The In-Transit Report

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Russia Part Six: More Moscow and Kazan

I never quite finished talking about Russia. Considering I spent three months there, that’s not too surprising. Russia is huge, dynamic, diverse, and provides plenty of interesting topics of conversation!

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After a brief visit back to the states to see family and friends, I returned to Moscow and prepared to travel to Central Asia. While back in Moscow, I had the benefit of being there for Victory Day, which is perhaps the biggest holiday in Russia. On May 9th, it celebrates the success of the Soviet Army over Nazi Germany in World War II. Basically, Moscow turned into a big party, starting with a parade of tanks and trucks through the centre, then celebrations through every major neighbourhood. Girls and boys in Soviet style outfits pulled pedestrians over to dance to the music of the period, sidewalk cafes were packed, and decorations spread all over the place, with placards giving information about various cities and their struggles against the invading army. Volgograd, the Hero City, was mentioned often.

In the US we have Memorial Day, but our celebrations focus on simply having a day off of work, not uniting to celebrate military dominance or the contributions of our war dead. It’s a very different vibe, and not always in a positive way. While for me it was strange for a celebration of a war to be so festive, after the staggering losses suffered by the Soviet Union, maybe it made sense at the time to focus on victory and how that unites the whole country.

Russia definitely has a lot of Soviet nostalgia, and even though there aren’t as many statues of Lenin as there used to be, there are remnants all over the place. I walked around one day with a girl I’d met through Couchsurfing, and went through a sculpture park full of Soviet memories. In the outskirts of the city (and often its centre) are the characteristic big buildings from the era, and the hammer and sickle is prevalent in the metro stations. Who wants to tear down a reminder of a system that theoretically worked so well? So many people still have fond memories of life in the Soviet Union; it’s just us, “here in the West” who thought it was nothing but horror and starvation, and expect that all Russians feel the same. Of course, there are plenty of people who take a more critical view, but as big as Russia is, there’s room for different opinions. Either way, it was a very interesting time to be in Moscow.

Moscow  Worker at Vysokopetrovsky Monastery

With all the extra time I spent in Moscow, I had the chance to see more of its quieter, lesser known attractions. I wound up Couchsurfing for a week with a really cool girl outside the city, so that week was spent just like a local: relaxing, socialising, and occasionally heading into the city to take care of my Uzbek visa application and see other sights.

One of these places was Vysokopetrovsky, an old Monastery near Pushkin Square. It’s not shiny and restored like many other places in Moscow are, but has a really nice atmosphere and the authenticity of crumbling bricks and uneven sidewalks. After pretty much overdosing on the glitz and glam of Red Square and the hundreds of other Russian Orthodox churches all over the country, this was incredibly refreshing. I watched the same monk scuttle from one end to the other throughout the half hour or so I was there, with very few other tourists poking their heads through the gate.

Another stop I made was to Kolomenskoye, a large park to the south of the city with a collection of churches, and Siberian wood buildings that were relocated to this former royal estate during Soviet times. It’s kind of an open-air museum with a number of lovely restored buildings from various time periods, but full of normal people walking, running and cycling along the river.

After finally picking up my Uzbek visa from the Consulate, I relaxed by the river with a celebratory kvas and enjoyed the absolutely perfect weather. This itself was a victory: the Uzbek visa being in my hands meant that I could finally book a ticket to Central Asia and begin this important part of my trip.

Moscow Metro  Propekt Mira 2

Museum Day and Night crept up, resulting in two great trips for me. One was the Soviet Cosmonaut Museum, which I went to with Anastasia, a Russian girl I’d met in Sochi and hung out with a number of times in Moscow. The museum itself was really cool, and made me wish even more that I was an astronaut. The rocket monument outside is classically Soviet, and made of the same materials as rockets. We laughed at the ridiculously Soviet statue inside, too, and got to see two famous dogs who went to space: Strelka and Belka, stuffed and looking quite creepy. Afterwards we walked through another massive park with huge, ugly buildings dedicated each to the Soviet States. Gloriously hideous.

The other museum was the recently opened Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, a mammoth construction that’s actually quite impressive. I met up with Maria, a friend of Anastasia’s who I’d met in Sochi and again in Moscow, at 11 at night to get in for free and join a tour with her, her mother and friend. The visit started with a 4D presentation, complete with rocking, shaking chairs and bursts of mist that complement the 3D story of Jewish history. The presentation was in Russian, with English subtitles, and very succinct and interesting. The accuracy of the exhibits was very good, and it didn’t seem to downplay any anti-Semitism in the USSR.

