Leningrad. Also known as Petrograd and St Petersburg. Named after the famous saint but also (conveniently) the bloke who founded it, Peter the Great. Pete couldn’t understand why Russia was considered so relatively backwards so he went to Europe for a reccy and bought up as much knowledge, culture and art as he could. Particularly liking Amsterdam, he selected a boggy patch of land on the Neva River delta (which explains the enduring and surprising problem of mosquitos) and shipped world-renowned architects in to build more or less a replica, but on a larger scale. Not before he got thousands of peasants to fill in the bog though, killing many in the process with the hard labour in sub-zero temperatures. Mind, he wasn’t the first or last Russian leader to do that. (He also had to force people to move here; more on that in this blog.)
Yeah, it is a bit like Amsterdam I s’pose
St Pete’s street
This was to be his driving force of modernization. Also, at the time it was founded in the early 1700, the major world powers were seafaring. Russia had one rubbish port so St Petersburg was built to bring the Russians into competition.
Later, it was the backdrop for three revolutions. Firstly the Revolution of 1905, a wave of political and social unrest that brought about a constitutional monarchy (remember Bloody Sunday?), then the February Revolution where Nicholas II abdicated and ended the Russian monarchy, then the October Revolution where Bolshevik Lenin rose to power.
Today, five million people live in St Petersburg, making it the second largest city in Russia, the largest country in the world. And for the May Day weekend, it was also home to the Twin Show.
Twins on tour
It’s not a Soviet trip if you don’t try on fur hats.
When it is cold, it is very very cold
I flew in with Estonian Air, not too bad if you excuse the stag parties who got off at Tallinn and the cuisine. I was served a herring, onion and egg sandwich – is there a smellier combination?? For the first couple of nights we had a room in Bed and Bike
hostel which was nice if you ignore the six flights of fousty stairs to get you there. Then we moved into the swankier Alexander House
for a treat on the last night. Trip Advisor has it down as number 1. I could get used to this…
It’s on the opposite side of the canal to this rather lovely church of St Nicholas.
Three days to see St Petersburg is not a great deal and involves an inordinate amount of walking. If you’re thinking of a trip – pack your comfortable lesbian shoes. We went hard on the sightseeing, soaking up as much culture as possible, but found moments in between to play scrabble, learn Cyrillic and compose quizzes for each other. Rock and roll.
Kicking off a game of roaming Scrabble
Kicked off, as one rightfully should, with the world-famous Hermitage museum. It is so physically vast that it takes up six buildings. The collection itself is mind-blowingly huge that they say to look at it all, you would have to walk 24 miles. If you were to spend one minute looking at each exhibit on display, it would take you 11 years, and that’s not to mention all the stuff they’ve got stored in the vaults. We, philistines such as we are, spent an afternoon there absorbing the art through the ages, palatial interiors, Orthodox iconography, history of Siberia and Central Asia. Interestingly, they’ve got exhibits from Siberia dating back to the 6th century BC. The people back then liked to make leather masks for their horses, complete with elaborate wooden bridals and decorations. Many of these have survived, along with the gewgaws in their burial tombs for the afterlife. These included 3m high carriages and giant felt rugs. A little more modest than Emperor Qin and his terracotta city.
The building itself stands with the River Neva on one side and the mighty Palace Square on the other. Palace Square was where much of the political action happened and is impressive for its grandeur. The Hermitage to one side (formerly the Winter Palace) and the Empire building of General Staff, topped with a victory statue of Nike drawn in a chariot, to the other. In the middle is the Alexander Column which celebrates Alexander I’s victory over Napoleon’s France.
Palace Square by day. Wedding – check. People in period costume – check.
Also in the square, just outside the Hermi. A toilet bus and some nutcrackers.
They’re setting it up for Victory Day at the moment, Russia’s biggest bank holiday after Christmas and New Year where they celebrate the end of the Second World War. It’s going to be a a jamboree of military wonder. I can’t WAIT to see it.
Preparations on Nevsky Prospect for Victory Day
St Pete’s is a hub of culture, so from here it was only proper to head for the ballet at the Mariinsky theatre which is seen way more than its fair share of pre-eminent composers and dancers pass through its doors, Tschaikovsky and Anna Pavlova to name-check just two. We went to see The Magic Nut from the vantage point of a smug box over the orchestra pit. Smyyythe!
The Magic Nut. Practically sitting on the stage.
It was a wonderful production with fabulous costumes but the storyline… as with most ballets, following it was impossible without the programme. But in this instance, even with the programme it’s hard to know what’s going on. See if you can work it out here. I think it proves that artists have liked to mind-alter for many, many years.
The White Nights are approaching and it is confusing for me to wander around in natural light at 10.30pm. We emerged from the ballet at 9.30pm to more or less broad daylight which is both invigorating at the time and exhausting in the morning. You don’t feel tired or sleep at night and then try to get up at normal time in the morning. How they survive in June, I don’t know, but I want to find out.
