Onion dome churches is what we pictured in our minds before we set off on our Saint Petersburg trip. We wondered what the people would be like. Would we see poverty and drunken Russians? Surely there was more to Russia than the news headlines.
At Pulkovo airport in Saint Petersburg there were taxi touts hovering. We asked what the price was and declined it, and walked along the airport building to a young man who was standing by a sign advertising an airport taxi.
His price was half the price, and in line with what we read before we set off from the UK. Already we felt like savvy travellers.
We checked into the hotel and then took a walk up to Nevsky Prospect, which is broad and and grand and disappears off into the distance. The nearest metro station is at the end of the street where the hotel is located. It is a circular building and I recognised it from Google street view when I searched back in the UK.
It was good to orient ourselves before we set off, but I reflected on this and idly wondered whether there was anywhere that is off the beaten path anymore. The faces of some of the people on Nevsky Prospect maybe look Russian, but their clothes could be from anywhere.
Our hotel room was large and well decorated, but smelled of paint – a kind of dusty, plastic smell. And the bathroom smelled of drains. We read that Saint Petersburg has problems with its sewers and giardiasis bacteria.
There were three sealed bottles of water in the room (and fresh ones every day), so the risk of giardiasis may be real. That said, we didn’t hear of anyone who had problems.
We called the staff and they sent someone the next day to clear the smell in the bathroom. It worked for a few days and then came back. The staff were friendly and open, not hiding behind their roles. Our first impressions of Russians were positive.
I went out and was confronted by a begging drunk on the corner of Vosstaniya and Nevsky Prospect. He stood leaning forward a few inches from my face and moved off when I shook my head. I wondered whether I would see a lot of drunks in Russia, but he is the only one I saw in all the time we were there.
Why was I taken aback to see that Stockmann Department store was open until 11pm daily? Why shouldn’t a department store open until that time every day? Maybe I had a vestige of the Soviet era in my mind.
Stockmann’s links to a mall on several floors and there’s a Starbucks. The name is written in Cyrillic alphabet. The second word was ‘cafe’. From our adventures in the Russian language before we left (YouTube videos) we learned that the letter ‘o’ is pronounced ‘o’ when the stress is on that syllable. But when the stress is on another syllable, then ”o’ is pronounced ‘a’.
In our hotel room the film on TV was ‘Salt’ – an American film about Russian agents planted in the US. It as dubbed in Russian. I wondered what the local audiences think of the film?
We went looking for somewhere to eat. We went into a couple of places and decided on one that served Italian food. We talked with the waiter about literature and language. He told us it costs a lot of money to live in Saint Petersburg, which is why he was working part time as a waiter.
He was from the Urals (said, we think, with some reticence as though it is not a desirable place from which to come) and he was studying to become a neurosurgeon.
After we leave the restaurant we smiled at the recollection of a good conversation with the waiter. We said ‘Only in Russia’ does one meet a trainee neurosurgeon and talk about Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Nabakov, and others.
We were there in midsummer, nearing the end of the White Nights, the midsummer period when the sun hardly sets. Late at night we could see across the street as easily as if it were daytime. It’s was lovely feeling, and all the better to be in a grand old city.
The Next Day
What did we notice? Ripped jeans, black chokers, spinners – how do these ideas spread worldwide so quickly?
Tamara noticed that quite a few women had very long hair stretching down their backs. And many had their hair in braids. We thought braids must be a Russian style. Later we saw tourists from other countries with the same style. Is it Russian then, or just the latest world fashion that has spread here like wildfire?
We played a game of deciphering the Cyrillic names on the shop fronts, excited when a word jumped out at us.
They say you have to go to the famous Cafe Singer – a bookshop with cafe. After exhausting ourselves among the bookshelves we went to the cafe and ate a chewy, doughy Danish pastry. Unhappy, we ordered more food. This time we ordered wisely and ate good smoked salmon. Across the road there was the huge frontage of the Kazan Cathedral.
