Picnic in St Petersburg

Avtovo station, Saint Petersburg Metro

by Raymond G. Taylor

Stopping by the door to rest, Matthew glanced up at the spiralling staircase, the elaborate ornamental railings belying the simple function of the stairwell he had descended.

  “We have an unusual assignment for you, Matt,” the rather stuffy head of curatorial services at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Mr Hepworth, had said to him. “Have you ever travelled on the St Petersburg Metro?”

  “Yes, many times. Why?” he replied.

  It was true. During the placement semester of his Conservation of Fine Art master’s degree at Northumbria University, Matthew had taken an assignment at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. He had commuted between his shared apartment on the outskirts of the city and the Admiralteiskaya metro station. That was over seven years ago, and it had been as long since he had last met his one-time friend Kostya.

  For six months Kostya, also a student of fine art attending an extended course at the Hermitage, St Petersburg’s famous ‘Winter Palace’, had shared an apartment with Matthew. They had a glorious time there, riding the Metro with its ornately decorated pedestrian tunnels, marble pillars and elaborate archways. Anyone seeing it for the first time would think they were already in a museum and not travelling a city subway. When they weren’t studying or commuting, the two friends would be out exploring the old city or making the most of the nightlife.

  Kostya and Matthew were like brothers during that free and easy time marking the end of their student days and before they each moved on with their lives. That was then. Now, apart from the occasional letter or Christmas card, they had fallen out of touch.

  “Well, we have been asked to take on a conservation assignment there,” Mr Hepworth had said, recalling Matthew from his reminiscence.

  “You mean in the Hermitage?” asked Matthew.

  “No, in the Metro itself. You will no doubt be aware of the ornate and artistic décor of Metro stations in St Petersburg…” Mr Hepworth was only aware of this since it had been explained to him by the museum’s director, who had downloaded some images of the beautifully decorated Metro to help the explanation.

  “Well of course, I spent six months there at the end of my studies.”

  “So, I understand Matt. And you speak Russian?”

  “After a fashion, yes,” said Matthew. “Although most of the lectures at the Hermitage were given in French when I was there.”

  “Well, as a Russian speaker, I thought you might like to take this one on.” It was in fact the museum’s director who had suggested he ask Matthew. Mr Hepworth himself put no effort into understanding the background or capabilities of his staff.

  “You still haven’t told me what the assignment is, Mr Hepworth.”

  “Oh, yes, the assignment. Apparently, the Russian authorities have uncovered a previously unknown access point to the St Petersburg Metro, including a room that appears to hold a wide range of, as yet, unidentified artefacts that may have come from 17th century Versailles. Paintings, sculptures, ornaments, and furniture.”

  “I’m afraid I know very little about furniture, sir.”

  “Well, that’s as may be, but as a Russian speaker, you are clearly the best person for the job,” said Hepworth. “Would you have any objection to going?”

  So, the conversation proceeded. Of course, Matthew would be delighted to return to St Petersburg and, while his Russian may have been a little rusty, it would help him to pick it up again. He would also have an opportunity to visit Kostya, who still lived in St Petersburg and now with a young family. That is, if Kostya agreed.

  After a lot of probing, Matthew found out that the assignment involved visiting the site, examining the newly discovered room, and making an initial assessment of the contents, including potential values for insurance purposes. In particular, he would help establish the extent of any conservation work that may be required and whether it would be safe to remove certain items to a suitable location for work to begin. The municipality of St Petersburg was concerned that movement of any of the artefacts would risk damage. It was all within Matthew’s special area of expertise as a conservation expert at the Victoria and Albert.

  When Matthew sent a message to Kostya, he was delighted to receive an enthusiastic reply, assuring him that Kostya and his wife Natalya would love to welcome him into their new home, where he must surely stay as their guest during his time in St Petersburg. Natalya was dying to meet Matthew, having heard so much about him, Kostya had written.

  Then Covid struck, lockdown happened, and travel was curtailed. All of the plans had to be put on ice. The civic authorities in St Petersburg secured the room and said that it would remain sealed until their honored guest and expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum could rearrange his visit. It was fortunate that the St Petersburg authorities were paying for the visit otherwise it would have been cancelled altogether. The V&A, like most attractions in London, had been closed down for months, revenues had of course plummeted and grants were being reviewed. Matthew considered himself lucky to have kept his job, let alone get an all-expenses trip back to Russia.

  When the time came to replan the visit, life had moved on again for Kostya. He had changed job, Kostya had said in a letter. For some reason Matthew could no longer get in touch with his friend through any of the usual messaging platforms and so he had had to resort to an old-fashioned airmail. The reply said little about the mysterious new job, but Kostya said that he would explain when they met. Unfortunately, they had also recently moved to a new apartment further from the city and it would no longer be possible for Matthew to lodge with them, the letter had said.

