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St. Petersburg

Leaving Moscow in the rain, we took a five hour train ride to St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, in the far northwestern part of Russia not too far from Finland. The train covered a distance of about 450 miles and it went neither up nor down a hill, nor was there a curve in the tracks. This part of Russia seems as flat as the Netherlands. When we got there, it was about 90įF and not a cloud in the sky well into the evening. St. Petersburg is a tropical paradise.

Okay, tropical paradise is a little strong but we were lucky enough to experience unusually warm and sunny weather. August is the rainiest month here but not for us. So far, so good. St. Petersburg is sometimes called the Venice of the North because of all the rivers and canals. The city is built on what were more than a hundred islands. There are 56 rivers and canals running through it that can be traversed by 342 bridges. Many of these are drawbridges and because of all the shipping, there is a schedule during the overnight hours of when they are all open. Generally, youíre in deep pucky if youíre on the wrong side between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. because the only option then is to swim. Being so far north, St. Petersburg experiences what are called "white nights" around the summer solstice when it never really gets dark and people come out to see all the drawbridges in the open position.

Our tour guide, a different one from Moscow, met us at the train and took us by van to our hotel which took about ten minutes. She told us that in the morning when we returned to the same area to begin our tour that the same trip would take more than an hour. She didnít exaggerate.

Once again, the hotel took our passports in order to register us with the police, always a very welcoming feeling. Because it was already close to 10 p.m., we would be unable to retrieve them until morning. Having already gone through this routine, we were prepared with bottled water. That way we didnít have to leave the hotel but could still brush our teeth without fear of dysentery. Our tour guide told us it didnít matter, though, because we shouldnít carry our passports due to the likelihood of being pickpocketed. This is unheard of: not carrying a passport in a foreign country, especially Russia, especially after our tour guide in Moscow was so adamant that we do carry it. A city guide, the St. Petersburg In Your Pocket, said "the police here generally look for any excuse to fine you." When I asked what would happen if were stopped by the police for some minor infraction, a distinct possibility, she told me to show them the card from the hotel which contained our room key and showed the room number. But to laugh! I was supposed to believe a Russian cop would care about this stupid card that didnít even have our names on it. Not a chance. In the morning, I went to retrieve our passports but was told they would only release them to the tour guide. When she arrived, I told her I was not at all comfortable without my passport and I was not concerned about pickpockets, because, since Paris, I keep it in a place that, if stolen, I have bigger problems than a lost passport. Grudgingly, she went to get the passports. She was gone for half and hour. Lynn went to see what was going on. The hotel had lost all the passports for everyone in our group. Wonderful. Because we were in the company of the tour guide for most of the day, it wasnít a major concern and by the time we returned, our lost passports had been found.

We visited the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace with works by Da Vinci, Raphael, Rodin, and even that Dutch guy Rembrandt whose first name, for some reason, I can never remember. Our tour guide suggested that we might suffer from cultural overload because of all that was there. She was right but the place was magnificent.

This city knows how to build cathedrals but the Soviets didnít seem to appreciate any of them. St. Isaacís Cathedral was built between 1818 and 1858. The Soviets made it into a museum to atheism and today itís still a museum. The gold dome was painted gray during World War II, the Great Patriotic War, to make the target more difficult for the Nazis to see from the air. Still, the building is pock-marked from damage done in that period. In front of the cathedral is a monument to Tsar Nicholas I. The statue of him on a horse faces the cathedral while the horseís hind end faces the palace that Nick had built for his daughter, Maria. Maria, spoiled babe that she was, wouldnít move in because she was insulted that she had to look at the horseís patootie from her front door.

