Read CHAPTER VI - ST. PETERSBURG of As Seen By Me, free online book, by Lilian Bell, on

It behooves one to be good in Russia, for no matter how excellent your reputation at home, no matter how long you have been a member in good and regular standing of the most orthodox church, no matter how innocent your heart may be of anarchy, nihilism, or murder, you travel, you rest, you eat, sleep, wake, or dream, tracked by the Russian police.

They snatch your passport the moment you arrive at a hotel, and register you, and if you change your hotel every day, every day your passport is taken, and you are requested to fill out a blank with your name, age, religion, nationality, and the name and hotel of the town where you were last.

When we entered our Russian hotel when we had entirely entered, I mean, for we passed through six or eight swinging doors with moujiks to open and shut each one, and bow and scrape at our feet we found ourselves in a stiflingly hot corridor, where the odor was a combination of smoke and people whose furs needed airing.

It would be an excellent idea if Americans who live in cold climates dressed as sensibly as Russians do. They keep their houses about as warm as we keep ours, but they wear thin clothing indoors and put on their enormous furs for the street. On entering any house, church, shop, or theatre, the chuba and overshoes are removed, and although they spend half their lives putting them on and taking them off, yet the other half is comfortable.

The women seem to have no pride about the appearance of their feet, for now the doctors are ordering them to wear the common gray felt boot of the peasants, with the top of it reaching to the knee. It is without doubt the most hideous and unshapely object the mind can conceive, being all made of one piece and without any regard to the shape of the foot.

St. Petersburg can hardly be called a typical Russian city. It is too near other countries, but to us, before we had seen Moscow and Kiev, it was Russia itself. We arrived one bitterly cold day, and went first to the hotel to which we had been recommended by our friends.

I shall never forget the wave of longing for home and country which settled down upon me as we saw our rooms in this hotel. It must have been built in Peter the Great’s time. No electric lights; not even lamps. Candles! Now, if there is one thing more than another which makes me frantic with homesickness, it is the use of candles. I would rather be in London on Sunday than to dress by the light of candles.

Even an excellent luncheon did not raise my spirits. Our rooms were as dark and gloomy and silent as a mausoleum. Indeed, many a mausoleum I have seen has been much more cheerful. It was at the time of year also when we had but three hours of daylight from eleven until two. Our salon was furnished in a dreary drab, with a gigantic green stove in the corner which reached to the ceiling. Then we entered what looked like a long, narrow corridor, down which we blindly felt our way, and at the extreme end of which were hung dark red plush curtains, as if before a shrine. We pulled aside these trappings of gloom, and there were two iron cots, not over a foot and a half wide, about the shape and feeling of an ironing-board, covered with what appeared to be gray army blankets, I looked to see “U.S.” stamped on them. I have seen them in museums at home.

I gazed at my companion in perfect dismay. “I shall not present a single letter of introduction,” I wailed. “I’m going to Moscow to-morrow.”

Instead of going to Moscow in the morning, we went out and decided to present just the one letter to our ambassador. He was at the Hotel d’Europe, and we went there. Behold! electric lights everywhere. Heaps of Americans. And the entire Legation there. My companion and I simply looked at each other, and our whole future grew brighter. We would not go to Moscow, but we would move at once. We would introduce electricity into our sombre lives, and look forward with hope into the great unknown. We rushed around and presented all the rest of our letters, and went back to spend a wretched evening with eight candles and a smoky lamp.

The next day we called for our bill and prepared to move. To my disgust, I found an item of two rubles for the use of that lamp. I had serious thoughts of opening up communication with the Standard Oil Company by cable. But we were so delighted with our new accommodations in prospect that we left the hotel in a state of exhilaration that nothing could dampen.

To our great disappointment we found a number of Americans leaving St. Petersburg for Moscow because the Hermitage was closed. Now, the Hermitage and the ceremony of the Blessing of the Waters of the Neva were what I most wished to see, but we were informed at the Legation that we could have neither wish gratified. However, my spirit was undaunted. It was only the American officials who had pronounced it impossible. My lucky star had gone with me so far, and had opened so many unaccustomed doors, that I did not despair. I said I would see what our letters of introduction brought forth.

We did not have to wait long. No sooner had we presented our letters than people came to see us, and placed themselves at our disposal for days and even weeks at a time. Their kindness and hospitality were too charming for mere words to express.

Although the Winter Palace was closed to visitors, preparatory to the arrival on the next day of the Tzar and Tzarina, it was opened for us through the influence of the daughter of the Commodore of the late Tzar’s private yacht, Mademoiselle de Falk, who took us through it. It was simply superb, and was, of course, in perfect readiness for the arrival of the imperial family, with all the gorgeous crimson velvet carpets spread, and the plants and flowers arranged in the Winter Garden.

Then, through this same influential friend, the Hermitage the second finest and the very richest museum in all Europe was opened for us, and well, I kept my head going through the show palaces in London, and Paris, and Berlin, and Dresden, and Potsdam, but I lost it completely in the Hermitage. Then and there I absolutely went crazy. A whole guide-book devoted simply to the Hermitage could give no sort of idea of the barbaric splendor of its belongings. Its riches are beyond belief. Even the presents given by the Emir of Bokhara to the Tzar are splendid enough to dazzle one like a realization of the Arabian Nights. But to see the most valuable of all, which are kept in the Emperor’s private vaults, is to be reduced to a state of bewilderment bordering on idiocy.

