Saturday, 11 April 2009

Sights, sounds and surprises...

Its not often you get the chance of a perfect day. Indeed the acknowledgment of the fact in the midst of one often seems to elevate the chance of it falling apart. So forgive my late review of yesterday's proceedings. I was just making sure...

I must admit this city is starting to win me over. It might be cold, grubby and rough around the edges, still, its beginning to get under my skin. The day was spent absorbing a whole range of Russian political and cultural history, some planned, some providing a very welcome and enlightening surprise.

Travelling with a colleague and fellow culture junkie, we set out with a plan to share our appreciation of Soviet history, for my part, and Russian literature on hers. Aiming for a morning in the 'Dostoyevsky Memorial Museum', towards the south east of the city, we made good time through the metro and entered the museum as a light drizzle arrived to clear the air.

An intimate affair, consisting of one small display hall of artifacts - our polite refusal of the opportunity for an English audioguide was probably the wrong decision in retrospect - followed by a recreation of the writers living quarters lovingly restored with the aid of artifacts and ancestral guidance. The latter section did have plenty of English information guides on offer to accompany the rooms on display, while my trusty travel guide book filled in my gaps in knowledge about the writer and his works. An English translation of 'Crime and Punishment' may have to join my collection till I'm confident enough to tackle it in the original. (A good few years from now...)

After a light lunch we crossed the river at Trotsky Bridge, admiring the view of the thawing ice sailing down the river beneath us, before reaching the 'Museum of Political History of Russia'. I really cannot recommend this museum enough. Not only is it well laid out with an incredible array of artifacts and ephemera, but its support for English speaking visitors is faultless and the welcoming nature of its staff a pleasant change.

The fact that two hours were lost in the first exhibition alone - chronicalling the birth and development of Soviet Russia under the Bolsheviks - is testament to its engrossing presentation of Russian history. Granted my own interest and background in the subject was always going to help hold my attention, still my fellow traveller was equally at ease to let time pass us by and admire the museums treasures.

For anyone with a sense of historiography I think it also worth acknowledging that the museum's presentation and explanation of the material along with its overall view of the country's Soviet past is by and large refreshingly objective. The material itself, whether it be archival documents, letters, photos or artifacts, are allowed to speak for themselves. The supporting commentary meanwhile acknowledges both positive and negative aspects of the regime presenting, for example, the brutal and arbitrary nature of the Gulag penal system and the utopian ideals and reform efforts that encouraged rapid development of literacy in the country post-1917.

In the end the afternoon we gave ourselves to explore was not enough to complete a view of every exhibition room. However, some of that can be put down to the sound of opera resonating through the halls of the musuem that stopped us in our tracks and held us enraptured with the power of those singing. It appeared to be - unbeknown to us on entering the museum - a scheduled performance of selected works, sung live with a commentary on the material provided in Russian between each performance. What we failed to grasp from the language of its words, we translated from the emotive power of the music and its performers.

As proceedings came to a conclusion, we resolved to make sure this wasn't our only experience of opera while in the city.

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