Nearby is the Smolnyy Cathedral and convent. This place was built when Peter the Greatís daughter Elizabeth was prohibited from taking the throne and she decided to become a nun. No ordinary convent for her. However, a coup changed things and Elizabeth was permitted to take the thrown at which point she abandoned the nun business for the throne. My favorite, though, is the Church on Spilled Blood which has the onion domes similar to St. Basilís in Moscow. The spilled blood referred to here belonged to Tsar Alexander II and the spillage occurred in March 1881 when, on the fourth attempt, he was assassinated. This church never functioned as a church; it was only a monument to the fallen tsar. During the revolution the building was ransacked and badly damaged. It was used as a warehouse for vegetables. After the war, it was upgraded to a warehouse for an opera company in the area. In 1970 renovations were started on the inside which were completed in 1997 and today it is a Museum of Mosaic.

We took a short drive to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, about 15 miles from St. Petersburg. This is Catherine I who was evidently not as great as Catherine the Great. The palace was commissioned by Tsarina Elizabeth, daughter of Catherine I who named it for her mother. The place is almost a thousand feet wide. One room was more beautiful as the next, artwork was everywhere, and all the gardens were exquisitely maintained. The Nazis were pretty successful in junking even this place (hereís a before and after of the grand staircase and a painting representing the whole building) but today youíd never know it. We could have spent to the whole day exploring all the gardens because they was so extensive.

Across the street from our hotel was a memorial to the Siege of Leningrad. Between 1941 and 1944 for about 900 days, the Nazis continuously bombarded the city because Hitler said there was no reason for its existence. In a city of three million people, more than one million died, not just from the bombs, but also from starvation, infections, and stress. Food was rationed to about 14 ounces per day for workers, half that for non-workers and kids. After a while, those amounts were cut by almost 40%. Art and other treasures were looted from museums. But somehow these people persisted. Hitler scheduled a victory party at the Astoria Hotel and invitations were printed. The party never happened and Hitler never took over Leningrad.

Lynn and I clearly liked St. Petersburg more than Moscow. It was more visually appealing and people with whom we came into contact were not nearly so gruff and abrasive. But St. Petersburg is also not real high on the warm and fuzzy meter. One of the guide books that we frequently use says that "if something doesnít suit your liking, change your liking." I subscribe to this almost completely. Rooms are generally smaller in Europe and food can be different from what one might expect. So get over it. But, for instance, itís hard to accept rationing of toilet paper. We found a public toilet that required you to get your toilet paper before entering the stall. Heaven help you if you underestimate. Itís hard to get over that. The previously mentioned "St. Petersburg In Your Pocket" guide, in addition to warning us about the police, also said, "Avoid attracting unwanted attention by not speaking loudly in your mother tongue, or walking the streets if you have been drinking. If you are of African, Arab, or Asian descent, exercise caution, particularly at night." Iím not so naÔve as to believe that crime doesnít happen everywhere and almost everyone knows that there are places in any city where one should venture only if one is looking for trouble. But a blanket warning to not speak in a foreign language or to exercise special care just because one may be non-white seems to speak volumes for a place.

Then there is the casual, almost humorous treatment of local corruption. Unlike other places, Russia is very strict about its currency and only rubles are accepted everywhere. Except where they accept U.S. dollars or euros. Why? Street vendors do it illegally and risk a fine if anyone cares about a small guy and the big stores have paid someone off. St. Petersburg, similar to Den Haag, has lots of trolleys that have their own lanes on the city streets. In many cases these lanes are physically separated from the lanes for cars by a barrier of some sort. These dedicated lanes are so that trolleys can move even when the automobile traffic in hopelessly stalled. Occasionally we would see a car in trolley lanes. Upon asking, our guide said they were either risking a stiff fine or had bribed the local police. Another time there was a police siren behind us while the traffic was backed up. People moved out of the way to let the police pass. The cop was escorting another car, a very small one with two passengers who didnít seem to be Putin or any other dignitary. Our guide said that one can buy a police escort to get through the traffic. I know that corruption exists everywhere, but I found its blatant display and casual acceptance offensive to say the least. On the other hand, maybe they deserve credit for being so honest about their dishonesty.

All in all, Iím really glad we visited Russia but I have no desire to return.

See all my pictures of St. Petersburg.

See videos from St. Petersburg.

 

© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008