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Tuesday, 12 March 2013


                       СНОВА В РОССИЯ 
                   
                               PART TWO

               Я ЛОБЛИО  САИНKT ПЕТЕРБУРГ


  When we were kids in the late forties and fifties anybody who had been abroad was considered pretty posh. This of course excluded fathers, uncles neighbours and teachers who had travelled in North Africa, Italy, France, Germany and the far east.  Come to think of It anybody with a phone was doing pretty well, and cars were few and far between on our street.
  since then I have managed to visit quite a few of the world's cities including most European capitals.
Of the cities I have seen I can't decide which of St. Petersburg and Prague is the most beautiful. Prague is much older than the Russian city and fortunately escaped being damaged in WWII, but St. Petersburg has been fascinating since my first visit when it was still Leningrad.
 So when daughter Kate suggested we have a week of culture in the former Russian capital I agreed immediately. One day in April we flew from Heathrow in a small Russian built aircraft, a Tupelev as I remember. The accommodation was fairly basic and we were the the only English people on board. We were made very welcome. After touchdown the plane taxied close to the terminal and we disembarked and walked through the glass doors which were immediately closed and locked, ours was the last flight of the day.  Once through customs (stared at from a glass booth again) we looked for a taxi. The fare was fifty dollars, take it or find a bus and the rank was organised by a very large man in a leather coat. We took the taxi to our hotel, The Moskva, a Soviet style building at the far end of Nevsky Prospect, the main street in the city. The rooms were fairly basic  but the shower was hot, the TV got BBC World but only during the day and the view was of the River Neva and a tram stop.


                                              Гостиница  Москва  Moscow Hotel.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY
Peter the Great, the man who had worked as a carpenter in Chatham Docks, ordered the construction of a fortress on Hare Island near the right bank of the Neva in 1703. Its purpose was to defend the area from the Swedes, can you really imagine those nice Scandinavians wanting to invade Russia ?
They did. The Peter and Paul Fortress is now a museum,complete with a cathedral,the resting place of several Tsars, including Nicholas II.
Peter decided to build his capital on Vasilyevsky Island and it housed the the University and several Academies.
The centre of the city on the left bank of the Neva also started as a fortress, to defend the Admiralty shipyard. From this beginning the city grew, rapidly, and also at the cost of a lot of workmen forced to labour on the marshy land. The Winter Palace was started in 1754, the Hermitage in 1764, followed by a host of minor palaces for the aristocracy and a series of royal palaces several miles out of the city.
 The government of Russia was moved to the new capital and of course the city was at the centre of the Boshevik revolution. The communists moved the government back to the Kremlin in Moscow and renamed Peter's city Leningrad. During the Second World War (Great Patriotic War) the German army laid siege to the city for approximately 900 days and damaged much of it with bombs and artillery.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union the city was renamed St. Petersburg.
Back to
Across the road from the Moskva is the Saint Alexander Nevsky Monastery which is one of the few lavras (major monastery) in Russia. Named for Alexander Nevsky who defeated those invading Swedes in 1240 and was canonised for his efforts.

                                             St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra.

And across the road from the Lavra is a cemetery containing,amongst others, Tchaikovsky.

The week of culture began next day and where else but at the Hermitage/Winter Palace Museum. The palace was the home of the Tsars and defies description. The state rooms drip opulence, the corridors themselves are art galleries. The palace was designed by Francesco Bartelemeo Rastrelli and built between 1754 and 1762. The Small Hermitage was added between 1764 and 1765 and the the Old Hermitage between 1771 and 1787. The date of the founding of the museum is considered to be 1764 when Catherine the Great acquired paintings from Western Europe. I don't know if she let the peasants in but no wonder the Bolsheviks were gobsmacked when they stormed it. It has been said that the company of revolutionaries who found the royal wine cellars drank for a week, and hardly made an impact on the Romanovs' collection.
The throne room.
But it contains not only art, there are collections of artifacts from all over the ancient world, Egypt, Greece, Rome and other civilisations.(Including some from Britain)
                                                     Outside the palace
                                                             and inside.
                                              Alexander Square from the palace.
There are two prices for entering museums and galleries in Russia, a lower one for locals and a higher one for foreign tourists. The Yorkshire blood immediately recognised the challenge and we asked for two tickets at the kiosk for locals, only to be directed to the one for tourists. Even so the Hermitage is worth every penny or kopek. Somebody has come up with one of those ridiculous statistics that if you spent one hour in each room or gallery it would take you 43 years to see every exhibit. Not having 43 years we wandered the art galleries for several hours.
A good way to see some of the museum without going there is to watch the film The Russian Ark, a strange film taking you through some Russian history and filmed all in one take.
Outside again we finished the day by admiring "The Bronze Horseman", a statue of Peter the Great erected by Catherine the Great. The statue is after a model by a Frenchman, Etienne Falconet  It is supposedly the first equine statue to successfully show a horse reared on its hind legs.
The statue is inscribed in Latin and Russian; "To Peter the First from Catherine the First".



