St. Petersburg -- the eyes pierce like Creepy mystic Rasputin waxes poetic during his last supper. Josie Mounsey Russia, then and now laser beams through the gloom of the cellar. Hypnotic eyes the eyes of Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian peasant and mystic who mesmerized Empress Alexandra, the wife of Tsar Nicholas II, and brought down the Romanov dynasty.
Rasputin was a man of contrasts. Away from the tsar's court, the devoted man of God led a life of drunkenness and debauchery, using his "holy" aura to seductive advantage. On a dark December night in 1916, here in the subterranean depths of the Yusupov Palace, on a quiet stretch of the Moika River in St. Petersburg, Rasputin met his untimely end.
The tableau before me is a lifelike wax reconstruction of the scene that night. The magnetic power of Rasputin is all around. The long-haired, bearded figure sits at the table where he ate his last meal, lured here by Prince Felix Yusupov and other members of the aristocracy who feared Rasputin's meddling in the running of the war-torn Russian empire. It took a dose of cyanide, four bullets and the icy waters of the River Neva to finish him off.
Like Rasputin, the Yusupov Palace leads a double life. The underground site of the grisly murder contrasts with the classicism and chic of the rest of the stately mansion. The rooms exemplify the styles, trends and passions that came and went in over two and a half centuries of Russian architecture.
The small rococo-style theatre is a gilded gem. On the ceiling, Aurora (goddess of the dawn) is shown riding through the clouds in a chariot. The stage, which was once graced by Liszt, Chopin, Pavlova and Chaliapin, is now the scene of light operettas and concerts, using old instruments from the Yusupov collection.
I step inside the Moresque Hall and for a moment think I've entered the residence of a sultan or a maharaja. Oriental luxury abounds, from the carved basin of the fountain to the intricate detail of the multi-coloured mosaics and script on the gold-covered walls.
In 1935, the Yusupov Palace was taken under Soviet state protection as an historical and artistic monument of national importance and so escaped the fate of many Petersburg mansions whose treasures were scattered far and wide. Like the Russian people, the house has survived armed uprisings, floods, the worst extremes of the Stalinist era and the merciless onslaught of German bombs during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad (as the city was then called).
The richly decorated rooms conjure up an image of the life of a rich aristocrat and the tastes and passions that prevailed in another age. In the dining room in Prince Yusupov's apartments, the red-, green-, and gold-stamped wallpaper is a skilful reproduction of the texture and pattern of the original leather wallcovering.
The room now doubles as a gift shop, and cupboards veneered with rare species of wood display a selection of blue-and-white china, silverware, painted porcelain eggs and other high-end items for sale.
A short stroll from the Yusupov Palace and I'm in Russia's most famous street the 4-kilometre-long Nevsky Prospekt, the bustling focus of the city's shopping, entertainment and street life. Here, designer boutiques catering to Russia's newly rich rub shoulders with street sellers offering an eclectic miscellany of goods, from matryoshka dolls to bars of soap.
Women with babushkas knotted under their chins vie for space on crowded sidewalks with red-lipstick-daubed women dressed in Chanel or Prada.
Law-abiding Russian families hurry past gangs of pickpockets and petty thieves who target tourists, especially around Metro stations. The city administration is now taking active steps to safeguard visitors by installing security cameras in crime hotspots and recruiting students to look after foreign tourists.
At night the Nevsky becomes a gyrating, youthful place. In Soviet times the city was the heart of the underground rock scene.
Now, the nightclubs have come out of the bunkers and beckon those who can afford the prices into strobe-lit, glitzy interiors.
Visit during St. Petersburg's main festive season, the time of the White Nights in June, when concerts, ballets and other performances take place all over the city and the sun barely dips below the horizon.
The contrasts on the streets echo those inside the yellow-painted Yusupov Palace, where remnants of human tragedies and the splendour of the high life coexist. In the ballroom, which once resounded with the laughter and music of the aristocracy, Ionic pilasters line the walls, and ribbon-draped nymphs float across the ceiling.
But deep in the basement, an eerie presence lingers, that of the mystic and holy man whose murder was one of the final episodes in the history of the Russian monarchy.