack of exterior snapshots and exact addresses, which combine to make it very difficult to find some of the less familiar buildings Galitzine covers. The vague map provided atthe beginning of the book helps only a little and itself is difficult to use. Luckily, anyone who cares enough to try to find these buildings most likely will relish the excuse to wander around the city and will certainly discover other hidden treasures in the process.
As enjoyable as "The Hidden Interiors" is, the niche for a book that really throws St. Petersburg open remains vacant. I, for one, continue to walk past spectacular facades such as the Suvorov Military Academy Academy opposite Gostiny Dvor on Ulitsa Sadovaya. muttering, "I wonder what it's like inside." I hope that someone soon will pick up where Galitzine and Bogdanov have left off.
"St. Petersburg: The Hidden Interiors," by Katya Galitzine. Photography by Leonid Bodganov. 240 pages. On sale at Anglia bookstore, 2/3 Khlebny Pereulok. 1500 rubles ($53).