In Search of St. Petersburg
Russia's Crown Jewel City — Both Polished and Tarnished
Stepping off the ship, we could only marvel to ourselves, "We are in Russia…fabled land of czars, Bolsheviks, and Soviets!" The three-day stopover in St. Petersburg had been the primary reason we had taken this seven-country Baltic Sea cruise. We had heard of the wonders and history of the majestic city created by Peter the Great. Now, ten years since the dissolution of the USSR, what would it be like to visit the best-preserved site of Russia’s czar dynasty? What would be our feelings on seeing the remains of the Soviet Union alongside the evolving conditions and population of the new Russian Federation? Three days of tours would give us the highlights of the city’s treasures, yet leave enough time to experience firsthand today’s Russia.
St. Petersburg has one of Europe’s best city layouts. Several bridges span the broad Neva River, while the majority of the interesting sites are located south of the river along three concentric canals, Moika, Griboyedova, and Fontanka. The major boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt, runs from its origin at the river, near the Hermitage, in a southeasterly direction, crossing all three canals. Once we understood this simple city plan, we felt immediately "oriented" for our explorations. We started at the city’s birthplace, Peter and Paul Fortress, which looks across the river at St. Petersburg’s low skyline. The thick-walled fortress had seen duty over the years as a military outpost, a political prison (Lenin stayed there), and site of the Romanov czars’ royal cathedral and their tombs. The quantity of gold throughout the interior almost made us gag. Even the towering steeple, viewable for miles, was gilded. However, the fort’s walls and other buildings were in obvious disrepair…a sign of the currently tough economic climate.Next, we crossed into the city past the czars’ Summer Gardens and the Hermitage to huge gold-domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral, built by Czar Alexander I. We were even more impressed by the Church of Our Savior, sitting alongside Moika Kanal, with its St. Basil-like domes and fabulous mosaics. It is one of an increasing number of Russian Orthodox churches again functioning religiously. Further explorations brought us to Palace Square, where the revolution started near the Hermitage, and Decembrist’s Square with its bronze horseman statue of Peter the Great. A number of other sites highlighted the city’s czarist history: Kazan Cathedral; the Russian baroque Smolny Cathedral; the Mariinskii (Kirov) Ballet building; the Russian Museum, and the statue of Catherine the Great. As we completed our orientation, we had mixed feelings: impressed by many czarist sites; saddened to see other czarist sites and public buildings in disrepair; and in wonder why there seemed to be so many loiterers and street workers seemingly "on a break." We wanted to learn more about the human spirit of the new Russia.
Hermitage, Winter Palace
The Hermitage was worth our full day visit. A major highlight was viewing the imposing stairways, halls and czar "living rooms" (rooms 188-198) of the 400-room structure. Here the attraction was history, as we viewed the draped, gilded, and jeweled chambers where Russian royalty once cavorted. In the green-pillared Malachite Hall the Provisional Government that briefly succeeded the czars held its last meeting before being arrested in the adjacent dining room by the Bolshevik forces that stormed in from neighboring Palace Square.
The Hermitage art collection, three million pieces, occupies most of the Hermitage structure. We ended up concentrating on just the paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Leonardo, Rafael, El Greco, Goya, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, and Matisse…to drop a few names. The czars spared no expense in developing their collection. Unfortunately, we were greatly saddened to see that it was not being maintained in the conditions that it deserved. On a warm, sultry summer day with no air conditioning the masterpieces were being subjected to ruinous temperature and humidity…more tarnish on the jewel.
Peterhof, Summer Palace
On our third day we visited Peter the Great’s large summer palace, where we best experienced the feeling of czarist Russia. Peterhof (also know as Petrodvorets) is situated 18 miles west of the city, surrounded by huge gardens and connected by a canal and pathways to its dock on the Baltic Sea. The Grand Cascade with its three waterfalls, 64 fountains, and 37 statues elicited a tourist outburst "Aaah!" as it thundered into action at noon. Trick fountains were scattered throughout the gardens, a reminder that czar Peter would catch his garden-walking guests off guard with an occasional drenching. The sumptuous palace interior, including the Throne Room and the silk-wallpapered Partridge Dining Room again reminded us that the czars wanted to think of themselves as just a cut above their subjects.
Today’s Russia: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
In the course of our tours and our "evenings on the town," we started to gather a better picture of today’s Russian Federation. First, the Good experiences and observations… When we attended a theater presentation of Russian folkloric song and dance, which spanned the peasant, Cossack, and Jewish traditions from across the country, we were impressed with the talent, energy, friendliness, and proud spirit of the large cast. Our forthcoming guide indicated that their has been a tremendous amount of rebuilding and reparation of the city’s major tourist sites and that tourism is having a positive impact on St. Petersburg’s economy. The fact that a number of churches are again operational was also a positive sign of the recently won freedoms of the population.
Now, the Bad and the Ugly… Perhaps the largest challenge facing the new government and its citizens is developing a general feeling of honesty and trust. When we asked our guide the average salary and the unemployment rate, she responded honestly that nobody has a clue — "everyone" tells the government they have a job, when in fact many are idle, and "everyone" reports only a portion of their income to avoid the outlandish tax rates. When we heard her response, we no longer wondered why organized crime is reported to control 30-40% of Russia’s economy, why there appeared to be a high number of loiterers and beggars, even why most young couples avoid marriage in order to avoid government recognition. In our own brief time on the streets of the city we did not sense the type of elevated energy and purpose exhibited by the residents of other ex-USSR countries that we had visited.
The housing situation in Russia was another indicator of the challenges ahead. Our guide showed us the living conditions of the average Russian in a small apartment in a huge apartment complex. Almost all housing continues to be owned by the government; the supply is limited (multi-year waiting lists), and the prices have risen. It will take years before private industry will develop sufficiently to bring the government out of the housing loop. With the current problems many older Russians are living together, crowded into a one-room apartment. The challenges for Russia are significant.
Would we return to Russia?…probably not in the near future. Are we thankful for our three days there?…absolutely! As we sailed from St. Petersburg’s harbor we reflected on our visit to Russia’s most accessible and historic city. It occurred to us that over the centuries, until 1991, the average Russian has never experienced personal freedoms and has always relied on the rulers (be they czars or the State) for their life "direction." Russia's biggest challenge may be in developing self-reliance, responsibility, and initiative in its citizens. The trip was hard to describe, yet we knew that this had been one of our most intriguing travel experiences...we won’t forget St. Petersburg.
The photos to the story you can find on http://www.highonadventure.com/
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