Three 'shorts' extracted from the forthcoming Traveler's Russia Companion


Entrance to the BolshoyI once read about Olga Lepeshinskaya, the ballerina who is said to have leapt towards her partner’s arms in a climactic scene in Don Quixote, only to fall into the orchestra pit instead. Some reports said she landed on top of a musician, others that she hit the drum with a resounding boom. Flustered, but far from phased, the prima ballerina was hoisted back onto the stage and continued her performance to great acclaim.

Ever since then I’ve been waiting to enjoy a similar performance. In vain. But this admittedly slightly wicked hope hasn’t dimmed my enjoyment of what many people regard as a highlight of their trip to Russia, and what for many Russians ranks among their greatest passions. The Russians love ballet, and though audiences here are among the most demanding in the world, they are also among the most enthusiastic. When the ballerina Galina Ulanova, sweetheart of the troops during the Second World War died in 1998, thousands of people turned out to pay their respects. Like Italians at the opera, when the Black Swan completes his seemingly endless number of fouettés, if the Russians aren’t on their feet, they are at least cheering wildly.

The Russian ballet companies are famed throughout the world for their interpretations of the great classical ballets of the late nineteenth century. But as with the city of St. Petersburg (or the walls and towers of the Kremlin for that matter), the ballet which we today regard as quintessentially Russian was in fact created by foreigners.

It was the first of the Romanovs, Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, who brought ballet to Russia in the seventeenth century, with Peter the Great later personally teaching European dances to his courtiers (having first shaved off their beards and ordered them to wear Western clothes). At that time, ballet troupes were usually formed by bored nobles in their country estates for their own amusement.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the first school of dancing was established by royal patronage in two rooms of the Winter Palace by the Frenchman Jean Batiste Lande. He became the first in a long line of Europeans invited to impart their knowledge to the Russians. Lande was followed by the Italian Domenico Angiolini, who composed the first heroic Russian ballet Semira in 1772. The "father of the Russian ballet," Charles-Louis Didelot, later freed up the form from its baroque corset, and combined soloists and the corps de ballet to stunning effect. Didelot choreographed the first adaptation from Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin’s poem the Prisoner of the Caucasus, a synergetic tradition which continues to this day.

Russian ballet began to take on a character of its own in the mid-nineteenth century, when a troika of French dancers and masters arrived at the Imperial School. Among them was Marius Petipa. This brilliant choreographer intensified the romantic drama of ballet while mercilessly training his corps de ballet to create a powerful and mesmerizing sense of unity. He also worked closely with Tchaikovsky, staging what are today regarded as the classics of the form: Don Quixote, La Bayadère, The Sleeping Beauty, restagings of Giselle, and, with Lev Ivanov, Swan Lake.

The dawn of the twentieth century saw the Russian ballet sweep the world. In 1909, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev took his Russian company to Paris, and for the coming two decades "Les Ballets Russes" ruled the world of dance, with such choreographers and dancers as Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Anna Pavlova, and George Balanchine.

Moscow’s Bolshoy Ballet, whose stars have included Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, and V. M. Gordeyev, and the Kirov Ballet (since 1991 the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Ballet, although it still tours abroad under the Kirov name), whose members have included the likes of Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, remain among the finest in the world.

The rivalry between the companies (and the cities) is intense. Although the Bolshoy ruled the roost for decades under the artistic direction of Yury Grigorovich, it seems to have lost its way of late. The Mariinsky meanwhile, is in the ascendant with artistic director Valery Gergiev nurturing a fantastic new generation of dancers, among them Diana Vishneva, Yuliana Lopatkina, Farukh Ruzimantov and Igor Zelensky.

Although there are many other companies and many other venues in Russia, you shouldn’t leave the country without spending at least one night at the Bolshoy or the Mariinsky. It’s wise to pack your gladest rags for the event where you’ll be met with acres of fur in the cloakroom, waves of perfume in the line for caviar and champagne, and indecent sparkles and glints of diamonds beneath the chandeliered halls and stuccoed auditoria. Tickets, by the way, are a steal by international standards.

Because the companies spend much of the summer earning hard currency abroad, you should aim to catch them at another time if you can. The Stars of the St. Petersburg Ballet festival takes place in June and July, while the Russian Winter festival (mid-December to mid-January) are perhaps the best time to catch a host of marvelous performances. If you’re thinking of only visiting Moscow during your stay, think again, since the Bolshoy Theater’s future is pretty uncertain (it’s due for a huge revamp, but no-one’s come up with the money yet..). Reason enough to visit St. Petersburg I’d say. And you just might catch a ballerina vaulting off stage.

