Footsore in Russia
After two weeks of tramping around St Petersburg in the Russian winter we now have an inkling of what Napoleon’s Grande Armée must have felt like on its retreat from Moscow. I exaggerate, of course. It has been cold, but no snow, and, surprise, surprise, mostly sunny and blue-sky days. Nevertheless, my Eddie Bauer parka that I’ve hardly worn in the past fifteen years has served me well every day.
There are pros and cons to visiting this splendid city in the month of March. On the downside, no ferries or excursion boats ply the frozen canals and river. The city’s many parks and gardens are brown and lifeless, too. On the other hand, at this time of year, when the cruise ships can’t disgorge their hordes, there are fewer tourists. Ticket lines are shorter, and it’s possible to get into fine restaurants without reservations. Now is also the height of the theater season when tickets to some of the world’s great performances are available.
Before this first visit we didn’t know how it would feel to be in Russia. After all, during so much of our lives, this country was pretty much off-limits, and our general impressions were formed by the movies and our own country’s propaganda. So, we can say that our days here have been a time of discovery.
We did have one goal in mind, though. We wanted to view the contents of one of the world’s great museums. The Hermitage is located on the River Neva in the Winter Palace, which even without its treasure of art would be a museum in itself. As it is, it holds many of the world’s great Dutch, Flemish, and Renaissance paintings, some of which have never been seen in the West. The museum also has a fine collection of 19th-century European and 20th-century avant-garde art.
To arrive by train at St Petersburg’s Finland Station as did Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, alias Lenin, nearly one hundred years ago is a thing I’ve been inspired to do ever since I read To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson’s wonderful history of revolutionary thought years ago.
Ryan, an American friend, met us there and after negotiating with a taxi driver to take us to our hotel, horrified us with a tale of being abducted by four thugs a couple of evenings previously and threatened with death if he didn’t hand them his money and the PIN to his bank account. He escaped by somehow flinging himself through the window of the thug’s car but not without losing his wallet and some of his dignity. He hastened to assure us that such things rarely happen in St Petersburg these days and that he had brought on the trouble himself by drinking alone in a remote and unfamiliar part of town. We had a chatty dinner with our friend that evening before he left for the States the following day.
So we were on our own, babes in the woods in an unfamiliar city, unable to speak, understand, or even read its language. As you can imagine, this presented some challenges. Fortunately, armed with our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook and helped by the friendly staff at the Arkadia Hotel, we were able to get around on our own pretty well. Few Russians speak English; however, while museum cards can be hit or miss, restaurant menus usually describe their bills of fare in our language.
Besides the restaurants, what interested us most were the monuments, cathedrals, and museums, sights that presented a minimum of comprehension problems. Transportation was not a problem either because, as the title of this piece suggests, we walked nearly everywhere.
Although distances can be long, St Petersburg is a fine city for pedestrians. Many intersections have traffic lights, and many of those have elapsed-time clocks that count down the seconds for crossing before the light changes. Another beauty is that on crosswalks without traffic lights, if you step off the curb, cars will stop to let you cross, a feature unheard of in Turkey. We found St Petersburg to be civilized in many ways.
Peter the Great founded his eponymous city after visiting Western Europe, and because he so admired the canals and bridges of Amsterdam he wanted Petrograd to have those, too. Water was no problem since the city was built on swampland. Nor was labor much of an issue. Serfs by the thousands could be put to toil, digging canals, filling land, and building roads. If they survived the harsh conditions long enough, they could expect their freedom and bit of land for themselves.
Peter was a willful ruler, and his will was absolute. When he told the powerful Moscow nobles that Petrograd was to be the country’s new capital and their new home, they had no choice but to move there and even bring their own stones to build their palaces. The Romanov dynasty that Peter founded lasted three hundred eventful years. While Peter himself had rather modest tastes in living, the autocrats that succeeded him did not. The extravagance of their legacies boggles the mind even today in the palaces, art, and artifacts they commissioned and collected.
