Robert Skidelsky spent a month in Russia, playing bridge, monitoring an election, learning Russian, and observing the anxieties of ordinary citizensby Robert Skidelsky / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Thursday 27 June
I am in St Petersburg both as a tourist and as a British observer of the second round of the Russian presidential elections. The excuse for tourism is that the House of Lords Bridge Club has been invited to play a match against the South African consulate. I fly to St Petersburg with my wife, Augusta and our younger son William (19). Our elder son, Edward (22), joins us from Moscow where he is working. Our leader is Richard Gisborough, who has organised the expedition. On arrival at St Petersburg airport we board a coach with a poster stuck on the front window with the words “House of Lords” written on it. A band strikes up God Save the Queen. I smile radiantly and am about to raise my hand to acknowledge the reception, when the band turns round to face the next coach and starts up the Marseillaise.
Friday 28 June
We leave our hotel, the Peterhof, a moored passenger boat, for a tour of St Petersburg. Our cities are black and white; St Petersburg is technicolour, a profusion of yellows, pinks, greens, and blues like 18th century clothes. It was built by Peter the Great on marshes, and thousands died to create his capital. With its girdle of concentric canals it is the real Venice of the north, more so than Copenhagen or Stockholm. Amazingly it escaped destruction by the Germans, and the Soviets kept it in a state of frozen shabbiness. Our tour guide is Elena, a squat, red-faced woman, whose clothes match the colours of the buildings. She bombards us with historical information. I notice that the new Russia has carried privatisation to new lengths. Many street names had to be changed after 1991, so new street signs are put up by private companies, with their logos underneath.
We go by boat to the real Peterhof, where Peter the Great built his grand summer palace. He almost never used it, preferring to live with his wife Catherine in a charming, but modest house, “Monplaisir,” on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. The whole estate was dynamited by the retreating Germans in 1944.
Saturday 29 June
Today’s expedition is to Tsarskoe Selo, 15 miles south of St Petersburg. Here Pushkin went to school, and the architects Rastrelli and Cameron designed an even grander palace, in turquoise and gold, for the empresses Elizabeth…