Shades of the Hermitage

Autumn. I have a part-time job at the Archive, sweeping the street outside the Archive building. Across the road is the famous museum library entrance with its atlantes. To the left, behind high railings of forged iron, can be glimpsed one of the museum's inner courtyards - a long narrow space which is always half dark, its only area of brightness being amongst the glass panels on the far side where the river, not yet settled for winter, sends up a steely gleam.
Rain has fallen. Bright leaves cover the wet tarmac, like gold coins lying on black velvet. I sweep them, with the natural action of a skilled jeweller, into the tin box of my scoop.
Seventeen years ago, I remember, I had a job doing more or less the same thing, only on the other side of the street. The rays of the autumn sun - sharp, fleshless rays - shone on the gold enamel inlay under the cornice of the building opposite, lighting up the words: Established in 18... There, in the small shady garden, a tall old ash rustled in the wind; beside it, a bed of flocks, still bright, though a little shrivelled by the cold nights, burned with a pale-violet, slightly smoky light. The odd fretted ash leaf would snag in the cracks of the lacquered steps by the atlantes; it was my job to get these leaves out again.
I owed my position in the maintenance side of the Hermitage to a handsome young man, Yevgeny, brother of a poet and son of an artist. I had made several visits to my future employers but, in accordance with ritual procedure, had been sent away each time. The correct way to behave was to show particular persistence. Yevgeny kept on reassuring me that everything would work out fine. It did.
Our boss was an unusual human being. A former battlefield communications expert and current Party member, she had a clear understanding of what was what in this life - which made it all the more valuable that her connivance enabled our brigade to lead a good, harmonious and genuinely intellectual existence. In the history of Russian art her role was no less important than that, for example, of some D. or other; over a period of time, the brigade was responsible for feeding, and not just in the material sense of the word, a great number of poets, artists and performers.
Gifted and knowledgeable types were in fact simply part of the local fauna. When, as used to happen, someone came running from management to our base in the cloakroom, wanting to know whether we didn't 'possibly have a chap who could translate a letter into Serbian', Boris would stand up, take off his work jacket and gloves and - as if it was the commonest request in the world - breezily say: 'A letter? Well, let's have a look. We'll soon have our brains round this one ...'
I don't have to remind you, of course, that the distinguished Artamanov lost his post as Director for allowing an exhibition of works by the Hermitage's technical staff ... The exhibition lasted a day and a half. Artamanov, bless his soul, himself began as a poet, which goes some length towards explaining his boldness. That event, I should add, was Misha Shemyakin's first public appearance as an artist; he is now known the world over.
It was a glorious epoch. An epoch of well-disposed management, cheap portwine in half-litre bottles ... A Golden Age, you could say. Yes, why not? A Golden Age.
There was a particular, golden squeak with which the floors of the Palace responded to our passing when empty. That was on Thursdays, the museum's day off, when the bulk of the internal work was done. Our disorderly group would be preceded by an elderly female attendant jangling keys; dressed in a uniform black smock, she would just have broken off conversation in animated French with her colleague from the next room, who was also, quite possibly, a former fellow student from far-off pre-revolutionary days at the Smolny. By the proud straightness of her back and the arrogance natural to a St. Petersburg lady, she gave us to understand, without herself being aware of doing so, that this was a hallowed place and we must behave ourselves. It did not make any difference that time had turned her into a snake-like creature living in a flat shared with fifteen others; something dashing nevertheless remained in her - something unforgettable.
She would open the door into the room where we were to work. The first thing to strike the eyes was the high range of window glass ringing like bells with sparkles of leafy light. These windows looked out on the Large Courtyard of the Hermitage. The court perimeter was lined with works buildings of thin wood, with wheeled huts and low stacks; but the dominating presence was the small grove of old oaks standing in the middle. The whole garden seemed to be straining forwards, towards Palace Square, as if nature itself were threatening to storm back through the fine tracery-work of the closed gates and reverse the events of 1917. The commander of these green forces - ready in a moment to deploy them in a dangerous flanking manoeuvre - was the sinewy, muscular figure of Shtrobel's 'Archer' ...
Inside, we were often met by small palace miracles. Once, they wound up the peacock clock. The clock no longer chimed, but it still came to a sort of fluttering life: something inside started to clap and whir and, under the branchy gilded tree, the peacock suddenly spread its tail. Puffing its chest, the cock crowed soundlessly; the hen began to turn its horrid head. A forgotten, temporarily thawing, secret life was being lived out behind the glass of the clock casing. All this had the feeling of a foggy confusion, a dream. We looked on and listened in silence, not daring to breathe.
This cosy white room also contained a singing chandelier. When set in motion, it gave out the pure tinkling notes of an old minuet, and delicate beams from its crystal pendants rocked quietly on the room's pale walls and ceiling. They say this was where the members of the Provisional Government were arrested. I imagine their broad tail-coated figures concealed behind the door, in the darkness of the corridor, the stiff silence broken only by pure tinkling sounds ....
