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Mariinsky Theatre - Hermitage - Catherine Palace - Amber Room - Peter Ustinov - Canonising Russian Imperial Family - Simon Sebag Montefiore - Prince of Princes:The Life of Potemkin

The triumphant Kirov ballet is based in St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre on the banks of the Kryukol Canal and is celebrating its creation 250 years ago. Empress Elizabeth established it in 1742, for the first Russian Ballet Company, the Mariinsky theatre in 1766. It was Catherine the Great who in 1783 founded the Bolshoi Theatre of St Petersburg. Antonio Rinaldi designed the building. Following many vicissitudes in 1859 the place was burned down and was restored to what it is today - the Mariinsky Theatre, named after the Empress Marie, wife of Alexander II. Then in 1935 it was named after Kirov, a politician, and is know as the Kirov Company of Opera and Ballet. It was bombed in 1944, after the last reconstruction the original name Mariinsky was restored in 1992. It is located in the beautiful St Petersburg City, a.k.a. Leningrad, nee Petrograd, then St Petersburg again. The city has 370 palaces, 200 cathedrals, 100 islands, 349 bridges; it is a city of rivers and canals, 68 in all. The River Neva flows from Lake Ldoga to the east and to the Gulf of Finland to the west.

The famous Hermitage, an amazingly rich museum house the famous "Return of the Prodigal Son" and "DANAE" (this masterpiece is to the Hermitage what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre), both by Rembrandt. The latter has been reproduced in poster form all over the world. Catherine the Great obtained it from the great French collector of the 18th century Pierre Crozat that she bought "en bloc". Catherine adored Rembrandt and owned 59 of his paintings, some not really Rembrandt but his school. "DANAE" was the greatest of them all, but a schizophrenic attacked this beautiful painting in June 1985. However, the painting is now restored can be seen by the public again. Catherine was a great collector; she also owned Rubens, two Da Vinci, Canova sculptures and Raphael Madonnas. The Hermitage was started with Catherine's collection and now contains Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Monet.

The Catherine Palace outside St Petersburg has the Amber Room (know as "a large piece of jewellery"!) The Nazis stole two of the wall panels and no one has ever found their hiding-place. It is one of the big mysteries of the Second World War, but the Germans have now paid for the panels to be restored. Considering it less expensive to restore them that set out search for them! The complete restoration of the room is going to be finished by 2003.

I was most amazed to find out that Peter Ustinov directed the Bolshoi for "The Love of Three Oranges", Prokofiev's surreal fairy-tail opera, which was also staged at the Mariinsky Theatre, home of the Bolshoi's deadly rival, the Kirov. This all has a special poignancy for Ustinov as his great-great-uncle was the architect of the Mariinsky. Theatre who also restored the Bolshoi after the big fire, so he feels he has a foot in both camps.

Now, the most fascinating Russian history for me this year is the canonising of the Russian Imperial Family - Tsar Nicholas II, wife Alexandra and five children Olga, Tatyana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei, who were all executed along with four servants (the servants were not made saints because they were merely staying with the Romanovs!) in Yekaterinburg in the Urals in 1918. So now, the entire family are saints. Oh God, there is hope for me! (I never want to be a saint but I would like to became a "Beata" because I like the meaning of the word in the Italian language: beta = "Blessed one"; beatific, beatitude, but most of all "supremely happy" so "Beata Vera" sounds very nice to me! I would like if they used this statement for me, please! The Orthodox Church that follows the old Julian Calendar canonised them on the following Saturday Feast of the Transfiguration. In Russian, not everybody is happy with this canonisation because of the disastrous way in which the Tsar led the country; the Russian Orthodox Church has been divided by this canonisation. The bodies were proved to be those of the Romanovs, thanks the DNA test made possible by the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, he was related to the Tsar through his great-aunt, Elizabeth Feodoravna, also canonised and venerated world-wide as St Elizabeth Holy New-Martyr. Her sister Alexandra married Nicholas. King George V was also a cousin of the Tsar. Peter and Paul Fortress Cathedral contain the tombs of all the Romanovs including these new Saints! (www.imperial-russia.co.uk). Stalin must be turning in his grave!

Now about the new book by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Prince of Princes: The life of Potemkin, his name is actually Prince Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, lover of Catherine the Great, Empress of All the Russias. Catherine was not Russian but a minor German princess, but she was intellectually outstanding. Diderot described her memorably as having "the soul of Caesar with the seduction of Cleopatra" and together with Potemkin, they built a Russian Empire, which lasted until the disintegration of the Soviet Union a decade ago! Potemkin founded the cities of Odessa, Sebastopol, Nikovaev, Dniepropertrvsk, also expanded the territory to the Crimea, the Black Sea coast, the Caucasus, Ukraine, his dream was to seize Constantinople from the Turks. He developed a close relationship with the Cossacks; they were devoted to him until his death in 1791. He died five years before Catherine. The Cossacks, three decades later, helped to defeat the Napoleon invasion. He also created the Black Sea fleet and, as for me, he is remembered in the great film that Eisenstein directed about the "Battleship Potemkin" which bore his name, that is why I am fascinated by this history book. Jeanne Moreau played "Great Catherine" -an insatiable empress involved in dangerous liaisons as a nymphomaniac in a film in 1968! Potemkin was born in 1739, near Smolensk, with a great facility for charming women. They met in 1762; he was 22 she 33, and the wife of Prussophile Tsar Peter III. Catherine was raised to the throne with the help of an army coup. The Slav theory of "Motherland of Russia" was at its greatest during the "reign" of this couple with their cocktail of love, sex, murder, intrigue, betrayal with its effect on history. They continue to live for us in books, films and theatre.


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