The rest of the museum is, well, huge and detailed, with interactive displays, a Holocaust memorial, library, and packed wall-to-wall with people that night. Apparently it’s normally incredibly expensive to get into, so I was happy to deal with the crowds in return for free entrance.

Kazan  Temple of All Religions 3

My last few weeks in Moscow were also spent in cafes, planning and plotting for Central Asia, but my last few days in Russia were actually spent in Kazan, a city in the south that’s the centre of the Republic of Tatarstan. Another semi-autonomous republic of Russia, this area is home to ethnic Tatars, who are Muslim, and the city is known for being a place where Muslims and Christians coexist peacefully. Another refreshing change from Moscow’s orthodox churches, this was also a nice segue into Central Asia’s Islamic culture and history.

Kazan was a surprisingly modern, bright city, having been recently renovated in preparation for a number of upcoming sporting events, including the 2018 World Cup. The Kremlin is one of the nicest I’ve seen, and home to a new but huge and beautiful mosque. Across the river there’s also a building in construction: the Temple of All Religions, a huge masterpiece with domes representing a number of different religions – see picture. Can you count all the religions? There’s a Buddha statue in the front as well.

From Kazan, I flew back to Moscow, spent one long night in the airport, and flew into Dushanbe, Tajikistan the next day. My Russian chapter has been closed… for now. I don’t think it’ll be too long before I wind up back again!


Russia Part Five: Literary Adventures

One of the main reasons I went to Russia was my love of Russian literature. Anyone who knows me knows how much I adore anything by Leo Tolstoy, and of course other writers like Dostoevsky and Bulgakov. So, I wanted to dedicate an entire post to the literary sights I enjoyed the most in Russia. There are monuments to Russian authors and poets all over the place, particularly in Moscow I noticed, but the best spots are where they converted an author’s old flat into a museum.

Pictures are all taken with my iPhone and not my DSLR.

Dostoevsky:

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The first place in Russia I visited was Saint Petersburg, and visited the Dostoevsky House Museum there. The first part of it was a museum exhibit with a narrative of the author’s life, and various objects to illustrate. Some where Dostoevsky’s, but some may have been added as examples from the time period.

The flat itself was pretty small, starting with a hat of his covered with glass. I actually really enjoy seeing small things that (theoretically) belonged to authors – it’s a little personal, and makes you feel like a giddy fan who got to sneak into your favourite star’s house.

Each room had a stack of laminated cards with some information, and luckily one of those was in English. It described the life of the author and his family while he lived there. This is where he lived before he died, though before he had moved around quite a lot.

My favourite part of all of these museums is the writing desk, and the bookshelves next to it. To see where a great author penned their work is really something special, if only especially nerdy! I’m not sure what works he actually wrote here, but I’d like to believe the desk wasn’t usually this neat and tidy…

Gogol:

I’d read Dead Souls a few years back, so in Moscow I checked out the Gogol Museum. Frankly, it was disappointing. The space was overwhelmed by some weird audiovisual installations that didn’t really add anything to the experience, particularly for someone who doesn’t understand a lot of Russian. 

There were some things from his life, though, and of course the writing desk was there, albeit not set up in a very natural way. There was also a statue outside, sporting Gogol’s distinctive hairstyle.

Bulgakov:

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This was my second favourite of all the museums. There were actually a few parts. First, a museum in a different part of his building, with an exhibit about his life and work, which also sported a cafe and a theatre nearby. Russia loves Bulgakov, whose famous work, Master and Margarita, definitely demands a reread at some point. There are places all over Moscow that play tribute to his work.

IMG 1838The staircase leading up to the flat is a museum in itself; there’s drawings of all kinds with imagery from the book, particularly featuring the infamously snarky, vodka-drinking black cat, Behemoth! You just have to read the book. The main part of the museum is his flat, which also features installations, but ones that give the whole place a Master and Margarita vibe.

The flat itself was crowded with people visiting, which was nice to see. It was a great place to linger in for a while, and the installations and artwork really contributed to the experience. There was even a permanent resident in the flat… a black cat.

Tolstoy:

IMG 1886The ultimate experience for me was visiting Leo Tolstoy’s estate and gravesite in Yasnaya Polyana, a village around 3-4 hours south of Moscow. I decided to stay two nights at the one hotel there, and also take a few classes in Russian, so it wound up being a longer trip, and, naturally, a pilgrimage. 

