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Jo'Burg Days: A Fabergé Disappointment

Barbara Durlacher enjoys the sights of Moscow but experiences keen diappointment when she goes to see the fabulous Fabergé eggs.

Never in my wildest dreams had I believed I would actually stand here. And yet, it was not as large as I had imagined. Instead of being a great forum for a display of military might where fearsome tank parades rolled awesomely across the cobbles, hammer-and-sickle painted rocket launchers locked in firing position and serried ranks of uniformed soldiers marched menacingly in step, it seemed almost friendly on that lovely summer’s morning; more human-sized.

There stood exotic pineapple-domed St Basil’s Cathedral, while the oppressive redbrick walls of the Kremlin watched sternly from one side, and across the square we could see the arcaded facades of the state department store GUM. A nice touch were the two ‘doek’ wrapped “cleaning ladies” carefully sweeping the cobbles, while the workmen arranged barriers for one of the many parades that take place in Red Square.

Curling lines of tourists crept slowly into the gatehouse, past the ticket barrier and finally up the stairs to the famous Kremlin museum. Having been bred in Afrikander South Africa, where the mantra of the time was “Reds Under the Bed” I had endured plenty of brainwashing about Communist Russia and, not knowing better, the term “Kremlin” represented the entire might of the fearsome Communist regime to me.

To my surprise and amazement, the reality was very different. Certainly “Kremlin” means fortress, but inside the Kremlin in Moscow are seven beautiful golden-domed churches, many government offices, a number of official houses and most importantly, the magnificent and extraordinary Armoury, the Carriage Museum (how did they manage to get those sumptuous golden coaches up the stairs and inside the rooms?) and what we had all come to see, the Fabergé eggs.

Housed in a series of glass cases, elegantly mounted on ‘invisible’ glass or perspex supports, there at last, were the fabled eggs.

Our guide assembled us to give us our “combat orders”.

First: Stick together as a group. Each group is allocated a position in the queue and each queue moves in their language group. You must stick with your own group. There were nearly two hundred people milling around the room, with more entering constantly and if you leave your group, there is very little chance that you can be found later.

Second: Watch your guide for the signal when to move forward. [In our case, our guide ‘jumped the queue’ – naughty lady …and we slipped in ahead of the French and Italians!]

Third: You are only ‘permitted’ to stand in front of the showcases for three minutes; after that you must move along to allow others to see the treasures and individuals must not impede progress.

Fourth: No photography. This is strictly forbidden. The copyright of all the treasures in the Russian museums is protected. In fact, you have to leave your cameras with the ‘hat-check’ ladies to be collected on your return.

And what were these world famous treasures like in the flesh? Just as beautiful as we had expected of course, and as all the pictures had shown. But, Oh dear! The biggest disappointment of all, people had been putting their sweaty, sticky hands all over the showcases, the glass was smeared from waist to head height, and in some cases it was quite difficult to view the delicate details through the murk and fog. Only a select number of the pieces were on view, as the balance of the collection was touring the world. It was a real disappointment, anticipated for so long, viewed so briefly, and under the most adverse circumstances. Now, I sit in my armchair, switch on the telly and tune in to my favourite program, and there they are. Zoom lenses bring them closer, angled shots show the detail, the colour reproduction is faultless and, best of all, there is not a smudge in sight!

The Fabergé treasures, commentary by Reza von Hapsburg, grandson of the last Austrian Emperor, learned and knowledgeable with all their history at his fingertips; supported by a fascinating array of historical photographs and newsreel footage, sound effects and comments from fabulously wealthy owners and collectors all over the world.

Would I do it again? Of course! A trip to Russia is a ‘life experience’ as long as one limits one’s expectations to what can be achieved in the shortest possible time under crowded and hurried circumstances. What can rival a visit to the amazing Hermitage, crammed with thousands of irreplaceable treasures, or the beauty of the Royal village of Tsaskoe Selo; the spectacular water gardens of Petrodvorets, 25 miles outside St Petersburg and the ethnic museum on the outskirts of Moscow, with its wooden houses and charming guides? The ladies who danced and sang for us in a representation of a traditional wedding ceremony were dressed in regional costumes from all over Russia, and their unaffected and lively presentation engaged me more than the formality of the fabulous museums crammed with treasures. Their warmth and charm opened an instant channel of friendship which left a lasting impression of the country people of Russia, but that is another story for another day.


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