A full on day of looking at ridiculously sumptuous palaces. In the morning we walked up the canal to the Yusupov Palace, where the subject of my play, Felix Yusupov lived before the Russian revolution and where Rasputin died. If you had lived here you can understand why you'd become detached from the reality of how awful most people's lives were. The rooms were huge and luxuriously decorated, each with its own theme and design. Every corner contained some ludicrously ornate and expensive piece of furniture or skillfully wraught (if often gaudily so) ornament. They had their own ball room, then another even bigger space where we were greeted by some a capela singers and there was even a private theatre. Yusupov had the fourth largest private collection of art in the world at the time, though most of it has now gone to other Museums. He took a couple of Rembrandts from their frames as he left the palace for the last time, though carried on with his spendthrift lifestyle whilst in exile so the money from those didn't keep him going for too long (plus he got into legal difficulties with the guy he sold them to, I believe). Though it wasn't mentioned on our audio tour guide, he also had a hidden room under the stairs which he stored away loads of his jewelry and other possesions to pick up on his return. But he'd never come back.
If this was what you were used to and believed you deserved then it would be hard to have any really understanding or sympathy with normal people.
After lunch we returned to the Palace to go on the Rasputin tour, which takes you through the rooms and the cellar where this infamous murder supposedly took place. Alas the tour is only conducted in Russian (which seems odd as I had heard that the Russians didn't really know or care much about Rasputin) so for us it was just a chance to see the murder scene, which has a few photos and exhibits on the walls and waxwork dummies of the conspirators and Rasputin. I saw the gramaphone that had been playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (weirdly Yusupov's ony record) upstairs to give the impression that a party was going on upstairs from which Princess Irina would soon descend. I don't really buy that detail of the story though (I am not really convinced by any of it). I don't think Rasputin was lured to the Palace on the promise of meeting the Tsar's niece, who was in the Crimea at the time in any case. Nor do I think he'd wait in a cellar for several hours in the early hours of the morning. That specific detail about Yankee Doodle is the kind of thing that liars put into their stories to make them more plausible. Why would you bother making something like that up? Precisely because it seems like the kind of thing you wouldn't make up so gives the story more credence.
Anyway I saw the gramaphone, but was whisked by too quickly to see if the record was Yankee Doodle Dandy. And then we were in the cellar where the murder maybe took place (or began). I wasn't able to ask any questions and couldn't understand what was being said, so couldn't ascertain where it was that Rasputin's blood had been found splattered on the walls, supposedly after Yusupov attacked and kicked his corpse. After arriving in this cellar that I'd read so much about over the last three decades I thought I'd feel more excited or connected, but I got no psychic communication from the walls. It was interesting to see it and the cross that Rasputin had admired before he was shot for the first time (or maybe just a replica) and I could imagine the conspirators bumbling down the stairs like Keystone cops as they rushed to see his body. The whole story reads like a melodramatic black and white movie crossed with a slapstick comedy and I am not sure that that is just a coincidence. I think it was perhaps constructed in exactly that way by the conspirators to cover the truth and to appeal to that filmic imagination of the audience that would hear it.
I think I was slightly underwhelmed by not being able to understand anything that was being said on the tour, though it was unlikely the guide was saying anything that I didn't already know. It seems odd that they don't do a tour in English, even if it was just once a week, but maybe they will if tourism kicks off a bit more. I had at least seen the place where it supposedly all happened, though again was a bit surprised that the tour didn't even encompass taking us outside to the courtyard where the poisoned, shot, beaten, stabbed and maybe dismembered Rasputin escaped before being shot again. Again the official story makes no sense and photos of the body clearly show that he was shot right in the front and centre of his head, which doesn't seem likely if the fatal shot came from a distance as he was running away. But shots were heard outside and blood was in the snow (I think) and I don't think that was just from the dog they shot (which was only done to cover up the sound of shots and the blood when the police were attracted to the noise). But anyway, we'd been there and I took a selfie with the Rasputin waxwork (as well as more formal photo taken by my wife!).
I hung back a bit, hoping the waxwork might talk to me, but the supernatural events of this cellar are confined to 98 years ago or are just made up.
After this mildly underwhelming tour (only because I had been building up to it since I was a teenager) we walked up to the Hermitage (the Winter Palace of the Romanov's) to have a quick look round. The grandeur and scale of this palace made the Yuspov residence look like an old lady's bungalow. It was totally overwhelming. Beautiful and breath-taking, but also faintly disgusting that any human beings felt the need to live in this way, especially when so many people were starving. It's now a museum and art gallery, but presumably this place was packed with treasures 100 years ago (and again the building is an art work in itself), but the effect that you get from seeing room upon room of treasure is not to be increasingly impressed, but quite the opposite. Any one of these items would be bedazzling if on its own, but eventually when there is nothing but art work after art work they all become meaningless and even boring. Accruing all the stuff in the world may be a natural impulse, but it's less impressive than having just one really impressive item.
We saw, I presume, the Romanov throne (we had no audio guide) which was the ultimate high-backed armchair as it had a canopy that reached the ceiling and the most luxurious semi-circular toilet mat on the floor in front of it. I like the way they've incorporated steps into it so you can climb over the jizz stains. We'd been walking for over three hours by the end of it and were too tired to enjoy the Rembrandts that we eventually located. I didn't even bother to work out if any of them had once belonged to Yusupov.
It's amazingly impressive and it was interesting to imagine the Romanovs living in this complex and having walked the same floors as we were now walking and it truly gave an indication of the scale of their ludicrous wealth. But none of that saved them.
And though I worried that I was doing too much sight-seeing and not enough writing, as I tried to sleep tonight my brain became flooded with ideas for the play, which is annoying as it stopped me sleeping, but is very welcome as this kind of mental excitement doesn't happen to me too much any more. Actually seeing the places that I had read about has been worth it and I hope I can start making a crack on writing some of the script tomorrow. I still have more reading to do too, but at midnight, at least, it felt like I was on to something really exciting with this idea. I hope so. I've got a lot riding on it.
Tomorrow I am going to the bridge that Rasputin's body was thrown off. I will be with my wife. It may be more than I can bear to not push her in at the exact spot that Rasputin went over.
And talking of Edinburgh the latest draughts of the posters are now completed - these are for the Fringe guide ads. You'll believe a monk can't die.
And the free version of episode 2 of RHMOL with Richard Wiseman is now up on vimeo, youtube, the British Comedy Guide and iTunes. Or you can buy longer versions on video or audio or make a contribution to the fighting fund here.
And the video version of the RHLSTP with Harry Shearer is also now online at gofasterstripe.com. You'll have to wait til Friday for the free audio.