RUSSIA Sept 10-27, 2014
After long flights over 2 days (Vancouver to New York JFK, a 10 hour lay-over in a not so nice airport, an 8 hour flight to Helsinki, Finland, and a 45 minute flight to St. Petersburg), I arrived pretty knackered. But the $640 price was worth it. The bus and then metro to downtown was easy but finding the hostel was a challenge with all street addresses in Cyrillic and few English speakers.
For the first time in 3 years, I was traveling in a country where the people looked just like at home – varying color eyes, hair and facial features. But here there are many more superficially attractive women. Probably language knowledge is worse here than anywhere else (comparable to Japan). The availability of English language TV, of which there is little of in Russia, is one predictor of English ability. The weather was unusually nice for my entire 17 days in Russia. It apparently rains most days a year. Prices are very comparable to home.
One gets nickled and dimed at most Russian attractions. After paying a general admission, one must pay extra to see the special attractions. It can get expensive.
It is extremely helpful to understand the Cyrillic alphabet. It is possible to decipher many place names.
38 roubles to the $US.
ST PETERSBURG (pop. 4.8 million)
History. A battle with Sweden was fought here in 1240 and again in the Great Northern War of 1700-21 when Peter built the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1703 founding the city. The capital was moved from Moscow. Artisans and architects came from all over Europe, so that by 1725, when Peter died, the city had 40,000 citizens and 90% of Russia’s trade came through St Petersburg. Between 1741 and 1825, during the reigns of Elizabeth, Catherine the Great and Alexander I, it became a cosmopolitan city with an imperial court of famed splendor. They commissioned great series of palaces, government buildings and churches, turning it into one of Europe’s grandest capitals.
The emancipation of serfs in 1861 and industrialization that peaked in the 1890s brought a flood of poor workers into the city, leading to squalor, disease and festering discontent. The city became a hotbed of strikes and political violence, and was the hub of the 1905 revolution, sparked by ‘Bloody Sunday’, when a strikers’ march to petition the tsar was fired on by troops. In 1914, in a wave of patriotism, the city’s name was changed to the Russian style Petrograd.
In 1917, a general strike and mutiny of the army led to the end of the monarchy and eventually Lenin’s Bolshevik Party formed the Soviet government. Fearing a German attack the capital was moved back to Moscow in 1918.
Renamed Leningrad after Lenin’s death in 1924, the city became the hub of Stalin’s 1930s industrialization program. By 1939, the population was 3.1 million and accounted for 11% of Soviet industrial output.
When Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, its armies took only 2½ months to reach Leningrad. As the birthplace of Bolshevism, Hitler swore to wipe the city form the face of the earth, besieging it until January, 1944. About a million people died (by comparison, the USA and Britain suffered about 700,000 dead between them in all of WWII). Food was practically nonexistent, people ate their pets, paste behind wallpaper, leather and eventually, most turned to cannibalism. But the city survived. It took until 1960 for the population to exceed WWII’s levels.
In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the city’s citizens voted to bring back the name of St Petersburg. In the anarchic early 90s, it often seemed like the local ‘Mafia’ were more in charge than the elected officials, who proved to be equally corrupt. Starting in 2003, enormous sums were spent to spruce up the city for the tercentary celebrations. Locals Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, show off the city to visiting heads of state.
Originally an uninhabited swamp spread over many islands in the delta of the Neva River where it empties into the Gulf of Finland, it has become one of the world’s great cities. Grand buildings line Nevsky Prospect and the many canals and riverbanks. Called the ‘Venice of Russia’, there are 342 bridges in the city. Its main sites are fairly well centered in the historic heart. It is easy to walk everywhere and the metro, like those elsewhere, easy to navigate.
St Petersburg has the appearance of a prosperous city. I saw no homeless people, there is no garbage, and the only panhandler was an occasional elderly woman. All cars are foreign with a preponderance of BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Japanese and Korean vehicles and some Chevs and Fords. Ladas are distinctly rare. I saw little evidence of alcohol abuse or poverty.
At least six days are necessary to see most of the sites including the several palace complexes outside town. On my third evening here, I saw Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake performed at the Mikhailovsky Theater. For my first ballet, I was impressed. I checked out the story line on Wikipedia to understand what was going on. The present Russian versions of the ballet have happy endings. The $80 cost here was a third of the already sold-out Swan Lake at the Bolshoi in Moscow.
