Days 20: St. Petersburg Sightseeing: Plenty of time in St Petersburg to get acquainted with the fascinating history and way of life. Our sightseeing tour includes the great Winter Palace, the incredible Hermitage Museum; visit Petrodvorets with its palaces, parks and fountains. And for a taste of local flavour, anyone for caviar and a vodka chaser? (Breakfast included)
Breakfast: 8:00 Bus departs: 8:30
When I think of St. Petersburg I think of Tsarist Russia: The Romanov Dynasty. I think to appreciate St. Petersburg you need to know a little history about St. Petersburg and the Romanovs’, I’ll have some blurbs throughout about the history.
Alexander III rounded up the assassins of Alexander II and had them hanged, and the reform that had recently come to Russia was over. Alexander III built The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood on the site of the successful assassination of Alexander II, hence the name.
Nicholas eventually gave in to the populous and created an elective assembly (the Duma) and a constitution. When World War I broke out Russia was dragged in, 8 million Russians were killed, wounded or captured. At the same time Lenin’s slogan was “peace, land and bread.”
On Feb 23 1917 bread lines turned to riots, Nicholas came home from the front and was forced to abdicate and give power to the Duma. The last European Monarchy had fallen. Civil War broke out and the Bolsheviks eventually took power. Some Romanovs were allowed to leave Russia, some were killed and Nicolas’s family was moved around a bit. In July of 1918 the family was woken up in the middle of the night, taken to the basement, told to pose for a family photo and were killed by the Red Army. There bodies were soaked in acid and burned.
And so my first day in St. Petersburg went like this…
We left a little late this morning, since some people slept late and Maggy was being nice giving them a few minutes to get ready after waking them. Our first stop of the morning was the Peterhof Gardens at Peterhof Palace. We did not go inside the palace as we would be seeing other Palaces, but the gardens are breathtaking. The exterior of the palace is gorgeous and the workmanship and gold simply amazing, and to think of all the Russians who died building it and the Russians who died of starvation after it was built, yet all this wealth in one palace. The fountains are magnificent and you could see the great effort put into outdoing Versailles. Once we finished looking around we had a bit of free time to look around at the market outside the palace. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was one of the places where you could get better prices on Russian souvenirs. I got a scarf for mom. But the most interesting thing was using the bathroom. I waited on line and had to pay 60 euro cent (or 40 rubles). The toilet paper was hanging on the wall outside the stalls under my favorite sign of the whole trip.
After Peterhof we made a stop at a church, St. Peters, to see and experience a Russian Orthodox Church. There was a little boy outside begging, he had an eye on Michael and followed him for a bit, it was pretty funny. Inside the church there were lots of little old Russian ladies praying. In a Russian Orthodox Church everyone stands, so there is no seating inside, except for seats for the Tsar and his family. During Communism many churches were destroyed, those that weren’t were converted into warehouses, pools, skating rinks, anything other then a church, consequently there are not as many churches in Russia as there should be. After the church we were on our way to the Siege of Leningrad (Communist name for the city St. Petersburg) Memorial.
Several of the great world powers have tried to take Russia. King Charles XII and the Swedes tried during Peter the Great’s reign, but failed and the great Swedish Empire collapsed. Tsar Alexander pretty much started a fight with the French (he aligned with the English) and Napoleon Bonaparte tried to take Russia. The Russians retreated from the French burning the land as they went, Napoleon followed deeper and deeper into Russia and finally met the Russians in Borodino, 75,000 men died and both sides claimed victory. The Russians retreated and left Moscow to the French, but not without burning the city. Napoleon ordered the retreat, but the Russian winter came early, they had little or no supplies and Russians attacked the retreating army. By the time they reached the Polish border the army had been decimated. On June 22, 1941 Hitler’s secret plan for the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa began. The Russians were slow to respond and within 4 months the Germans were outside Moscow and laid siege on Leningrad. In 1942 Hitler went after Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd), but Germany’s supplies lines were insecure and winter came early (early September). Stalin released restrictions on the church and appealed to patriotism to rally for the cause. In February of 1943 the German 6th Army surrendered. Leningrad had held out for 900 days, but never surrendered. By April 1945 the Red Army was in Berlin. There are a couple reasons for the Russian success: a large military was simply able to outnumber a better army; the scorched earth policy, where the Russians burned everything as they retreated leaving little for the advancing army; harsh Russian winters and long supply lines for invading armies; and well the Russians are used to hardship, there is more then one point in Russian history where it is believed that Russians resorted to cannibalism for survival, their own government treated them worse then any invading army could.
And so we stopped at the Siege of Leningrad Memorial. Downstairs they have a museum, they showed a video without sound of the hardships the residents of Leningrad, but Anna explained everything in the video. The city was under siege for 900 days, and over 1 million people died, despite the fact that many people were able to leave the city. At one point the daily rations consisted of 175grams (a small loaf of wonder white is 340 grams) of sawdust laden bread people supplemented by eating pets, rats, birds, wallpaper paste, leather belts and eventually some resorted to cannibalism. Some days as many as 30,000 people died, many just falling over in the street. Despite the hardships they never surrendered and human spirit remained alive, including acts of kindness and performances by the philharmonic and the symphony.
When we were walking back to the bus Anna stopped to talk to a guy on the sidewalk and let us know that if we needed to exchange money to see this guy. The black market exchange guy, nice! At 2:00 we were dropped off at the Church on the Spilled Blood for 3 hours of free time. Almost everyone went to Nevsky Prospect for lunch. I had Subway with Kieren, Marie, Kate, Andrew, Donna and Stephanie. Ordering lunch wasn’t too bad, the people working there understood meatball and pointing at bread, relief! After lunch a bunch of us went to St. Isaacs Cathedral for a view of the city. Then we wanted to go to the Kunstkamera Museum (the deformed baby museum or the Museum of Anthropology & Ethnography), but other people were coming from there, the line was 45 minutes to get in – there wouldn’t be time to go. We went back the the Church on the Spilled Blood because there was a market there. I looked at the martryoshka dolls, but couldn’t decide on one, but I did get a flask for my brother-in-law.
Dostoevsky is a famous Russian writer and apparently they love him here, they even have a museum about him. In the fall semester of school I read a book by him, Notes From the Underground, it was awful! I don’t specifically remember all that much about the book, except that reading it was torture. I have a friend who is a Russian language student and she says his other stuff isn’t any better. I would not spend my free time going to see his statue or museum.
We went back to the hotel at 5:00 to get ready for the ballet and to have dinner. At 7:00 we left for the Ballet, we were seeing Giselle. When we went to find our seats someone was in my seat, he seemed confused about where he was supposed to sit and I didn’t have the answer, but I knew he was in mine. Anna came in just after that and got rid of him. Our seats were very good, they were Orchestra seats in the front row of the back section, my seat happened to be at the end of the isle for the front section – I had an unobstructed view of the stage. The ballet was really good, quite amazing how they could tell the story through dance. I will admit I did fall asleep at one point during the first act, but I think everyone did, and almost everyone liked it. I think 2 of the guys left during intermission to hit the town. But buying the program was worth every penny, without it it’s hard to tell what is going on onstage. The ballet finished at 10 and then it was back to the hotel for bed since I was exhausted.