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I've never been to Eastern Europe before. I've also never run naked through a plate-glass window before either, or been dragged behind a motorcycle through thumbtacks and rubbing alcohol either. Had you asked me, say, five or ten years ago, I'd have said that any of those options looked about equally appealing--and, to be honest, equally likely.

So it was with a considerable sense of irony that I approached Russian passport control in St. Petersburg, our next port of call after the Note From zaiah That Broke My Sister's Brain incident, with my American passport in hand. He who laughs last, laughs all the way to the politburo, or something like that.

My first impression of St. Petersburg outside passport control was about what I expected the former Eastern bloc to look like: nondescript concrete apartment buildings, still under construction, shrouded in gray fog.

I was surprised to find the rest of St. Petersburg was quite colorful and lively. We had a tour guide whose name I didn't catch either time she said it, who was actually quite a cutie, and tended to wear very American clothes. Including, at one point, a jacket with "Washington State" printed on it.

St. Petersburg is not technically named after Peter the Great, even though he founded the city. Apparently, or so the story goes, that level of arrogance would not have been accepted by the Russian people, a proud (but not that proud) folk who valued the principles of humility, modesty, and monomaniacal lust for power in a leader. It would not be until the Bolshevik Revolution that the Russian character would be tempered sufficiently for a city named directly after a political figure, which is why St. Petersburg would later be renamed Leningrad, before everyone realized what an astonishingly colossal douchenozzle Lenin actually was and changed its name back again.

All of this was explained to us, minus the word "douchenozzle," by our tour guide of the unpronounceable Russian name. We zipped out into the city in the back of a Ford SUV, which fact by itself says almost all you really need to know about the fucked-up geopolitics of the dying days of the twentieth century. Once the many names of St. Petersburg had been illuminated with a harsh white light, we set out on our way to find out how Peter the Great (whose name only coincidentally happened to share a passing similarity with that of the saint of the saint he chose to name the city after, just so that's perfectly well understood) actually lived.

The answer, as it turned out, was "rather like a fraternity brother with unlimited wealth and unlimited power, and more than a few...confusions about his sexual identity."

Our driver, Igor, drove us through the streets of St. Petersburg past Stalin-era office buildings toward the old Winter Palace of Peter the Great.

Or perhaps I should say, toward a Winter Palace of Peter the Great. He had several, you see. When he got bored with one, he built another, and it should probably be mentioned here that Peter the Great appeared to have a case of attention deficit disorder that gave him the attention span of a lightning bolt, at least with respect to residences. It's remarkably easy, as it turns out, to build a whole bunch of palaces when you have 200,000 slaves to do your construction work for you.

Anyway, the particular Winter Palace we visited was situated on the Gulf of Finland, which is basically a cold body of water that points more or less toward Sweden. According to our guide, building a palace on the water's edge was Peter's way of thumbing his nose at the Swedes, with whom he'd fought a war or something.

And what a palace it was. The Swedes may keep a stockpile of ostentation in reserve at the carefully-guarded Royal Palace in Stockholm, but Peter put his ostentation everywhere.

When we got out of the SUV and rounded the corner, through the gates and down a hill, I wasn't quite prepared for the sort of ostentation that leaped out from behind a nondescript bit of wall and ambushed me like a strung-out mugger trying to carve a name for himself on the cold Russian streets armed only with an attitude, a bag of lead shot, and a strategic stockpile of ostentation that'd give Liberace a stroke.

This is what you see when you walk around the main building and then stop. Which you will, when your brain figures out what your eyes are telling it.

Yes, it's real gold. The statues, nearly all of which spurt a constant spray of water forty feet in the air, are covered with it.

The roof of the building is covered with it. The architectural detailing is trimmed in it. Hell, the wildlife wandering the palace grounds is plated in gold. The squirrels shit little droppings gilded in gold.

There are worse jobs than being a groundskeeper here.

And this isn't really even the full effect. As you move around, the ostentation runs up to you on quick little cat's feet and punches you in the eyes.

Our buddy Peter had an obsession with huge, larger-than-life statues of mostly naked men with bulging muscles and rippling sinew, performing manly feats of manliness. He also had an equally consuming obsession with fountains that spurt--nay, gush--huge pulsing jets of water high into the air.

Yeah, it's like that.