Incidentally, this solemn mood did not last for long. 'He painted some heavy stuff, this Delacrois!', I would say, winking to Gera and wiping the sweat from my brow after we had had difficulty hanging one of his particularly large masterpieces. 'A wild race, those mountain-dwellers!', Gerishka would say in reply and, without the need for another word, we would head off to the toilets to smoke. Gera was in a way leader of our brigade, so everyone else followed his example.
Gerushka (I use the intimate form of his name not because he and I were particularly close friends, but because everyone called him that - in the team he was well liked) was, as the expression goes, a complete orphan. He had been homeless after the war. He had started writing poetry. Sometime later, barely out of our teens, he and I had happened to give a recital at the same technical college. He read something about a policeman, about how Elyanov had failed to stop him: 'Far from master of the night, he is only its assistant'. His leading piece was The Karellian Pipe.
So, we would go for a smoke - along the corridor, past the doors into the library. Flanking the library, giving off a quiet light, was the room containing Masters of winter landscapes. It was tiring to look at all those unknown people skating in a far off time; at the trees rimed in frost - from underneath which, it seemed, came white and distant shouts. A rustle made me turn of a sudden: Good God, level with me was a real winter, not the spectral season of the Masters. I had only to open the glass door, and I could pluck a handful of snow from the main branch of the sakura.
Visyachy Garden(1) is the changeable heart of the Hermitage, a small variegated map ornamented with dovecots which have fallen silent for ever now. Dear Visyachy, you are enclosed and inward-looking, like a small prison courtyard where trees have been led out for their daily walk. You are completely surrounded by the building in which you stand: I myself have had to hand the special brush for your tiny paths down from above - past the covering, through the skylight. And neverthless you are alive, susceptible to both summer heat and frost because your roof is the sky. And walking past you, through the pavillioned room, turning suddenly fickle, I fell in love with your flowering green little lawn - where there were doves walking, only appearing from the free and open air, not from inside.
We went to smoke in the toilets. For us, these unprestigious quarters - or rather their antechambers, as I suppose they could be called - were a kind of parlour. Some were quite luxurious, with seats of varnished oak; others were a rank lower. Here we had endless conversations about art and politics, conversations which never left any residue of bad feeling, because we had as yet to be infected with that ideological polarisation which now makes enemies of people who were once close or friendly to each other. At that time the prevailing atmosphere was a happy, slightly foggy freedom of thought untainted by the sort of extremism which, however rooted in morality, nevertheless carries with it, in the effects it has on people's private lives, a heavy sadness. From the point of view of the thinking mind, the air in those toilets could not have been fresher ...
Here too we used to sing and drink. We were particularly fond of the 'parlour' in the Kommendantsky Wing, which was part of the maintenance side of the Hermitage; here the rude public were not admitted and senior management offices were a safe distance away. Each of us would hurry to take up his place in one of the squeaky plywood seats, links of which stood in the antechambers by the window or on the stone window-sill.
A frequent soloist was the poet O.O. He sang in a well-trained voice - though with a slight deficiency of internal musicality. His triumphal song was 'Luchinushka' ('Little firestick'):
Either you, my little stick
Never flamed in the stove,
Or my cruel mother-in-law
Has poured water on you ...
Slightly warmed by wine, we would actually see Olyeg as the unhappy young bride, and there would almost be tears in our eyes as we looked at the bitter creases made in his smooth, still not quite grown-up, slightly girl-like face. For Olyeg these were years of true lyricism. And not just for him alone.
Our other soloist, the prose-writer V. A., possessed a tenor voice of great sweetness. As is considered proper for a tenor, he was a young blade of fairly substantial proportions, which explains his nickname - 'Vova-fatty' (although, for fairness, it has to be said that, at the time, particularly fat he was not; he was simply well-built and muscular). His preferred repertoire was operatic, and he had particular success with the aria from 'Zhidovki':
Rachel, you are mine
Given me by God.
But I give you up to trial,
But I give you up to trial ...
His singing lent a slightly Proustian twist to our goings on.
After this, we would put on our jackets, shrug our shoulders and go out into one of the small treeless dvori to break ice. The small tractor with the large trailer would already have been driven round from the garage. Attacking the ice with crowbars, we would load the larger lumps, with their reflections of blue sky, into the trailer. It was the middle of April; the new season presented us with continual distractions: from the roof-edges fell brilliant drops, aiming to squeeze inside the collars of our jackets, whilst the windows of the upper storeys glittered with a splendour which was at once as old as the hills and freshly young, multiplying the rays of the sun and dispatching them to settle amongst the blue shade of the wall of the house (which is to say, palace) opposite. The sky filled with a fathomless joy.
