St. Petersburg, Russia
So on Monday morning, I only had a half day planned with Marina. We were off on walking tour to Peter and Paul Fortress and Church on Spilled Blood. We left my hotel and walked about two miles across the Neva River to Hare Island, which houses the fortress. The fortress was built by Peter the Great to protect Russia from attacks by Sweden. Ironically, Peter the Great defeated Sweden and the fortress was never needed or used to protect the city. In addition to acting as a fortress, the site also contains the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which houses the remains of many of Russia’s czars, czarina’s and their families, as well as the former Trubestskoy Prison, which housed many high ranking and famous political prisoners including Dostoevsky and many of the Decemberists (not the band).
Our first stop was the Cathedral to view the various crypts of the famous and infamous rulers of Russia. I found it ironic that there was special chapel constructed, St.Catherine’s Chapel, to house the remains of the the last czar and his family and entourage who were murdered on the orders of the new communist government. The chapel is off to the side of the cathedral, but contains a very prominent shrine to the martyred czar and his family who were interred on the 80th anniversary of their deaths on July 17, 1998.
I am not sure what I expected when we viewed the crypts for Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, but there was nothing that set their tombs apart from the others despite their prominent and sizeable contributions to Russian history. I mean Nicholas II and his family have an entire room devoted to them and quite frankly their contribution to Russian history would not be noteworthy whatsoever except for the manner of their death. I was very surprised that Peter and Catherine are just lying their among the riff raff czars.
Anyway, we moved on from the Cathedral to the Trubestkoy Prison. This prison was notorious for its isolation of political prisoners. In fact, many went mad because of the complete solitude in which they were held. The floors outside the cells were carpeted to muffle the sounds of the guards walking by, and the prisoners could be viewed silently by the guards by merely moving a very small window on the front of the door. Prisoners were not allowed any contact with their family during their incarceration and often they were forced to stand for hours on end in their cell.
The cells were pretty barren. A bed, sink, toilet and table and that’s it. The furnishings were made of metal because apparently prisoners rioted at one point and burned all the wooden furniture. The real harsh treatment came when a prisoner was punished. The prisoner was sent to an isolation cell that was completely darkened. No windows, no lights, nothing. They took me into this room shut the door and I completely freaked out. I would not have lasted more than an hour in that place before I was trying to figure a way to end it. I literally shrieked as the door was closed. It was horrifying.
We left the Peter and Paul Fortress and walked back across the Neva River over one of only two surviving wooden bridges in St. Petersburg, through Moss Park past the eternal flame (a tribute to those who died in the October Revolution) and towards the Church on Spilled Blood. Just as we arrived it started to rain (the first rain I have seen on my trip). Fortunately, we were headed inside so it didn’t matter.
The Church on Spilled Blood was built by czar Alexander III as a memorial to his father Alexander II who was killed by a grenade thrown by an anarchist. (The grenade that killed Alexander II was actually the second grenade thrown. The first hit his carriage, but Alexander II walked away unharmed. As Alexander walked toward the man who threw the grenade, another anarchist pulled the trigger on a second grenade killing himself and the czar. I wonder if this was the first suicide bomber?)
Anyway, Alexander III ordered the church built on the exact spot of his father’s assassination. Inside the Church, there is a shrine to Alexander II marking the exact spot where the murder occurred. The church is beautiful on the interior, but what sets the church apart is the spectacular architecture on the exterior, which is reminiscent of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow.
Marina told me that the communists contemplated destroying the church, but decided against it because there was no way to protect the surrounding apartment buildings from damage or destruction. So as an alternative, the church became a “storage shed” for produce and in particular potatoes, which were kept cool by the marble flooring. After the communists were booted in 1991, the church was restored. I wandered around and tried to picture this magnificent structure as a storage shed, and it was just so hard to believe that such a magnificent structure could be relegated to such lowly status. I guess when you are single minded in your beliefs it is impossible to see how much harm can come from a closed mind.
Marina left me at the Church on Spilled Blood (the sun was now out), and I spent the next hour or so wandering the streets of St. Petersburg. My overwhelming impression of Russia to date is that these folks are a pretty stoic, guarded lot. I think they have to really know you before they warm up. I don’t want to say that they are humorless because my guide Marina is pretty darn funny. (In fact I get the impression that she has pretty strong opinions and is quite a character. Every now and then she lets her guard down and comes out with a great one liner.) As I walked around, I tried to make eye contact with folks and smile, but for the most part my efforts were not reciprocated. So I wandered back to my hotel and grabbed an extra hoody and walked down to the canal to take a cruise on the Moyka and Niva Rivers.
