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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Revelers Spend Night at Hermitage

ST. PETERSBURG -- In the black pitch of Tuesday night and on into Wednesday's wee hours, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg served as the world's most ornate shelter from steaming refuse. The ugly piles of litter were spread across the city by a million festival goers who were cut off from their homes by the drawbridges that yawned over the Neva.

It didn't start out that way. Hermitage administrators planned this first-ever free, round-the-clock opening of the museum in honor of St. Petersburg's 300th birthday. Soon after the museum opened its doors, 22,000 visitors poured onto the grounds.

"I've never seen so many people in the Hermitage before," said Antonina Gerasimova, one of the museum's keepers, who has worked in the Hermitage for seven years. "I think people were looking for a fresh and unusual experience."

Tatyana Yaposhekhontseva, a pensioner and regular visitor to the museum, finally got to see it at night. "I came here to dedicate this night of my life to the Hermitage," she said. "I feel enormous joy in my soul."

Other visitors were less profoundly affected. Many said they came out of simple curiosity, wanting to see if the evening Hermitage experience would differ from a visit during the daytime.

"It produces the impression of something unreal," said Yulia Plotkina, a geologist, who arrived at the Hermitage with her 10-year-old daughter, Katya.

A night owl, Mia Mityushina said it was her most fulfilling visit to the Hermitage. "I finally felt like I was in my own shoes, like I was finally able to concentrate and feel the art."

Some people said that by the time morning arrived, they felt a certain kind of spiritual euphoria or nirvana, claiming that sleeplessness probably had something to do with their newfound perceptions.

The Hermitage was crowded throughout the evening, most conspicuously with actors dressed in 18th-century costumes. They walked along the museum's long halls, adding charm and life to an atmosphere that was already somewhat unusual.

"The situation felt mystical," said Vanda Starodubtseva, who was dressed as an 18th-century royal. "At times, I started to feel that it wasn't just the costume that belonged to that epoch, but that I was living in that century, too."

The Hermitage is known for ghost sightings. Museum workers have said they often see unclear shadows progressing along the corridors and through the large majestic rooms. They suggest that these are the ghosts of the palace's numerous long-dead royal inhabitants.

"It's really scary to walk through the museum when the lights are off," said Gerasimova. "It seems the eyes of the people in the portraits watch you. And it's especially unsettling to walk through the Egyptian Hall, where all those ancient mummies are kept."

Meanwhile, the figures of all those "ghosts" -- the Romanovs -- are portrayed in the Romanov gallery: Peter the Great, Paul I, Nicholas II and others.

The subject of one of the museum's most precious pictures, Rembrandt's Danae, lay still on her bed, displaying her naked beauty. The ancient armoires glittered. And the golden peacock clock stood still, while in the background the dark Neva River and St. Petersburg's famed drawbridges could be seen through the window.

There was more to do than wander the halls and gaze at the paintings during the museum's nighttime open house. Intimate orchestras played, actors read poems and Alexander Sokurov's art film, "The Russian Ark," was shown.

Meanwhile, since the city metro was shut down for the night, and the bridges were open, many art-lovers were left stranded at the Hermitage. They could be seen dozing on the chairs beneath world masterpieces. This way, the Hermitage, once one of the most exclusive homes in the world, served as a resting place for regular folks.

Their doze and the noiseless home of the Hermitage spared them the sight of dozens of garbage trucks, which desperately tried to gather the refuse left on the street from the celebration. Once the bridges finally closed, huge throngs of people surged across them to make it home at last.