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Pole to Pole

Day 28: Leningrad

Leningrad, USSR 
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Michael Palin - Pole to Pole'Do you want to change your religion?' he asks.

Life is complicated enough at the moment without becoming a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, so I politely decline.

'Now is the time . . . '

I'm desperately trying to become one with the wall.

'No . . . er . . . it's all right . . . thank you.'

The camera edges closer, and the priest breaks into a smile.

'I can act, if you like . . . '

He's already acting me off the screen so we don't pursue this offer. He moves on to the font. By this time the first baby is ready. Her clothes have been removed, and the chubby naked figure is lifted in the priest's massive hands, so high that for a moment the scene resembles one of those paintings of the Massacre of the Innocents. Then Tatiana (he has announced her name) is plunged down and through the water, not once but three times. The force of this triple immersion reduces Tatiana to stunned silence, and before she knows what's hit her she is passed on to the assistant priest who dabs oil on her eyes, nose, ears and chin and places a cross round her neck.

Soon the whole crypt is filled with the sound of wailing babies and cooing parents. Later there is chanting, singing and a candlelight procession which is still going on when I leave.

In the grounds of the monastery is the Tikhvin Cemetery, which has a section reserved for the remains of 'Masters of Art'. The quality is impressive. In a ten-minute stroll I visit Dostoevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky's memorial is particularly sad. The great man's bust, marooned in a bed of begonias and flanked by a gross pair of overacting angels, is like something on the top shelf of a junk shop.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 28
  • Country/sea: USSR
  • Place: Leningrad
  • Book page no: 61

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