St. Petersburg, Russia
So I arrived in St. Petersburg via Helsinki on Finnair. Pretty uneventful flight, other than I knocked over a glass full of water from my tray table not once, but twice (and within about 1 minute of each other) and ultimately broke the glass on the second dump. How embarrassing (although the flight attendant was very kind and told me she had dumped a tray full of OJ and champagne on a passenger one time so it made me feel a little better).
My driver, Jacob, was at the airport to pick me up in his Skoda vehicle. It was a quick trip from the airport to my hotel on the Moyka River. Jacob was initially pretty reserved during the drive despite my best efforts to chat him up. “Jacob. Are you a hockey fan?.” “Niet.” “Jacob. You live in a beautiful city.” “Da.” OK then… followed by about 10 minutes of silence and then… “When I was a boy I used to play video hockey. My favorite team was Edmonton Oilers.” Aha… an opening. “So you liked the Great One – Wayne Gretzky.” “Da and Mark Messier.” Not a hockey fan??? … uh Jacob I think that you are full of it. So we continue through St. Petersburg and suddenly Jacob points out some kind of festival and tells me he used to play at festivals. “I am musician” he tells me. Really. Well the ice was broken and he and I proceed to talk about his music (Russian folk, Russian rock and Jewish/Russian folk). He apparently played keyboard and had two tours of the U.S. Cool. His favorite city … Seattle (and this was before I told him where I was from). Turned out to be a very lively chat after a very chilly start.
I reached my lovely hotel on the Moyka, a couple blocks from the Neva and the main thoroughfare in St. Petersburg – Nevsky Prospekt, just as the sun started to show through the clouds. Even with the sun, it was rather chilly, with a bit of a breeze. I kept thinking – thank God they found my luggage ’cause that short sleeved shirt and the hoody I bought would not be sufficient in this weather to keep me warm.
I checked into the hotel and was given a beautiful room overlooking the Neva with huge windows. Fabulous. I dropped my luggage and collapsed on my bed. Exhausted after three days of travel and stress. I had about three hours before my guide would be coming to pick me up for a drive around St. Petersburg. Perfect. I slept for 2 1/2 hours and felt like a new woman by the time my guide Marina and our driver (I can’t pronounce his name let alone spell it) picked me up.
For the next 3 1/2 hours we drove all over the city. First stop was the Neva River and a view to the Winter Palace and Hermitage, which was the former residence of the Russian czars. I will visit these sites on Tuesday. Gorgeous. Next up a drive by the Church on Spilled Blood built by Czar Alexander III in memory of his father Alexander II who was assassinated on the very site on which the church sits. (Russian history like much of European history if filled with blood, death, gore and intrigue – and the locals love to talk about this. My two nieces, Jenna and Callie, found this quite funny when we visited London.) Anyway, Church on Spilled Blood features muticolored onion shaped domes and is perhaps the most stunning building in the city. I will visit this site on Monday.
We continued through the city as Marina pointed out palace after palace after palace previously occupied by czars, family of the czars or Russian nobility. The old city is dominated by these former grand buildings. Today many of the buildings are used by as museums, official government buildings or high end apartments. The streets are narrow, but filled with trees, flowers, hanging baskets and green spaces. St. Petersburg is a really, really pretty city.
After some “official” discussions about these buildings and dancing around the subject of the Soviet Union and communism, Marina warmed up and began to openly discuss what I refer to as the three eras of Russia. The first is the period prior to the October revolution in 1917. The second is the communist era. And of course the final era is the current era of perestroika and democracy (present day Russia). The other part of the discussion that was fascinating to me was the open competition Marina talked about between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Moscow had been the capital until Alexander I (Alexander the Great) moved the capital to St. Petersburg, which remained the capital until the October revolution, when the czar was booted out (and later shot with his entire family – again with the blood and gore) and communism began. After the revolution, the capital was moved back to Moscow because St. Petersburg was too closely associated with the czars. This actually proved to be the city’s saving grace, according to Marina, because rather than tear down the city buildings as the communists did in Moscow only to replace them with concrete soviet style buildings, the communists ignored St. Petersburg and elected not to spend funds to tear down and replace. As a result, Marina said that St. Petersburg is far prettier and more “”authentically” historic than Moscow. (I think this was Marina’s way of saying “Bite me Moscow”.) Also, Marina pointed out that Putin and current President Medvedev are both from St. Petersburg (although both were born in the city when it was named Leningrad). She said that it is becoming a “tradition” that you need to be born in St. Petersburg to run the country. OK then….