  Not to worry, he had no doubt that his Russian hosts would find him a good hotel for his long-awaited stay.

  Having finally arrived in St Petersburg, Matthew had a little time to look around the city and settle into his hotel. He had arranged to meet Kostya at a bar they had frequented all those years ago, but their reunion never happened.

  “Kostya asked me meet you personally,” said Natalya in halting English, having introduced herself. “He is so sorry unable to be here, but been called away.”

  It seems that Kostya had, astonishingly, just joined the Russian Army. Matthew couldn’t imagine his old friend in uniform. Natalya did not tell him much and wouldn’t say where Kostya had gone. Natalya was very charming and said how delighted she was to meet Matthew after all she had heard about him. Yet she was obviously embarrassed. After a halting conversation in part Russian and part English, Natalya excused herself, saying they would rearrange something during Matthew’s stay if they could. He spent the rest of the evening alone.

  The following day, when he was due to be greeted by his hosts, it didn’t go any better. Firstly, he was delayed at the hotel in an incident over his working visa. Officials from the Federal Bureau of Security had arrived at the hotel to question his status as a ‘highly qualified professional’. It seems they were not sure that conservation of artworks was included in the definition of ‘highly qualified’. It took several frantic phone calls from the museum to placate the dour-faced officials. Then, when he turned up on site, he found that two of the three people he was due to meet had tested positive for Covid and had had to stay at home. The third, having waited for over an hour, had gone on without him. He was directed by an officious security guard to take the access staircase down to the mid-level door, which he would find unlocked and where his “accomplice” would be waiting for him. The word that the security man used made it sound as if Matthew was involved in some kind of criminal conspiracy.

  There was of course no elevator. The staircase spiralled down from the derelict house that had once been occupied by the principal engineering commissar responsible for building the Metro in 1941. He had had the ornate staircase built to allow him access to one of the early tunnels dug for the Metro at any time, day or night, in case of emergency. The official was killed during the siege of Leningrad (as the city was then known) and details of the access point destroyed, hence the only recent discovery.

  It seemed to take an age for Matthew to descend to the level of the room and his calf muscles were aching unbearably by the time he reached the door. He had not even been able to see the door until he was quite a way down. When he finally arrived on the landing with the only door to be seen he found it locked. He tried the handle both ways, tried pushing and pulling but it would not budge.

  Banging on the door, he called out in Russian but to no avail. Hell, he wasn’t going to walk all the way back up to ask for a key. Pounding on the door brought no reply, so he wondered what to do next. Peering down the staircase, which continued to spiral way below the current level, he thought he could see another door far below. Perhaps he had been banging on the wrong door. Then again, if he walked all the way down to the next door he would have further to walk to get back to the top if it wasn’t the right one.

  Resigned, he decided to try the door on the lower level and hope for the best. Thankfully it did not take too long to descend to the lowest level at the foot of the staircase, and with a single unmarked door cut into the side of the stairwell.

  Turning the handle, the door opened easily. Stepping inside the pitch-dark room, he could hear voices in the distance. He couldn’t quite work out what was being said but he thought he heard the words ‘picnic’ and ‘Ukraine.’ Yes, it was definitely ‘picnic’ he had heard, the Russian word being pretty much the same as the English word.

  Walking towards the sounds of voices in a shadowy light that appeared to be produced by distant arc lamps, he passed a stack of wooden packing cases. Although unmarked, one or two had the word ‘picnic’ scrawled across them in an untidy Cyrillic. Why ‘picnic’? thought Matthew. As he continued on, the light gradually got brighter, and he could see a figure approaching him from the direction of the light.

  He stopped in his tracks as he saw the uniform of the soldier marching towards him.

  “Ruki vverkh!” (hands up!) shouted the soldier, as he levelled the rifle he was carrying, shining a fierce flashlight in Matthew’s eyes.

  Matthew froze, before quickly raising his hands, palms forward.

  As the soldier approached, he lowered the rifle and looked at Matthew quizzically.

  “Matthew, is that you?” he said in English.

  “Kostya?” said Matthew, recognizing the voice. “What’s happening? What’s all this talk about Ukraine and picnics?” Blinking, he could now see into a huge underground chamber ahead, brightly lit and with dozens of uniformed soldiers loading packing cases into some army trucks.   Kostya became stern.

“Do yourself a favour friend and go back home. Forget what you have seen, forget about picnics and forget about Ukraine.”

0 – o –

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