Next day we pounded yet more pavements in the hunt for some Rasputin history. Remember him? ‘Ra Ra Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen’? And my particular favourite line ‘Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine’. Thank-you Boney M!
Here he is!
To recap, he was a mad monk/mystic/healer from Siberia who became close to the Tsarina Alexandra thanks to his healing powers over her son, Prince Alexei’s, haemophilia. However because of his closeness to the royals, he started to develop an influence over policy, advising the royal family. Not least because of his proletariate background, this ruffled more than a few feathers in the aristocratic circles who painted him as a corrupt boozer, libertine and rapist.
Once his power had grown beyond tolerable levels, a group of nobles, led by Prince Felix Yusupov, decided to bump him off. They lured him to the Yusupov’s Moika Palace to make the hit but he proved to be ‘strong like bear’. The story goes that they had to feed him enough cyanide to kill five men, shot him in the back, club him about the head, shoot him three more times and then throw him in the river before he finally went to meet his maker.
We headed for the scene of the crime, the Yusupovsky Palace. Unfortunately, many places in St Petersburg are double-named, for no particular reason. Probably to do with the Russian-Anglo translations. In the case of this particular palace, there are instead two palaces bearing the same name and we paced around the wrong one for over an hour, pawing at the gates to be let in before we realised our mistake. The other Yusupovsky Palace was bought by the princely family to house their art collection. Who does that?? You can sort of see why when you learn that their art collection contained over 45,000 pieces but still; buying a palace to house them is more than a little indulgent.
Aside from the great Rasputin connection, it is in itself a beautiful building with a marvo audio-tour. It turns out that there was a weird fashion for a while in which the aristocracy would open up a state bedroom for guests at big banquets and balls to view. Quite why they needed three drawing rooms in a row is a mystery to me too. The banquet and ball rooms were very impressive and would have been lit by an inordinate number of candles. In a nice touch, they have an operatic quartet singing Russian greats to give visitors an idea of how it would have sounded in the day. Down beyond the Precioso Room (where most of the art was displayed under two giant skylights) was one of our favourite bits – a to-scale miniature theatre, replete with velvet swags, friezes, royal box and orchestra box. An early answer to the home cinema? Down in the strong box in the Prince’s library they found a selection of secret letters from Dostoyevsky. Shame they’ve moved most of the good stuff to the Hermi and other major Russian museums now.
Yusupovskiy Palace, one of the many drawing rooms.
Behold, the round room
Becci had heard that they’d jazzed up all the roofs of the city for some occasion or other so we decided to get a 360 perspective from the dizzy heights of St Isaac’s Cathedral Colonnades. Check it…
St Petes from the Colonnades
And the other way
Then it was time to venture across the river.
Peter the Great (remember him? The one who founded the city) wanted to increase the national scientific knowledge base and share a museum of curiosities with the people so he established Kunst Camera
(careful how you spell it) in 1714 which houses a collection of anthropological, ethnographical, scientific and biological information. Huge and very informative but the most popular room is the one full of pickled babies
, an early study of human anatomy. It’s a lot like the Hunterian Museum
of surgery in London, also full of pickled diseases.
There was a real and present danger of getting museum’d out so we headed next to the Peter and Paul fortress, via these massive Rostral Columns, used as navigation beacons in the long dark nights. Of course, at the base was some sort of WW2 festival in the run-up to Victory Day.
Across to Peter and Paul’s
The fortress itself is beautiful, like a little town around a cobbled courtyard, and has a number of museums, including one dedicated to torture. Resisted that one.
Inside the fortress
More curiously, in the suntrap outside the fortress walls it is popular for retired people to come along and sunbathe with a mass of tourists swarming around, taking photos. Pure exhibitionists.
When in Russia, it seems proper to go to an Orthodox church for a looksee. We plumped for the most Russian looking and beelined for the Church of the Spilt Blood, built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated Always getting bumped, the Tsars. They seemed to realise this and the Mikhailovsky Castle was built for Tsar Paul I and filled with secret passages and canals because of his constant fear of being killed. Ironically, Paul was murdered in his bedroom just 40 days after moving in.
I digress. Back to the Orthodox church: Pictures speak louder than words.
Church of the Spilt Blood
Much later that night, after dinner and a couple of vodkas, we headed back into town for the celebrated spectacle of ‘the opening of the bridges’. Every year, between April and November when the rivers aren’t frozen over, the bridges are ceremonious opened in succession each night between 1am and 4am. A schedule is arranged so that massive ships can gain passage to the Volga-Baltic waterway without disrupting traffic and emergency transportation too much. It still carries cargo, oil, lumber and passengers as far as Cherepovets, an inland city on the way to Moscow.
People line the embankment in the middle of the night, cameras poised, kids bundled up against the cold. Boat trips ply the rivers and canals packed with eager tourists… but if you’ve ever seen a bridge open before, you might want to give it a miss. It’s not that spectacular. More interesting is the fact that so many people want to see it.