By BRUCE DENNILL
There’s a queue. For a museum. That’s a good thing. Speaks of an appreciation of history and culture, and the value of intellect over addictions to social media and gossip. So, on principle, it’s a queue worth standing in.
The queue is outside the Hermitage in St Petersburg. I get there early, because that’s how you avoid the rush, obviously. Already, several hundred people have lined up along the front of the Winter Palace … and around one corner of the palace, almost (but not quite – that’s a crucial factor in how much my heart drops as I take my place) to the bridge over the Neva River.
Nobody ahead of me moves – at all – for a long time. Leaving the line to go around the front of the building to the entrance and check that all is in order in terms of the details supplied by the guide book and website seems a risk too far. If I come back and am not allowed to resume my position, no amount of rotation of the three Russian phrases I am capable of mangling (the words for “please”, “thank you”, and “I’ll have the borscht”) is going to change the inscrutable expressions of my prospective fellow museum visitors.
Turns out the context comes with its own, unofficial, entertainment. The first act is a couple of bear cubs on leashes, cheerfully wrestling with each other. This gets their tethers insolubly intertwined, to the exasperation of their handler. He is otherwise apparently immune to emotion, as befits a man strolling past a row of onlookers whose tender sensibilities don’t allow for the parading of wild animals in the centre of a city – particularly babies, whose future is now compromised as they face a future as some sort of circus act … at best. For those spectators, myself included, there is a mild satisfaction in watching the man struggle as he gets his legs and body entangled in the ropes, gets momentarily free and then stumbles again when his charges spontaneously scatter in different directions.
This diversion distracts until my part of the queue reaches the corner of the Hermitage building, where the front façade stretches off to the left and the huge expanse of Palace Square opens up in front of us. The vast space, the striking Alexander Column at its centre, has played host to revolutions (plural), but today it’s spotted with nothing more violent than the beats emanating from a boom box surrounded by a group of St Petersburg youngsters, their outfits marking them as in thrall to some Eighties version of US rap culture, which is ironic as they were not born at the time it was most popular and even if they had been, boycotts and sanctions and all the other Cold War cultural restrictions would’ve precluded them getting their Run DMC on. They are better dancers than Joseph Simmons et al, though, spinning on shoulders, rears and beanie-clad heads as they show off and enjoy themselves.
Rather more stately is the massive golden eagle on the gauntleted arm of another ethically oblivious pet owner, the bird’s heraldic image somewhat offset by an expression that is beginning to be reflected by my heretofore stoic companions: boredom. It’s been well over two hours since I joined the queue, and the summer sun is now high and hot. Also, perversely, finally having a clear line of sight to the entrance of the Hermitage makes time seem to tick by more slowly.
I start to count the windows on the General Staff building on the opposite side of the square, its colossal curve (the building is 580m long) interrupted by a gap overseen by a three-part triumphal arch – because the single-chapter version was judged a tad gauche, presumably. They all start to blur into a heat-induced haze after a while and there is a moment – just a brief one, mind, where I consider that the time I have spent waiting to get into the museum may have been better spent.
But a good deal of the attractiveness of the Hermitage is its heroic scale – someone with time on their hands has calculated that, in order to see all of the institution’s three million artefacts, a visitor with the requisite stamina would need eight years, and then spending only a single minute in front of each exhibit. So it seems fitting that the wait to get through the door should share that blockbusting nature.
I’m on the steps now. I can see the counter where you buy your ticket and the machine that scans it as you go in. I look at my watch. Three hours and 40 minutes. Damn. That’s going to cut into my eight-year viewing plan. But not by much.