The DougBlog
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Thursday, July 17, 2008

To Russia With Doug, Part 3: St. Petersburg

St Petersburg

Forgive me if I wax nerdly for a moment, but to really understand the difference between Moscow and St. Petersburg let me refresh your memory from history class.

Moscow was the capitol of Russia for centuries, and like Russian culture itself it has developed over time with influences from both Western and Eastern cultures. St. Petersburg, on the other hand, was a city planned and built from scratch. Peter the Great traveled throughout Europe and decided that Russia needed a new, clearly Western-facing capitol. So he founded St. Petersburg on a swamp in 1703, and it remained Russia’s capitol for 200 years until the Soviets moved back to Moscow.

So two things strike you when you arrive in St. Petersburg: it is more like the European cities you have been to before, and it is on the whole more beautiful and better-preserved than Moscow, much of which burned or was razed over the years. In my opinion the sights in Moscow are more amazing but the city itself is not as beautiful as St. Petersburg. And that’s all I’ll say because the people from each city already fight about which is better enough!

In any even, Christine and I have a wee early flight, my first on Aeroflot. Truth be told it’s a fine airline, the name just sounds so bad to Western ears. We could not use this area because we had buggage:

Moscow’s stunningly beautiful Sheremetyevo Airport (that’s sarcasm). The thing to notice in this photo is that we are what, 50 feet from the terminal building? And yet they actually put us on a bus to ride out to the plane, about a 3-second ride:

Christine on board:

Once in St. Petersburg we met up with Susan (who was on a different flight). Susan was only staying for the day (and Christine only for 2 days) so we got right into it! Being a planned city built on swampland, St. Petersburg has many canals:

At the center of the city is a massive open space known as Palace Square:

The building wrapped in green is the Winter Palace. It was home to the Czars and is now home to the Hermitage Museum. Although the front of the building was under renovation, the inside was thankfully open because it is one of the world’s greatest museums. It is reminiscent of the Louvre in that the building is itself as much an attraction as the art inside. Some of the unbelievable interiors:

Throne room:

The taking of the Winter Palace by the Bolshevik forces in October 1917 is considered the seminal event of the communist revolution. Apparently this room and this table were where it happened:

In the galleries:

Some people flock here for the Rembrandts, the Picassos, and the Van Goghs. I personally preferred this vastly underrated work, “Pug Dog in an Armchair” by Alfred De Dreux (1857):

Just a cool shot:

It was while walking around in this museum that Christine noted the large number of dead people we’d seen on this trip:

The outside of the Winter Palace:

The Winter Palace from across the Neva River:

The Bronze Horseman is the symbol of St. Petersburg:

It’s traditional for couples to come here on their wedding day to place flowers, and we saw plenty of them there:

Our next stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Its boxy, colorless façade is a far cry from the colorful fancies of most Orthodox churches:

The inside, however, is awe-inspiring and one of the largest churches in the world:

The lighting was perfect for photography that day. The sunlight brought the colors to life and illuminated the silver dove that is embedded in the ceiling (I like ceiling photographs—as always, you can click to enlarge):

So after a full first day in St Pete, Susan went home and Christine and I went to bed. Our first stop the next morning was the St. Peter and Paul Fortress, built on an island in the Neva River by Peter the Great to be the centerpiece of St Petersburg. In this expansive view you can also see today’s rain clouds rolling in:

The most prominent building inside the fortress (and really the most interesting) is the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral:

Another great ceiling shot! I should make a coffee table book:

This is the resting place of all the Czars from Peter the Great onward (remember, the previous Czars were buried in the Kremlin). Here’s Peter’s own tomb (and yes, this means more dead people):

From top to bottom: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Elizabeth I (who built the Winter Palace). Everyone gets the same tomb. And here the Bolsheviks said there wasn’t enough equality under the Czars!:

The most recent addition: in 1997, the remains of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, and those of his family and servants (who were all executed with him) were interred in this special chapel:

Our next stop was the Kunstkammer, a museum of ethnography and medical oddities. I enjoyed this photographic recreation of ancient tool use. You can add your own caption:

When we crossed back through Palace Square there was a roller-ski race going on. I guess the winters in Russia aren’t long enough for them to get their fix of skiing:

The Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood is St. Petersburg’s answer to St. Basils. It’s built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (hence the name):

Across the way is a market that sells every souvenir and Russian craft imaginable:

These minks, however, seemed a little sketchy:

