Monday, July 28, 2008

Russia Adventure, Part 1: Ghost Stories

Early this year, a colleague at KU invited Erik to participate in a conference he was organizing in St. Petersburg, Russia. While Erik was intrigued, since he had not been to St. Petersburg since it was called Leningrad, work on the book and other complications made attendance at the spring conference impossible. However, when he received another invitation a few months later, he couldn't say no again. European University in St. Petersburg asked Erik to participate in a workshop designed to enhance the methodological training of faculty members in regional universities. His task was to talk about research methods in the study of comparative elections - right up his alley. Erik delivered three talks, and provided comments and consultations on participants' research projects.

Erik's flights took him to St. Petersburg on LOT, Poland's airline. LOT is definitely a bargain carrier; it features few f
rills and minor mechanical problems abound. The meals underscored cost cutting measures. On his return trip, Erik ate the same meal of lunchmeat, cheese, and two small slices of bread THREE times! Economies of scale can be marvelous. On the way out, none of the seat controls worked in Erik's section. Although the cabin lights were dimmed for the movie, no one could hear it or turn on their reading lights. The benefit was that Erik slept a few hours on that leg of the journey. The trip on LOT requires two additional observations. First, timbersports athletes should avoid LOT if they are traveling to events in Eastern Europe. Rather than posting a complete list of items that may not be carried on board flights, LOT specifically posted a large sign in English and Polish indicating that chainsaws are not allowed (photo on the left). Second, LOT seems to overbook its economy class on trans-Atlantic flights, then shuffles passengers by upgrading some and moving seatless refugees into the vacated spots (Erik was one of the seatless refugees on the way to St. Petersburg, but everything worked out).

Because of the exorbitant costs in St. Petersburg proper, the workshop was held in a small town located nearby, Pushkin (also known as Tsarskoye Selo). The town is primarily famous because it houses Catherine the Great's "suburban" palace (see the photo on the left), lovely gardens, and other notable residences. The conference site was one of these famous homes - the Kochubey Manor. Kochubey Manor served as an estate for a nobleman (related to the Romanovs) and was built in the early 20th century. It has quite a bit of history: Sergey Kirov, whose assassination set off a series of purges under Stalin in the 1930s, stayed here for a while. It was also the local HQ for the Gestapo during Nazi occupation, but that part of the building was razed. The building is ornate, with contemporary artwork adorning the walls.

Given this history, it should be no surprise that the house has many ghosts. Fortunately, the part of the house where Erik stayed was spectre-free. But, the housing staff insists that ghosts haunt the old quarters. After dinner on Wednesday, Erik and a few other participants were treated to a tour of three rooms in the old part of the house. The first room was the white ballroom, which was plain but lovely. A quick anecdote about the ballroom: Kochubey wanted to enter the ballroom in a grand fashion, so arranged to have the ballroom doors open "automatically" with secret gears and ropes upon his arrival to formal events. Kochubey would give a secret signal (involving tapping some part of the floor) and a dedicated staff member would open his magical doors. The next room was the billiards room, which featured two huge tables, ornate woodwork, and a fireplace adorned with family symbols. Erik's favorite fireplace design was the bird that had pierced its own heart to feed baby birds its own blood.
In front of the third room, in a dark foyer, sat a lone bust of a boy. From one angle, the statue seems happy and benign, while from another he seems creepy. According to legend, visitors are supposed to leave money to avoid harassment and tricks. The third room was quite lovely, featuring many vases and statues, and an ornate piano that seemed to be made of birch wood. One of the busts was shrouded in an otherworldly way.

After the tour, the manor's creepiness factor - and its appeal - increased. While Erik has seen his share of old estates, he is always ready to visit macabre, haunted manors!

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