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the Holy Church” devised by “the Protestant Peter I.” (Peter admired Protestant thought but wasn’t actually a Protestant, Slavophiles sometimes call him one as an insult.) For once, Petersburg’s political left was aligned with the Orthodox Church. In January, the liberal newspaper Arguments and Facts ran an article suggesting new “contenders” for the title “House of Ice”: notably, 48 Kondratevsky Prospekt, where the contents of a frozen sewer pipe had surfaced in the kitchen sink. “If you don’t have running water,” the authors wrote, “you can bathe in the bathhouse made of ice.”
Matters were further complicated by the coincidence of the scheduled opening with the name day of St. Xenia of Petersburg. Believed to have been born in 1730, Xenia was widowed at twenty- six, went mad from grief, gave all her belongings to the poor, wore her husband’s clothes, surrendered her own name and called herself Andrei Fyodorovich, after her husband, and was known as a holy fool. It is hard to imagine a trickier saint for Anna Ioannovna to come up against. One young widow renounces worldly things and becomes the patron saint of marriage; the other entertains all of Europe with her extravagant matrimonial farces.
In response to their critics, Gromov and Mikheyeva postponed the opening ceremony by two days, and never operated the bathhouse. On Valentine’s Day, five couples held wedding parties and five more celebrated wedding anniversaries in the House of Ice— but the actual weddings took place off-site. News broadcasts showed soldiers in period dress igniting fireworks in the ice cannons; a middle-aged woman in a silver gown and tiara wandered around, accompanied by a Samoyed dog.
Despite the bitter cold and a high admission fee—a hundred and fifty rub les, or five dollars—visitors waited in kilometre-long lines. Three rows of protective fences were eventually put up to minimize damage to the building. Gromov and Mikheyeva waived the admission fee on Monday and Tuesday mornings for orphans, pensioners, veterans, and blokadniks (survivors of the nine- hundred-day blockade of Leningrad during the Second World War). Pensioners turned out in alarming numbers. “On the first Monday, there was a three-hour line,” Mikheyeva recalled. “Grandmothers and grandfathers were sliding down the slide. We were terrified.”
In early March, I met Gromov, a squarish man with a military bearing, and Mikheyeva, who wore a pink fur collar and looked at once weary, stern, and faintly amused. In their office trailer in Palace Square, photocopies of Krafft’s engravings were taped to the wall. The electric generator was broken, leaving the office unheated, and everyone was wearing a heavy coat. Gromov and I went outside to look at the palace. Pale, translucent, spectral, it resembled the ghost of a municipal building. Pilasters alternated with large windows; statues on a balustrade encircled the roof. Inside, all the walls and furnishings were either transparent or, where the surface of the ice had melted and refrozen, a milky blue. The only exceptions were, in the first room, three playing cards and a copy of the St. Petersburg phone book, encased in ice. (The publisher was a corporate sponsor.) The contents of the second room, Gromov explained, had been “improvised on a matrimonial theme,” since Krafft hadn’t provided a drawing. What appeared to be a Renaissance marble angel had been sculpted from snow, as had two albatross-size songbirds perched atop two hearts. In the corner hulked a massive snow wedding cake, and staring impassively at the cake was a life-size, bluish Anna Ioannovna, shimmering in her throne like some kind of hologram. In a third room was the amazing bed, its canopy resembling a frozen waterfall. A pair of ice slippers lay on an ice cushion on the floor. I sat briefly on the bed. It was, as expected, hard and cold. I found myself remembering Lazhechnikov’s descript ion: “Can this be Hymen’s altar? Wherever they sat, whatever they touched— everything was made from ice.”
Lazhechnikov, however, was not a major source of inspiration for the Ice Studio. “We take a very critical view of him,” Gromov said. “His book is a work of art, not history. All these things really happened. Only not with dwarfs; with real people.” Gromov was alluding to a popular misconception that Kvasnik and Buzheninova were themselves dwarfs. Evidently, the ice palace has gone down in history as a kind of doll house for the Amazonian Anna’s human toys. The editor of the magazine Hermitage characterized the building itself as an architectural dwarf “It’s not a palace, or even a
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