At the traffic lights to cross the road to the Kazan cathedral we get a sense of how big the city is. This is a broad crossing with a lot of people waiting. And it’s a wide street. Once across we wandered around inside its massive interior and sat on a bench next to an older woman who generously moved seats to allow Tamara and I to sit together.
The Church of the Spilled Blood
We walked up the street by the side of the canal to the Church Of The Spilled Blood. The church was built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated, and built because of his death.
As we walked we reflected on how world events turn on small aspects of human character. The assassins threw a bomb at his armoured carriage and only succeeded in hurting people who were nearby. Alexander got out of the carriage to see what was going on and that is when the second bomb killed him.
The seeds of the Russian Revolutions can be traced back this event.
We didn’t go in to the church, deciding to leave that for another day.
Only In Russia
Outside the Ploschad Vosstaniya metro there was a man handing out tickets. He had a raccoon around his shoulders. We stroke the raccoon and discover that its fur is coarse like horsehair. The man tells us he has six raccoons in his apartment and feeds them dog food.
At Stockman’s cafe in the shopping mall, the young woman who served me looked like she was from Central Asia. She told me she was doing a Masters degree in BioEngineering. I reflected on meeting another student working part time to make ends meet.
A Boat Tour On The Canals
The buffet breakfasts in the hotel were magnificent. The mix of guests was interesting, with people who looked like they could be from Iran or Turkey, and others from Central Asia.
We took the metro along Nevsky Prospect to where we could take a boat tour along the canals. We chose to go with Anglotourism, which promised a commentary in English. We arrived late at the jetty to buy tickets and it was a mad rush while we tried to find out where Anglotourism left from, which was their ticket office, and how to get down to the boat.
I was not handling it well and at the ticket office I part with the cash with the air of a man not expecting to receive what he has paid for. In fact the tour is excellent.
The boat threaded its way around the canals and under bridges, working its way towards the old centre of the city. We went under the Bridge of Singers and the Three Bridges of Centuries. The views of the twists in the canals and the old buildings lining them are lovely. It’s a colourful city.
The bridges are low and we had to lower our heads so as not to whack ourselves against the ironwork. One of the bridges was so low that the boat barely scraped under it.
We saw the Mariinsky Theatre ahead of us. We had tickets for a performance of Prince Igor at the Mariinsky later in the week that we bought in the UK before we came.
And then we were out and into the open water and the broad mouth of the Gulf Of Finland with impressive views across the gulf to the fortress on the islands across from the city.
People were sunbathing on the shore by the fortress. Although it was the middle of summer, we didn’t think it was a warm day.
Maria, the guide on the boat, gave a good commentary. As we passed some merchants buildings she mentioned that the god Mercury did additional duty as the god of commerce. She told us that Mercury’s entwined snakes are on many commercial buildings including the ‘profit houses’ – the 18th century apartment buildings that were rented out to the poor of the city.
Contemporary writers wrote about the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions of the apartments, and they were a national scandal that went on for years.
Back on land we found a small cafeteria and ate kasha and spinach cake with vegetables. Tamara joked that eating in Russia is like being at a Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah – it’s the same food.
Museum of the Siege of Leningrad
Then on to the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad. A raggedy building with good art on the walls. Half a million dead in a 900-day siege. There was a terrible authenticity to the exhibits.
Afterwards, we sat in the Summer Garden of the Imperial Palace and watched people wandering by. It felt good to be there.
We walked and got tired, so we caught a bus, a 90-K, hoping it went in the right direction. On the bus I thought how it was more like what I had thought of as Russia nowadays – poorer under the glitz. I could have stayed on the bus all day just absorbing the tone of the people.
The Ethnographic Museum
We next day we went to the Ethnographic Museum, where the first thing is to get through the door. It is massive and heavy and gives way onto a marble corridor.
We spent hours there, looking at rare photos, costumes, and things from cultures from one end to the other of mother Russia.
The people of the north as as different as you can imagine from the people of the south or of the east. One floor had the history and culture of Jews in Russia.
We wondered whether all these cultural groups had disappeared in the 21st century. We said that perhaps we should journey all the way across Russia to find out.
