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Culture news, 31.08.2004 12:39

Journey to light and freedom

st_petersburg_opinion By Jackie Wullschlager

The map was no good, said my St Petersburg guide. The street names had changed once, twice, sometimes more little reflections of seismic shifts from Bolshevik to Velvet revolutions. She would have to go to the library to look up old street maps, and by the way half the east European towns I wanted to visit had changed names, languages, allegiances, too.I was 50 years out of date: Polish Vilna was now Lithuania's capital Vilnius; Lithuania's Dvinsk was Latvia'sDaugavpils; only St Petersburg had come full circle, via Petrograd and Leningrad, to its original imperial name.

And then she swept out across a six-lane avenue, an impressive, no-nonsense young woman disappearing into the Russian summer, leaving me standing bemused on gorgeous, belle epoque Vitebski Station. Here people lolled or slept on shining wooden benches arranged in long lines in a monumental waiting room, a great gong sounded the departure of the trains, and I struggled to decipher the names of a single destination.

I am writing a biography of Marc Chagall, the Jewish-Russian painter who became one of the leading artists of French modernism. He was born in late 19th-century Belarus, then an outpost of the tsar's vast empire, and in 1910 travelled west for the first time, arriving at the Gare du Nord in Paris after a four-day journey.

He said his art needed the “lumière-liberté” (light and freedom) of democratic France, but the journey towards comprehension of and acceptance in the west was long and hard: “Only the great distance that separates Paris from my native town prevented me from returning to it immediately,” he wrote. To understand the process, I set out to retrace his footsteps, to follow that train journey from St Petersburg to Paris nearly a century ago, stopping at places which had significance for my subject, and which turned out to be historically compelling, often stunning, cities at the crossroads of old and new today.

At Vitebski Station, whose railway line was originally built for the tsar's family to reach their summer residences, I sank into the comfort of the Style Moderne restaurant. Wrought-iron wall lamps, swirling stained glass, sinuous engravings in the fashion of Russian art nouveau, and the Russian cliché vodka and blinis, at a table decked out in white cloth and flowers. Neither Berlin's Bahnhof Zoo, Paris's Gare du Nord or London's Waterloo, other major stations on my route, offered a fraction of such old European splendour, which is surely going to be Russia's immediate attraction as a tourist destination, before globalisation kicks in.

My guide, returning next day with map annotated according to former street names, was a quintessential young Old European. As we traipsed the city to find and photograph each of Chagall's modest early residences, barely a street corner passed without a cultural reference. At the Gothic apartment called The Tower, overlooking the Tauride Gardens, Silver Age poets Aleksandr Blok and Anna Akmatova gathered and heard the first shots of revolution.

From the blue and gold Marinsky Theatre, dancers left to thrill Europe with the Ballets Russes; the colourful, effete designer, Leon Bakst, was Chagall's teacher, and Bakst's devastatingly acute portrait of the ballet's impresario Sergey Diaghilev, watchful grey nanny in the shadows, hangs in the wonderfully uncrowded Russian Museum. Steeped in the glitter of Russian modernism before he ever caught the train to Paris, Chagall knew them all. In St Petersburg I grasped the truth of his Russian-ness, of his later comment that “not one centimetre of my work is free from nostalgia for my native land”. As we left for the station, a wedding party exuberantly embraced a dancing white bear on a chain.

Slowly, as I travelled west, following Chagall's trail, exoticism fell away. The overnight train from Vitebski Station brought us to Riga 12 hours later. By chance it pulled out at the same time as a big black imperial steam engine complete with fin de siècle characters and film crew, but which left us with only one fuzzy photograph the camera was dashed from our hands even in these liberal days on Russia's railways.

Riga felt more relaxed but sadder: an elegant Hanseatic port built by 19th-century Germans the architect was father of Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film director miraculously preserved and in a timewarp, weighed down by history. In luscious formal gardens my children spent what seemed monopoly money for hundreds of rides on plastic swans in paddling pools and on a clapped-out toy car which never made it round its flower-bed route. Five of us ate rich Russian fare in German-sized portions for eight lats (£8) and at the glowingly restored synagogue an ancient doorkeeper sobbed out her life story in Yiddish, parting me from the rest of my lats. A dignified small museum of Latvian history records the deaths of a third of the population and almost all the Jews at the joint hands of the Nazis and Soviets.

It is not an easy place to leave, unless you take the summer boat to Germany; there was no car hire (“only on Tuesdays”) and no trains on the days we wanted to travel. So we took a slow bus around minor Latvian and Lithuanian towns, past fields where storks perched on wooden huts and farmers sharpened their scythes, eventually reaching the Baltic highlight, Vilnius. When the Soviets prevented Chagall visiting his native Vitebsk in the 1930s, he stared longingly across the border from Lithuania, and stilled his homesickness at Vilnius, old Jewish centre of learning instead. Vitebsk was flattened in the war in 1944 just 118 people, from a pre-war population of 170,000, emerged from the cellars and rebuilt in severe Soviet style. Mini-Hausmannesque Smolenskaya, the avenue where Chagall drew his wife and family outside their jewellery store beneath the ornamental terrace of the Café Jeanne-Albert, for example, is unrecognisable in the renamed four-lane highway called Lenin Street.

On the other hand, Vilnius is as close to Chagall's landscape of green-domed churches, synagogues and shtetl houses as exists anywhere: an exquisitely restored city on a small scale where Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox traditions intermingle. You can visit 10 jewelled religious interiors, from icons to incense to Stars of David, in as many minutes and count them all from the spectacular view at the top ofGediminas Hill.

And so to Warsaw at dawn, flooded with Belarussians struggling across the border to sell chickens at the morning market, and on to Berlin, now, as in Chagall's day, a heady east-west caravanserai. “There were almost as many samovars and countesses who practiced theosophy or adored Tolstoi as there used to be in Moscow,” Chagall remembered. “In the cellar restaurants in the Motzstrasse one saw more generals and colonels than in a garrison town in Tsarist Russia except that in Berlin they worked as cooks or dishwashers.”

After a sumptuous night at the Adlon Hotel on Unter den Linden, the finest address in pre-war Berlin and recently rebuilt around its original decorative tea room fountain where pianists tinkle Dietrich songs, it is almost surreal to take the efficient streamlined German ICE train west to Paris.

In your seat in the glass nose of the engine carriage, the new high-speed track seems to rush dazzlingly up to your eyes; no visas or passports here, and as many photographs of the driver pulling levers and chattering on a mobile as you can snap.

Jackie Wullschlager covers visual arts for the FT

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