One of the world’s great museums (comparable to the Louvre and MOMA), it is an equally confusing place to visit. About 5% of the enormous collection of over 3 million items is on view in 5 buildings that from the outside look like one. The exterior is a green, white and gold profusion of columns, windows and recesses; the roof is topped with rows of statues. The Neva River is on one side and the huge Palace Square on the other. The main building is the Winter Palace built in 1754. It alone has 1057 rooms, three stories and 117 staircases. It doesn’t help to plan as you never know where you are.
The Hermitage’s collection began with Catherine the Great, one of the greatest art collectors of all time. Nicholas I greatly enriched the collection and opened it to the public in 1852. In the post revolutionary period, the collection increased three-fold as many valuable private collections were seized by the state. In 1948 it incorporated the renowned collections of post-Impressionistic and Impressionistic paintings of two Moscow industrialists. The result is a comprehensive history of Western European art.
It is not cheap – general admission is 400R, plus 300R each for the Treasury Room and Gold Room (about $26). It would be best to buy tickets online ($25.95) which gives access to the main museum plus four other separate buildings not included above, allows visits over 2 days and allows you to bypass the enormous queues for tickets. Daypacks, water and food are not allowed inside and I walked out exhausted after 7 hours.
The interiors are magnificent with grand staircases, the Romanov’s private apartments, Peacock Clock and of course all the great artists of Europe. I paid the extra fees to see the Gold Room (the most interesting were the Synthian gold from the 4th-7th centuries BC) and the Treasure Room with the over-the-top appetites of the Russian leaders in full evidence.
Dvotsvaya Ploshchad (Palace Square).
This massive square is one of the most impressive and historic places in the city. In its center is the 47.4m Alexander Column commemorating the 1812 victory over Napoleon. Bloody Sunday occurred here. Across the square from the Hermitage is the imposing General Staff Building of the Russian Army, with a branch of the Hermitage inside.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
This has become my favorite church easily comparable to the Burgos Cathedral in Spain (or even the lovely tiny church in Fort Good Hope, NWT, Canada). It was built between 1883-1907 on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated. It took 24 years to build and 27 years to restore, reopening in 1997. The outside has multiple colorful domes and the crests of all Russian states in mosaics. It took 30 artists to restore the interior’s incredible 7000 sq m of mosaics that cover every inch of wall, arch and ceiling. The marble floor is dazzling as is the marble surrounding the iconostasis.
Housed in the former Mikhailovsy Palace (built in 1819-1829 for Mikhail, the brother of tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I in compensation for not having the chance to be on the throne), it contains the country’s finest collections of Russian art. The museum also has sections in three other city palaces.
St Isaac’s Cathedral.
The golden dome of this mammoth church (101.5m tall, 111 by 97m inside, dome has a diameter of 25.8m) dominates the St Petersburg skyline. The lavish 4,100 sq m interior is a monument to marble and malachite, mosaic iconoclasts and art. Special ships and a railway had to be built to carry from Finland the 48 massive granite pillars on the outside – each 17m tall pillar weighs 119 tons. It was a museum to atheism during the Soviet years and is now a museum. A separate ticket is required to climb the 262 steps up to the colonnade around the drum of the dome for panoramic views of the city.
Bronze Horseman. This impressive statue of Peter the Great on a stallion sits on a massive piece of granite.
Peter and Paul Fortress.
Across the Neva River from the Hermitage is this first structure in St Petersburg. Inside is the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral with its 122m-tall needle thin, gilded spire. Its interior is the resting place for all of Russia’s prerevolutionary rulers including the remains of Nicholas II and his murdered family (which were discovered and placed here in 1998). The fortress never really saw any action and its main use up to 1917 was as a political prison. A beach on the river is full of sunbathers in the summer and the site of the Polar Bear Swim on New Years.
There are many more museums, attractions, and neighborhoods to visit in St Petersburg. A few that I went to include a museum of ethnology (showcased most ethnic groups in Russia), the Singer Building (once the headquarters of the sewing machine company, now a bookstore), the Kunstkamera (the city’s first museum founded in 1714 infamous for its ghoulish collection of monstrosities – preserved freaks, two-headed fetuses, and odd body parts – all collected by Peter the Great; also displays of native people from around the world) and the Kazan Cathedral (St Petersburg’s most picturesque). It is also worthwhile visiting a few of the metro stations including Avtovo (cut glass columns), Narvskaya (large relief of Lenin and carvings) and Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Lenin and Stalin representations).