Catherine, a Prussian princess, born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbest-Dornburg, married into the family, so to speak, and began her climb to greatness after her husband Peter III was assassinated and she assumed the throne. It was she who collected European paintings so avidly, buying up entire troves from western nobles willing to sell them. Thus, she assembled what would become one of the most extensive art collections in the world. Catherine was flagrantly extravagant in other ways as well. Her palace and park outside of the city at Tsarskoe Selo are as immense as they are beautiful. And Tsarskoe Selo was only her summer palace! To build something so grand and then to fill it with paintings, statues, and one-of-a-kind furnishings and décor made by the most skilled masters of Europe required a level of wealth and expense too great for ordinary minds to grasp.
St Petersburg has many elegant imperial buildings, now restored and repurposed as museums. The Russian Museum rivals the Hermitage in the size of its collection, and as its name suggests, contains only Russian art. There, we discovered fine artists we had never heard of. One is Ilya Repin, a 19th-century painter of large-scale works with Russian themes. At least two of these are masterpieces that every lover of art should be aware of. Barge Haulers on the Volga shows a group of ragged men hitched like beasts to a line, straining to move a barge up river. I think no one has ever painted the anguish of despair more realistically than Repin did in the faces of these lost souls.
Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan is another great work. The Sultan in question is Murad IV, who has demanded that the Cossacks recognize him as their lord and master. In their mocking refusal, a group of Cossacks are seen gathered around a scribe who is writing the letter. In their physiognomies and attitudes, it is clear that these are Russian warriors for whom the idea of showing allegiance to a foreign ruler is laughable.
In addition to its hundreds of portraits, history paintings, and genre scenes depicting an idealized Russia, the Russian Museum has some wonderful avant-garde works from the 1920s. We enjoyed seeing those of Kazimir Malevich that we had mostly only heard of previously. Among the Constructivist art, a favorite is Still Life with A Saw by Vladimir Lebedev.
Apart from its palaces, St Petersburg’s churches and cathedrals are varied and stunning. One of the most outlandish is the Church of the Resurrection of Christ more commonly known as the Church on the Spilled Blood. It was built as a memorial to Tsar Alexander II, who was mortally wounded on the spot by a terrorist group in 1881. Although rooted in Russian architectural tradition, to western eyes it looks like a halluciatory drawing that was never intended it to be realized. It was built, though, and took over twenty-four years and one million roubles more than budgeted. Today it is a museum, unique in the city, and extraordinary inside and out.
In the Roman Catholic West, a cathedral is the principal church of a diocese, the bishop’s church, if you will. As such, each diocese has only one. Think of St Patrick’s in New York or Notre Dame in Paris. I don’t know how it is different in Orthodox Russia, but St Petersburg has multiple cathedrals. At least two of these are now museums. St Isaac’s is large with extensive open space around it. It is a big tourist draw. If you climb its 262 steps to an exterior balcony at the level of base of the dome, you have 360-degree views of the entire Historic Heart of the city and beyond.
One of the prettiest cathedrals we visited is located in the center of the Peter & Paul Fortress, which is ground zero, tiny off-shore Zayachy island, where Peter began to build his city in 1703. The SS Peter & Paul is not the largest cathedral, but its magnificent baroque interior makes it different from the others. It is also the imperial necropolis; all the Romanovs are interred there, including the remains of the last Tsar, Nicholas II and his family, all of whom were murdered by the Bolsheviks on July 17th, 1918 at Ekaterinburg.
Probably our trip’s biggest surprises came in St Petersburg’s finer restaurants. Their cuisine excelled in selection, presentation, and flavor. Georgian dishes are popular there, and since we’d experienced these previously in Teflis and Istanbul, we were eager to taste them in Russia. Şaşlik is the Georgian version of sish kabab. Lobio is a delicious bean dish cooked and served in a crock while kachapuri comes in different forms. Our favorite was a baked, boat-shaped piece of special bread holding melted cheese and eggs in its center. We ate it by tearing off pieces of the bread and dipping them in the cheese-and-egg concoction. Very tasty!
Among the purely Russian dishes were herring, sturgeon, salmon, and pike-perch, fish dishes prepared in various ways. Herring is often a starter served with potatoes and onions. Sturgeon, of course, is the principal source of caviar, but it appears in other guises as well. At one lovely meal we were presented with a whole sturgeon for two, baked and boned in such a way that it was circled on a platter surrounding a bowl of sour cream infused with herbs. The platter was garnished with boiled potatoes, as well. This dish, arriving as it did after we had eaten salads of duck breast, celery root and venison, was too much to finish.
