Wednesday, April 9, 2008

St. Petersburg, (Russia that is) December 2003

When Judith announced that we could either go to St. Petersburg or Montevideo, Uruguay the first week of December, I thought going to South America would be a good choice. After all, summer would be just starting and the thought of lying on a beach has always appealed to me, especially when the weather at home doesn’t allow it. One of the benefits of travel is that you can change your weather.

The pull of Russia was too great, however. I really wanted to see how much Russian life has changed after leaving Russia some 20 years ago. Brezhnev was still in power then and the Soviet Union was soon to become “the evil empire” as determined by President Reagan. And I was asked to leave the country, for reasons that were obscure, but probably had to do with my relationship with Natasha. Natasha Shatrova in 1983.

After my wife Sally died, I was anxious to start a new life and get my family and myself out of Marion, Indiana so I jumped at the chance to join the RCA’s Soviet project. Getting “kicked out” of the Soviet Union took me back to Marion, but at least my children “escaped” and I believe the opportunities available to them changed their lives for the better. I am sure they will agree.

In the short time I have been here I have eaten lettuce, fresh tomatoes, and drank coffee and orange juice, none of which were available in 1983. The soup is still outstanding as is the Campaign, caviar, vodka, ice cream and butter. When I pick up a big menu, there are still a few of things on it that are not available, but not as much. A short menu is better because they will actually have everything on it. There is salt and pepper on the table now and the napkins are now the size of four sheets of toilet paper instead of one. I happily have noted the presence of McDonalds, KFC, Subway, and Pizza Hut. And Internet cafes are abundant and young Russians are using them. The cafes have high speed access available although the hotels still have dial up.

Toilet paper can be found in the bathrooms now and no evidence of wood chips are present. Its not Charmin but definitely within the realm of civilized. This means my collection of Soviet toilet paper has as much meaning as a collection of penny post cards to the present generation.

Department stores actually have good quality merchandise in them now although I noted that I think the prices keep all but the well-to-do Russians away. The possible exception may be cosmetics for women. A lot of Russians are not better off economically than under the communist’s rule. The average wage is $75/month. Some Russians also enjoyed special privileges that are no longer there. However, there are several millionaires now and people don’t have to be so careful of what they say. One can see Russians smiling on the streets. The Russians used to say that it was easy to tell Russians from Westerners because Westerners were the only ones that smiled.

One of the best vodka in the world is Stolichnaya and it is one of the cheapest drinks here, but almost every other type of liquor is very expensive, especially Scotch. One can still run across a surly clerk or museum attendant reminiscent of the old days. The surliness exhibited is truly way beyond having a bad day. It’s being exposed to a nasty demeanor and countenance because your presence required them to do the job they are there for. But for the most part, a neutral or friendly face can be found.

Being trained as an engineer has given me a desire to see elements of society to move in an efficient manner. Some nations exhibit the worst type of efficiency when it comes to vehicle traffic and walking on sidewalks. For all the sense of order provided by the British, I was very surprised that they haven’t an orderly way of walking on the sidewalks. We do a pretty good job in the United States, but Russians are the best in the world. Their sidewalk traffic moves the same way the vehicle traffic does. The sidewalk gets divided so all the people walking in one direction is on one half of the sidewalk, leaving the other half to the other direction. I know this is a bit anal, but I am sure such things say something about a society.

In my opinion, Russians have a very strong sense of public discipline and structure. They are good with the concept, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”. They have a strong sense of style and drama and their concept of morality is much the same as ours. Too bad they are still burdened by a huge bureaucracy and a criminal structure which hinders individual enterprise and distribution of wealth. In hindsight, the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of power of Stalin had a devastation effect on the country. Russia will continue move forward embracing some form of capitalism, but how democratic it will be remains to be seen.

I found this photo on the Internet. It shows the Winter Palace (the Hermitage) fronting the Neve River and the Palace Square behind containing the Alexander Column. At the far end of the square is the General Staff Building.

Here is another photo from the Internet showing the scope of the Palace Square. The Alexander Column stands in the center. This view looks at the General Staff Building and peaking in the background is the dome of St. Isaac Cathedral. After a long ride from the airport, by the time we got settled in our hotel, it had just turned dark. We were within walking distance of the Palace Square and walked into the heart of it.

