I am planning to go to Ukraine soon. But who knows if there will even be a Ukraine left in a few months. Russia is coming closer, at least geographically. To be on the safe side, I want to apply for a Russian visa before the expansion of the largest country in the world which still feels too small will go so far that I won’t even be able to step outside of my house without a visa for Russia.
Thus I ask around for the way to the Russian Embassy. “Large red house” is part of every response I receive, and after I have already passed the German, French, Italian, British and Austrian embassies, I am confident that I am in the right part of town.
“This must be it,” I think as I turn into Vojvode Batrića Street.
And indeed: through the open gate I spot the Russian eagle above the wide set of stairs. The courtyard appears a bit unkempt. Grass unfurls through cracks in the stone slabs. Maybe the gardener is on holiday. After all, it is summer. In the upper floor, all the windows are open.
The door is locked, and there is no bell. I knock. No reaction. No sound at all comes from the house. Then I realize that the branch office of the Kremlin will hardly receive simple visa solicitants through the front door. For such mundane requests, buildings like this usually have a side entrance or a separate building to prevent the ordinary plebs from accidentally mixing with visiting ambassadors and kings.
Carefully I sneak through the garden and locate the anticipated side entrance.
The door is invitingly open. There is neither a bell with which I could announce my presence, nor a guard to whom I could present my cause, so I enter gallantly. The lunch break is not only in full swing, but apparently it is also compulsory for all the embassy’s staff from the ambassador to the archivist, because I still don’t run into any human being.
Some of the rooms look as abandoned as if they hadn’t been used since the Russian Revolution.
But the last time this palace was used doesn’t date back quite that far. In another, larger room, a plaque is fixed on the wall which dates from 1968. Hammer and sickle, these symbols of an era long gone by. If one of the readers has the talent to decipher Cyrillic letters, he/she may click on the photo for the purpose of enlarging it and make an attempt at translating the inscription.
The deeper I dare to advance into this erstwhile bureaucratic labyrinth, the more I gain the impression that it was in great hurry that it was left behind.
The staircase with columns, stucco and ornate banisters shows signs of former grandesse. Silently, carefully and slowly, I venture upstairs. I am aware that I would be trapped if I heard the door close now. But my curiosity prevails.
On the upper floor, the whole splendor of the Russian ambassadorial palace unfolds, cognizable even after a hundred years. It is completely quiet now, but I can easily imagine a vivid soirée, in tailcoats and dresses, glasses filled with rum, vodka and gin, with pipes, cigars and monocles and a gramophone playing music by Borodin or Mussorgski.
Nights were spent here, discussing the ailing Ottoman Empire, the war in Albania, petroleum shipments from Persia, railway lines across the Balkans, the Japanese attack on Port Arthur and Bloody Sunday.
I am in Cetinje. One hundred years ago, this small town in the mountains was the capital first of the Principality and then of the Kingdom of Montenegro. The time of the kingdom didn’t last long, from 1910 to 1918. One king (Nikola) was absolutely sufficient for that.
Now, Cetinje has a population of around 16,000. The census of 1910 indicated 5,895 inhabitants. At the time, it was the smallest capital in Europe. Nothing more than a larger village, where kings, princes, politicians, artists and intellectuals met and lived almost like their colleagues in Berlin, Paris and Vienna. Only closer to the sea. Then came World War I.