The estate sits on a wide section of land, with a few gardens and ponds built it. I went in March, so the pond was still mostly frozen and the ground muddy and brown, but it was still all I could have wanted. After a day of Russian lessons (my poor brain!), I went the next morning with my Russian teacher to the site when it first opened. She took me through the museum in one of the houses, explaining at length his biography and experiences (in English!), and it was really nice to only be two people in the whole museum. That is, until a tour of Russian kids came, but the employees simply closed the doors behind us and we managed to stay ahead.

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Next she took me through the main house, where he actually lived and worked with his family. There were two rooms that really meant a lot to me: the one where he wrote War & Peace, and the one where he wrote Anna Karenina. Something about being in that space was magical. The whole place had a simple, cozy feel to it, much like the simplistic ideals that Tolstoy was trying to follow towards the end of his life. He believed in being kind to his fellow people, generous and supportive of the peasants, and not coveting wealth. Though these ideals caused problems between him and his family members, they send a powerful message through much of his later work.

The last stop was the most important one… Tolstoy’s grave. There was a story he and his brother shared when they were kids, about a magical green stick that held the secret of the universe and would bring peace to the world. Apparently it could be found buried at the edge of a ravine. A metaphor that remained with him for life, Tolstoy was in the end buried at the edge of the woods, overlooking a ravine, in a simple grave covered by earth and sticks. When I visited in March everything was brown with a little late snow still lingering, but the grave was laid with simple cut flowers.

The next morning I returned, this time on my own, and had a peaceful moment at Tolstoy’s grave. I stood and pondered for some time, watching the way the sunlight came through the trees at intervals and lit up his grave, and listening to nothing but the rustling of the wind threading through the leafless branches.


Russia Part Four: Ulan Ude, Lake Baikal, and the Transsiberian 2nd leg to Nizhny Novgorod

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Once you’re inside its borders, Russia becomes like a whole other world, made up of different ethnicities and cultures comprising their own semi-autonomous Republics.

The Buryat Republic, my next destination in late March, is one of these, and is the centre of Russian buddhism. It borders Mongolia (whose capital of Ulan Baator is a 7-8 hour train ride away) and shares many cultural similarities. I spent a few days in Ulan Ude, the biggest city, and ventured out to the east side of Lake Baikal from there.

Ulan Ude is a big city with a balance of Buryats and Russians, and is known for having a giant statue of Lenin’s head, and the nearby buddhist monastery, Ivolginskiy Datsan. It also doesn’t take long to find some beautiful examples of Siberia’s famous wooden architecture (pictured), spread throughout a number of places in the city, still very much in use. 

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I spent a day and a night in a town called Ust Barguzin, on the east side of the lake halfway up. The drive out there was long and not entirely paved, but the area had a nice, remote feel to it. The guy who ran the homestay was really nice and accommodating to me and his other guests, a group of Poles who had been going from one part of Baikal to the other.

At that time of year (mid-late March) the lake was completely frozen over, letting cars and even trucks drive from one side to the other. However, it wasn’t cold at all, so I spent a warm day driving around to see various parts of the lake with the Poles, a view of the Holy Nose peninsula in the background. The Poles had been out ice fishing, so for dinner we had fresh fish and lots of vodka.

Our host also treated us to the quintessential Russian Banya, or sauna. Sitting around in extreme heat and then getting whacked with a bunch of leaves (white birch, oak or eucalyptus usually) isn’t really my forte, but hey, when in Rome. How the hell Russians drink vodka in the Banya, I don’t want to know. Apparently I can’t even handle 65 celcius / 150 fahrenheit for more than 15 minutes, much less while drinking vodka. Apparently it can get as hot as around 90 c  / 195 f, which just sounds like instant death to me.

I had also wanted to see the Barguzin valley, which looks close by on a map but really isn’t. It would’ve cost too much money though, at least for one person, so I’ll just have to save it for when I’m back in the area and can find a group to take the tour with to this very remote area.

I spent a day as well at Ivolginskiy Datsan, which was a beautiful Buddhist monastery set at the edge of a quiet village not too far from Ulan Ude. I walked around and contemplated, listened to the sound of birds and wind, paid my respects to the Buddha, and succeeded in getting around with my basic Russian.

