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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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Teenager who killed dog by kicking it twice is jailed for six months

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A teenager who killed a dog by kicking it so hard it went above the head of its owner has been jailed for six months.

Josh Henney (19) twice kicked the dog in its underbelly while its owner was speaking with his mother.

Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard that the dog, who was a cross between a Jack Russell Terrier and a Yorkshire Terrier, was named Sam and was approximately 10 months old at the time.

Henney of North William Street, Dublin City centre, pleaded guilty to killing a protected animal at his address on March 23rd, 2020. He has 36 previous convictions and is currently serving a sentence of two years with the final six months suspended for an offence of violent disorder.

Garda Adam McGrane told Dara Hayes BL, prosecuting, that on the date in question, the injured party was on North William Street with her dog and was speaking with Henney’s mother.

Gda McGrane said Henney was having an argument with his mother and was shouting from a window. Henney then came out of the flat and told the injured party to “f**k off out of here and mind your own business”.

The garda said Henney told the woman that he would “f**king kill your dog”. Henney then took a run up of around two metres and kicked the dog in their underbelly. The dog was kicked so hard it went above the head their owner.

Henney walked away, then took a second run at the dog and kicked the dog again in their underbelly. The dog’s breathing was laboured following the second kick and saliva with blood was coming from their mouth.

The dog, which could not walk or drink, was carried by their owner to a veterinary practice and was still alive upon arrival. The dog was put under anaesthetic, but died while undergoing treatment.

Multiple fractures and fissures

The court heard that Dr Alan Wolfe, who performed the autopsy on the dog, found multiple fractures and fissures to the dog’s liver. Dr Wolfe found all of the injuries were consistent with the dog dying of blood loss due to acute trauma.

Mr Hayes told the court that the injured party in the case has no children and told gardaí­ that the dog was like family to her and went with her wherever she went.

Gda McGrane agreed with Cathal McGreal BL, defending, that his client told gardaí­ he had lost his temper and did not really remember what happened. He agreed the accused told gardaí­ he had not been able to sleep remembering the dog screaming and wished to apologise for what he did.

Mr McGreal said his client very much regrets what he did. He said his client claims he never told the victim that he would kill the dog.

Counsel said his client’s father was shot in Malaga in front of Henney when he was aged 14. He said that his client told a psychologist that the offence was a “horrible thing to do” and that he wants to get help so he does not do anything like that again.

Mr McGreal said his client’s mother smoked heroin and his client caught her doing so as a child. He said the presence of the injured party was a “triggering factor” and that there was “a heroin taking relationship going on”.

Counsel said there is no gainsaying that what his client did but he is sorry for it and it haunts him.

On Tuesday Judge Melanie Greally Judge Greally imposed a one year prison sentence with the final six months suspended on strict conditions including that Henney engage with the Probation Service for 12 months upon his release from prison. This sentence is to be consecutive to the term he is currently serving for violent disorder.

She said the anger and aggression was carried out on the dog, when it was the dog’s owner that was “the subject of his anger”.

Judge Greally accepted that Henney was “extremely ashamed and remorseful for his actions” and has now expressed himself as young man who wants to live a normal life. “He has a stable relationship and is applying himself well in prison,” she noted.

She acknowledged that the report prepared by the Probation Service concluded that Henney was a vulnerable young man who would benefit from probation supervision upon his release from prison.

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Italy likely to offer Covid booster jabs to all ‘from January’

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“It is most likely that a third dose will be necessary for everybody,” Deputy Health Minister Pierpaolo Sileri told Radio Capital.

His remarks echoed comments from the president of the national health institute ISS, Silvio Brusaferro, who said 24 hours earlier that the need for third doses for all “couldn’t be excluded”.

READ ALSO: Which Italian regions have the highest Covid vaccination rates?

Italy is already administering booster shots to patients with fragile immune systems and serious medical conditions, people aged over 60 and health workers.

“I imagine the rest of the population [will follow] from January,” Sileri said.

To date, almost 44.5 million people in Italy, or 82.3 percent of those over the age of 12, have been fully vaccinated, and 1.1 million have already received booster shots.

EXPLAINED: Who can access a third dose of the Covid vaccine in Italy?

To boost vaccination rates, Italy has brought in some of the world’s strictest measures with health certificates now mandatory for all workers.

The certificate, known as a ‘green pass’, is also a requirement at many cultural and leisure venues and on long-distance public transport.

The pass is available to everyone who is vaccinated or recently recovered from Covid-19, but can also be obtained by getting a negative test, at the individual’s own expense.



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Halyna Hutchins: Alec Baldwin, an actor dogged by scandal | USA

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Alec Baldwin once borrowed the words of one of the acting colleagues he admires the most – “the incredibly intelligent and wise Warren Beatty” – to explain his ongoing image problems. “Your problem is a very basic one, and it’s very common to actors. And that’s when we step in front of a camera, we feel the need to make it into a moment. This instinct, even unconsciously, is to make the exchange in front of the camera a dramatic one,” Beatty said.

