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Today’s Russia

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Postcards from the Volga Boatmen

By Judy and Bill Sullivan

“The world is a book and those who don’t travel read only a page”

St. Augustine

For those of us of “a certain age” who went to school in the mid- fifties, there are memories of the drills: crouching under the desk with arms clasped tightly over our heads meant to protect us from nuclear blasts. Russia during this time was portrayed as a Godless, communist bully intent upon the destruction of the United States.

In 1986, I made a trip to the then recently opened Soviet Union. Tourists were welcomed only under the most stringent of provisions, and were allowed to visit only certain cities: St. Petersburg, Yalta, Kiev and Moscow. On this latest trip, I was accompanied by usual travel companions: husband Bill, sister Deb and her husband Bruce. It was a truly eye-opening experience to see the changes of 25 years!

Our trip by small river ship with about 160 passengers covered 2 contrasting cities: St. Petersburg, a city of art, architecture and love of life’s pleasures and Moscow, a city revealing Russia’s turbulent past. They were joined by gentle cruising through 1,200 miles,17 canal locks, 2 lakes and reservoirs and 3 rivers with visits to both small restored villages and the quaint Golden Ring cities of Yaroslavl and Uglich. We drifted past miles of rural forested land covered with the fall yellows of Aspen and Birch. Some steeples and towers of cities flooded to create the reservoirs were visible rising above the water-line.

Aboard ship, passengers were presented with daily lectures beginning in the very early days, through the “revolution” and up to current times. All guides were extremely candid, knowledgeable and thorough. There was no fear in presenting their own ideas about the transition from the Soviet Union to independence. All our questions were answered without hesitation. We were taken from Genghis Khan thru Mikhail Romanov, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Yeltsin and Gorbachev when the Soviet Union (USSR) was dissolved, and the flag bearing the hammer and sickle was replaced with the present day tri-color red, white and blue. They expressed their views on Putin, Medvedev and the future of their country with an obvious sense of pride.

We began in St. Petersburg, arriving on what our guide called a “sunny day.”  We were confused as the skies were gray and about 45 degrees, and an occasional very fine mist. It seems they experience only about 57 days without precipitation, so if it is not actively raining, it is a sunny day! The rain and cold followed us throughout our 12-day river cruise with few exceptions. We were blessed with a few days when we did want to experience the outside gardens and fountains and received some glorious sunshine…real sunshine!

A forward thinker, Peter the Great immortalized the city where he began his building at the mouth of the Neva River. This Baltic Beauty, St. Petersburg, remains the “Venice of the North” and “Window to Europe.” Catherine the Great further made this city of bridges a center of indulgence, Italian art and architecture.

Moving the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg was a difficult maneuver by Peter. It was essentially swampland, so the famous canals were dug to drain the water. Because of the swampy environment, few were anxious to resettle here, so the idea of the dachas was formed. To encourage people to come, small plots of land were given as incentive. On these were built small summer/weekend places with enough land for kitchen gardens. Although they were never intended for year-round use, some have been “winterized” and upgraded as full time residences in order to escape the big cities.  Many have managed to gain a second plot, so that the homes could be enlarged and some even rival our large homes. They are visible throughout the country.

Few in St. Petersburg have forgotten the terrible Siege of Leningrad by the Germans during the war. In an effort to gain the land, the Germans surrounded the entire city hoping to starve theminto submission. St. Petersburg was never surrendered, even though for over 900 days nothing went into or out of Leningrad. More people died of hunger, exposure and disease than from artillery fire. They were reduced to eating the cats and dogs! Interestingly, following that siege, the city of Yaroslavl sent truckloads of cats to Leningrad to “replenish” their supply and to control the rodent population. To this day cats are special and the tri-colored cat, seen everywhere, is considered lucky.

