Russia – St. Petersburg

It’s weird to think that Russia has always seemed so far away. yes, it is far away from home (at least the European part of it is) and yet my flight from Copenhagen to Denmark was only about two hours. I mean, we lost (lost…gained…I don’t know how to say that) just as much time by changing time zones. That seems perfectly symbolic actually – the distance was short but the change was sharper.

When we landed and opened our eyes I was met by a lot of sleepy faces that quickly turned to match the expression of one person who I do not think was even able to shut her eyes the whole flight due to excitement. “Guys…we’re in Russia…” she said with her smile reminiscent of a child on Christmas. I never thought I would hear those words.

After leaving the surprisingly small airport in St. Petersburg we got on our bus and headed into the second largest city in the largest country in the world. Our trip took us through the Moscow District I hate taking pictures out of buses, but I suppose that is something that I need to get over. So, sorry about not having any pictures of my first impressions of Russia. It was actually a good introduction. There were rows of communist era buildings, the gate monument marking where the Russians had held the Germans during the siege of Leningrad, and a typical St. Petersburg down which you could see almost to the horizon. So, sorry that I missed that.

We arrived at the Hotel Azimut, formerly the Hotel Sovietska, or Soviet Hotel, and had about an hour before we left on our sightseeing tour. Of course, being in Russia, my roomate and I did not want to waste any of our precious time sitting around a crummy hotel so we had our own mini sightseeing tour. St. Petersburg radiates out from the Neva River and is designed with a ring of canals as a means of navigation and in an attempt to copy the “Western” style of Amsterdam where Peter the Great had spent some time. The theme of attempted Western shows up a lot, trust me. We passed the outermost one, the Fontanka, or Fountain canal, about a block from our street. The water of the Fontanka used to be punctuated by, well, fountains obviously. I wish they were still there, but it was still very pretty. Even more pretty was the church that we found just past this canal. pastel blue and white exterior with glistening gold onion domes and crosses. There was a wedding there that day. At least I am assuming that’s what it was. I can’t imagine why else there would be two white SUV limos (the first of many that we saw in Russia) and a group of attractive younger people all dressed very nicely getting their pictures taken. I don’t remember if they were smiling while they got their pictures taken. You would think so, but I am not sure if I saw a Russian smile during a picture the whole time we were in the country, and we saw a lot of Russian tourists. So, it wouldn’t surprise me if their faces were expressionless during the whole photo shoot.

After our little jaunt around our neighborhood, the whole group left on our sightseeing tour where we saw a Lenin Statue, a statue of Peter the Great, some churches, etc. I know that’s not the best way to write a blog but if we are ever going to get through this then I can’t be explaining every single place we visited. You’re just going to have to trust me. Ok? Ok.

Something from the tour that was worth mentioning was our stop at an Eastern Orthodox church. Russia and religion is fascinating. Russia once considered itself the “Third Rome” or the heir to the Roman Empire after the fall of Constantinople. Before the revolution in 1905 Russia was the most religious state in Europe if not the world. After the Revolution the “opiate of the masses” was essentially wiped out. I’ve said this before about the Czech Republic, and I can almost guarantee that I will say it again about Russia, but imagine waking up and suddenly having a change like that. Incredible. So a whole generation grew up without religion. Now their children are adults and many of them, at least the ones that I was able to talk to, are religious. I admit that I didn’t meet a lot of Russian people who wanted to speak English with me, and when I did I didn’t feel the need to jump right into religion, but it did come up and it seems like a good number are. Why? In the US many younger people initially go to church because their parents made them because their parents made them and so on for generations. But that obviously was not the case in Russia. I thought it was interesting.

The next morning we were greeted by 5 degree Celsius weather at 9 AM. Of course we were going on a canal and river tour so the temperature seemed to be constantly dropping until we hit the Neva river itself and the wind seemed to blow away whatever warmth was left. Luckily the little ferry had blankets, unluckily the really didn’t seem to help. The was wasn’t much help either. It was surprising and beautiful, but not much for warmth.