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I met another American girl in the hostel in Ulan Ude, along with an Italian girl, and together we went out to a different, closer, village on the edge of the lake, called Gremyachinsk. This wound up being a great adventure, from getting out there, to tromping through the slushy areas en route to the icey lake, and then playing around a giant pile of ice and snow out on the ice (wall of blue ice pictured). A couple young Russian kids took pictures with us and used their few English sentences before giggling and running off. We wandered back to the edge of town and marvelled at the beauty of the slabs of ice, its frighteningly long cracks, and the various textures of the surface (see picture).

Ulan Ude  Gremyachinsk Village 14

We stopped for snacks on the beach, and got inviting to join a BBQ with a group of older Russian ladies. Despite our lack of Russian (I had the most knowledge of Russian, which is pretty laughable), we made friends and were force-fed, poured way too much vodka, and had a great time. The ladies were convinced I was going to freeze to death despite my insistence that I was fine, so in the end one of the ladies gave me her knit cap and wouldn’t let me refuse it. Absolutely adorable.

Finally, we figured out where to pick up the bus back to Ulan Ude, managed to get tickets despite a number of language errors on my part, and walked around the village looking for coffee in the hour or so we had to kill before the bus.

The next day, the other American girl and I went onwards to Irkutsk, a bigger city on the other side of the lake that’s a more common base to see Lake Baikal from. Lindsey and I bonded at the hostel because we’re both nerds, and it’s been a long time since I met someone with as many common interests as we had. That was really nice, so we had plenty of fodder for conversation while watching the landscape. 

The main reason I wanted to stop at Irkutsk before continuing on was to make sure I could catch a daytime train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk – this was rumoured to be the most scenic part of the trans-siberian. It didn’t disappoint.

After a fun day and change in Irkutsk, I got on the Rossiya 1, which is the classic “transsiberian” train that goes all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok and vice versa. This journey was slightly longer than the last one: 69 hours from Irkutsk to Nizhny Novgorod, a big Russian city only a few (7-8) hours from Moscow.

I got a 2nd class seat again, opting for the nicer ride, and wound up cabin-mates with two 20-something guys who were also going to Nizhny. 

IMG 2073It was refreshing to have the same cabin mates the whole time, and between my Russian and their bit of English, we got to know each other a fair amount.

This cabin was more comfortable than the last one, so I parked myself in a seat next to a window, drank a ton of tea, and read the first few Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) books, having polished off Harry Potter in Ulan Ude. The time went quickly this time, helped along with shared beers and attempts at political conversation while lacking substantial vocabulary.

Nizhny Novgorod 10

I spent only a couple days in Nizhny Novgorod before I was due back in Moscow to fly to the States, but it was a nice town to have a stop in. The first half of the day, it was sunny and bright, so I walked all around the Kremlin and checked out the various churches and buildings, but later on, while I was back at the hostel, it started snowing.

I took my camera out and took some shots in the blizzard, which was exactly what I was in the mood for. I’d missed the epic cold and snow of Siberian winter, so this was a happy occasion. Inside the Kremlin I strolled through the tanks and guns on display, the snow sticking to the naked trees.

I walked to the embankment and looked down, but where the promenade met the Volga river, the fog was so dense you couldn’t see anything beyond the edge. It was like being on the edge of the world, and it was absolutely beautiful.


Russia Part Three: Moscow, Vladivostok & the 1st leg of the Trans-Siberian

Moscow  Sochi Skating Rink at Red Square 7

There’s a place on earth where you can stand in one place, turn 360 degrees, and every single thing you see is epic. This place is Red Square, Moscow (and Russia’s) penultimate tourist spot, where every single building in sight is a masterpiece. Even in the beginning of March it was crowded with tourists both foreign and Russian, and because of the Olympics there was a makeshift skating rink and stores with walls sporting the Sochi theme of Russian textiles. Red Square is a patch of pavement next to the walls of the Kremlin, an elevated, walled area containing cathedrals and museums. On another side of Red Square is the world famous St. Basil’s Cathedral (shown, with the Sochi rink), an insanely decorative Russian orthodox church whose onion domes and bright colour scheme conjure thoughts of cake toppers. In any case, Red Square’s hype lives up to itself.