Then came summer, and we again found ourselves in the Great Courtyard of the Hermitage. Here we busied ourselves with the museum's collection of carpets, which had grown musty over the winter - beating them, thrashing them, drying them. By the beginning of June, the sun was already baking hot; the new leaves, unfurling, cast fluttering shadows which, tiptoeing over the asphalt (still strewn with the sticky husks of recently exploded buds), brushed lightly against the subdued fire of the blossoming carpets. In that tempered fire dozed a very special, Persian, passion. The carpets' mythological contents (animals, flowers and birds) then began to stir and lumber menacingly under the babble of the animated leafage - leafage which was still only half-grown at that time of year. We, though, did not really take fright. Slinging the carpets over a rope, we pinned them with whatever came to hand, shouting gutturally. And then, for a time, the austere and slightly gloomy atmosphere of imperial Petersburg barocco left the Palace, and it began to resemble a Near Eastern oasis. The similarity was completed when the fountain was turned on, splitting the trees with a sudden stream of lively red water which became gradually cleaner and clearer until, finally, it sparkled in the sun with all the magnificence of Versailles.
This was the kind of cultural confusion that always reigned here - as was only natural, given the function of this treasure-house, which had been built to bring together the remains of various cultural periods under one small, though admittedly luxurious, roof. Notwithstanding the cultural polyglottia, though, we kept our heads, helped by the frivolity of youth: carrying an antique sarcophagus, for instance, whose engraved magical formulae quite possibly had the power to turn to ashes he who could understand them, we would dashingly sing 'Our uncle is no more, we're off to bury him'. Or we were quite capable of enlivening the picture of a dog on an old French tapestry with the addition of a risque tail. This we did not from cynicism, but - on the contrary - from a feeling, a slightly reckless feeling we had, of free association with all this cultural magnificence. On one occasion we were very nearly crushed by Rodin's enormous 'Kiss'. This happpened when we were setting up an exhibition of French sculpture in the Nikolayevsky Room. Nearby was a dark staircase containing a service lift, which would hum smoothly in its shaft as it sprinkled us with yellow beams from various chinks. Here we rested after our exhausting tussles with the works of the Gallic genius. Returning to the Nikolayevsky Room, we stumbled upon a religious service in Japanese - for a year or more had passed, and the sculpture here was now oriental. The officiating monks, bronze-haired with shaven heads, themselves resembled statues in voluminous orange tunics. A dense 'Oum! Oum!' rolled over the parquet flooring. We listened with particular feeling. I was struck then by Enca's bits and pieces of wood, surprised to notice how moving they were; and it came to me that art can be exceeedingly spare and refined in its means of expression, and that spirituality - full spirituality with nothing subtracted - is the property not of Christian culture alone.
Space must be found here for a description of our boss's store-cupboard - which contained so much that was not historically interesting, but simply old and interesting. Here you might come across: initialled water-silk bags (apparently once used to hold Christmas presents for the palace servants); copper and silver eagled buttons; chalk, linoleum, polythene film; bronze candlesticks, buckets; strange weldless bicycles (intended, to judge by their small size, for teenagers) with huge front and small back wheels (who rode these bicycles, what royal patterns they traced on the alleys of the garden, no one remembers now). Somewhere else, under a bench, we found a pre-war 'mini' (i.e. bottle of vodka) with its label ('Pshenichnaya') intact. Incidentally, whilst on the subject of drink: there was a legend current amongst us that several sections of the imperial wine cellar had been immured at the time of the revolution and so survived. We thought about this often, and especially on Mondays, which were difficult days. The result was always equally drunken. Yevgeny, the same handsome youth whose protege I had been, would be sent to the 'razlivukha'(2) - now gone - on the corner of Gertzen and Nevsky, and would return, unhurrying, with a kettle full of razlivnoi konyak. However we tried, we never got as far as the imperial cellars. Most likely, they don't exist.
One of these expeditions through the basements ended with our coming out into a quiet, gloomy courtyard, whose heavy, almost castle-like gates look out onto the Winter Kanavka. These gates are opened only a few times a year, and the courtyard itself is full of gloom even in summer. Here on this day we are met by a sudden sadness and exhaustion. A padded silence, powdered with snow. White cylinders have formed on the cornices of the windows (or rather, not white - in the airless December light, the snow has a bluish tint). Our hearts go quiet and faint, hushed by this atmosphere; by the congealing, enclosing, indoors, milky haze. Snow falls quietly, leaving warm wet spots on our hands and faces. We are young on this day, but our hearts have a presentiment of our lives to come -- as if we have already lived to the end; of the weariness of future changes, of the whole sorry, longed-for journey. And now ... seventeen years have passed. Those times are already in the past, and there is no sign of anything to replace them. Apart from Misha, mentioned above, none of us has become well-known in any significant way. And as for money, we don't have that either. Which is why I am doing part-time work in the archive, across the road. Well, what else can you do? Something has to be done to pay for the golden dust which settled on my heart in youth, and whose soft sheen illumines the depths of the Hermitage courtyards like an avowal of adherence to everything elevated and excellent - an adherence which distinguishes our colourful, but unfortunately rather small, circle of friends.

Yevgeny Zvyagin, 1983

(1) 'Hanging Garden'. Return

(2) Place where alcohol is bought by the litre, being poured out into bottles or containers supplied by the buyer himself. Return