Despite the cold the tour was wonderful. We had a knowledgeable guide and a lot of interesting sights. After walking through maybe the most beautiful park that I have ever seen, we reached the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. We had seen it coming from in the distance for a while now and everyone seemed to be looking over their shoulders as we made other stops on our way there. Everyone just wanted to get to the “Candy Palace.” The church is what a lot of people imagine Russia to be like, at least when those people are not imagining Russia to be one giant slum where a few really rich people do despicable things like plot to bring back Stalin. Neither of those thoughts are true. In fact, the church is so completely out-of-place in St. Petersburg. The city was designed to look Western and the church was later designed to look like the ideal Slavic Eastern Orthodox church. So the church is really overcompensating for something that would make it appear misplaced even if not done to the same degree. Either way it is pretty cool.

The Candy Church

Right across from the church is the first souvenir market that we went to. This is where I learned that I am not a great haggler. This business major is looking worse and worse all the time. I accidentally redeem myself in Moscow though, but I’ll get to that. We saw Matryoshka dolls of all shapes, sizes, and themes. My personal favorite was the dictator theme – Bin Laden inside Gaddafi inside Stalin inside Hitler. That was cute. And then there were the chess sets, my favorite being USSR/Russia vs. the US in which all of the pawns were leaders. There were Soviet watches and medals and of course the fur hats. The next day a few members of our group was looking a little warmer and more fashionable from the ears up.

Before that we had a lunch of chicken kiev and borscht. I don’t know what you’ve heard about borscht but I seem to recall my mom saying it was terrible. She was wrong. It is delicious. I don’t have anything else to say, I just wanted to call out my mom on that one. I guess I can say that overall our tour did a great job of keeping us eating Russian food. And for that I am surprisingly grateful.

The next morning also began on a freezing cold boat, but with the same strong sun shining down through our misty breath. The boat ride was again beautiful but we were all glad when it ended and we could get into the warmth of the  Hermitage Museum of Art. The hermitage is a wonderful building, first for its architecture, and then for the history that this is where the Revolution took place. I stood in the same room in which the leaders of the provisional government were arrested by the Bolshevik leaders. Yes, the art was beautiful and the architecture grand, but the history really seemed to be the interesting part.

After the museum came one of the more unique parts of our trip: St. Petersburg Behind the Facade. St. Petersburg is often criticized by Moscow and other places in Russia as being simply an overgrown museum, a place that was designed to be looked at and appreciated and not a real city. This, in a way, is true, which is why almost all of my thoughts thus far revolved around how pretty everything was. The purpose of this tour was to change that. It was supposed to show another side of the city and all of the problems that went along with that. It certainly did show another side, but I am not sure that it showed me anything that I hadn’t already guessed at during my 20 years of growing up in the US. This was much more what I expected from Russia.

Our first stop, after a crowded bus ride on which we were essentially told it is common practice to bribe the ticket checkers who work on every bus, we stopped at a vodka bar. It was a small small place set a few steps into a building with windows peeping just above the sidewalk. Inside there was a bar, one small table, a counter along two walls, a parakeet, a refrigerator, and a lot of alcohol. The Russians always follow a shot of Vodka immediately with food, either bread, herring, a pickle, or something equally unappealing. So there was food, but I didn’t see a menu. I didn’t see a drink menu either, but I don’t expect there would be too many fancy cocktails available. Apparently there are places like this all along the main walking streets in working neighborhoods. These aren’t places you go for a few drinks with friends or for a wild night. Instead these are places that you go into when you are cold and walking somewhere. Work, home, church, the hospital, anywhere really. Oh, and they typically open at 9 AM. I was not even awake at 9 AM today.

