White Nights in St. Petersburg


We arrived in Saint Petersburg early in the morning after a comfortable and somewhat mysterious night on the the train. Besides our party of 6, in our carriage there was a solid sweaty-looking fellow in a dark suit accompanied by three children, a nanny and no less than 3 bodyguards. We debated asking who they were but, since there were probably sidearms involved, we decided just to lock the doors and hope for the best. In St. Petersburg (which was named Leningrad during the Soviet era) the station has a huge bust of Peter the Great (see the picture above) which is a bit funny because the outbound Moscow station is still named Leningradsky and has a huge bust of Lenin.


Saint Petersburg considers itself every bit as important as Moscow (in matters of history and culture perhaps more so) but since Moscow currently has a greater political and commercial role it seems to get more of the refurbishment resources. St. Petersburg doesn't have the "just polished" look we saw in many of monuments in Moscow. That said, with the scale and grandeur of the city and the huge number of historical buildings, St. Petersburg is quite breathtaking on a clear spring day! We found it a city of many contrasts. As an example, to get to our airy, comfortable and nicely appointed apartment, we had to duck into a graffiti laden metal door, navigate through a long dark atrium smelling like skid row lit by a single bulb, and ride an elevator that creaked up five floors on frayed cords. Sometimes we just held our breath and used the stairs. Those were probably the low points of our days. Here are some of the high points:



James and the Bronze Horseman. This statue of Peter the Great was commissioned by Catherine the Great and completed in 1782. From one "enlightened absolute" monarch to another - it says "To Peter I from Catherine II" on the side. Catherine knew the value of star power and good publicity. Sophie found out that Catherine the Great's original name was actually Sophia.










We got a kick out of seeing Catherine's name on a well established shop on Nevsky Prospect especially since the emblems say "Unlimited Around the World." The shop sells contemporary clothing including many colorful leather motorcycle jackets.









Nested arches seen from the Winter Moat running from the Moika to the Neva river through parts of the Hermitage complex. Nearby is an apartment where Pushkin lived from 1836 until his death in a duel in 1837.








Rivers and canals run through many parts of the central area of St. Petersburg. This is a pavillion in the Mikhailovsky Gardens that faces onto the Moika river. As we did in Shanghai, on our second day in St. Petersburg we took the kids for the walk of a couple miles from our apartment to the main river of the city, the Neva. There was actually very little whining involved (except when it started to rain).














The Church "on Spilled Blood" was built in the 1880s in the Neo-Russian style and resembles the much older St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. Alexander the Third had it constructed on the spot where his father Alexander II was assassinated by Nihilist revolutionaries in 1881. The ironic outcome of the assassination is that, while Alexander II was somewhat inclined toward limited reform (it was even rumored that he he plans for a parliamentary system with him when he was killed), Alexander III was firmly against any changes to the monarchy.

All this talk of Alexanders had our own Alex a bit confused and he requested that we change his name to something "less important."




The interior mosaics and decoration in the church are very beautiful. They have been recently restored since the church spent many years as a storeroom and later a museum. The iconostasis is actually stone but looks like wood.









Tourists at the entrance to the Winter Palace, one of the larger buildings comprising the Hermitage Museum. The Winter Palace was the official residence of the Romanoff monarchy and the current facade dates from the mid-1700s. After the Tsar's abdication, the building served briefly as headquarters for the Provisional Government until it was stormed by the Bolsheviks in October 1917.










A view of the famous Malachite room in the Hermitage. It supposedly contains over 2 tonnes of the stone which is pieced together to cover surfaces in a special mosaic fashion. We also heard (repeatedly) that deposits of Malachite of this quality no longer exist.









With all the pomp and bustle of the city, we decided to take a side trip into the countryside. As our van driver commented, most of Russia is rural and so this was an opportunity to spend time in what many consider the real Russia. The picture to the left is not a postcard - just your usual spring day in the Pskov region south of St. Petersburg.







Another motive for our trip was to see if we could find the village where Catherine's grandfather was born. With the help of a detailed map and directions from a number of babushki relaxing by the roadside we made our way to a small cluster of houses called Solpiakovo. We spent some time chatting with the oldest lady in the village who confirmed that we were in the right place and that she had in fact spoken with Catherine's uncle some ten years earlier when he made a visit.







Near the ancient town of Pskov lies the monastery of Pechora, just a stone's throw from the Estonian border. The monastery is in a complex surrounded by a massive stone wall that reflects its medieval origin. Inside the grounds were peaceful and very picturesque with many brightly painted church buildings. They allowed Ed to film as long as he didn't film any of the monks or any church interiors. The monastery allowed women to visit as long as they wore a skirt and head scarf. For those who didn't bring one they handed out loaners. It looked somewhat unusual to see jeans clad tourists with bright wrap-around skirts and scarves but on second thought the same thing happens in the Russian Orthodox Church in Seattle. Sophie and Valerie declined to follow this fashion statement and waited in the van.






One of our other outings was to the palace complex of Peterhof, started by Peter the Great in 1714 and modified by later Romanoff rulers. This is a view past the Grand Cascade to the Great Palace. A smaller palace on these grounds, called Mon Plaisir, designed by Peter the Great and facing on to the Gulf of Finland was where he actually spent his time.








Another view of the Great Palace originally designed by Le Blond and modified by Rastrelli and others. The palace, fountains and grounds were clearly meant to rival European palaces such as Versailles and to signal Peter the Great's intent to bring Russia onto a par with Europe of the 1700s.









Of course, Versailles doesn't have onion-domed churches. By the time of the last Tsar, the royal family spent most of its time at Peterhof because of the political unrest in St. Petersburg. They didn't even have to leave the main building to get to this church (added by Peter's daughter, Empress Elizabeth).









The trick to getting this photo was to time it so that the wind wasn't raining water down on the kids. We almost got it right but not quite...sorry Alex!










The central figure of the Grand Cascade is Samson battling a lion. The lion, the heraldic emblem of Sweden, is clearly not enjoying himself. The fountain commemorates Russia's victory over Sweden in the Northern War. The decisive victory at the battle of Poltava occurred on St. Samson's day in 1709.









In our family, battles occur just about every day. None are decisive but most of them are just in fun. Valerie in particular favors actions over words. Here she plays the part of the lion to James' Samson.










Back in St. Petersburg, we were lucky enough to see a performance by the Mariinsky Ballet (also known as the Kirov) of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. It was quite a treat! This is a picture of Tchaikovsky's tomb in the Tikhvin cemetary...sorry, no ballerinas but pictures are allowed of the performances at the ballet.










Both Moscow and St. Petersburg (and even Pskov) are replete with memorials, museums and statues of Alexander Pushkin. Come to think of it, he was also mentioned in Irktusk in connection with the Decembrists and he spent time in exhile in southern Russia. It seems that he is the unofficial national hero who people agree is uniquely Russian. Since much of the appeal of Pushkin's writing lies in its poetic grammar he is likely to remain uniquely Russian. A photo of Pushkin's statue in St. Petersburg is an appropriate way to end the summary of our travels in Russia.