Sour cream is ubiquitous in Russian cooking; chefs use it the way Turks use yogurt. Other very common dishes are dumplings with varied fillings and potato pancakes. For breakfast at our hotel we ate crepe-like pancakes served with sour cream and preserves.
We had not known about Russian wines before this trip. We found the country’s sauvignon blanc, made from grapes grown in the southern part of the country to be quite respectable.
Of all we experienced during our two-week stay in St Petersburg, nothing surpassed our evenings at the theater. Russians love classical music, as we know from the number of famous names in the world’s repertoire, and music combined with dance is the culture’s great art form. What we saw is that citizens of St Petersburg embrace classical ballet the way Italians do opera and the British do legitimate theater. We had the pleasure of attending performances of four famous ballets in four of the city’s historic theaters. There was Sawn Lake at the Alexandrinsky, The Firebird at the Mariinsky, Romeo and Juliet at the intimate Hermitage Theater, and Giselle at the Mikhailovsky.
We had not seen Giselle, whose score is by Adolph Adam, before and didn’t know the music, but from the very first dramatic notes of overture we sensed that we were in for a memorable experience. I should add that by a serendipitous accident we occupied what to us were the best seats in the house. Kay had ordered and paid for ones in the first balcony but received a notice from the ticketing agency that they could not fulfill the order. Instead they upgraded us to what they called VIP seats for the same price. Because we couldn’t read the Russian tickets, we weren’t sure what we were in for. Imagine our surprise when we were shown to seats front row center of the orchestra right over the orchestra pit and just meters from the stage. There was no need for opera glasses that night.
Giselle has been one of the ballet world’s best loved works since it debuted in Paris in 1841. Its music and choreography are magnificent, and what we witnessed in the realm of virtuoso dancing that night deepened our appreciation for ballet in ways we hadn’t expected. For instance, prima ballerina Angelina Vorontsova’s dancing in the role of Giselle had, in addition to its grace and charm, a quality that we associate with great acting. She exuded such happiness and then such pain of loss.
In this report I’ve only given highlights of our St Petersburg adventures. There is so much to say that I could go on for pages. However, to end this I’ll just add a few general notes that we think you’ll find interesting:
Because people there wear coats, hats, scarves, and gloves for several months of the year cloakrooms are very important. Museums and theaters have spaces where women take your outerwear, backpacks, etc. and hold them at no charge. What is unusual there is the size and capacity of the cloakrooms. Those at the Heritage Museum, for instance, can hold thousands of items.
Many middle-class Russian women take great care of their appearance. They dress chicly and cloakroom walls all have large mirrors so that women can arrange their dress before exiting.
Russian men and women tend to walk fast; perhaps this is because of the cold or perhaps they can because they are tall and long-legged. Their pace is remarkable because of what we are used to in Turkey.
For years we’ve heard about the way Russian metro stations are constructed and decorated. We had a chance to admire these first-hand on this trip. Many of the medallions and carvings have nationalistic symbols. Stations are lit by chandeliers. Very impressive!
Although we didn’t avail ourselves of the opportunity often, we could travel on city busses and the metro very inexpensively compared to European and American cities.
The background music in many restaurants contains mostly songs with English lyrics. These are usually not popular songs or when they are, they are covers. We were reminded that there is a large industry of singers and musicians that create this kind of music. What’s more, it was surprising to constantly hear English-language songs in this country where so few people understand English.
Another surprise is how little graffiti there is in St Petersburg. We are used to seeing graffiti defacing building walls in most cities where we travel but not there.
To sum up our St Petersburg experience in a word, we are impressed. This is a physically beautiful city featuring canals and wide avenues bordered by elegant building facades. It has a European feel because the buildings are attached and all about the same height, forming beautiful perspectives, especially along the canals.
The city has many palaces, cathedrals, statues, and other monuments that make its history visible. It also has many parks and gardens that must be beautiful in the late spring and summer.
We think that Peter the Great, who looked to the West and envisioned a city of the Enlightenment that would compare favorably in appearance and culture with the great European capitals he had seen, would be pleased to see what his city has become.