Simon Richmond in St. Petersburg, Russia travel blog


"I'm sitting next to the ashtray," announces Baroness Helene de Ludinghausen, the last of the descendant in a straight line from the Stroganoff family, as she walks into the Russian Empire restaurant in the Stroganoff Palace, all apologies for being an hour and a half late for our meeting. A flurry of black jacketed and white gloved waiters rush to pull out a chair for this petite but immaculately attired and coiffed woman of 62, with a voice like Lauren Bacall tinged with the faintest Russian accent. The baroness's family lived in this palace prior to the revolution of 1917; it now belongs to the Russian Museum, whose director has just been giving Helene a tour of the museum's section of the palace.

A spectacularly frothy cappuccino and several tempting nibbles (is that caviar I spy atop the tiny new potato?) are brought forth. Thus fortified, cigarette in hand and ashtray at the ready, the baroness settles into the gilt edged and rich brocade padded sofa and sets out her family credentials. Her great grandmother was the brother of Count Serge Stroganoff who had no heirs and died at the age of 33, in 1915. Of the grandmother's four daughters only one, Princess Xenia Alexandrovna Shcherbatova- Stroganova, had a child and that was Helene, who was born in Paris where the family had eventually come to rest after leaving Russia in 1920.

"After the revolution they took a private train to the Caucasus," says the baroness rattling off the family history so fast I can hardly keep up, "and then when the white Russian revolution failed sailed on a boat sent by the Queen of Italy to Venice." From there they went Cannes, then Baden-Baden and finally Paris. Here Helene's mother met another emigre, Baron von Ludinghausen, of German/Russian descent and they married in 1938. "I learnt Russian at home from my grandmother," she continues, "and we kept all the customs. The religious holidays and the saints' name days were all observed." It made a deep impression on the young Helene who remains a practicing Russian Orthodox Christian today.

The baroness's own early life also reads like a grand tour of the world. I ask her where she learnt her excellent, American accented English and she tells me "Brazil! My father went there to work and I went to the American school." She still has a Brazilian passport and speaks fluent Portuguese. Further schooling was had in Denver, Colorado and both Gstaad and Geneva before she returned to Paris. In 1963 she started working as an assistant to Pierre Balmain, then in 1969 she joined the fashion house of Yves St Laurent as the inspector for all their boutiques. By the time she retired from the grand fashion house 31 years later she was head of couture.

Helene still lives in Paris but frequently visits St Petersburg to oversee the work of the US-based Stroganoff Foundation, which provides money to restore Russia's architectural heritage and principally that connected with her family - which is an awful lot as it turns out. The Stroganoffs were one of Russia's richest families for centuries. In 1552 Tsar Ivan the Terrible granted them a vast tract of land in the Urals and Siberia. With the assistance of the legendary brigand Yermak, they - as the baroness succinctly puts it - "conquered and exploited" until the family's wealth grew to unimaginable proportions through the export of furs and the production of salt. In another tale of family lore, Grigory Stroganoff is said to have loaned Peter the Great much of the money needed to build St Petersburg. He never got the money back but was made a baron by the tsar and given the palace in which we now sat and in which Helene's mother was born.

Apart from in family photos, the first time the baroness saw the palace was in 1985 when she first visited what was then the Soviet Union. "I just stood outside. You couldn't come inside as it then belonged to a mysterious branch of the navy, probably the KGB." The Russian Museum took over the property in 1991. The Stroganoff Foundation offered funds to help restore it with the proviso that the baroness be granted an apartment in the palace. "I still don't have the apartment!" she says, "but they're working on it. They'll do the infrastructure and I'll do the decoration. Then I'll rent it out with the money going back to the foundation." Apart from the Stroganoff Palace, the foundation has provided monies for works at the Hermitage, Pavlovsk, Tsarsko Selo, Orienanbaum and Gatchina; "I paid for all the loos, there!" says the baroness with a throaty chuckle.

One of her biggest pleasures has been helping fund the restoration of the Kazan Cathedral another grand St Petersburg edifice commissioned by the Stroganoffs. During the Soviet times the Cathedral had been stripped of its interior decoration and made a museum of atheism. "It used to drive me up the wall! So in 1992 when I set up the foundation and returned to St Petersburg I wanted to make a symbolic gesture and celebrate Easter in the cathedral." The mayor at the time, Anatoly Sobchak, told her she couldn't do this as the cathedral was empty. But the baroness is not a woman easily put off, so she descended on Kazan with candles, a choir and 45 of her friends and colleagues. "The crowds then came outside and the place was full," she recalls of the first Easter celebrated in the cathedral since the revolution.

She'll be hoping for similar crowds to be attracted to her current project - an exhibition in late June of key garments from the Yves St Laurent collections in several palaces across the city. I ask the baroness, who is attired in a chic slate grey suit, what she thinks of Russia's current tastes in fashion. "They've come a very long way," she says remembering the dour, oppressed people she met back in 1985. "You see all kinds of amusing fashions on the streets now - sometimes too amusing, but that's only natural."

And what does she think of the restoration work in the Russian Empire restaurant? Casting her eye across the reception room in which we are sat, with its pattered and painted arched ceiling, the ebony and gold chairs with arms shaped as swans, and the white self-playing piano, with a little reserve she says "It's very beautiful. It's nicely done in the Russian style - a little clashing for my tastes, but I don't mind that so much." Then swiveling in her seat she throws a gold ringed hand towards the window pointing out the courtyard café housed inside a pink and white stripped tent." But I do mind that! He knows what I think," she says of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of both Russian Empire and the Stroganoff Yard Cafe. "It's a pity because the palace is the only private commission by Rastrelli."

But she understands why things are this way and is quick to confirm Prigozhin's generosity in funding part of the palace's restoration. If she was in charge the décor would be much lighter, the food less fussy, but it's clear that really it's no big deal to a woman who has dined here with President Chirac at her side. "After so many years of frustration and having nothing, it's understandable that there's this new class system based on money and luxury," she says sipping the last of her coffee and stubbing out the cigarette, "so they like to eat in elaborate restaurants."

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