After a few days of smooth sailing I am settling into life onboard, my home for the next two weeks. We arrived in St Petersburg, Russia’s gilded “Window to the West” planned by Peter the Great as a progressive city the equal of any in Europe. This grand city is located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. The city was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. From 1713 to 1728 and from 1732 to 1918, Saint Petersburg was the Imperial capital of Russia. The city was built by conscripted peasants from all over Russia plus a number of Swedish prisoners of war. Tens of thousands of serfs died during the building of the city.
In 1918 the central government bodies moved from St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) to Moscow. It is Russia’s second largest city after Moscow, with almost 5 million inhabitants. In 1924 the name of the city was changed to Leningrad and in 1991 back to St Petersburg.
What a surprise this city is! On this beautiful warm and sunny morning (one of the only 40 sunny days they get here), I was delighted and surprised as to what lay before me. This city is a confection of 17th and 18th century neoclassical/empire style buildings. The large and impressive buildings and palaces that line the streets and canals are typically 3 – 5 stories high with large symmetrical windows and doorways. They are decorated with Greek style pediments and columns, iron railings and iron lace around the overhead balconies, many overflowing with baskets of flowers. The impressive palaces are vast and are identified by the gold crests over their doorways. Painted in soft pastels of cream, yellow, blue, ochre, and white they make this vista a restful and a pleasing palate to the eye. The grand civic buildings are vast and utilise impressive architectural details such as massive columns, rich ornamentation, large soaring staircase leading to gigantic doorways guarded by an array of sculptures standing guard. The most decorative are the Russian Orthodox churches with facades decorated with assorted colourful mosaics, intricately carved wood work, fancy stone and brick work and the gilded “onion” domes gleam in the sunshine.
The most impressive of all the buildings and palaces is The Hermitage. This is the oldest museum in the world, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great wife of Peter 3rd (who was assassinated in 1762, supposedly in a conspiracy led by Catherine) and has been open to the public since 1852. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of the Russian emperors.
Catherine was said to have been a prodigious lover and a woman with a large sexual appetite and numerous lovers – they say numbering in the hundreds. She died in her mid-sixties (probably from exhaustion) and at that time had a lover in his mid-thirties. What a “cougar!” -to borrow an American expression.
In her lifetime Catherine acquired 4,000 paintings including old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection filling two galleries.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 began in Saint Petersburg when the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. In March 1917, Nicholas II abdicated both for himself and on behalf of his son, thus putting an end to the Russian monarchy. Immediately after the Revolution of 1917, the Imperial Hermitage and Winter Palace, were proclaimed state museums and eventually merged. The range of the Hermitage’s exhibits was further expanded when private art collections from several palaces of the Russian Tsars and numerous private mansions were nationalized and then redistributed among major Soviet state museums. Particularly notable was the influx of old masters from the Catherine Palace, the Alexander Palace, the Stroganov Palace and the Yusupov Palace as well as from other palaces of Saint Petersburg and suburbs.
In 1928, the Soviet government ordered the Hermitage to compile a list of valuable works of art for export. In 1930-1934, over two thousand works of art from the Hermitage collection were clandestinely sold by the communist regime, at auctions abroad or directly to foreign officials and business people. The proceeds no doubt found their way to the pockets of the Communist Party Leaders. Who said that high level corruption is only to be found in the decadent West?
Overlooking the huge act of theft on the part of the communists, the collection is vast and extremely impressive, ranging from Egyptian, Greek, Roman and other antiquities, Flemish and Dutch Maters, a vast Italian collection, a large sculpture gallery, a large number of Impressionist paintings and a modern art collection. It is said that if you spent only 1 minute looking at every piece in the collection it would take 7 years of your life.
During World War II, St Petersburg – then Leningrad, was besieged by German forces. The siege lasted 872 days from September 1941 to January 1944. The Siege of Leningrad was one of the longest, most destructive and most lethal sieges of a major city in modern history. It isolated the city from most supplies except those provided through the Road of Life across Lake Ladoga, and more than a million civilians died, mainly from starvation. Many others were eventually evacuated or escaped by themselves, so the city became largely depopulated.
Today, St Petersburg appears to be thriving. There is evidence that the government is spending money on improving the local infrastructure and on the restoration of these wonderful buildings and palaces. It is said that St Petersburg is Vladimir Putin’s favourite city, hence the flow of money to complete these civil works.
There are many tourists about from all corners of the world – on foot, in coaches, and moving along the vast network of canals in open boats. If you have not procured an independent tourist visa prior to arrival, you can only travel about under the supervision and control of a local guide. The need for hard western cash is evident when you visit many of the popular tourist sites, museums, galleries etc you will amazed at the huge numbers of people they let into the buildings and at times you feel like cattle being herded along.
The complete lack of regard and care that many of the priceless works of art are housed in and maintained is astounding. Hordes of people crowding into rooms and galleries – pressing up against art works, open windows allowing smog, humidity and dirt to drift in and settle everywhere, the lack of security which allows naughty children, and adults alike, to touch exhibits, and the crush of humanity in small rooms can be overwhelming.
Here are some Russian tips and facts:
1. Russians don’t usually say “please” or “thank you”
2. There are a lot of police in Russia, most of whom do nothing other than to try to rip you off
3. Russians drink a lot of vodka
4. 10% of the governments income comes from the sale of vodka.
5. Russians do not have a sense of style. If it looks cheap and nasty – they love it
6. The only alcohol-free zones in Russia are McDonalds
7. Young Russians are attractive, fit and lean – older Russians are fat and ugly
8. Russians love to criticize their own country, but will be offended if a foreigner does
9. Russians aren’t politically correct. Go ahead and tell a joke based on ethnicity, appearance, or gender stereotypes; just steer clear of jokes about somebody’s mother or father. You won’t be understood
10. Russians never shake hands over a door way, they believe it leads to arguments
I would like to give you a challenge… Not Russian Roulette but can you make a Russian immigration official smile? These people have a the countenance of a head from Easter Island, impassive, blank and bloodless. Give it a go – I dare you!
Please leave a comment below – do you have any interesting Russian tips or facts?