Friday, September 16th, 2005
From Russia With Love
Honestly it’s hard to do St Petersburg justice in words. Today was the first of two days in Russia’s second-largest city, and the whole of it was spent on an overview bus tour. In preparation, I’d been boning up on my heretofore non-existant Russian history through books and a couple of on-board seminars and even after that and nine hours of intensive tour guiding, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of this place.
Things started out on a drab note – a really early departure time meant it was still dark out when we boarded the bus and it was cold and raining. Our first stop was actually the town of Pushkin outside of St Petersburg, so we headed through the Moscow district of the city. The first thing I noticed was the Soviet-ness of it all. Barbed wire still lined the fences and walls around many buildings, architecture was very Stalin-esque and monolithic, to say nothing of run-down and generally depressing. There were occasional flashes of style or modernism, but for the most part it looked a lot like you would have expected Russia to look like, at least during the Communist years. Things improved – both scenically and meteoroligically – by the time we left the city and reached Pushkin (also known as Tsarskoye Selo) and the sun was starting to peek out.
The main stop there was The Catherine Palace, named for the wife of Peter The Great and built by her daughter, the empress Elizabeth. Even though I’d seen many pictures of the exterior and interior of the palace, I still wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale and grandeur of the building. It was ostentatious to the extreme, especially the insides and the Great Hall in particular, with its gigantic ceiling mural, mirrored walls and gold leaf applied over pretty much everything. What struck me was that there were no hallways – one room connected directly to the next meaning that to get from point A to point G, you’d have to go through points B through F. Apparently the royal family wasn’t all that concerned with privacy.
When we went outside to the Catherine gardens, the rain and cloud cover had broken and it was radiantly sunshine-y out. Fantastic. The gardens were immaculate and beautiful, save for the occasional structure that was undergoing or due for restoration. That’s the thing about St Petersburg in general. It was nearly demolished in World War II from the legendary 900 Days Seige of Leningrad, and only recently with the ascendency of native son Vladamir Putin to the presidency have the funds been made available to restore the countless damaged or derelict historical buildings in and around the city. A lot was done in time for the city’s 300th birthday two years ago, but work continues – everywhere you look, you’ll see scaffoldings surrounding structures in desperate need of care.
Another thing about the garden is that it was simply crawling with souvenier vendors. Selling guidebooks, postcards and nested dolls must be one of the largest occupations of St Petersburg residents. Most fearsome were the armies of grannies selling handiworks at the gateway to the park. I found it best just not to make eye contact. Our time is Pushkin was rounded out by what was billed as a traditional Russian meal with traditional Russian entertainment. It was all enjoyable enough though it hardly smacked of veracity, what with the souvenier stand at the front of the restaurant and the singers hocking their CDs of traditional Russian folksongs. But enough of the people in the group happily left with furry hats, nested dolls and vodka that I guess it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.
The weather had continued to improve as the day went and by the time we drove back into St Petersburg, it was easily the finest, sunniest day I’ve seen on the trip thus far. The tour guide was going a mile a minute, pointing out mansion after palace after museum after landmark – I was getting whiplash from all the looking right and looking left. It was really too bad I was stuck on a bus rather than walking the streets, taking it in at my own pace. Of course, on foot it would have taken many many more hours than I had. Amongst the sights we took brief stops for photo ops, St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Astoria Hotel and statue of Nicholas I all around St Issac’s Square, a view of the Hermitage, Peter & Paul Fortress and Stock Exchange from the far side of the Neva River, the Cruiser Aurora (which fired the shot that signalled the start of the Russian Revolution) and the stunning Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood (which was built on the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination).
That did it for the on foot portion of the tour, which concluded with a long drive up Nevsky Prospekt, the main drag of St Petersburg, through the port lands and back to the ship. I’d love to be able to get back into the city but the Russian visa conditions stipulate that if I’m not in a tour group, I have to pay for a tourist visa which runs into the hundreds of dollars. Ouch. Tomorrow, we visit the Hermitage and supposedly the Peterhoff Palace but I have my doubts as to whether we’ll actually make it to that – they futzed with the start times at the last minute and it will take a miracle of traffic uncongestion to get us from the Hermitage back to the ship in time to latch onto the second tour group. Fingers crossed, though.
In my one day here, I’ve been stupefied by this city. There’s simply so much to see and so much fascinating history to revisit. Someday I will have to return, with the time (and money) to see and do everything properly. The mix of Baroque, Neoclassical and Communist architecture all thrown together is an amazing thing to see. The Russian people I interacted with were terrifically friendly, though I’m pretty sure they just wanted my Rubles and US dollars. They’ve really taken to this whole Capitalism thing, let me tell you. And I’m glad I took the time to do some homework before embarking – otherwise I’d have spent most of my time trying to work out timelines and Romanov geneology.
So hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to report back on the Hermitage AND the Peterhoff Palace. If not, it’ll just be the Hermitage and some grousing on my part. And I just noticed my system clock, which is still set to Eastern Daylight, says 12:06PM. You people back home are just having lunch now? Gadzooks.