The Bronze Horseman.
Unseen in the picture is the serpent beneath the horse's hooves.

Next day we visited the Museum of Ethnography, (failing to pass the entrance test and paying full price) which displayed the lives of the various peoples who made up the Russian Empire from the Baltic to the Pacific.
                                            The  Museum of Ethnography.
Although it is nearly always interesting to see the lifestyles of other people the real highlight of this fascinating museum for me was the yurt.
The world's greatest Standard 2 teacher, Mrs Whitehead, who filled our 9 year old heads with tales of Eskimos, (whoops, Inuits), Africans who rode British made bicycles around The Gold Coast as it then was, also introduced us to the yurt, the portable home of the peoples of Asia.
And here, in St. Petersburg, was the first one I had ever clapped eyes on. Magic.
                                                  Obviously not the museum yurt. This is a Mongolian yurt.
It is currently fashionable in the United Kingdom to holiday in a yurt on a campsite. Naturally they have all mod cons and you probably don't share the site with sheep or camels.
The evening's entertainment was either the ballet or a rock concert. The rock concert was brilliant. I think the group was called Aquarius but will be pleased if somebody can correct me on this. They performed for two hours at least. I didn't understand a word but they were terrific and I think I can claim to have been the oldest person in the audience.
No visit to St. Petersburg would be complete without a visit to the point where it all started, the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island. The fort has never been involved in battle, in Tsarist days its dungeons were used by political prisoners and the Peter and Paul Cathedral within the walls is the resting place of the Tsars. (including now the remains of Nicholas II and his family.)
During the seige  in World War II its gilded spire was painted over so as not to act as a beacon for German bombers. In a trap door in the spire workers found a note written by by their 19th century counterparts complaining about low pay and hard conditions. Nothing changes.
                                             Interior of Peter and Paul Cathedral