And what statues they are, too. Husky, well-built men, reaching down with powerful hands to pull hard at the jaws of fearsome monsters, from whence issue great spurts of frothy white water, in wet spurts of testament to their manly manliness:

It goes without saying, I think, that Peter the Great had problems. Though in his defense, you might too, if you were named after male genitalia.

The fountain above, our lovely guide explained, was a symbolic reference to Peter's wartime victories over the Swedes. The strapping and virile man of the muscles and sinew represents the Russian nation; the lion represents the Swedish nation; and the huge jet of water coming out of the lion's mouth represents Peter the Great's penis. Or something.

This same general motif carries through most of the fountains, like this one here:

This particular statue, in which a perhaps bit over-muscled sea god tears open the jaws of a sea monster, is symbolic of Russia's naval victories over Sweden. The surrealistically buff sea god represents Russia, you see; the sea monster stands for Sweden; and the jet of water represents...well, you get the idea.

As for this one:

...well, I'm not quite sure what the turtle represents. But the way its suspiciously elongnated neck spouts a frothy jet of water, I think it's safe to say that it probably stands for...

Yeah, did I mention Peter the Great had problems?

Now, to be fair, not every single statue on the grounds was of a strapping man who spent way too much time at the gym or engaged in combat that caused water to spurt from somewhere down around waist level. There were, in fact, a handful of statues of the fairer sex, in similar states of undress.

Though I couldn't help but notice something very odd about them.

All the statues of women, and I do mean all of them, have the same breasts. And they don't look quite natural, if you get my drift.

Now, I am aware that breasts come in all shapes and sizes, and I have seen some remarkable breasts in my life. Breasts to cause temperatures to rise and trousers to fall. Breasts to make the Pope kick a hole in a cinder-block wall. And I say this as objectively as any person really can, as I'm not even that much of a breast man.

But I have never in all my days seen breasts shaped quite like that. Yet all the naked statues of women I encountered on my entire time in Eastern Europe--and believe me, there are lots of naked statues of women in Eastern Europe, as I will probably talk about in another installment of this travelogue--have the exact same breasts.

The artists seem to quite like this particular mammarian architecture. Not only are all of the statues of naked women in Eastern Europe cut from the same cloth, chesticularly speaking, but they often seem to wear similar expressions, as if to say "Why yes, they are that magnificent, and thank you very much."

Which is all more than a little weird, and maybe just the slightest bit creepy. Just a smidge, you understand.

Even the bizarre mutated deep-sea lifeforms that swam the depths of Peter's fevered imagination would seem to agree. Take a look at this fishy fellow, who might have just swum from some Cthluhu-inspired undersea lair to swallow the souls of the mortal, had he not been struck down by the chesticular magnificence of our young lady of stone here:

"Indeed they are, ma'am. Now watch, as I cover your delicate flower of womanhood with my wet and slimy tail, the better to..."

Okay, I admit it, I got nothing.

Ahem. Anyway, back to fountains. It seems Peter the Great's obsession extended beyond plumes of water pumping high into the air. He was also quite fond, evidently, of seeing jets of water gushing all over his guests. And, in classic frat-boy-with-unlimited-wealth-and-power style, he planted booby traps throughout his fountain gardens just so he could spray all over unsuspecting people.

The fountain on the left is pretty straightforward. Normally, the water is off; there's no sign this is actually a fountain. However, when an unsuspecting mark--say, one of his mistresses, or the visiting King of Prussia--sits on the fountain, water starts spraying from all around the edge of the umbrella...and it doesn't stop when the unfortunate mark stand back up.

The one on the right is tricksier. It's a metal sculpture that looks like a stylized tree that shoots water. Pretty, huh? Now, see that little cobblestone pathway on the left-hand side? Some of those cobblestones are rigged. When a mark steps on a rigged cobblestone, water jets hidden beneath the edge of the little white benches there start spraying all and sundry in the area with powerful blasts of cold water. (Some tourists set it off while they were waking along the path. Great fun.)

It bears repeating, I think, that Peter the Great had problems.

Peter the Great really loved his navy, by which I mean he really loved his penis. This statue of the sea god Neptune occupied a prominent place near the guest quarters:

The statue, according to our tour guide, represents Russia's naval might. The long, stiff, hard trident he holds firmly in his hand represents...