Last Thursday, on the set of the movie Rust, of which Baldwin is the star and a producer, that moment could not have been more dramatic. It was Baldwin who pulled the trigger on a prop firearm that killed the Ukrainian director of photography, 43-year-old Halyna Hutchins, and wounded the movie’s director, 48-year-old Joel Souza. The tragic incident left Baldwin speechless for several hours until he expressed his “shock and sadness,” offering his help and support to Hutchins’ family and stating that he was “fully cooperating” with the police investigation into the accident. A social media post from a few days earlier in which he was kitted out in his cowboy gear and covered in blood in character for Rust was removed from his accounts.

Scandal seems to follow Alec Baldwin around, whether or not he is looking for that drama to which Beatty alluded. The eldest of six siblings of a middle-class Catholic family of Irish descent, the four Baldwin brothers are all involved in show business, although they couldn’t be much different from one another. Daniel has had problems with drugs. Stephen is currently involved with an Evangelical church and his political views are inclined toward conservatism. The second-youngest, William described his brother as someone who always has something “to fucking whine about,” according to The New Yorker. Alec is the eldest and the most disciplined, but also the one who protected the other brothers from bullies as he was the most combative. He went to school with the notion of becoming the president of the United States, but on recognizing he had little chance of achieving that goal he enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York, graduating many years later.

Alec Baldwin during a scuffle with a photographer in New York, 2014.
Alec Baldwin during a scuffle with a photographer in New York, 2014. freddie baez (cordon)

His career could have panned out like Al Pacino’s or Jack Nicholson’s, actors who he looked up to, but Baldwin’s generation was not the same. Perhaps neither was his talent, and certainly, the world of movies had changed. In 1992, Baldwin ensured that he would be associated with his idols when he starred with Jessica Lange in a Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, which three years later would be turned into a television movie with Baldwin and Lange reprising their roles for the small screen. Not only did Baldwin receive a Tony nomination for his Broadway performance, he also drew favorable comparisons to legendary actor Marlon Brando, who starred in the stage production and the 1951 movie version. Around this time Baldwin was also landing meaty screen roles, including that of Jack Ryan opposite Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October.

But as time progressed, Baldwin’s name was more frequently heard in connection to his social life and scandals than for his stage or screen performances. His marriage to actor Kim Basinger, who he met in 1991 while filming The Marrying Man, ended acrimoniously, and Baldwin’s relationship with the couple’s daughter, Ireland, has often been fractious. In 2007, a voicemail message the actor left for Ireland, who was 11 at the time, caused a sensation due to Baldwin’s use of not very fatherly language, during an ongoing spat with Basinger following their 2002 divorce.

Alec Baldwin after receiving one of his three Golden Globes for ‘30 Rock.’
Alec Baldwin after receiving one of his three Golden Globes for ‘30 Rock.’

Then there is the other Alec Baldwin, described by the actor himself as “bitter, defensive, and more misanthropic than I care to admit,” in an open letter to Vulture magazine in 2014 titled Good-bye, Public Life. At that time Baldwin had forged a reputation as a violent, homophobic egocentric following several incidents aired in the media. And, of course, from his own mouth. Even so, he managed to resurrect his career in the most surprising way imaginable: by making fun of himself.

Baldwin’s portrayal of the absurd and conceited television executive Jack Donaghy across seven seasons of 30 Rock (2006-13), a character inspired by Baldwin himself, earned back his public popularity and landed the actor back-to-back Primetime Emmy Awards in 2007 and 2008 and three Golden Globes. In 2011, he started a new chapter in his personal life with his current wife, Hilaria Baldwin, with whom he has six children. But as one of his closest friends, Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live where Baldwin has received plaudits for his impersonations of former US president Donald Trump, once said: “Everything would be better if you were able to enjoy what you have.”

Baldwin’s altercations – mostly verbal, occasionally physical – with the paparazzi or anyone who in the actor’s opinion has violated his privacy have been frequent, including on productions on which he has worked. In 2013, the actor Shia LaBeouf was fired from the Broadway theatre production of Orphans when Baldwin said: “Either he goes or I do.” Years earlier an actress left another play Baldwin was working on by leaving a written note stating that she feared for her “physical, mental and artistic” safety.

Alec Baldwin impersonating former US president Donald Trump on ‘Saturday Night Live.’
Alec Baldwin impersonating former US president Donald Trump on ‘Saturday Night Live.’EL PAÍS

Every one of Baldwin’s reinventions seems inexorably to be followed by another fall from grace. On the one hand, there is the Baldwin who has stated on several occasions that he intends to withdraw from public life, and on the other the Baldwin who is obsessed with social media, writing a tweet for every occasion. Many of these posts have cost the actor, such as in 2017 when he commented on a video of a suspect being fatally shot by police: “I wonder how it must feel to wrongfully kill someone…”

There are still unanswered questions surrounding the death of Halyna Hutchins. The investigation has not disclosed whether the firearm was discharged accidentally or if Baldwin was aiming it at the time, although the transcript of a call to the emergency services appears to indicate it happened during a rehearsal. As of yet, no charges have been filed against Baldwin but it is unknown if this may yet occur at a later date. A statement taken from the assistant director states that Baldwin was told by crew members that the gun was not loaded. Many observers are wondering if Rust will be completed, if the project will be abandoned. And many more are asking the same about Baldwin: will he be able to find a way back from this latest dramatic moment?



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