Moscow Kremlin  Dormition Cathedral 5I wound up spending almost two weeks in Moscow, taking the time to slow down and just chill out while I figured out what to do next. I’d walked all over the city and made a map in my head, helped along by my iPhone, before I realised my hostel had a free map. With everything focused on Red Square, I could pick different areas to walk around each day, even getting away from the centre here and there.I’d come from St. Petersburg and other parts of Russia with the expectation that Moscow would be a big, drab city with a few nice areas, but I was pleasantly surprised.

There are a lot of nice areas, filled with beautiful old buildings, with lots and lots of monuments, museums, churches (like Dormition Cathedral inside the Kremlin, shown in 2nd picture) and various small parks. Outside the city centre it is more Soviet and grey, but that’s most of Russia anyway.

I met up again with two Russian girls I’d met in Sochi during the Olympics, and got to spend some time with them. That was really awesome and made my time in Moscow even better. We went to Lermontov’s estate outside of Moscow with some of their friends, something I probably wouldn’t have been able to do with my limited Russian before then!

Women’s Day rolled around while I was in town as well. I went out for dinner with a girl I met from Couchsurfing, at a nice, obscure restaurant a bit outside the touristy area. I walked back to my hostel through Red Square, and somewhere in the middle got caught by two guys who were going up to random women… to give them flowers. So they gave me flowers, wished me a happy Women’s Day, and then walked away. How nice!

I always brace myself for guys asking for my phone number, or trying to catch me in conversation, but these guys were simply handing out flowers. Lovely, lovely Moscow.

I did a lot in Moscow, and will write some more specific stuff in an entry dedicated to literary stuff, but due to scheduling a flight home to visit my mom for the holiday, I actually flew out to Vladivostok in order to take the trans-siberian from the east back to Moscow in the west.

Vladivostok  Svetlanskaya Street 5Vladivostok is a pretty small port city, where you can catch ferries to Japan, China and South Korea. It was refreshing to feel like I was back in Asia: I went nuts when I found a Japanese vending machine, and stocked up on Japanese and Korean instant noodles for the upcoming 3 day train ride out.

There wasn’t really that much to see in Vladivostok, aside from the occasional Soviet monument (pictured, under the city’s famous attraction, a bridge), a scattering of war memorials and paraphernalia around the edges of the water, and the touristy but cute promenade on the sea. I lost a day to being sick with a cold, but a full day in the city was perfect.

Next, I spend almost 3 days on a train, a total of 61 hours. It wound up being two nights in 2nd class, most of it I was actually alone for. When I did have company, it was a mother and small daughter, both of whom were sick and also didn’t speak any English. Go figure!

My mission for this segment of the trip was to read Harry Potter. And I did, 5.5 books out of 7. It’s the most relaxing thing to just lay around, sleep and eat, and have no other obligations than the ones you make to yourself, and mine were just reading. I spend my time doing just that, drinking at least 15 cups of tea a day, enjoying my Asian noodles, and occasionally sitting in the dining car with more tea (or overpriced food) for a change of scenery while following the adventures of the boy wizard and his motley crew of companions and nemeses.


Russia Part Two: Volgograd

Volgograd  Square of the Fallen Soldiers 2

After the Olympics (which I will write about later), I made a stop in Volgograd, a city southwest of Moscow with a tragic and complex history. This city, one of the biggest on the Volga river, was formerly known as Stalingrad. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you might want to brush up on your World War II history.

Stalingrad was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in human history. It was invaded by the Nazis from August 1942 to February 1943, and the loss of this battle marked a major turning point in the war. Ignoring the lessons of the past, much of this battle was waged by the Nazis in winter, when temperatures could be as low as -30 celsius (-22 f) with fierce wind, constricting mobility and resources. Hitler also vastly underestimated Soviet resistance, resources and reinforcements, and demanded that Paulus’s 6th Army hold the city at all costs.

Although initially successful, the logistically impaired, undersupplied Germans were unable to resist Soviet counterattacks in the dead of winter, and Paulus requested to be allowed to surrender. Hitler refused, instead promoting him to Field Marshal, implying that since no Field Marshal had ever surrendered, nor would Paulus. However, the battle ended with a surrender and Soviet victory in February 1943, with staggering casualties on both sides.

With all of this in mind, I stepped off a night train in late February 2014. It was about -20 (celcius) with a heavy wind, and I walked around for a while in the wind trying, unsuccessfully, to find a hostel. Finally, I succeeded, and happily relaxed in the warmth, particularly appreciative that I have the option of shelter, and reflecting on the irony of my first hours in Volgograd.