The beautiful palaces and museums, have virtually all been restored. To say that their tumultuous past has rendered this necessary would be an understatement! Originally built almost entirely of wood, much was destroyed by fire. The Tartars sacked, looted and destroyed many of the old structures, follow by Stalin, Bolshevik uprisings, unstable tyrants, religious fervor, two world wars and incredible economic depression/recession. To their credit, what they have restored has been done with loving and talented hands and as true to the original as is humanly possible.

Our first visit was to the famed hermitage. The Hermitage is actually 5 buildings set side by side along the Neva River. It is several museums in one. The Winter Palace was originally the residence of the first Czars, and the museum, founded by Catherine the Great to house her 225 paintings, purchased from Berlin. Since then there have been 3 million works of art displayed there. Our visit included the palace, the “small hermitage” and The State Museum or Grand Hermitage. Ravaged by a fire in 1837, nearly all the rooms were burned out. It is said that to see it all with 1 minute per display would take11 years. We spent 4 hours visiting palace rooms and the magnificent French Impressionist, Old Masters, and Modern art exhibits.

Traveling by bus to the suburb of Pushkin, we passed row upon row of small, shack-like structures on the outskirts of the town we assumed were the equivalent of slums. It was explained that these are actually garages. Given the dense population of the cities and the limited parking, those who have cars were forced to park them off-site. They not only house the cars, but provide some storage for fruits and vegetables put-up for winter use. The men visit the garages to allegedly work on the cars, but they have become the “man caves” of Russia with their use mainly as an escape to drink vodka, eat pickles (one never drinks Vodka without pickles!) and play cards. In Russia, drinking is a pastime not only for celebration, but for everyday life.

The park and residences of both Peterhof and the Catherine Palace in Pushkin demonstrate the opulence and extravagance of the Imperial rulers. Their excesses far exceed that of Versailles! The Catherine Palace is a Rococo masterpiece, and by the end of the 18th century was a popular summer residence of nobility. The palace was a gift from Peter the Great to his wife Catherine. It is painted the blue so favored by Catherine, and filled with gilt stuccos and Delft tile stoves. When the Germans retreated after the siege of Leningrad, they destroyed the palace leaving only a shell.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a uniformed band playing McNamara’s Band, alongside the park to the entrance to the palace. Security is high at all of the sites and this was no exception. Coats and large bags are checked. There is also a fee for taking photographs within the palaces. Costing 100 Rubles (about $3.00), there were “photo police” who watched for the tags attached to your cameras. Cloth booties are worn over your shoes to protect the floors.

Peterhof Grand Palace (Petrodvorets) is a Baroque fairyland of gilt, marble and fountains. It was most popular with Peter’s granddaughter, Empress Elizabeth, who ordered the expansion of the Grand Palace and greatly extended the park and the famous system of fountains, including the truly spectacular Grand Cascade. The fountains differ from other European fountains in that they are run completely by gravity and no pumps are used. The Great Cascade at the rear features three waterfall staircases with gilded statues of gods and goddesses, myths and legends, and leads to the arrow straight Sea Canal and the Gulf of Finland. Unfortunately, Peter died before the completion, but the décor of each room bears witness to all the pompous ceremonies and life of his court.

A city tour by bus covered the highlights of St. Petersburg. The architectural style seen on early TV has disappeared. The stark, gray boxes designed for practicality rather than esthetics or style have been replaced with modern skyscrapers, and what could not be replaced has been redecorated with window trim and illumination, adding depth to the otherwise flat facades.

The interesting Rostral Columns showing the prows of ships were built as lighthouses. hey contain lamps lit on festive days. In St. Isaac’s Square in the city’s center there is a beautiful statue to Nicholas I, as well as the neo-classic St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the forth cathedral on the site.