It is astonishing enough, to one who has bought even one Russian belt set with turquoise enamel, to think of all the trappings of a horse bit, bridle, saddle-girth, saddlecloth, and all, made of cloth of gold and set in solid turquoise enamel; with the sword hilt, scabbard, belts, pistol handle and holster made of the same. Well, these are there by the dozen. Then you come to the private jewels, and you see all these same accoutrements made of precious stones one of solid diamonds; another of diamonds, emeralds, topazes, and rubies. And the size of these stones! Why, you never would believe me if I should tell you how large they are. Many of them are uncut and badly set, from an English stand-point. But in quantity and size well, I was glad to get back to my three-ruble-a-day room and to look at my one trunk, and to realize that my own humble life would go on just the same, and my letter of credit would not last any longer for all the splendors which exist for the Tzar of all the Russias.

The churches in St. Petersburg are so magnificent that they, too, go to your head. We did nothing but go to mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, for although we spent our Christmas in Berlin, we arrived in St. Petersburg in time for the Russian Christmas, which comes twelve days later than ours. St. Isaac’s, the Kazan, and Sts. Peter and Paul dazed me. The icons or images of the Virgin are set with diamonds and emeralds worth a king’s ransom. They are only under glass, which is kept murky from the kisses which the people press upon the hands and feet.

The interiors of the cathedrals, with their hundreds of silver couronnes, and battle-flags, and trophies of conquests, look like great bazaars. Every column is covered clear to the dome. The tombs of the Tzars are always surrounded by people, and candles burn the year round. Upon the tomb of Alexander II., under glass, is the exquisite laurel wreath placed there by President Faure. It is of gold, and was made by Falize, one of the most famous carvers of gold in Europe.

The famous mass held on Christmas Eve in the cathedral of St. Isaac was one of the most beautiful services I ever attended. In the first place, St. Isaac’s is the richest church in all Russia. It has, too, the most wonderful choir, for the Tzar loves music, and wherever in all his Empire a beautiful voice is found, the boy is brought to St. Petersburg and educated by the State to enter the Emperor’s choir. When we entered the church the service had been in progress for five hours. That immense church was packed to suffocation. In the Greek church every one stands, no matter how long the service. In fact, you cannot sit down unless you sit on the floor, for there are no seats.

By degrees we worked our way towards the space reserved for the Diplomatic Corps, where we were invited to enter. Our wraps were taken and chairs were given to us. We found ourselves on the platform with the priest, just back of the choir. What heavenly voices! What wonderful voices! The bass holds on to the last note, and the rumble and echo of it rolls through those vaulted domes like the tones of an organ. The long-haired priest, too, had a wonderful resonant voice for intoning. He passed directly by us in his gorgeous cloth of gold vestments, as he went out.

The instant he had finished, the little choir boys began to pinch each other and thrust their tapers in each other’s faces, and behaved quite like ordinary boys. The great crowd scattered and huge ladders were brought in to put out the hundreds of candles in the enormous chandeliers. Religion was over, and the world began again.

The other art which is maintained at the government expense is the ballet. We went several times, and it was very gorgeous. It is all pantomime not a word is spoken but so well done that one does not tire of it.

Every one sympathized so with us because we could not see the ceremony of the Blessing of the Waters of the Neva, and our ambassador apologized for not being able to arrange it, and we said, “Not at all,” and “Pray, do not mention it,” at the same time secretly hoping that our Russian friends, who were putting forth strenuous efforts on our behalf, would be able to manage it.

On the morning of the 18th of January a note came from a Russian officer who was on duty at the Winter Palace, saying that Baron Elsner, the Secretary of the Prefect of Police, would call for us with his carriage at ten o’clock, and we would be conducted to the private space reserved just in front of the Winter Palace, where the best view of everything could be obtained. My companion and I fell into each other’s arms in wild delight, for it had been most difficult to manage, and we had not been sure until that very moment.

Now, the person of the Tzar is so sacred that it is forbidden by law even to represent him on the stage, and as to photographing him a Russian faints at the mere thought. Nevertheless, we wished very much to photograph this pageant, so we determined, if possible, to take our camera. Everything else that we wanted had been done for us ever since we started, and our faith was strong that we would get this. At first the stout heart of Baron Elsner quailed at our suggestion. Then he said to take the camera with us, which we did with joy. His card parted the crowd right and left, and our carriage drove through long lines of soldiers, and between throngs of people held in check by mounted police, and by rows of infantry, who locked arms and made of themselves a living wall, against which the crowd surged.

To our delight we found our places were not twenty feet from the entrance to the Winter Palace. We noticed Baron Elsner speaking to several officials, and we heard the word “Americanski,” which had so often opened hearts and doors to us, for Russia honestly likes America, and presently the Baron said, in a low tone, “When the Emperor passes out you may step down here; these soldiers will surround you, and you may photograph him.”

I could scarcely believe my ears. I was so excited that I nearly dropped the camera.

The procession moves only about one hundred feet a crimson carpet being laid from the entrance of the Winter Palace, across the street, and up into a pavilion which is built out over the Neva.

First came the metropolitans and the priests; then the Emperor’s celebrated choir of about fifty voices; then a detachment of picked officers bearing the most important battle-flags from the time of Peter the Great, which showed the marks of sharp conflict; then the Emperor’s suite, and then the Emperor himself. They all marched with bared heads, even the soldiers.

My companion had the opera-glasses, I had the camera. “Tell me when,” I gasped. They passed before me in a sort of haze. I heard the band in the Winter Palace and the singing of the choir. I heard the splash of the cross which the Archbishop plunged into the opening that had been cut in the ice. I heard the priests intone, and the booming of the guns firing the imperial salute. I saw that the wind was blowing the candles out. Then came a breathless pause, and then she said, “Now!” A little click. It was done; I had photographed Nicholas II., the Tzar of all the Russias!