For more on Russian ballet, see


My young guide, Andrei, was studying to become a park ranger. His hobby was computing. He was a good programmer, as many Russians are, and as the ever-growing numbers of Russia’s software companies and web sites testify. He could make a lot of money programming, he said. Maybe he’d move to the States, to Silicon Valley, and make lots and lots of money, he mused. Maybe. But then he looked about him on the pebbly beach where we were making camp for the night, and waved his arm across the placid waters that lapped the shores, and said "But no, I couldn’t leave here. I love it too much." Such is the power of Lake Baikal.

In Russia, whose inhabitants have suffered from the malady of gigantism since the earliest times, it’s reassuring to know that in the case of Lake Baikal, Nature got there first. The lake’s statistics sound like a panegyric to Soviet-era size propaganda: it’s the sixth largest in the world (covering an area about as large as Belgium or Maryland), the deepest in the world (at its deepest over 1,700 m or a mile deep), the oldest in the world (it’s over 25 million years old), and cradles some one-fifth of the planet’s fresh water. It takes the 300 or so rivers which flow into its glassy depths 332 years to completely replace its water volume. "Baikal fascinates," Chekhov wrote. "It's not for nothing that the Siberians call it a sea, and not a lake. The water is transparent beyond belief, to an extent that you can see through it as you would through air; its tender turquoise color soothes the eye."

Baikal is a unique habitat for life forms which have evolved in near isolation — three-quarters of them are found nowhere else on Earth. The nerpa seal for example, the world’s only fresh water seal, somehow got disassociated from its nearest relative 3,000 km (1,860 miles) north in the Arctic. It is home to rare birds such as Arctic ciscos and gobies, as well as mammals such as sable, high numbers of the brown bear, and Siberian stag, deer, reindeer, capercaillie, and black grouse.

With such impressive facts and figures, it’s not surprising that Russia’s first zapovednik, Barguzinsky Nature Reserve, was established on the northeastern shore of the lake as far back as 1916. It covers an area of 3,743 sq km including the western slope of the Barguzin Mountain Range. The Baikal basin is now protected by three other nature reserves as well as three national nature parks. In 1996, UNESCO declared the Baikal basin a World Heritage Site.

But just as bountiful as the treasures of the lake are the treasures of the land and people around this ancient body of water. It is here in Buryatia, an autonomous republic that hugs Baikal along its eastern and southern shores, where cultures meet, mingle, and fall in love. It is here where Baikal is known as the Sacred Sea.

Originally shamanists, the Buryats gradually accepted Buddhism from their Mongolian neighbors. But just as the lamas spread the word of Buddha from the south, Russian Cossacks moved east across Siberia, spreading Christianity in their wake. Remarkably, the collision course of these cultures never clashed. Instead, the Buryats managed to incorporate aspects of these varying influences into their own unique culture.

Take, for example, the many ovoos — or sacred sites — that pepper Buryatia's landscape. Traditionally these spots date back to the days of shaman spirits, but they remain special today to Buddhist or Christian believers. Rarely does a local allow himself to pass by without leaving some kind of an offering: a piece of cloth tied to a tree, a coin, or a matchstick. Visitors are encouraged to do the same.

One such sacred spot is Shumak, a fairy-tale like collection of medicinal hot springs and shaman shrines nestled high in the Sayan Mountains to the south of Baikal. Shumak, as the legend goes, was a valley merchant who fell in love with a beautiful woman in the mountains. When he went back to claim his bride, he learned that she and her entire tribe had been wiped out by fever. Heartbroken, Shumak threw away the jewels he had carried as a wedding gift. As he did so, dozens of healing springs are said to have appeared where each of the jewels landed.

Another place of special power is Shaman Rock on beautiful Olkhon Island, the largest of the lake’s islands and accessible from the main jumping-off city, Irkutsk. Although the Irkutskians aren’t shamans or Buddhists, they nevertheless revere Baikal with a blend of love and awe which, as a visitor, only enriches one’s experience of this great natural wonder. Lake Baikal’s guides are among the most enthusiastic you’ll meet in Russia.

Every year the number of activities to enjoy in the Baikal basin grows, making it one of the most popular spots for adventures in nature in Russia. The list is as endless as Baikal is deep, but even if you decide just to spend your time spotting nerpa seals, with a lackadaisical line slung from your boat, the Sacred Sea is just as magical. If you enjoy exercise you can fish and kayak, hike and camp, ski and skate, or raft the white-water rivers or bike the ranges of the Sayan. Or how about chugging along the antique Circumbaikal railway round the lake’s shores on a trip through dozens of tunnels and over tens of bridges? Or even scuba diving the impossibly clear waters? Or riding superannuated Russian motorbikes across the frozen lake in mid-winter? As programmers like Andrei are fond of saying, think different.

