The In-Transit Report

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.

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