I’ve read a lot about the history of Stalingrad, mostly from an academic perspective, and so have approached this place with a particular interest and a desire to see it from a more human, more personal perspective.

On a recent flight I watched a Russian film about the battle (Stalingrad, released early 2013), and found the plot strangely familiar. Apparently, part of the plotline was based on Soviet journalist Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a fictional book about the losses of various soldiers and families in Stalingrad. That book also happens to be inspired by War and Peace, one of my favourite books. The movie wasn’t the best, but since I watched it after my visit to Volgograd, it was interesting to watch, being able to see some of the places where I’d walked, and the memorials I’ve seen.

Volgograd  Mamayev Kurgan 26

Volgograd was named a “Hero City” of Russia, and its dizzying array of monuments and plaques, memorials and historical sites speak to the grandeur of Russian victory. But the size of the monuments, including Mamayev Kurgan’s impressive 91 meter tall statue, also conveys the extend of the losses. This statue, The Motherland Calls (pictured), stands atop Mamayev Kurgan, a hill overlooking the city that was the site of fierce fighting due to its strategical importance.

The statue is around the same height as the State of Liberty, and is thoroughly vertigo-inspiring to stand under. Her face, twisted in rage, and those of the other statues that populate the hill, convey various themes such as strength, camaraderie, and grief.

 

Volgograd  Flour Mill Ruins 8

Almost everything standing was destroyed in the battle, and thus all but a few of the buildings are newer Soviet structures. There are a few remnants, though, including the ruins of a flour mill, which stand next to the Panoramic Museum that details the battle. When you walk to the top of the museum, a panoramic painting depicts what the battle would have looked like from where you are standing. The museum is also holds an array of artefacts, including famed sniper Zaytsev’s rifle. Snipers were used to inflict further casualties, including Zaytsev, who is commonly portrayed as a hero in books and films about the battle. 

Everywhere you go in this city, there are more memorials, making a walk through like a history lesson. It’s open to debate if this is a celebrate of victory, or a city not letting go of its past. Though meeting people and talking about it, I’ve heard about both the pride of the Soviet triumph, and the desire to let the past be the past. It’s a complex history to reflect on, especially for someone who lives here.

Either way, I’ve never been to a place where I so often am reminded of its history. Coming here in winter was completely appropriate for me. To walk through Mamayev Kurgan and see everything in bloom would contradict the tragedy of war. To feel the chill is to be reminded of how lucky we are to have shelter, hot food and drink, and the choice of how to live our lives, not the prospect of a certain and painful death because of the mistakes of our leaders.


Russia Part One: Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg Hermitage 15

Saint Petersburg has been written about in Russian literature for hundreds of years, photographed and sung about for ages. In classic Russian literature, it’s seen as the city of culture and balls, of the arts and intellectuals, an escape from the hum-drum of life in Moscow. Characters of all kinds have walked along Nevskiy Prospect, and of course I got to do the same. Saint Petersburg was my introduction to Russia, and, accordingly, I loved it. There’s no lack of things to see and do, countless museums and old, opulent buildings in pastel colours to offset the grey of the late winter weather and melting snow on the ground.

I’ve tried hard not to have preconceptions about anywhere I’ve gone, but at times it’s difficult; after being told how Russians are very rude, I was prepared for that to be true. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice people were to me; in some cases they were nicer than people in a lot of ‘nice’ countries. However, I’ve also been lucky to meet exceptional people. Through Couchsurfing, I made a number of new people who introduced me to Russian culture, and other cultures as well: an ethnic Russian born and raised in Uzbekistan now living and working in Russia, a number of Petersburgers from Siberia and the Urals, and a recently transplanted trilingual half-Russian girl who was raised in the middle east and now teaches English, of all things. So maybe I hadn’t met many “average” Russians in town.

The first thing I learned about Russia is that it’s not really one giant country. It’s a patchwork quilt of cultures and tribes tied together by a border, with many areas being their own Republics, ethnic groups dominating some towns and cities, and of course sometimes involving contested borders and conflicts, as in the North Caucasus.

Elements of all of these cultures thread through Russia, from architecture like the famous Onion church domes which many theorise are Islam-inspired, to foods of various other regions, such as kefir, which is originally from the north Caucasus. I’m certainly not the first to think of the quilt analogy. In fact, the signature background pattern of the Sochi 2014 Olympics is a collection of textile patterns pulled from the many regions of Russia.

