If you are at all into gold, gaudiness, greed, glitter and glitz, then you are just going to LOVE St. Petersburg. This place is the absolute hometown of gaudy. The word "Bling!" was obviously invented here. Talk about your ostentatious spending. Girl, shade your eyes!
My first stop in Russia's former capital city was at the famous Hermitage, Catherine the Great's gigantic super-sized palace. Good grief.
At first this palace belonged to Elizabeth the Spender -- and that Russian queen was extremely well-named. Elizabeth loved parties. Her grand ballroom can be summed up in just four words: "Lots of gold paint." Louis the 14th of France must have been her interior decorator. And just look at those intricate parquet floors! So much for linoleum.
Elizabeth the Spender also loved chandeliers.
When Catherine the Great took over after her husband was mysteriously poisoned, she built another pull-out-all-the-stops wing onto the palace and then loaded it down with great art. We're talking hundreds of valuable canvases here, each one worth at least a million dollars. BIG money. Da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, El Greco, Goya, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Matisse, Van Gogh.
Wait a minute. Wasn't Catherine the Great already dead when Matisse and Van Gogh began painting? It doesn't matter. Catherine the Great had enough money to hire those guys to start painting in utero. This queen was rich!
And where did all this money come from? The blood and sweat of Russian serfs, more likely than not.
Good grief! Here's a whole auditorium-sized room dedicated solely to Dutch Masters. There must be at least fifty or sixty paintings here. And this is only one room in the palace. And it looks like there are hundreds of more rooms to go. Good grief. This is overwhelming. My eyes hurt. My knees hurt. I need a chair.
How in the freak did Catherine the Great ever even have time to pull together this huge collection, let alone have time to enjoy it? How did she even have time to chose which paintings to buy? Or even to look at them. If she viewed one painting a day, it would probably have taken her three or four years just to see all of them. Or ten or twelve years.
That's serious Bling.
At one point I started counting all the Virgin Mary paintings on the second floor. Some Baby Jesuses were circumcised. Some were not. Couldn't the Old Masters just make up their minds?
So is this trillion-dollar palace where the glitterati of Russia hung out in the old days? I feel like I'm time-traveling, back in time to their secret innermost lives -- where the rich partied and showed off. And the poor people starved.
Next came Catherine's Palace. Girls gone wild! Elizabeth the Spender had pretty much gone nuts on this palace too. The palace itself was actually four or five huge palaces surrounding a courtyard as big as a football field. Good grief.
Inside Catherine's Palace was the famous Amber Room. All of its walls were decorated with amber mosaics. "No photos please," read the sign. But I was so impressed by all this ostentatious display of gratuitous money that I actually broke down and bought a refrigerator-magnet photo of the Amber Room. Wow. And Elizabeth also owned 14,000 dresses, each one with its own dyed-to-match shoes. And mirrors and gold and crystal and parquet and marble and.... Good grief.
As I walked through the legendary Amber Room, the phrase "blood of the serfs" kept reverberating through my brain. But nowadays, Goldman Sachs tycoons (America's rich dudes currently own over 99.9% of our wealth and they are showing no signs of stopping just there) and America's other counterparts to Elizabeth the Spender don't go in for palaces so much. They just give themselves bonuses. It looks like 2009 may turn out to be the most profitable year EVER for bankers and CEO bonuses. goldman Sachs just experienced the second-most profitable quarter in its history -- because of the 70 billion dollars it just received from us taxpayers. "Blood of the serfs."
Next came the Yusopov palace, which was small in comparison with the first two that I visited. But it still managed to have its own opera house, hidden back behind all the rear ballrooms. "Blood of the serfs." No wonder there was a revolution in Russia! The serfs who built all this stuff with their bare, bloody hands must have been truly pissed off. No wonder they went postal. And in America? The bankers stole our homes, the CEOs stole our salaries and pensions, the insurance companies stole our healthcare, the rich stole our tax money, the corporations shipped our jobs and industries overseas -- and all that they brought us back was this stupid T-shirt that says "You can be just like us if you only work hard".
PS: If you want to see more of all this gaudy Bling, here are my videos. Enjoy.
Catherine's Palace, one of its grand ballrooms: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NXxCFEsqR8
Catherine's Palaces from the outside: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjM8-LLYrnM
The Hermitage goes "Bling!" Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1JsGs4J8zM
The Hermitage goes "Bling!" Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNbpAveHTcc
PPS: I also included photos of my son Joe, daughter Ashley and granddaughter Mena -- because I miss them! The only bad thing about being in Russia is that I miss my family.