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‘Like Stepping Into a Russian Novel’

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On the edge of a frozen lake, somewhere outside St Petersburg, I am stretched out on the wooden racks of a rickety banya, or sauna. Clouds of steam part to reveal several lobster-pink Russians on the racks below. Some maniac has just thrown a bucket of water on to the hot stones in the corner, and the temperature – already somewhere between gas mark 8 and Dante’s Inferno – rises dramatically. I feel my bone marrow is melting. Meanwhile, my new best friend, Seva, is whipping me with birch twigs – “For improving circulation,” he grunts. 

St Petersburg is the city where everyone looks fabulous in furs and rosy cheeks. As the afternoons draw in, the fat globes of the street lamps blossom along the Nevsky Prospect, and the frosted windows of the shops glow invitingly. In Theatre Square ballet fans hurry towards the brightly lit Mariinsky Theatre, where Nijinksy and Nureyev both performed; its season begins in autumn and runs through the winter. Across the city, frost patterns decorate the windows of the Winter Palace. Not far away, the great dome of St Isaac’s hovers like a vision in the early dark, while the statue of Peter the Great rearing on his horse above the bare trees carries a mantle of snow around his shoulders. 

St Petersburg is not an old city, or an Asian one, like Moscow. It was built to be Russia’s window on the West. In the spring of 1703, Peter the Great, flush from victory over the Swedes, got down from his horse in the marshes that bordered the Neva River and cut two slices of turf with his bayonet. Laying them in the form of a cross, he announced, here there shall be a city. 

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So began the 18th century’s most extraordinary building project. A quarter of a million serfs, soldiers and prisoners of war were press-ganged into Peter’s grand new project. Millions of logs were floated down the Neva, and stone work was forbidden elsewhere in Russia so that the nation’s supplies could be diverted here. 

St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

The Peter and Paul Fortress, where the Romanovs kept political prisoners in medieval conditions  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

The nobility was commandeered, too. A thousand of Russia’s best families were ordered to construct houses and palaces in the new city. In muddy fields and clapboard towns across the sprawling distances of Siberia, peasants listened to tales of how Peter was creating his city in the heavens then lowering it down to earth. Within 50 years, St Petersburg was one of the most sophisticated and opulent cities in Europe. Palaces and academies, cathedrals and theatres, ministries and state institutions lined the avenues and canals as they radiated from the golden spire of the Admiralty. Peter’s new capital, his window to the West, had turned its back on its creaky empire and on “Asiatic” Moscow

Seva was born in St Petersburg and would never live anywhere else. I met him through mutual friends and he guided me around the city he loves. “Peter,” he said – he had the curious habit of calling the city by this single name – “we are always falling in love with Peter. It is a city of romance.” An artist, a bohemian, a romantic, Seva could have been the archetypal St Petersburg citizen. 

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Real and imagined, romantics have always loomed large in Peter’s life. For instance, it was in St Petersburg that Anna Karenina fell in love with Count Vronsky . Tchaikovsky studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory and conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony in the city only nine days before his death; he is buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery alongside other St Petersburg romantics – Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Dostoevsky. But it was Pushkin, the great Russian poet, who set the bar for gallant St Petersburg romantics, conducting numerous love affairs and fighting no less than 28 duels. He succumbed in the 29th, fatally injured by a man he accused of trying to seduce his wife. His seconds carried his body to his home on the Moika River Embankment. It was midwinter. 

St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

Fog envelopes one of St Petersburg’s parks  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

Russian winters have made St Petersburg a world of interiors and, with 500 palaces in the city, many are magnificent. Step inside the double doors, shed the overcoat and fur hat, and you enter a world of sweeping staircases and gilded moulding, of forests of chandeliers and ballrooms measured in acres, of battalions of nude statues and regiments of headscarfed babushkas with mops trying to keep up with the cleaning. 

In the Yusupov Palace, you can follow the assassination of Rasputin by the cross-dressing Prince Felix or attend a concert in the tiny rococo theatre. 

The best of the palaces are a carriage’s drive from the city – Peterhof, Tsarskoye, Pavlovsk, the Catherine Palace. To see them in winter when snow drifts across the parklands is to step into the pages of a Russian novel – as we shall witness when the BBC’s spectacular adaptation of War and Peace airs tomorrow night (some scenes were shot on location at Catherine Palace itself). 

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But the mother of St Petersburg’s palaces is the Winter Palace, a building that would make Buckingham Palace seem cramped. There are said to be 1,500 rooms and 117 staircases. Its excess reflected that of its creator, the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for 20 years in the mid-18th century. Her wardrobes were said to be stuffed with more than 15,000 frocks while her floors were littered with unpaid bills. When construction costs ran 300 per cent over budget, she ordered a series of beer halls to be built across Russia to finance the shortfall, knowing she could rely on peasants to drink her back to solvency. 