The Winter Palace is the Hermitage. Here it is lit up at night. The first thing on our agenda the next morning is to visit the Hermitage. Below is a photo from the Palace Square. The Hermitage sits on the banks of the Neva River providing a sweeping view which is what Peter the Great had in mind when he had his Winter Place built on the site. In my opinion, it is probably the greatest museum is the world. Only the Louver may have more art, but the Hermitage is known, not only for its collection of art but the rooms themselves provide an emotion connection to the past with gold their gilt, marble statues, parquet and marble floors, domed ceilings, and a general richness to the eye. The art collection includes important pieces of Impressionists Renoir (my favorite), van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Rousseau, and Passarro (my 2nd favorite). The Russian Revolution and WWII were not kind to the Hermitage and restoration still is ongoing. If ever given a change in your lifetime to see one of the greatest expressions of art and history, please come here. You will not be disappointed. I pay a little extra for the privilege of taking photos and off we go. This is the grand staircase.

This the grand ballroom. No photo can possibly do this room justice. It is probably best to see the Hermitage in 3 shorten visits instead of one marathon session, but we didn't have the time.
The General Staff Building lit at night.
If this building stood anywhere else, Carlo Rossi’s stunning spectacle would undoubtedly be the center of attention. Built from 1820-27, the building is composed of two wings which are about 600 meters long in total. The two wings are separated by a giant archway, designed as a classical triumphal arch.

The best way to enter Palace Square in order to feel its full magnitude is through this arch. Above the archway is the building’s focal point, a magnificent 10 meter high sculpture of the triumphal chariot drawn by six horses. The eastern wing of the General Staff Building originally housed the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Finance Ministry and is now part of the Hermitage Museum. The western wing was for the General Staff of the Imperial Army. The General Staff Building lends an ideal balance to the Winter Palace, helping to create an unforgettable ensemble on Palace Square.
Alexander Column

Designed by French architect Auguste Montferrand and completed in 1838, it towers over Palace Square at 47.5 meters in height The column commemorates Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s army and is named after Tsar Alexander I who ruled during that difficult era. A face of the angel that stands atop the column is supposed to be modeled on the successful Tsar. The column itself was shaped from a single slab of red granite into a 3.5 meter wide cylinder weighing more than 600 tons.

Not many foreigners know that the most Northern location of Egyptian sphinxes is in St. Petersburg. Russian government have bought a few sphinxes from Egypt in 1820 and brought them to decorate shore banks of Neva river in St. Petersburg.
Kazan Cathedral, constructed between 1801 and 1811 by the architect Andrei Voronikhin, was built to an enormous scale and boasts an impressive stone colonnade, encircling a small garden and central fountain. The cathedral was inspired by the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome and was intended to be the country’s main Orthodox Church. After the war of 1812 (during which Napoleon was defeated) the church became a monument to Russian victory. Captured enemy banners were put in the cathedral and the famous Russian Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who won the most important campaign of 1812, was buried inside the church.
Just outside our hotel is a square containing the statue of Peter the Great, called the Bronze Horseman. This was taken early morning after an inch snowfall. The snow sweeper truck is removing the snow.
This equestrian statue of Peter the Great, created by the famous French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet, depicts the most prominent reformer of the Russia state as a Roman hero. Peter gallantly leads Russia forward, while his horse steps on a snake, which represents the enemies of Peter and his reforms.

According to a 19th century legend, enemy forces will never take St. Petersburg while the "Bronze Horseman" stands in the middle of the city. During the Second World War the statue was not taken down, but was protected with sand bags and a wooden shelter. In that way, the monument survived the 900-day Siege of Leningrad virtually untouched.
Also just outside our hotel is the St. Isacc Cathedral. St. Isaac's Cathedral was once the main church of St. Petersburg and the Russian Empire's largest church. It was built in 1818-58 by French-born architect Auguste Montferrand. The facades are decorated with sculptures and massive granite columns (made of single pieces of red granite). Interior contain mosaic icons, paintings and columns made of malachite and lapis lazuli.

We spent an evening watching Russians sing and dance some of their traditional folk music. It was terrific. There were some entertainers that were a little long in the tooth, mixed in with some younger, but they all had exuberance and projected their energy very well. Most dancing and the men did all those typical male steps. Try this. Grab your left toe as you stand so your left knee sticks out at a right angle to the side. Now hop you right leg over your left shin and put it down before you fall on your face. Hop back reversing your right leg position to the original place. Repeat quickly several times.