Next stop was a communal apartment.Communal apartments are a throwback to the Soviet Times when the proletariat essentially took control of the houses and apartments of the upper-class. You would think that this would have gone away with the fall of the Soviet Union, but it didn’t. The beautiful old apartments with their 10 foot ceilings and elaborate crown molding still house more people than they should. They still house typically one family per bedroom and up to 10 families per apartment. The numbers obviously differ based on the size of the apartment and the wealth of its inhabitants. Our host was lucky enough to have one room to himself that he has lived in his whole life and inherited from his family. His apartment mates were not necessarily so lucky. We did see their one kitchen, one toilet room, and one shower room. I didn’t take pictures inside because, well, it was someones home to a lot of people, not a place to be gawked at. I wanted to allow a little privacy. Instead you’ll just have to try to imagine it .Imagine your bedroom. Now imagine your whole family living there with you. Imagine your bathroom with its one shower and one toilet. Now imagine that you share with 20 people. Imagine your bedroom walls. Now imagine hearing, every night, the people who you did not necessarily know living right next to you. The loudmouth, the alcoholic, the newlyweds  the angry couple, the baby – any or all of them could be right there at all hours of the day and night. Imagine your privacy. Now imagine it gone.

It’s nearly impossible to count how many people actually live in a communal apartment now, but best guess is that it is around one million people. It could be more or it could be less, but either way it is a lot. Despite this there are wealthier people buying up all of a communal apartment at well over what they are worth and moving in. They do this for the central location and nice bones of the building. The sacrifice is that they have to spend time repairing the building after 90 years of communal living. Most interestingly, this forces the upper class to not only live next to but share a stairway with people who live in communal apartments. In the stairwell we passed a man with no shoes and a large beard on one landing and a man putting his car keys into his nice leather jacket. In the courtyard we could see broken windows outside and bare bulbs inside three-fourths of the walls and one side with newly painted walls, white curtains, and a chandelier softly lighting the inside of a nice apartment. Such is Russia, I suppose.

Private Apartment

Communal Apartment

Our final stop was much less exciting, but still interesting. It was just a market where the locals shopped. There were vendors selling meat, produce, dried fruit, candy, stuff like that. As interesting as it was to see a selection of animal heads for sale, the most interesting part was how incredibly nice everyone was even though we did not speak the same language. Well, one girl did speak Russian and she was given a whole watermelon, so I guess they really liked her, and this made me like them even more.

Our final day in St. Petersburg revolved around two things – a guided walk of Dostoeyvsky’s St. Petersburg based on his life as well as Crime and Punishment and a performance of Boris Godunov at the Mariinsky Theatre. The walk was interesting, but not much worth mentioning without getting into the life of the author. It was simply another interesting lens through which to examine the city.

The starting point of Raskolnikov’s walk in Crime and Punishment. This is one of the very few signs in English in St. Petersburg. Tells you something about the literary tourists that visit.

The opera, however, is certainly worth mentioning. Unfortunately I don’t know what to say. Anything worthwhile would require an explanation of the plot, a comparison to the classical version that we saw previously, and an examination of what might be implied with what was said. I’ll just say that the focus was on the communist party, which is something that I don’t think that we could have imagined previously. Since I can’t describe the show itself I can at least say something about the place itself. The building was again beautiful and historic. The girls in our group enjoyed playing ballerina in the halls and everyone enjoyed taking pictures and fitting in with the tourist crowd.

That night we took the midnight train to Moscow. However, while waiting in the train station we had one person…how do I put this nicely? After a day of not feeling well her stomach rejected her food in the middle of the train station. That was unfortunate, but it happens. Unfortunately she was also the former roommate of someone else who was sick. Uh oh…it was spreading. We were just about to get on the train. Will we make it to Moscow safely or will we all succumb to the plague after 9 hours in confined quarters? Tune in next time to find out!

I needed to include at least one. They are still everywhere and will not disappear until the building does.

You can’t be too picky about your beaches in Russia.

Lenin on the armored car

The light has just been left on to slowly fade out over the past 11 years

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