But let’s bypass the endless swank of Russian aristocracy and the stunning private apartments, many with a view across the Neva to the Peter and Paul Fortress where the Romanovs kept political prisoners in medieval conditions. Let’s head, instead, for the little museum tucked into several adjoining wings. 

The Hermitage seems to reflect the scale of Russia – 6.5 million square miles across 10 time zones. Apparently you would need nine years to spend just a few moments in front of each of its exhibits, assuming you paused occasionally to eat and sleep. Catherine the Great was responsible for the nucleus of the vast collection; her artistic appetites seemed to be as impressive as her sexual ones. There are Egyptian collections, Near Eastern, Classical, Renaissance. But it is the paintings that really overwhelm – this is the largest collection in the world. Interested in Rembrandts? You will see some of his best work. Keen on Matisse? You’re in for a treat. 

But it is winter: don’t get stuck indoors. Some of the best ice hockey teams are over at the Ice Palace. There is sledding, tobogganing, sleigh rides, cross-country skiing. And there are the Russian banya. Seva is an enthusiast. “Whatever is ailing,” he says, “banya is the cure.” We take a taxi to a frozen lake on the outskirts. A rickety hut is perched on the shore, with two tin chimneys belching woodsmoke. Disrobing in a side room, we follow an attendant through to the hot room. A couple of strapping women shuffle along a bit and Seva and I hunker down among the fleshy bodies. Despite the sweltering conditions, everyone is in a jolly mood and a woolly hat – the Russians believe extreme heat is bad for exposed hair. 

St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

The Petersburg plunge: winter swimmers prepare to take an icy dip  Photo: AP

After 20 minutes of sweating like a self-basting turkey, I follow Seva outside into the Russian winter. Wearing nothing but small towels, we scamper along the frozen path to the end of a dock on the lakeshore. A set of steps leads down through the hole cut in the thick ice. A rope has been thoughtfully laid on so that we might have something to hang on to as our vital systems shut down. 

Taking a deep breath, I lower myself into the water. For a moment I can’t feel anything; my body is numb with shock. Then the cold hits me, so cold that my body seems to be burning. We shoot back out of the lake as if there were a trampoline beneath the water and flee along the ice path to the enveloping heat of the banya. The endorphins are buzzing. 

Back inside, Seva claps me on the back and smiles broadly. “Winter,” he says. “Bracing, eh?” That’s Russian understatement. Winter in St Petersburg is more than bracing. 

It is beautiful, it is exciting and, down here at the banya, the sharp smack of a proper winter is absolutely exhilarating.

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Census 2022 – what difference does it make?

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Next Sunday, April 3rd, is Census night. Millions of people in homes countrywide will fill in page after page of questions, some of which are deeply personal and many of which might be unfamiliar.

But what it is it all about?

At a basic level, Census 2022 will be used to inform planning of public policy and services in the years ahead, according to the Central Statistics Office.

The questions will cover a range of environmental, employment and lifestyle issues, including the use of renewable energy sources in homes.

The questions will help inform policy development in the areas of energy and climate action, and the prevalence of internet access, to understand the availability of and need for internet connections and range of devices used to access the internet.

Questions also focus on changes in work patterns and will include the trend of working from home and childcare issues, while questions are also asked about the times individuals usually leave work, education or childcare, to help identify and plan for transport pattern needs locally and nationally.

Other topics covered include volunteering and the type of organisations volunteers choose to support, tobacco usage and the prevalence of smoke alarms in the home.

And of course there is a time capsule – the chance to write something which will be sealed for the next 100 years.

In this episode of In The News, the head of census administration Eileen Murphy and statistician Kevin Cunningham about what it all means for us.

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Oscars 2022: Will Smith makes Oscar history after slapping Chris Rock over joke about wife Jada Pinkett Smith | Culture

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Will Smith took the Oscar for Best Actor at last night’s 94th Academy Awards, but he also became the protagonist of the ceremony for other reasons. The night was following the script, until Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on the stage after the latter made a joke about the shaved head of the former’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock had quipped that he was “looking forward to GI Jane 2,” in reference to her look. Pinkett Smith has revealed publicly that she has alopecia. It looked as if the moment had been planned, until Smith went back to his seat and shouted: “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”

The moment, which immediately became Oscar history but for all the wrong reasons, left the attendees with frozen smiles, and asking themselves whether it was possible that a veteran such as Smith could have lost his cool in front of tens of millions of people. After taking the prize for Best Actor, the superstar actor made a tearful apology, saying that he hoped the Academy “will invite me back.” Later on, actor Anthony Hopkins called for “peace and love,” but it was already too late. The incident overshadowed the success of CODA, which took the Oscar for Best Picture. Just like the time when Warren Beatty mistakenly named La La Land as the big winner of the night, no one will speak about anything else from last night’s awards.

