On our second, more gloomy day in St Petersburg, my friend Jon and I decided to visit the massive Winter Palace/Hermitage art museum, Russia’s equivalent to the British Museum in London or the Louvre in Paris. Although this art gallery housed in a palace should have reconfirmed the differences between Moscow and St Petersburg which we had noted on our walk the day before, we started our experience by testing a very Russian system of bureaucracy.
The queues of people waiting to get tickets were winding their way out of the front door, so we stopped at the ticket machines at the entrance. We pushed a few buttons, thrilled at the English translation, and were just feeding the machine money when a man at the next machine said in Russian, ‘They don’t sell student tickets here, lets buy them inside’.
Presented the opportunity to save some money, we cancelled our transaction and received- a slip of paper- instead of the 500 roubles we had put in the machine. The student tickets turned out to be free, which was great, but we still didn’t have our money back. The cashier, who had only grudgingly accepted Jon’s London ID card as an actual student id, returned our receipt to us with a signature, and explained that we had to go to the administration desk. Here, I presented the receipt and tried to explain in my basic Russian that we had tried to buy tickets outside but then… The lady did not even let me finish- she scribbled her signature and got up, disappearing for a minute. When she returned talking with another woman (who was clearly official due to her walkie-talkie), this woman made me sign the receipt and then signed it herself, before gesturing around the corner and saying: ‘Cashier number four, don’t queue’.
Great news for the twenty people in line at cashier number four.
Long story shortened, I had to explain to the security guard why I was jumping the queue, Jon was rebuked for trying to come with me, the people in line tutted and tried to push in before me, and the cashier mechanically took the receipt one more time, signed it and handed me 500 roubles.
That made eight minutes, five signatures and four attempts at Russian explanation in order to get back 500 Roubles.
What can I say? We’re cheap students.
The rest of the Hermitage is overwhelming. It is large and filled with an extremely diverse collection which spans across four floors and two buildings. You get views of art bought for the collection, and impressions of the traditional style of interior decoration in aristocratic palaces in Russia. Although they handily provide a map and an app, this does not guarantee that you will not get lost as rooms merge with other rooms and you turn endless corners.
There is definitely something for everyone here, although I think next time I am going to decide on five rooms and sit down with a sketchbook, rather than take in everything.