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Culture news
St. Petersburg: a museum of architecture
06.08.2006 14:43

tourism This is the last in a series of four columns written by my friend Gail Brownfield about her 1,000-mile journey by river from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

On the 10th morning of our trip, I awoke as our floating hotel was docking in the passenger terminal on the River Neva, which winds through St. Petersburg. For the next three days this would be home.

St. Petersburg is an aristocratic city located on the Finnish Bay of the Baltic Sea, and appears to be completely westernized and progressive, and is breathtakingly beautiful. Early in the 17th century, after touring Europe, Peter the Great decided to build his own European city on the swampy estuary of the Neva River.

This site was strategically important as it gave Peter control over trade goods entering Russia, and was a perfect launching spot for his navy in the war with Sweden. Canals were dug and buildings erected over the bodies and bones of many Swedish prisoners and Russian indigents. This seems to be a recurring theme in Russian history. Soviet-era political prisoners also built the great river system we had sailed from Moscow.

Peter mandated that merchants and aristocrats move from Moscow to his new capital and build their buildings in a European, rather than a Russian, style. By the time of Peter's death, the city population was at 100,000 and 90 percent of Russia's trade passed through it.

Today, the city occupies 42 islands that are laced with 70 canals and 300 bridges. It is considered a museum of architecture, boasting more than 200 stunning palaces and monuments mostly representing the Baroque and the Neo-Classical styles. For cultural stimulation, the five million residents can choose from more than 50 museums, 20 concert halls, 60 stadiums or 4,500 libraries.

It is the second largest city in Russia and is the most European in flavor. Tsar Nicolas I said of St. Petersburg that it is Russian, but not Russia.

St. Petersburg and Moscow have built up a rivalry over the years, much like that between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Muscovites consider Leningraders (as they still call St. Petersburg residents) rather snobbish, which is probably accurate, and St. Petersburg citizens regard inhabitants of Moscow simply with pity.

For me, the visit to St. Petersburg was memorable for two reasons, the magnificent Hermitage Museum and the stories of the city's survival during World War II.

The Hermitage is the mother of all art museums. It boasts the biggest collection of artwork and antiquities in the world. It has only three rivals, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid and the Met in New York.

In terms of amenities, such as smart cafes or museums shops, it has no rivals whatsoever, as it is void of all such modern comforts. All you can do here is look at poorly lit masterpieces displayed in 400 rooms of the 1,000-room Winter Palace. On a two-hour guided tour, our group was shown some of the important paintings in the collection, by da Vinci, Titian, della Robbia, Fra Angelico and Rembrandt, to name only a few.

The size of the museum is daunting and we rushed from room to room, down dim corridor after dim corridor, not daring to stop to study 10 other Rembrandts for fear we would lose our leader.

It is said that it would take eight years to view all the holdings of the Hermitage, even if one viewed each piece of art for only one minute. I have no reason to doubt this claim.

But my favorite part of my visit to the Hermitage was when my roommate Karen and I went off on our own to find the 19th- and 20th-century paintings. And we did find them, in drab rooms on the third floor, not protected from sunlight or even weather; cracks around the windows had been stuffed with what appeared to be plastic wrap to keep wind and rain out.

There was room after room of paintings by Cézanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso. I don't mean just a few of each; I mean there were 30 or more by each artist. Many were in desperate need of cleaning, and of course, the light was terrible. In a way, it reminded me of being in Italy - so much there, so much crumbling that they could never hope to take care of it all.

One of the things that I noticed in the Hermitage, as well as in other galleries and museums in Moscow, was that each family had only one child with them. These children were of all ages and some as young as 4 or 5.

I had asked our guide about this at one point, and she had explained that couples were having only one child these days, sometimes two, but never more, because they simply could not afford more. They cherish and indulge their one child with time, attention, love and education. And it seemed to me that we in the United States should consider doing the same, having only the children we can afford to indulge with love and attention.

The siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), called "The 900 Days Siege," is one of history's most horrible war stories. From 1941 to 1944 the Germans kept the city cut off from steady supplies of food, water, gas and electricity.

Occasionally, bread and ammunitions were brought in by trucks that drove across the ice of Lake Ladoga, which became known as the "Road of Life."

But most trucks succumbed to the thin ice or the German bombings that went on for 600 days. Although the Ladoga route also enabled the evacuation of one million people, another one million Leningraders perished. During the unusually harsh winter of 1942 alone, 4,000 people per day died of starvation or cold. People falling dead and corpses lying in the streets were common sights; cats and rats were not, for reasons you can imagine.

Yet, the residents persevered, even retained a semblance of normalcy by organizing makeshift theaters and concerts throughout the siege. One-third of the city was destroyed, but the German troops never conquered Leningrad.

I sympathize with these long-suffering people, not just in St. Petersburg but also all over Russia. They have been the victims of incompetent, cruel and greedy leaders for centuries. And I admire their strength, stamina and conviction that conditions in Russia will be better for their children and their children's children if they can just tough it out for 30 years or so.

They bear the burden of their country's conversion to democracy and endure this transition period willingly because they believe it will mean better lives for future generations.

The day before our flight home, I finally succumbed to the sore throat and cough that Karen had been fighting for a week. One of the staff members on board told us that this cold had been going around the ship for about two months. I felt so bad that I went to see the ship's doctor. This was an experience I will long remember.

He treated my severe sore throat by spraying something on the back of my throat (the relief was immediate), and he told me to drink only warm liquids and to return after dinner. By the end of the day I had developed a cough and runny nose.

Even though the doctor spoke very little English, we had an hour-long conversation about the differences between Russian and U.S. doctors. While I was asking him lots of questions, he gave me some special treatments to relieve my asthma so that my trip home would be more comfortable. He sprayed my throat again, sprayed something into my nose, and gave me a full back massage with a special balm made from needles of an evergreen tree from Siberia. Amazingly, I could breathe deeply again.

He explained that doctors in Russia use traditional as well as medicinal cures for ailments and perform massage as well as acupuncture. With instructions to take ibuprofen and go directly to bed, I thanked him and returned to my cabin for a good night's sleep. The total cost for my treatments was $5. Compared to the $32 I paid for a haircut earlier in the week, this was a real bargain.

I guess it was indeed time to go home because I was exhausted from the intensity of the information that had been coming my way for the past two weeks. In summary, I must tell you that this has been one of my best trips and certainly one of the most educational. Visits to Russia can be done in less time, but if ever you have an opportunity to do it by river, do it. It takes longer but you get to learn more about the people and get to see places you couldn't get to any other way. It was well worth the time I spent there.

Redlands resident Ilene Cox is the owner of Redlands Travel Service.St. Petersburg: a museum of architecture

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