Russian circus is special. There were lots of beautiful young women, good looking athletic young men and plenty of talent. Thoroughly enjoyable! And the best thing about a Russian circus are the trained bears.
This marvelous Russian-style church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. Alexander II initiated a number of reforms. In 1861 he freed the Russian serfs and undertook a rigorous program of military, judicial and urban reforms, never before attempted in Russia. However, during the second half of his reign Alexander II grew wary of the dangers of his system of reforms, having only barely survived a series of attempts on his life, including an explosion in the Winter Palace and the derailment of a train. Alexander II was finally assassinated in 1881 by a group of revolutionaries, who threw a bomb at his royal carriage.

The decision was taken to build a church on the spot where the Emperor was mortally wounded. The church was built between 1883 and 1907 and was officially called the Resurrection of Christ Church (a.k.a. The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood ). The construction of the church was almost entirely funded by the Imperial family and thousands of private donors. Both the interior and exterior of the church is decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics.

The photo below shows the church as seen from the main street in St. Petersburg, Nevski Prospekt.
This is the view facing Nevski Prospekt.
Here is yours truly, sporting my red fox hat, left over from my Natasha days.

The palace is in the town of Puskin about 20 miles outside St. Pete’s. This Catherine is not Catherine the Great, but wife of Peter the Great. We passed the WWII battle line between the Germans and Russians. Leningrad as it was called then was under siege for almost 900 days and at least one million Russians died, mostly from starvation and depression. The palace was pretty much destroyed but the Russians hid their treasures until the war was over. The restoration is ongoing, but is totally impressive what has been done. Another must if you go to St. Petersburg. We had a English speaking guide and there was only the two of us, so we were able to move along quickly. The palace is the blue and white building and this photo shows the back side. It was cold this morning.
We walk around to the front side and entrance. This is an awesome building.
The amber room is probably the most famous room in Catherine Palace, and it was used as a study. The 16-foot jigsaw-looking panels were constructed of over 100,000 perfectly fitted pieces of amber. The Nazis dismantled the amber panels and shipped them to Germany during World War II, and they have never been found. Much mystery surrounds the fate of the amber room panels, and many Russians believe that they still exist somewhere in Germany. Russian artists began recreating the amber panels using the old techniques in the early 1980's, and the room was opened to the public in just before our visit. Our guide said that President Putin visited the opening just one week before.
We walked from our hotel to the Peter-Paul cathedral on a cold but clear day. It was quite a distance
When Peter the Great re-claimed the lands along the Neva River in 1703, he decided to build a fort to protect the area from possible attack by the Swedish army and navy. The fortress was founded on a small island in the Neva delta on May 27, 1703 (May 16 according to the old calendar) and that day became the birthday of the city of St Petersburg. The Swedes were defeated before the fortress was even completed. For that reason, from 1721 onwards the fortress housed part of the city's garrison and rather notoriously served as a high security political jail. Among the first inmates was Peter's own rebellious son Alexei. Later, the list of famous residents included Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Trotsky and Lenin's older brother, Alexander.
In the middle of the fortress stands the impressive Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of all the Russian Emperors and Empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III.

On top of the cathedrals’ gilded spire stands a magnificent golden angel holding a cross. This weathervane is one of the most prominent symbols of St Petersburg, and at 404 feet tall, the cathedral is the highest building in the city.
I have been to Paris a couple of times and visited most of the tourist sites. St. Petersburg in my opinon, is the most dramatic, beautiful city in the world. The setting and climate only add to its mystic.


vikkitikkitavi said...

The Getty has some beautiful pieces from Catherine the Great, and they display them in a setting meant to recreate the rooms they were originally in, 24-carat wallpaper and all. It's pretty impressive. I will take you next time you are in LA. If you've never seen the Getty, it's a gorgeous place.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Do you know what happened to Natasha?

Dad E said...

I don't know what happens to her. When we met she told me a Japanese man wanted to marry her. She was going to do it so she could leave the country. She ultimately wanted to end up in Paris, so marrying the Japanese man was but a way to the end.

She called me on the phone about 3 months after I returned to the Lancaster, urging me to come see her. I knew it was impossible to do and told her I could not. But she knew urging me up until the time the line went dead. I don't know how she managed to contact me. But she was skilled in how to bribe people to get what she wanted. She was a classy woman and fun to be with. I seriously considered marrying her, but there were so many things we could not discuss due to language barriers so I felt I didn't know her hopes and dreams much except she wanted to go to Paris.

She had visited St. Peterburg and told me a lot about the beauty and art or the place. On some level, I felt her presence while I was there.

Where are you Natasha Shatrova?