St. Petersburg, Russia
Sept. 14-18 2009
Landing in St. Petersburg after southern Italy was a shock—a huge difference in culture, weather, fashion, faces. I was awed, walking around town the first evening, at how grand everything is. Wide avenues, enormous, sumptuous palaces with elaborate gold trimmings—Catherine the Great did things on a colossal scale. The canals and palaces are reminiscent both of Paris and Venice.
It was drizzly the first night. Men walked around the streets drinking from beer cans or holding roses for their girlfriends. Most of the women hobbled about in stiletto heels and had sluttish, polyester fashion sense. The spike heels are epidemic (according to the St. Petersburg Times, just yesterday a woman here killed a neighbor with her spike heels after he stole her dog to sell it for a half-liter of vodka; Russians drink 28 liters of pure alcohol per capita per year, including babies, compared with 8 liters for Americans age 14 and over.)
The city seems a bit deserted, and for all its cultural treasures, it’s not easy to find a café or restaurant—in stark contrast to Italy. There’s no lively street culture that we saw. The food, of course, is not the point here, though we had some good herring and beets to go with some icy vodka.
I was glad I’d read Robert Massie’s Peter the Great before arriving, because it provides so much historical background for the city, not to mention an astonishing story. I was half-expecting the place to be surrounded by 18th-century walls. My friend Casey also read the book, so we were excited to set out to find the little log house Peter had constructed when he first arrived and decided to build the port city on the swamp, and also the first sailboat he built (people at the time thought it rather unTsarish for him to be building boats like a workman, but he enjoyed that). We also visited the Naval Museum to see the boat Peter found in a storeroom when he was 16 and learned to sail, which is considered the first of Russia’s naval fleet (it was Peter’s insistence on building a navy, among other western measures, that flung Russia into modernity).
Our first full day was spectacular—a sunny September day, warm enough for the Russians to be walking around in shirtsleeves and swimming and basking in the sun near the fortress (i.e. warm enough for the rest of us to wear a light jacket). Some of them were almost smiling. It was a fabulous day to take in the sights—the fanciful Church of the Spilled Blood (where Tsar Alexander I was murdered, and Alex II built the church to honor his memory), the palaces along the embankment, the Russian Museum, and all the nearby tidy parks, which still have beds of crocus and geraniums. We climbed the dome of St. Isaac’s for a fantastic 360-degree view of the city, spread out in all directions. (We didn’t take a boat ride because tomorrow we’re getting on a boat—me for a month—but the ride up the canals looked tempting.)
For some reason, we saw brides everywhere, in frothy dresses, surrounded by friends drinking champagne from the bottle. They were having their photos taken at the fortress or in front of the Church of Spilled Blood. We couldn’t walk 15 minutes without seeing another bride. There are only a couple of palaces where you can get married in St. Petersburg, and you get only about 15 minutes there; there were limos lined up outside with their big white bows. I suppose even 20 years after it’s become possible to have church weddings again, they’re very enthusiastic.
We walked and walked, making big circles from island to island, crossing the canals. The historic center is just small enough to walk around, but just big enough to get very, very tired. It’s surprising to stop and consider how young St. Petersburg is, only 300 years.
The second day was the piece de resistance: the Hermitage and Winter Palace. I was overwhelmed with all the art. It’s terrible to have only one day for such a collection. You can’t begin to take it all in. We were trying to find our way to the Spanish art and found ourselves flying through a room of Rubens (we slowed down). Two rooms of Matisse and another two of Picasso. Pouisson, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Boticelli, El Greco, Caravaggio, Vazquez– so, so much. It was also incredible to visit a museum that is much less touristed than an important museum in any other city—the Louvre, the Prado. I had a few minutes entirely alone with the Michelangelo statue, and an unobstructed view of the Da Vincis. What a luxury and pleasure to be in a room full of Cezannes or Gaugins with only a few other people wandering by. There were tour groups, of course, but the rooms are so vast that it never felt crowded. After three hours, we had seen enough that we had to stop. I hope I have an opportunity to come back to the museum. Astonishing number of treasures.
We met up with the group from our ship, the Lindblad/National Geographic Explorer, and toured Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace, everything covered in gold leaf, fountains cascading in well-kept parks. No wonder the peasants revolted. It was interesting to pass by the more normal living areas in town on the way there—huge Soviet-style block buildings with low ceilings, truly grim places to live. Chinese developers were undertaking another huge, modern development, also depressing.
At lunch, we had an opportunity to meet to Mikhail Shvydkol, the former Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, from 2000-2004. He described some of the changes in the press from the Soviet times, when journalists had to be like slalomists, he said, skiing between the red flags. There was a joke he told us under Brezhnev, where an American tells a Russian, “I live in a free country and can say Nixon is a fool.” The Russian replied, “I can come to the Red Square and say that Nixon is a fool, too.”
Shvydkol said that the change from culture being part of the ideology in the Soviet Union to relatively more freedom of the press has been very delicate and complicated, because people’s psychology changes more slowly than political changes. He didn’t elaborate much on the extent of press freedoms or government ownership or control of the media. As in the U.S., the media are suffering a decline, with newspapers and radio ads down 40%. But during times of economic crisis, he says, publishing has grown. “When people don’t have money for a restaurant they go home and read a book.”
After lunch, we boarded the Explorer, and were surprised and delighted at how spacious our cabin was. It’s a beautiful ship, not too big, dwarfed by the Princess monstrosities we’ve passed at sea, but there’s no chance of feeling claustrophobic (I’m writing this from an oservation deck room with big windows and not another soul). The staff is packed with historians, photographers, naturalists, National Geographic writers and fotogs, anthropologists, all sorts of talent. A wonderful collection of people on board, and we’re very excited for the 10-day trip through the Baltics.
Our first stop was Helsinki, Finnland, which felt quite bustling and western compared to St. Petersburg. The ship was mainly near the downtown shopping area. I loved the market near the port, with its big piles of fresh fish, caviar, anchovies, herring…Outside, the produce stands were packed with berries and chantarelles. We had a chance to have more herring and a beer in one of the Art Nouveau cafes downtown, and to speak a little English…then we set sail for Estonia.
Photos by Casey McSpadden