Tamara wanted to buy the guide to the museum and a guide to the history of the Jews in Russia, but the bookshop in the museum was closed. It closes well before the museum’s closing time. It was closed the next time as well when we make a special trip to the museum to buy the books.
It became a running joke between us. Will the shop ever be open? On the third or fourth try the shop was open and Tamara bought the books.
The next day we went to the Hermitage in what was the Czar’s Winter Palace. We climbed the Jordan steps.
I stood back on a corner of the staircase and found myself in a family group having my photograph taken along with the rest of the family. Tamara laughed to see me trapped in among this family, a foot taller than everyone.
I imagined the family back home after its holiday, showing the photos and someone asking who the tall man at the back was.
Once up the steps there were endless grand, opulent rooms packed to bursting with snaking lines of tour groups but empty of furniture or artefacts of any kind – just big, empty rooms.
At every doorway there was a crush of different groups going this way and that trying to pass each other.
Alexander Nevsky’s tomb in dark stone and black metal was at one end of a palatial room – the sole exhibit in the room.
We should have read the guide book more carefully, because the Winter Palace is just that – a palace. It is rich and sumptuous, but more or less empty.
What do the tour groups see as they rush with their eyes fixedly on their tour leaders as they snake through the palace and then back to the cruise ships in the harbour? They have the photos to prove it.
It was a crazy scene, filled to bursting with people.
Standing Where History Was Made
We went into a small dining room off one of the grand rooms. There was no one else in it but there are signs saying not to touch anything. In 1917 it was occupied by the Provisional Government that formed immediately following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.
It is into this room that the Bolsheviks came and simply arrested the Provisional Government and took power. It was eerie to stand in a room where world history was made.
Later we learned that the Bolsheviks had captured the Peter and Paul fortress across the river Neva and turned the guns in the fortress on the Winter Palace and shelled it. That must have added authority to their claim when they burst into the dining room to carry out the arrest.
Where was the art? We asked directions to paintings by Flemish artists. They were in a wing of the palace far from where we are. On the way we made our way through a crowd waiting for a clock to strike.
We reached the Flemish paintings. Bruegel and others were badly hung with poor lighting, high up and impossible to view properly. What a mess.
Then we found a better room with wonderful Rembrandt paintings, including The Prodigal Son. It was a favourite of the tour group leaders and as one group moved on another sped in. We eventually got near the painting by gatecrashing a tour group.
The Great Choral Synagogue
The following day we went to the Great Choral Synagogue, and spent time looking at the interior. In the synagogue shop Tamara bought a set of Russian dolls featuring Chagall paintings.
Prince Igor at the Mariinsky
That night we went to see the opera Prince Igor at the Mariinsky Theatre. A lot of people were dressed stylishly. We had bought tickets in the UK before we came and we had good seats with a perfect view of the stage.
We were in the dress circle and I imagined that would be raised higher up above the stalls like circle seats usually are in my experience. This was different: We could almost lean over and touch the stall seats. It felt like we were back in time when things were more intimate.
We talked to the man in the seat next to us. He was from Ulyanovsk and has seen the opera five times but never live. He told us that Prince Igor had its premiere in the Mariinsky. It is a two-hour flight from Ilyanovosk to Saint Petersburg but a day and a half by train because there is no fast train from Ulyanovsk to Moscow.
The opera is strangely different, with lots of people on stage and a weighty performance that is both strange and moving. Afterwards, I can see the scenes on stage strongly in my mind’s eye, and I can sing the theme song. Very different, and a very strong experience.
Not everyone was so taken with the opera, judging by people in the stalls who were looking at their cellphones during the performance. The lights of their phones showed up with little rectangular lights in the darkness.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
We queued up for tickets outside the cathedral. I directed queue-jumpers to the line behind us. Russians in front of us were bemused at me directing people. When I smiled, they came to life as though they previously thought we were from another dimension.