It was a rather chilly afternoon/evening, but with no wind and a blanket from the staff on the boat I figured I’d be fine. It turns out the cruise was a great idea. Once on the rivers, I had a totally different perspective of the various landmarks around St. Petersburg. I was able to see different details on such monuments as the Winter Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Peter the Great statute. It was a bit chilly, but it could have been much worse if it had been windy.
As dinner time approached I was faced with my daily quandary in Russia. What to eat. I have now figured out why these folks like vodka so much. It’s because the food suuuuuuuucks! Best meals I’ve had to date in Russia were the meat pie for lunch on Saturday and the cross dog at the hockey game. Everything else has been bland, tasteless and pretty much ****. (Although they seem to have breakfast down – blinis, croissants, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, boiled eggs and luncheon meats.) Tonight I figured I’d give it one more go and try the beef stroganov. Hey when in Rome… Well I should have gone back to Stoley’s for a meat pie. These folks don’t even know how to cook a dish that was developed in their own country. My friend the Bull needs to come over here and show them how to make real beef stroganov. Hell I’d even take Bull’s version right now with those damn peas!
So my last day in St. Petersburg was spent at the Hermitage. The Hermitage actually consists of five interconnected buildings: the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Old Hermitage and the Hermitage Theater. The Winter Palace is the former home of the czars and was built by Catherine the Great. It was Catherine the Great who began the art collection, which was expanded over the years by the czars and ultimately sent over the top by the Soviets when they nationalized all of the property in Russia and seized the artwork of the wealthy. (In addition, there is artwork seized by the Red Army from the Germans during WW II. There is an ongoing debate with Germany about the return of this artwork; however, the Russians are pretty steadfast that they will not be returning the art any time soon. They rationalize that the Germans took many of their treasures and destroyed many of the palaces so … an eye for an eye.)
Anyway, what this all means, is that the Hermitage collection is enormous, and only approximately 5% of the collection is on display at any one time. So Marina came by my hotel around 10:15 a.m., and we wandered the very short two blocks to the Winter Palace. Fortunately, we had advance tickets and were among the first to walk through the doors when the museum opened at 10:30. And from the moment we walked in it was the art world on steroids. Oh my God!!! Look this way – oh there’s a sculpture by Michelangelo. Walk into this room – oh paintings by Rembrandt. Van Gogh? Why sure I’d love to see that. Picasso fan? How about an entire room? Impressionists? My favorite. OK then, how about some Monet, Cezanne or Matisse? Paintings by Leonardo da Vinci? Absolutely. And on and on we went. It was a stunning, over the top, I need at least a year in the place visual overload.
And then there were the buildings themselves and the historical relics on display from the Winter Palace. Magnificent ceiling frescoes and tiles. Chandelier’s and candelabras. Peter the Great’s throne. Paul I’s throne. Nicholas II’s throne. Catherine the Great’s sleigh. Hand carved armoires and tables inlaid with semi precious stones. A peacock clock with moving parts. At one point, I actually got a neck ache from twisting and turning so many times. By the end of our five hour walk through the Hermitage I thought my head was going to explode. It is simply impossible to adequately describe the Hermitage. In fact, I do not believe there is an adjective that exists that can possibly do this place justice.
One painting, however, left an overwhelming impression upon me, and I am not sure why. The work of art is by Rembrandt and is entitled Descent from the Cross. Now I must preface my comments with two facts. (1) I am not a huge Rembrandt fan as I find his work too dark and much prefer French impressionist works. (2) As many of you who know me well realize, I am not a religious person. So having said this, Rembrandt’s work depicting Christ being removed from the cross left me very moved and very emotional. It is a stunning, stunning work of art. I lingered at this painting for a number of minutes and even went back to look at it again. The only explanation I have is that is so accurately depicts both human suffering and human emotion that one cannot help but be moved.
At some point, I will return to St. Petersburg solely for the purpose of spending two or three days in the Hermitage. I cannot emphasis enough what a truely remarkable place this was to visit. However, even the Hermitage apparently has some flaws. As Marina and I were exiting the building we walked down the staircase from the 3rd floor and between the 3rd and 2nd floors there was a canvas hanging that was painted all black save for some round circles at the bottom of the painting. It looked very out of place, but was apparently a new addition by some Russian artist. Marina turned to me, motioned towards the picture and said in her heavy Russian accent: “Now that you have seen the Hermitage it is now time for you to start thinking about your contribution to our beautiful museum”. LMAO. Who said Russians don’t have a sense of humor?!