Other places worth visiting that I did not see are The Museum of Defense and Blockade of Leningrad, the cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Russian Vodka Museum, Grand Choral Synagogue, and the Heritage Storage Facility. There is not always the time or energy to see everything.
AROUND ST PETERSBURG
This was the country residence of Peter the Great constructed from 1716-1723, 28 kms west of St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. The Palace was enlarged twice by Elizabeth and Catherine to its present grand size. Only a few walls remained after it was heavily bombed by the Soviets in January, 1942 to prevent Hitler from using it for his invasion celebration. The restoration is remarkable. It is best known for the surrounding park and incredible display of fountains, all fed by gravity. I arrived by bus and was let off outside the upper park. You walk past several wonderful fountains and enter the lower park to the side of the palace. Peterhof is expensive to see everything (entrance to the lower park 500R, Grand Palace 500R and 250R each for the 13 palaces and other attractions spread throughout the lower park for a grand total of 4250R or about $112). For some unknown reason, I could not buy a ticket to the Grand Palace (with the poor English, the only answer I could get was NO!), so it ended up being not that expensive a day. The main group of 140 fountains just below the palace called the Grand Cascade, turned on at 11AM and this was apparently the last display for the season. Many of the fountains are gold animals and men and make an imposing site. The water then flows down a canal to the Gulf of Finland. The grounds are impressive and have fountains all over the place. I took the hydrofoil (650R) back to St Petersburg over the Gulf of Finland and up the Neva River to near the Hermitage.
South of St Petersburg and 4km past Pushkin, is the Grand Palace constructed by Catherine the Great in 1781-6 for her son Paul. The original palace was burnt down 2 weeks after liberation in 1945 when a Soviet soldier’s cigarette detonated a German mine. The restoration is also remarkable. The huge Pavlovsk Great Park (at 534 hectares the largest park in Europe) is Unesco World Heritage listed and filled with rivers, lakes, avenues, statues and temples that could take a whole day to explore. I arrived by bus, walked through the park to the palace, and realizing I did not have time to also see Pushkin in the same day, elected to abbreviate my visit.
Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo)
25 km south of St Petersburg, the vast, baroque Catherine Palace was built between 1744 and 1796 and remodeled by Catherine the Great. After being almost totally destroyed by the Nazis in WWII, it too has been beautifully restored. With a gaudy blue and white exterior, it has 20 spectacular rooms, the most famous of which is the Amber Room. The original was created from exquisitely engraved amber panels given to Peter the Great by the King of Prussia in 1716. The panels were combined with woodcarvings, mirrors, agate and jasper mosaics, but were plundered by the Nazis and later exhibited at Konigsberg’s Castle that was in ruins by 1945. Presumably, the Amber Room was destroyed along with it. Or was it? In 2004, Putin and German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroder presided over the new $18 million restoration of the Amber Room, restored largely with German funds. Some believe the original remains hidden away but the mystery continues. It is an amazing room. The wood parquet floors throughout the palace are also outstanding. The name Tsarskoe Selo was changed in 1937 to Pushkin after Russia’s favorite poet.
On one side of the palace is the wonderful Catherine Park. A large lake is surrounded by an interesting collection of buildings (several baths, concert halls and palaces) that can easily take two hours to explore.
Beside Catherine Palace is Alexander Park and Palace built for Alexander I but he didn’t like it and never used it. Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, was its main tenant and used it for much of his reign. Only 3 rooms are open and it is not much visited. One could easily spend all day here to see everything.
Other sites around St Petersburg include Gatchina (another grand palace built by Catherine the Great for her favorite, Greagory Orlov) and Kronshtadt (a fortress out in the Gulf of Finland with a cathedral as its highlight).
I took the high-speed Sapsan train 4½ hours to Moscow during the day to see the surrounding countryside (uninspiring flat country with trees). The trains top speed is 250km/hour but this did not seem that fast – the 650km distance with 4 very brief stops indicates a speed closer to 150km/hour. I sat next to a very pleasant woman who was a lawyer from St Petersburg. She had lived in Israel for 11 years.