We visited Nabakov’s house which is near Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Nabakov came from a wealthy family. The family owned and occupied the whole house and the house is in a good area and the rooms are wood-panelled. We learned that Nabakov discovered a blue butterfly in Albany when he was working in the USA, and it is named after him.
The young woman at the desk, Alina, showed us one of the rooms that have not yet been restored. The panels were stained and the ceiling was missing in parts. Alina told us the house was in disrepair for years and it is a long job to renovate it.
We asked her how Nabakov was regarded in Russia today. She said he was highly regarded now that censorship was less than it was – they had Fifty Shades Of Grey, for example.
Nabakov In The USA
She explained how when Nabakov was teaching in the USA, he translated Eugene Onegin into English and scoured advertisements in magazines to get idiomatic expressions that his students could relate to.
She used this example to explain how proficient Nabakov was in English, to be able to use idioms in a foreign language with precision.
Back on the street and opposite Saint Isaac’s cathedral, Tamara spotted the Lotte Hotel. She thought it might be Korean. We asked and it was indeed Korean and we were invited in and given a tour of the atrium dining room and up to the sixth floor (as yet unopened) and the roof terrace for a view over the canals and the cathedral.
We learned that John Quincy Adams, when ambassador to Russia, stayed in the building that is now the hotel, and that Gogol lived there.
The Dostoyevsky Museum
The next day we went to Dostoyevsky’s apartments, which re now the Dostoyevsky Museum. It is an ordinary apartment, not grand. His hat was there under a glass dome, and his desk and papers. There was one poignant object – a box (a matchbox?) on which his daughter had written ‘Papa died today.’
We learned that Kazan Cathedral we had visited features in his novel ‘Crime and Punishment’.
We read later that thousands of people attended his funeral. We knew he had fame in his own lifetime but we didn’t know he was so famous that thousands attended his funeral.
Daily Life In Saint Petersburg
Things that caught our eye in the city.
Pigeons were very relaxed – obviously nobody bothers them. They move out of the way a few scant inches and continue their lives. Lots of people feed them as well.
Everywhere – on the street and even churches in front of religious icons – young and middle aged women pose for photos. They pose provocatively like sultry 1950s pinups – turned three-quarters to the camera, bust pushed forward, head back.
House sparrows are everywhere – lots and lots of them. House sparrow numbers in the UK have crashed and now we know where they are: They are in Saint Petersburg.
It’s not unusual to see men with a mouth half full of gold teeth.
Metro stations are spotless. The metro trains are squat, square, and utilitarian. The corridors down to the trains are finished in marble and clean as a pin.
The streets are swept regularly.
Couples on the street kiss deeply and amorously – not just a peck on the cheek.
There are quite a number of Central Asian people on the street – mostly men.
Small trash bins are every thirty yards along the main streets and emptied overnight.
In the courtyards, behind the facades of the buildings – even on Nevsky Prospect – the paintwork is peeling and buildings are more run down. How deep is the prosperity? There were a lot of expensive cars on the road – top of the range Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes.
The Church of The Spilled Blood
We queued for tickets to go into the Church of The Spilled Blood. Standing there looking up at the onion domes, we wondered what the interior would be like.
It was dark inside, but once our eyes adjusted, we we could make out that the walls and ceilings were decorated with religious scenes.
When we got closer we could see that they were made from hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of tiny pieces of inlaid marble.
We walked right past and almost missed the monument near the door to the church.
In the darkness of the church we almost missed the monument that marks the spot where Alexander II was assassinated.
Tamara and I talked about what exactly happened when assassins threw a bomb at the Tsar’s armoured carriage. What caused him to get out to see what was happening?
The contemporary reports suggest that he just didn’t think he could be hurt. We talked about that feeling of inviolability that those at the top can feel, and how wrong they can be.
It was strange standing there in the church on the site of the assassination, talking about what happened to the Romanovs during the Russian Revolution, and in recent times to Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
Museum of Russian Political History
We went on to the Museum of Russian Political History, which covers the whole period from the Alexanders through to today.
And then to the Museum of Russian Political History. The layout is more imaginative and impressionistic than we imagined such a museum would be.