  
                                               The spire of the cathedral.
 Another modern history lesson
Britons of my age were brought up to believe that the Empire, with a little help from the Americans, defeated the Nazis in Europe. It is only as you get older you realise that the major sufferers and contributors to the defeat of Germany were the Russians. The city of Leningrad was beseiged for 900 days, thousands left the city, thousands stayed and died, many of the buildings, especially the palaces outside the city were badly damaged. Not surprisingly therefore, and quite rightly there are memorials and museums dedicated to the seige. We visited the small Museum of the Seige and to be honest it had its amusing moment. Having paid our entrance fee (Full price!) we entered the first room which had a display of German uniforms and equipment. The lady keeping an eye on the display, and us, began to lecture us on the things we had done to her city. She got quite irate. When we pointed out we were Britiah she changed immediately and gave us a personal conducted tour of the whole museum. The most moving part is the display of a single slice of bread, the daily adult ration at the height of the seige.* But we got an egg a week!
                                               Museum of the Defence of Leningrad.
                                  The guns have been added since we were there.
Memorial to the Defence of Leningrad.
Memorial to Partisans
                                               Cemetry of Victims of the seige.
Its museums like this make me realise that we are the luckiest generation for a long, long time.
Requiring something a little less depressing the following day we took a hydrofoil a short distance to the Great Palace at Peterhof. Begun in 1710 as a mere two storey palace it was demolished and rebuilt in 1745. As we approached the palace a small orchestra, dressed in 18th century clothes struck up the British National anthem for us. (How did they know?) Thanking them as only polite Britons do we walked on only to be chased by one member of the orchestra who asked, in English, if we knew where a small group of people approaching came from. They sounded Italian, we told them, so they got the Italian anthem.
The Duchess of Northumberland built a garden at Alnwick Castle, including a staircase of fountains. It's good but not a patch on......................
The Grand Palace
                                                     Side view
                                                    Samson gets to grips with the lion.
Not satisfied with a single Great Palace the parklands around it boast the Palace of Marlay, the Monplaisir Palace and the Cottage Palace, (quite small, OK for a weekend) and the Hermitage Pavillion. The palaces and grounds were badly damaged in "The Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 but soon after its end a rebuilding and restoration programme was started. This I think says a lot about a country that was devasted.  On the other hand, seeing all these palaces I'm not surprised there was a revolution!
Not having had enough of palaces the next day we took a bus out to Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar's Village) to take in the Great Catherine Palace and Alexander Palace, conveniently nearby in case there were extra guests. Nicholas II and his family were kept in the latter for a while before being shipped out to Ekaterinburg where, eventually, they were executed, apart from Anastasia of course.
                                                  The Great Catherine Palace.
Like the palaces at Peterhof these buildings were severely damaged but have been lovingly restored.
Inside is the famous amber room, the walls of which were removed and taken to Germany.Much of it has been found and restored.
                                      You can't do that with Dulux: The Amber Room
At the back end of the seventies a West Indian group called Boney M had several hits including one called "Rasputin"  which included the lines
                                                                   Ra Ra Rasputin
                                                          Lover of the Russian Queen.
My eight year old liked it but I had given up on popular music about 1972.
 It is doubtful that the monk Grigory Rasputin was the Tsarina's lover although he is supposed to have been more than friendly with several ladies, and men, of the court. He had certainly gained the confidence of the Royal Household, was said to be able to help the haemophiliac son of the Tsar, but the aristocracy feared he had begun to influence the running of the war (World War I) which wasn't going too well for the Russian team. In December 1916 Prince Felix Yusopov, one of the nations richest men led a small group of like minded aristos who failed to poison Rasputin so shot him and dumped his body in the Neva. It didn't do the war effort much good as events the following year showed.
However it made our trip round the Yusopov Palace that bit more interesting. We joined a guided tour but as a non Russian speaker I was given a walkman with a commentary in English to listen to as we wandered the corridors and apartments of the palace. It was of course magnificent and even had its own theatre.
Felix was put under house arrest for the murder and after the abdication of NicholasII he wisely took his family, plus a few jewels off to Yalta where a British warship took them to Malta. Eventually the family settled in Paris and Felix lived until 1967.
He successfully sued a film company for misrepresentation in a film Rasputin and the Empress.  If he had lived another10 ytears or so he could have sued Boney M for a lousy song.
Nice palace though.
                                                    The Yusopov  Palace
The city has a number of cathedrals, several built in the western classical style, one being St. Isaacs.
                                                         St. Isaacs cathedral
and one being the splendid Kazan Cathedral, under the Soviet regime it was a museum of atheism!



The Kazan Cathedral
Built between 1801 and 1811 and modelled on St. Peter's in Rome it has amemorial to Marshal Kutuzov, the military chief who engineered the victory against Napoleon in 1812.

Having been brought up in aprotestant country I don't like icons or the idea behind them but this particular cathedral has an icon deicated to Our Lady Of Kazan one for St. Nicholas the miracle worker and one for Our Lady of the Enduring Cup.

                                                       Our Lady of Kazan.
There are also cathedrals in the more traditional style similar to St. Basil's in Moscow with the familiar onion domes. The most famous being the Cathedral of the Resurrection (Our Saviour on the spilt Blood). This was built between 1883 and 1907 on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by a terrorist in 1881.


                                                Cathedral of the Resuurection.
It would not do to write about this city without a brief mention of the man who gave his name to it for so many years, Vladimir Lenin, nee Ulyanov. After all the city is the birthplace of the revolution that produced a state and a system that lasted about 80 years .
                                                     Here he is, pointing as usual outside the Smolny Institute, the school for the daughters of gentlefolk that became the headquarters of the Bolsheviks for a time.



I could go on, but this is meant to be a taster so I'll leave it there.
* A good book on the siege:
The 900 days The Siege of Leningrad  by Harrison E Salisbury.