Nevskiy Prospect is a long, long walk, leading through a series of impressive buildings that culminates in Palace Square and its primary site, the Hermitage. This was the first site to really blow me away. The Hermitage (first picture) is the city’s most famous museum. The building itself is incredible: a massive work of art taking up blocks on the edge of a river and dominating the square. The main building is the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian monarchs. 

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The rooms themselves are magnificent. On top of that, the collections of furniture, implements and paintings of various time periods is simply astounding. The level of opulence in this place is unmatched. And of course I could imagine scenes from Russian literature played out in all of the rooms, although I’m sure the families in those books weren’t quite as rich as the royal family.

The picture I’ve included (taken with my iPhone) from the Hermitage is simply a sitting room. Simply a gold trimmed, lavishly decorated sitting room.  Simply… ridiculous. And yet I wouldn’t mind having one in my house. It’s so flamboyant it’s almost a parody of itself, as seems to be the case with much of old Russian architecture, including the colourful onion-domed churches that are notoriously omnipresent on postcards from Russia. Even if they are a bit like decadent cake toppers, they’re absolutely amazing pieces of architecture.

The bottom of the museum is fairly plain, architecturally speaking. I went down to find the exhibits on Central Asia and the Caucasus, which are pretty high on my interests list. Having been part of the Soviet Union, they’re well represented in Russian museums. Gradually I’m learning more about the history and culture of these particular regions.

Another great museum recommended to me for the history of Russian cultures was the Ethnological Museum, situated right next to the Russian History Museum. Clearly, people have mixed them up in the past, as the cashier reiterated the name of the museum to make sure I was in the right place.

This was an incredibly comprehensive museum, covering the history of the peoples of regions ranging from the Far East, Siberia, the Urals, Northern Russia, European Russia, the North Caucasus, and also covering the peoples of post-Soviet states, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, and even Ukraine, Belarus. It also had an interesting section on the history of Russian Jews, covering even the Jews of Central Asia! Unfortunately there weren’t always English captions; still, I got the idea, and the detailed displays were well done.

Saint Petersburg  Singer House Bookstore 2

Another highlight on Nevskiy Prospect was the Singer Building (pictured), a beautifully unique building made for the sewing machine company of that name. It was originally intended to be a skyscraper, but the ordinance at the time limited the height, so instead the dome was added to simulate a skyscraper without violating the rules.

The building holds different businesses, but is best known for housing Dom Knigi, a wonderfully huge bookstore you can get lost in for hours. Dom Knigi (literally “House of Books”) has other locations, but they don’t match the atmosphere of the Singer Building. I looked for some books on learning Russian, but they’re simply too huge to lug around in my small backpack. I contented myself with browsing instead, and then had a meal at the upstairs Singer Cafe for sunset, overlooking the Prospect and the massive Kazan Cathedral across the street.

Saint Petersburg  Church of Spilled Blood Interior 15

Postcard-perfect Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood is just a few blocks away from Dom Knigi, and along with Moscow’s St. Basil’s, it’s the quintessential Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

This church is probably one of the most visited tourist spots in Russia, and the inside is even more astoundingly decorated than the outside. Gold prevails in the details everywhere, accenting the paintings that cover the cathedral wall-to-ceiling. But there are some more “subtle” details that I really enjoyed, like the carved marble pictured here.

Opinions on churches can vary widely from person to person. Many say the money would be better spent on the people (which I definitely agree with), but others see it as an artistic dedication to faith. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it’s hard to deny that the details and passion put into these churches, and many others I’ve been to around the world, is quite a testament to the dedication of the faithful. Whether or not they are economically ethical is a question that has to be put aside momentarily to appreciate their character.

IMG 1841On the topic of opulence, the Metro stations all throughout Saint Petersburg (and Moscow) are gorgeous. When I think of Philadelphia’s subway, it’s pretty much a sewer in comparison to Russia.. though that isn’t hard to say about Philadelphia.

After World War II, the Soviet Union put a lot of money into making these beautiful metro stations, and while many people think about all the money that didn’t go to the people themselves, others enjoyed the feeling of wealth that walking through the metro brought from then on. The stations are truly beautiful, with large open halls and arches, chandeliers and a variety of mosaics, many matching the station names and themes. The one pictured (an iPhone snapshot) is from Moscow, though I forget the name of the station.

I will definitely return to Saint Petersburg in the future. There is still so much to see and do, and it would be lovely to see in the summer.