That night Christine and I went to the Mariinsky to see Swan Lake. For years this has been called the Kirov; I hadn’t realized that they reverted back to the original name because Sergey Kirov was a Soviet hero. But they still use the Kirov name outside of Russia because it is so well known. In any event, here’s Christine all dressed up—with her Aeroflot juice box:

Outside the Mariinsky:

This statue of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov across from the theater had been disrespected (which I don’t support, but have to admit it was funny):

Inside the Mariinsky:

I thought it was impressive that the box office has a scale model of the theater for you to chose your seats:

Of course, if it really is a scale model, then I fell bad for whoever gets seat 16 in the front row:

The performance:

Of course it was very weird to walk out of a performance at 10PM into the sunlight:

We had dinner at a restaurant called Sadko, which had singing waiters and bills that came in matryushka dolls:

Christine left early the next morning and I slept much of the day. Then, finally free of the shicksas, I decided to see what the Jews were up to. This synagogue in St. Petersburg has miraculously survived better than the Jews there ever did:

And that night I returned to the Mariinsky for Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, which was some crazy (but enjoyable) stuff:

The next day was another easy one for me. I really only visited The Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Alexander Nevsky, now a saint, was an early Russian hero:

His remains are inside the monastery (more dead people!):

The cemeteries outside contain many of Russia’s cultural legends, including the writer Dostoyevsky:

The “Composer’s Corner” contains the graves of Russia’s greatest composers including Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Glinka, and of course, Tchaikovsky:

The next day—my last in St. Petersburg—I took a boat to the Peterhof. Peterhof was Peter the Great’s summer home on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. He was clearly inspired by Versailles:

The most impressive and famous features are the massive fountains. A feat of engineering, these have always worked without pumps or electricity, just on the physics of water pressure:

A few things don’t look right here:

To go inside the palace you need to wear booties to protect the inlay floors:

It was, of course, over-the-top:

The throne:

When I arrived back in town I saw no better way to end such a classy trip than at McDonald’s. They are very popular in Russia. So the short story is that I went into one, saw that it was crowded, and left. But the real story is…I was mugged! As I walked away I was thinking that my backpack felt light, just as a passerby pointed out that it was open. Sure enough it was—and my camera (my good, $1500 camera) was gone! I realized right away what had happened…

As I was about to go into the McDonald’s, I noticed a suspicious-looking character outside. Knowing that street-crime is a major problem in Russia (especially in the touristy areas of St Petersburg) I was on my guard, but then he went into the McDonald’s first. I walked in after, and then he stopped for a moment, blocking my way. Another guy came in and shoved his way past both of us. So it was a two-man operation: the first guy blocks your way; the second guy appears to just be a rude guy shoving past you but in reality swipes something from your backpack. I was robbed!

I went back to my hotel (the Hotel Kristoff, outstanding assistance) and told them. I wasn’t sure it was worth reporting because I was sure they would never get it back, but I knew I might need to get a police report if I wanted to try to get insurance coverage. So the hotel made some calls and sent me off to a police precinct where they had an interpreter on duty:

Forget your images of scary Russian officials and hard-edged interrogation. The station was a dump—far more Barney Miller than Red October:

The police officer was about 20 years old, wearing a pink polo shirt and carrying a man-bag. The interpreter was a lovely woman who was so excited to practice her English that she didn’t stop talking for a minute—and I was there for about 4 hours! I waited for a long time while they helped this man from “Luxembourg, Luxembourg” who had been pick pocketed (“someone has stolen your pockets,” he was told):

Luckily they had a lovely waiting area:

So this is how I spent my last evening in St. Petersburg: sitting in a filthy police station, mourning the loss of my camera (and half of my photos from the Peterhof), and measuring myself in centimeters:

BUT…that said, the police were very helpful and, other than taking a long time, it was a fairly painless procedure (the pain came later when I figured out that I have no insurance on the camera anyway). I still had my little pocket camera and the Baltics to discover over the next week.

Still to come…the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia, and Finland!!


Room service for children at the National Hotel. First of all, I feel these are not licensed. Second, do you think that Woody Woodpecker would really endorse eating a bird?!?!

There are plaques about Lenin all over. I think this one says that he once ate sushi at this place:

Just because Russians don’t smile, doesn’t mean they’re not Happy:

Global branding: just because you can’t read it doesn’t mean you don’t know what it says:

Local branding: notice that Moscow is reflected in Will Smith’s sunglasses for the posters in Russia!:

Finally, for those of you who were concerned about the steady fall in the popularity of the mullet…don’t worry. It’s alive and well in Russia:


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