A little word about the city name. Prior to the October Revolution in 1917 (and near the beginning of WW I) the city changed its name from St. Petersburg (named by Peter the Great after St. Peter who guard’s the gates of paradise – Peter believed St. Petersburg was his paradise) to Petrograd, which means city of Peter in Russian. The name was changed, apparently, because “burg” is German, and the Russians wanted to eliminate reference to anything German. (No ill will here….) After the communists took over the city, the communists changed the name to Leningrad (city of Lenin) following Lenin’s death in 1924. (If found this ironic since the communist government apparently all but ignored the city during the Soviet era.) The reasoning I guess was hat Lenin first organized the Bolshoviks (revolutionists) in Petrograd’s Finland Station. The name of the city remained Leningrad until perestroika in 1991 when the name was changed back to St. Petersburg. (All I could think about was that this city must really have an identity crisis… make up your mind will ya!)
This discussion about the Soviets became much more animated as we stopped at the marvelous St. Isaac’s Cathedral (names after Peter the Great’s favorite patron saint) with its grand golden dome that is covered in gold leaf and said to be one of the largest domes in the world. The Cathedral was built and torn down three times before its final and current configuration (which took almost 40 years to complete). The history of the Cathedral was fascinating. Marina showed me the models of all four of the cathedrals and as we wandered around she described how the Cathedral was a working cathedral until the communist era when all churches were outlawed by Stalin. The Cathedral like many other churches was neglected and used for storage. Fortunately, the communists did not tear this cathedral down like it did to so many others.
The interior of the Cathedral is dominated by the dome, ceiling paintings and massive frescos and mosaics dedicated to the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. There are giant Russian granite pillars that support the dome. The interior is so massive that apparently 16,000 people can fit inside. I don’t know if that occupancy is sanctioned by any fire marshall, but that is a hell of a lot of people inside a building. The Cathedral became a working church once more during perestroika and is now used for special occasion services. There are no pews and standing is the norm (although kneeling is also permitted). The Easter ceremony apparently runs 7 or 8 hours so you have to been really “committed” to attend.
One other fascinating bit about the Cathedral … during the German blockade of St. Petersburg over a million and a half people died during the first winter of the blockade when no food could get through to the residents. In spring, a plane drop of seeds permitted the residents to plant cabbage and as a result, much of the bare land in St. Petersburg, including the grounds of the Cathedral, were used as a vegetable garden. I actually saw a black and white photo of the cabbage patches. The picture is prominently mounted on the wall of the Cathedral as a reminder, I suppose, of what could be.
As we drove on we stopped at Nikolsky Cathedral. A gorgeous ice blue colored cathedral that is a working Russian Orthodox church. We ventured inside just as the Friday services were to begin. The women of faith who entered the Cathedral are required to cover their heads. Most of the believers were dressed in extremely conservative clothing with women wearing longer dresses and long sleeved shirts.
We drove on past Decemberists Square, the Bronze Horseman (the most famous statute of Peter the Great), the Mariinsky Theater, the Mariinsky Palace and the palace where Rasputin (the “advisor” to Czarina Alexandra and Czar Nicolas II (and last czar) who was poisoned and ultimately shot after the poison failed to kill him. Talk about an interesting character. All I could think about as Marina spoke about Rasputin was that late 70s German disco song – “Ra Ra Rasputin lover of the Russian Queen…
We ended the drive back at the Winter Palace where I got out and wandered around. It reminded me a great deal of Tienanmen Square. The Winter Palace is situated on a mammoth, mammoth square surrounded by historic buildings. As I stood there, the wind started to kick up and it became very cold. Yikes. I have gone from 25 celsius to 12 celsius in the span of a couple days.
I walked back to my hotel (only about a block from the Winter Palace) and prepared to go to bed. I suddenly realized that the view of the canal may not be that conducive to sleep. The canal had turned into a barge and party boat scene as one after the other they floated past by my window, music blaring and the sound of laughter. Uh oh. Well… I still have the view. I pulled out my earplugs and presto muted sound and off to sleep.