At first sight, Smith’s actions looked as if they were scripted. When he first heard Rock’s joke, he laughed. But his wife was seen on camera rolling her eyes, and it was then that the actor got up onto the stage and hit Rock. When he returned to his seat he raised his voice twice to shout “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” sending a wave of unease and shock through the attending audience. The fact that he used the f-word, which is prohibited on US television, set alarm bells ringing that this was real and not a planned moment. In fact, the curse word was censored by the broadcaster, ABC, in the United States.

During a break, Smith’s PR manager approached him to speak. In the press room, which the actor skipped after collecting his prize, instructions were given to the journalists not to ask questions about the incident, Luis Pablo Beauregard reports. The next presenter, Sean “Diddy” Combs, tried to calm the situation. “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve this – but right now we’re moving on with love,” the rapper said.

When Smith took to the stage to collect his Best Actor award for his role as Richard Williams – the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena – in King Richard, he referred to the character as “a fierce defender of his family.” He continued: “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse, and have people talk crazy about you and have people disrespecting you and you’ve got to smile and pretend it’s OK.”

He explained that fellow actor Denzel Washington, who also spoke to Smith during a break, had told him: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”

“I want to be a vessel for love,” Smith continued. “I want to be an ambassador of that kind of love and care and concern. I want to apologize to the Academy and all my fellow nominees. […] I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams, but love will make you do crazy things,” he said. He then joked about his mother, who had not wanted to come to the ceremony because she had a date with her crochet group.

The Los Angeles Police Department released a statement last night saying that Chris Rock would not be filing any charges for assault against Smith. “LAPD investigative entities are aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program,” the statement read. “The incident involved one individual slapping another. The individual involved has declined to file a police report. If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”

On December 28, Pinkett Smith spoke on social media about her problems with alopecia. She stated that she would be keeping her head shaved and would be dealing with the condition with humor. “Me and this alopecia are going to be friends… Period!” she wrote on Instagram.



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House-price inflation set to stay double digit for much of 2022

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House-price inflation is expected to remain at double-digit levels for much of 2022 as the mismatch between what is for sale and what buyers want continues.

Two new reports on the housing market paint a picture of a sector under strain due to a lack of supply and increased demand driven by Covid-related factors such as remote working.

The two quarterly reports, one each from rival property websites myhome.ie and daft.ie, suggest asking prices accelerated again in the first quarter of 2022 as the stock of homes available for sale slumped to a new record low.

Myhome, which is owned by The Irish Times, said annual asking-price inflation was now running at 12.3 per cent.

Price

This put the median or typical asking price for a home nationally at €295,000, and at €385,000 in Dublin.

MyHome said the number of available properties for sale on its website fell to a record low of 11,200 in March, down from a pre-pandemic level of 19,000. The squeeze on supply, it said, was most acute outside Dublin, with the number of properties listed for sale down almost 50 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels.

It said impaired supply and robust demand meant double-digit inflation is likely until at least mid-2022.

“Housing market conditions have continued to tighten,” said author of the myhome report, Davy chief economist Conall Mac Coille.

“The broad picture of the market in early 2022 remains similar to last year: impaired supply coupled with robust demand due to Ireland’s strong labour market,” he said.

Soure: MyHome.ie

“One chink of light is that new instructions to sell of 7,500 in the first 11 weeks of 2022 are well up from 4,800 in 2021, albeit still below the 9,250 in 2019. The flow of new properties therefore remains impaired,” said Mr Mac Coille.

“Whatever new supply is emerging is being met by more than ample demand. Hence, transaction volumes in January and February were up 13 per cent on the year but pushed the market into ever tighter territory,” he said.

He said Davy was now predicting property-price inflation to average 7 per cent this year, up from a previous forecast of 4.5 per cent, buoyed strong employment growth.

Homes

Daft, meanwhile, said house asking prices indicated the average listed price nationwide in the first quarter of 2022 was €299,093, up 8.4 per cent on the same period in 2021 and and just 19 per cent below the Celtic Tiger peak, while noting increases remain smaller in urban areas, compared to rural.

Just 10,000 homes were listed for sale on its website as of March 1st, an all-time low. In Dublin, Cork and Galway cities, prices in the first quarter of 2022 were roughly 4 per cent higher on average than a year previously, while in Limerick and Waterford cities the increases were 7.6 per cent and 9.3 per cent respectively.

The report’s author, Trinity College Dublin economist Ronan Lyons, said: “Inflation in housing prices remains stubbornly high – with Covid-19 disturbing an equilibrium of sorts that had emerged, with prices largely stable in 2019 but increasing since.

“As has been the case consistently over the last decade, increasing prices – initially in Dublin and then elsewhere – reflect a combination of strong demand and very weak supply.”


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