Because it is a State museum we expected the criticism (if any) of the Stalinist era to be mild. In fact, it is highly-critical.
Here is an extract from the texts with the exhibits:
“Stalinism both before the second world war and up to Stalin’s death in 1953 was based on preventive terror and repression as well as excluding any forms of pluralism in ideology and policy.”
We absorbed the criticism of Stalinist Russia and expect that the modern era will be treated more kindly. But no, there are equally critical words for the 1990s.
“Pre-election spin technologies are applied on a mass scale. Big business and oligarchs pay for the presidential election campaign ‘Vote or Lose!’ Boris Yeltsin’s rating grows from 5 to 35%… The ruling regime succeeded in implanting a barrier of fear in millions of Russian voters making them indifferent to the Communist Party’s call for redeeming basic social values: justice, honesty and solidarity.”
We wanted to see the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the General Staff Building, which is part of the Hermitage. But which part? We have to ask.
We arrived at the huge open space in front of the Hermitage and bought hot corn on the cob from a street stall.
Then we walked across the Square and followed the road towards the river and asked. People were very friendly and helpful. They looked on their phones and they asked their colleagues, but no one knew.
Eventually we found out it was the yellow-painted, curve of a building across the Square from the Winter Palace. We smiled, realising we had stood next to this building earlier when we bought the corn on the cob.
Now we had to find the entrance. We walked through the huge arch to a door but it was not the right one. We asked again. We were told it was back around the corner on the inner curve of the building, two doors down. At last!
Note for those reading this: The entrance is to the left of the archway on the inside of the curve.
The General Staff Building
The lower floors were huge empty rooms with nothing on the walls.
We wandered through them, bemused, going from room to room until we reached a bridge inside the building.
Looking down we see the strangest architectural space that makes us wonder who dreamed up the space, and why.
The good stuff was on the fourth floor. It was well worth it, with beautifully hung paintings with plenty of light – and wonderful painters. There were some we knew and some we did not know. This is not a place for a one-time visit. It is a place to come back to again and again. It is a fine collection.
The General Staff Building Cafe
The rain swept across the Square between the General Staff Building and the Winter Palace. We sat in the cafe of the General Staff building. It is on the lower ground floor, a bit below ground level, with windows looking onto the Square. We had a low-level view of people struggling with umbrellas across the empty space dominated by the column and the Winter Palace.
It was the only bad weather of the trip, and we were snug in this strange, foreign cafe while the rain pelted down.
We wondered what the ground of the Square was like in the days when the buildings were first built. Perhaps it was a green open space with a track for carriages, or a sea of mud on days like this.
We took a taxi to Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village), fifteen miles outside the city.
The countryside outside Saint Petersburg is nice – not an industrial nightmare. Some of the blocks of flats on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg are very big, and grey, but OK.
In 1918, Tsarskoye Selo was renamed Detskoye Selo (Children’s Village) by the Bolsheviks. In 1937 its name was changed again. This time it was changed to Pushkin to commemorate the centenary of the poet’s death.
The guide books refer to it as Tsarskoye Selo and everyone seemed to know Tsarskoye Selo and where it is.
Peter the Great gave the palace as a present to his future Empress Catherine I in 1708.
The palace is so big it beggars the eyes. How to take in and grasp the size of this long, long building in pastel blue with gold domes? It makes Buckingham Palace in London look like a shed.
It was hot, and the queue to go inside the palace was long and moving very slowly. We decided not to spend an afternoon queuing, and instead we walked in the gardens, amid trees and to the Grotto pavilion next to the lake in the grounds.
As small as the pavilion is compared to the palace, we decided it would make a nice pad to spend the summer.
Our Saint Petersburg Trip
I got talking to a Korean man at Tsarskoye Selo. We exchanged stories of comments we had received from friends before we came. One common theme was friends who had asked ‘Why would you want to go to Russia?’ We smile and agree that Russia is interesting and well worth visiting. That said, travel is also tiring even when surrounded by palaces, as this man seems to show.