on 24 June 2001

St. Petersburg: The Czars Are Long Gone, but It

ST. PETERSBURG has more than 600 czarist-era palaces just aching to be danced in, but that doesn’’t mean it’’s easy to have a ball here. Just ask Irina Nikitina, who organized the Remembering Strauss Ball in the nearby Catherine Palace earlier this month in the hope that "Russians from the upper class start learning how to behave in high

Ms. Nikitina, president of the Musical Olympus Foundation, which organizes a classical music festival each May, said, "We’’ve lost our traditions and now must recreate them." And to judge from the event she orchestrated on June 2, she is more than up to the job. Taking as her theme Johann Strauss Jr.’’s "Fledermaus" (Strauss himself came to St. Petersburg as court composer every summer from 1856 to 1867) Ms. Nikitina created a carnival atmosphere in the palace, using comically dressed performers. The palace, once the czars’’ summer residence, is in the town of Pushkin, about 15 miles south of St. Petersburg.

Ms. Nikitina set the tone of the soiree by issuing a naughty announcement to the 300 guests from the balcony of the palace that each of the men would be granted an indulgence "to cheat on his wife throughout the night, as well as his wife the right to cheat on her husband, lewdly and boundlessly, with absolutely no restrictions on courting, flirting and seducing."

The ball was organized with the help of the city of Vienna (Strauss’’s home), to raise money for a $150 million performing arts center planned for the St. Petersburg suburb of Pavlovsk in memory of the Vauxhall concert hall.

In addition to members of the Russian elite, the guest list included other Europeans and Americans. Among the foreigners who attended were Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the former chief executive officer of Adidas; Klaus and Renata Jacobs, purveyors of a leading European coffee; and Lukas Muehlemann, the chairman of Credit Suisse, who brought 35 friends with him.

"It’’s important to have such high-level social events in order to bring together the cream of Russian and Western society," said Ms. Nikitina, indicating what had helped her collect that cream: ticket prices ranging from $800 to $1,500, and some careful strategizing over the guest list. "The foreigners who come are not tourists," she emphasized. "I know nearly all of them. No one got in here by accident."

It’’s true that Russians love a party, typically one heavy on the vodka and light on formality. Palace balls, however, with their strict traditions and manners, ended with a revolutionary crash in 1917. Which may explain why, after touring the palace chambers and feasting on black caviar in the Throne Room, foreign guests were lured to dance by the state Hermitage Chamber Orchestra’’s waltz music, while some Russians awkwardly hung back. At least most of the men wore tuxedos this time; Ms. Nikitina could claim that progress was being made.

Foreign guests may feel, as one wealthy American woman put it, that balls in incomparable St. Petersburg surroundings are "the closest thing we will ever get to royalty." But little more than a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a vast majority of Russians barely subsisting, conspicuous consumption in the form of $1,500- a-plate dinners has its critics here.

"When I first proposed the idea for a ball in 1998, just after the financial crisis, people were against it, saying it would look like a feast during a time of plague," Ms. Nikitina said. "But I answered that the plague will end someday, and we have to go on living."

Since then St. Petersburg has done just that; there are now about a dozen annual balls, each with its own tradition and mission. "Balls such as Irina’’s are an attempt to recreate that atmosphere which used to occur here," said Ivan Sautov, director of the
Catherine Palace and a guest at the Strauss ball. "It is a beautiful event where people get a chance to see how aristocracy lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. When you come here for a ball, you see the palace in a totally different light than when you
come when it is packed with tourist groups. During the ball you can hear the music that was played in past epochs, and experience this lost culture. We are trying to bring this back, and bring culture to people."

Apparently they are also trying to bring fur to people, and Russian fur at that. A highlight of the evening was a fashion show of fur coats by a Russian designer, Helen Yarmak (whose Manhattan showroom recently opened in the Crown Building at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street). Ms. Yarmak called on guests to parade around in her sables, chinchillas and minks.

"Sable is that type of material which personifies czarist Russia," Ms. Yarmak said, "and we wanted to help recreate the feeling of that era. St. Petersburg epitomizes the Russia which we’’ve forgotten and lost. It was here that there appeared many beautiful
and wonderful traditions, and now they are reappearing once again."

This theme - of recapturing privileges and tastes for a new elite - was heard throughout the evening. "As a wealthy class takes root in today’’s Russia," said Aleksandr Pozdnyakov, a guest and a freelance writer who focuses on St. Petersburg social and cultural issues, "they will want to adopt the mores and ways of our country’’s past elite. If, before, their only outlet was noisy and tacky nightclubs, now they want a more dignified venue to show off their power and wealth."

After 1 a.m., the guests strolled through the grounds toward dessert and coffee in the summer pavilion, where roulette and prizes were also on offer. They passed a crowd of about 50 onlookers, said to be groundskeepers’’ family members, who were waiting to watch the fireworks that would cap the evening. Even in the dark, it was impossible to miss the sullen glares of the bystanders, as the guests - lightheaded from vodka, Champagne and general merriment - passed by in formal wear. This is why we had a revolution, they seemed to say.


Author: John Varoli  Edition: The New York Times  Date: 24.06.2001