For more info on Baikal, see, and


Men bellowing, flagellation, steam, shouts of "More, more!", birch branches, coffee grounds, groans, more steam, plunge pools, alcohol, sweat, hirsute bodies. It sounds like something out of Dante’s Inferno or a scene at one of Moscow’s more risqué nightclubs. But it’s not, it’s the local banya, or public bath, to be found all across Russia, from the glitzy hotel to the shed at the bottom of a Yakutsian peasant’s garden.

For a little local atmosphere far from the regular tourist traps, a trip to the banya is well worth the effort. Not only will you emerge feeling cleaner than you ever have in your life, but you’ll leave having learnt a great deal more about Russian culture, and pocketed some very colorful memories in the process. The banya is a feast for all the senses.

Long after most Russians acquired the capability to bath at home, they continue to make regular pilgrimages to the public baths. Here they steam away their worries in the company of friends, shedding their outer garments like worries. People tend to frequent the baths at the same time once or twice (or more) a week. A camaraderie and club-like feel pervades the steamed up air. Forget Marxist-Leninism, this is true communism.

Divided into a women's and men's banya, the procedure on both sides of the gender line are nearly identical. Having paid the cashier, bought their venik (a handful of leafy birch twigs, or juniper twigs for the hardcore), the soon-to-be-cleansed enter the main dressing room, where they are assigned an area to undress, drink tea, and just relax in between steams.

Just beyond the dressing area is the wash room, an expansive hall with marble benches and a voluminous water supply. Grab a bucket, claim a free bench, and follow the lead of your neighbors as they scrub their feet, douse themselves with cold water, and find countless ways to exfoliate.

Off the wash room is the jewel in the crown of the Russian banya: the parilka, or steam room. This cozy wooden chamber is the real draw for any banya lover. By throwing water on the heated rocks of the parilka, the temperature skyrockets higher than you imagine humans should endure, and a hot, aromatic cloud settles on the bathers (a drop or two of eucalyptus oil is often added). Suddenly everyone falls silent as they take in the steam, opening pores, releasing all the "poisons" their bodies have collected over the past weeks, and desperately trying to perform the hitherto reflexive necessity of breathing. Unlike the dry heat of a sauna, the Russian parilka is wet and aggressive. Banya devotees describe a Finnish sauna as "a kinder, gentler way of bathing." The Russian banya is slightly crueler, but the results are phenomenal.

Once the steam settles down to the lower levels of the parilka, it is time to whip out your venik and start beating. This is where the companionship of the banya comes in handy. Friends beat friends, leaving behind gentle red marks and birch leaves. The effects are more salutary than they sound, I promise.

Those who dare may then leave the steam room and douse themselves with cold water or jump into the nearby plunge pool. This requires one quick moment of courage — and is not recommended for those with heart conditions — but many swear by the healthy rewards of experiencing such sudden extremes in temperature.

This process of steaming and plunging is repeated for hours, with appropriate intervals in between for resting, gossiping, drinking tea or beer (or perhaps some smuggled-in vodka), or taking a massage. Some men rub themselves with salt in order to sweat more profusely, while women often lather themselves in honey — a wonderful, if sticky, skin moisturizer. Afterwards you may go home and sleep like a baby, basking in the glory of your new-found cleanliness.

Two banyas to visit in Moscow are Krasnopresnensky tel (095) 253-8690, Stolyarny pereulok 7, close to Ulitsa 1905 Goda metro, which is consummately Soviet while still offering excellent amenities such as a gym, pool and solarium. It’s open 8 am to 10 pm Tuesday to Sunday, Monday 2 pm to 9 pm. The other is Sandunovksy tel (095) 925-4631, ulitsa Neglinnaya 14, very central by Kuznetsky Most metro. It’s a wonderfully restored palace of steam, with a collonaded swimming pool on the upper level and acres of marble extending between the prostrate regulars. It’s open 8 am to 10 pm every day except Tuesday.

In St. Petersburg, in ascending price, you have the Mytninskie Bani at ulitsa Myatninskaya 17/19, open 8 am to 10 pm except Wednesday, the only wood-stoked bathhouse left; Banya #57 at ulitsa Gavanskaya 5 on Vasilevky Island, open Wednesday to Sunday 8 am to 10 pm, which includes a de luxe section for women (Thursday and Saturday) and men (other days); or the de luxe baths of Nevskie Bani, ulitsa Marata 5/7 downtown, open 24 hours and popular with mafiosi types.

It’s worth bearing in mind that alcohol affects you faster in the banya, so don’t overdo the toasts, and also, don’t come with a hangover or after eating a huge five-course meal.

As the Russians say: "S lyogkim parom!" May the steam be with you!


Needless to say,
all text and photos are
© Dominic Hamilton

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