The largest and best-known street is Nevsky Prospekt, laid out for Peter the great. It was intended to be a perfectly straight line from the Neva River to the city center, but starting at opposite ends resulted in what we all envision, not quite meeting in the middle. There is now a slight bend in the road at the center point. It remains the hub of the city’s nightlife and entertainment. Here tourists can find the usual souvenirs such as the matrioshka dolls (nesting dolls), lacquered boxes, articles of birch bark, and fine china, as well as high end goods. The matrioshka dolls have emerged in such fanciful ways as nesting Pop stars, political figures, storybook characters, and even college football teams.

Russia is full of churches and cathedrals, as virtually each major event was commemorated, by the building of a church. The cathedral of the Resurrection (Our savior of the Spilled Blood) is a colorful, multi-domed church, built on the site of the murder of Alexander III. It is gloriously embellished with decorative windows, semi precious stones, tiles and ornamental bands. Resurrection was designated, not as a parish church, but one used for delivery of sermons and services dedicated to the memorial of the murder.

The Peter and Paul Fortress was designed to defend the mouth of the Neva River.  Peter the Great designed much of the original earthen ramparts and later laid the first stone for the granite walls, as well as beginning (what else?) the stone cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul. The tall slender spire is visible from almost everywhere in the city. Soon, the entire fortress took the cathedral’s name. Interestingly, it was used as a political prison until 1917 with such “guests” as Dostoevsky, Gorky, Trotsky and Lenin.

  Yusupov Palace sits on the Moika River and is more mansion than palace. Classical in style, it was originally built by a wealthy princess of the Yusupov family, a family considered to be richer than the Romanovs. The family still owns the property and visits occasionally. It is best remembered as the place of the conspiracy against mystic Gregory Rasputin. Rasputin exerted great influence over Empress Alexandra, and was considered a threat to the governing powers. Originally, it was thought that Rasputin was murdered by Felix Yusupov. The story goes that he was poisoned by cakes laced with Cyanide fed to him by Felix, shot 5 times and clubbed, yet survived long enough to be drowned in the river. The murder scene is reproduced with manikins in the basement. Controversy surrounded the murder for many years until it was proven in 2004 that he was actually murdered by an agent of the British Secret Service. Maybe the first 007? 

Among the most interesting of the visits in St. Petersburg are the Kommunalka or communal flats. Following the revolution, apartments of the very rich were converted into one-room dwellings for families. Each family lives in one room which serves as bedroom, dining room and living room. A communal bathroom, kitchen, hallway and telephone are shared by all, and as many as 7 families can live in these flats. While they share a single kitchen, each has their own stove and own soap in the communal bathroom. They exist today in some of the most fashionable sections of large Russian cities. Since the ownership of private property was restored in the early 1900’s, mandatory communal living has vanished, although there are some, especially the young, who find it financially beneficial

Our ship left St. Petersburg by way of the Neva River, passing soon into the Svir River and then into Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe, and finally docking at the village of Mandrogy. The village featured cobbled streets and unique architecture with homes covered in “gingerbread” and painted brilliant colors. There was a Vodka Museum and shops full of traditional Russian crafts.

Leaving Mandrogy, we made a slight detour from the Svir River into Lake Onega to Kishi Island. During this voyage, we were able to view some of the towers and spires of flooded villages. Kishi Island contains some of the most beautiful of the old traditional wooden buildings, gathered together as an open-air museum, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The three-tiered Church of the Transfiguration has 22 domes and is covered with Aspen shingles. It is the only wooden church actually built during the reign of Peter the Great that still survives.

 According to legend, the architect finished the building and threw his axe into the lake, so that “there will never be another church like this.” The tiny Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus brought from Kareilia is the oldest remaining wooden church in Russia. A small cemetery gives a close look of the Russian cross. This cross has an additional slanted bar at the bottom. It is said that the upper faces heaven and the lower part faces hell, and is symbolic of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, one who accepted him and the other who did not. The windmill here was built on a revolving base, so that it could always be moved to face the wind. It is jokingly said that it would take 3 Russian woman and one horse or 10 Russian men to turn it.

(Please look for Part 2 in our April issue)

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