I can't. It's too easy. At this point, I'm shooting fish in a...never mind. Let's just call the whole thing off.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 26th, 2010 05:54 am (UTC)
Great commentary. When I was at Peterhof, our guide Irina had carefully secured a small payment from each tourist who intended to take photographs inside the palace. She was then informed, once inside, that no photographs would be allowed. She told us, wryly, that some days photographs are allowed, and other days no photographs are allowed, and that this is one of the great joys of living in Russia. It would appear no photographs were allowed inside on the day you were there. :)
Oct. 26th, 2010 06:35 am (UTC)
Ah, so this is what I have to look forward to when I go on my study abroad to St. Petersburg. I look forward to it!

There are certainly worse things in the world than strolling about surrounded by ostentation and water wastage.
Oct. 26th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
I vaguely remember an art history professor of mine mention that part of the reason why the breasts of naked women look like that (in the statuary of certain eras and places) is because it was not really common to have female models. More often, models were male, with breasts tacked on and "softened" features, wider hips and shoulders*, etc. The end result is they got the basics sort-of-down, but looking... odd.

Michelangelo, actually, was especially bad at the female nude, and it was in the discussion regarding Michelangelo's commissioned sculptures for the Medici tombs that the "male models for female figures" perspective was mentioned by the prof.

Hope that puts the "identical racks" phenomenon into context.

*Edit: narrower shoulders, smaller waist

Edited at 2010-10-26 04:27 pm (UTC)
Oct. 26th, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC)
The amazingly dome shaped boobage has a natural origin...

Teenage girls not fed on hormone enhanced chicken and beef.

From my avid observations back in the late 70s and early 80s in Australia, that particular architecture was common on girls around 16.
Oct. 26th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
Wondering exactly what the confusion is you keep referring to.

OH, wait...are you saying that he was confused because he was a man, and he liked to have a lot of statues of muscular men around? Ok. Yes, I quite agree. Little confusion there.

Lovely pictures, by the way. I'm so glad you started illustrating your posts!
Oct. 26th, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC)
I'm really enjoying reading these. Thanks for writing them up.

Also, Peter's palace gardens have a layout very similar to Versailles, especially from the perspective in the first picture.

Oct. 26th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)
Vicarious vacations.
I'm enjoying these little jaunts around the world. It saves me going there myself.

In fact, I haven't been abroad since a two-week holiday to Majorca in 2001. Since then, for all sorts of reasons, I've never gone out of the UK.
Oct. 26th, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC)
Re: Vicarious vacations.
Sun Cruises? They started a cruise down there back in 2000. Sunbird, I think.
Oct. 26th, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Vicarious vacations.
No, we flew there. It was also the last time I was aboard a plane.

That said, a cruise does sound like fun.
Oct. 26th, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC)
Damn, I wrote a lengthy comment and LJ ate it! Try again...

This palace is definitely over the top, and very similar to what we saw at Versailles, which indeed was the inspiration for numerous European palaces and residences. We've seen several of them on our Europe trips, including a small Schloss in Thuringia in eastern Germany. Google gives quite a long list.

The issue of slapping bewbs on male-bodied forms in art is long standing. It's not that female models weren't available so much as that the male figure was the preferred, ideal standard. Musculature became a huge fascination, so even female figures were ripped.

Plus, the goal back then was for a certain proportional ideal, so real life models weren't portrayed realistically anyway; features were distorted and exaggerated or minimized to achieve a desired balance and emotional impact. Artists were also catering to the tastes of their wealthy patrons, and so were following the current market trends.

I'm enjoying your photos and comments Franklin - look forward to more!
Oct. 27th, 2010 05:32 am (UTC)
often this reader has wondered if in statues the high breasts are supposed to be like those of young teenagers? but here, perhaps they look more like man-boobs?
Oct. 28th, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC)
Damn, I haven't enjoyed a travelogue so much in a long, long time! I don't think I'd have the stamina to actually see all this complex myself, so thanks very much for sharing the, uh... scenic confusion. :-D
Nov. 8th, 2010 05:43 am (UTC)
aaah...here they are...
Nov. 8th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
Finally! I have caught up on your emblogginations!

I have to say though, the bit about motorcycles, thumbtacks and rubbing alcohol sounds the funnest... perhaps I should try it.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )