This past week, we watched the Netflix miniseries, The Last Czars, basically a documentary but with actors used to recreate some scenes. It had us talking about our two days visiting Russia, and when we saw the scene where conspirators attempt to kill Rasputin (poisoned, shot, and finally thrown in the Neva River), we remembered that we had been in the very room where this took place. So our next blog entry here just had to be St. Petersburg!
We visited Russia on September 5-6, 2012, and a tour was required to enter the country (no walking around on one’s own!). We had to enter passport control one by one, so Jan reached deep into her memory from high school language class, smiled at the agent, and in Russian said, “Hello! How are you today?” In return, there was no smile or acknowledgement of a woman trying to connect with the agent in her own language. She stamped the passport, slid it back with a glum expression, and said nothing. Oh, well, at least we tried!
The first photos are of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a former Russian Orthodox Church, now a state museum. It was built on the site of a terrorist attack in 1881 that blew off Czar Alexander II’s legs and led to his death, and its construction took 24 years to complete (1883-1907). It is often mixed up with St. Basil’s in Moscow, with its mosaics, onion domes, and gilded interior. The first five photos are of its interior, followed by a photo of a part of the exterior. You must remember that back in 2012, we were not photographing for a website, just for our own use. We had no idea, even six months ago, that we would ever post old photos in retrospectives, but it has been thrust on us by the pandemic. So the photos aren’t as complete as we would like them to be.
Following the church are two photos from Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was taken out. The first of these photos is a dark cellar room with a mannequin of Rasputin, in the very place he was poisoned. The second is an upstairs green ballroom, showing the palace a bit more and how the family lived. The next two photos were taken at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, and in the first photo you can see some of the tombs it houses. We saw the tombs of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II and his family, only interred in the last 20 years after their bodies were found buried in a forest near their final detention home 80 years prior. The second of the photos shows members of the church choir, who sang some Russian chant for us. We remember how beautiful it was because in Russian chant, the notes are all very close to each other…it is almost like the voices are sliding along together down a hill, adjacent, and very silky somehow.
The photo following the singers is a very funny memory. We had been told by the tour guide that we would have “pierogi” for lunch. Polish pierogi, almost like cheese-and-potato-filled ravioli, is Jan’s favorite food on the planet. We arrived at the restaurant, only to see what you can see in the photo, which looked like loaves of bread. We asked the guide where the pierogi was, and she pointed to the bread. Apparently, this is Russian pierogi – bread stuffed with sauerkraut and cheese. You have never seen a more disappointed girl in your life! We tried some, along with a bowl of borscht. It was all fine, just not quite what we had in mind.
Next up are five photos of the Catherine Palace, a rococo palace given to Catherine the Great by her husband, Peter the Great. A bit south of St. Petersburg, the palace is in the village of Pushkin, and was used as a summer palace by the czars. As you can see, a wedding was taking place when we were there. As you can also see, it is quite “over the top” with its furnishings and trappings! After that come six photos of another lavish palace, Peterhof, built by Peter the Great as the Russian answer to Versailles! No wonder the common people suffered and starved, and never had very much…all this money put into palaces for the czars. This has an intricate series of fountains, as you can see. In the last photo of this set, we wonder how they though it was a good idea to have seats that are impossible to reach without an umbrella! It was quite funny.
The next five photos were taken at one of the world’s most famous art museums, the Hermitage. The full view of it was taken from across the Neva River, on a rainy and windy day. The photo after that is of one of the museum’s most famous paintings, Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt, just gorgeous. It was dizzying to walk through the museum and gawk at so many famous pieces of art, following a guide, and thus not able to choose our own path. But we remember the museum as being exceedingly crowded, so we felt lucky to have walked right in, as we were part of a group, rather than waiting in a very long line to get in.
The last three photos are a little whimsical. The city is so proud of its subway stops, of all things, that they are regularly an important part of any city tour. They were designed to reflect architectural styles, having lots of sculptures, and to be more than just drab grey waiting places for your ride. Check them out! It was really interesting.
We found the buildings and treasures of the city to be breathtaking and unusual, very different from the rest of Europe. We did notice that people walked hurriedly, with their heads down, and in general did not look happy or animated…nobody was smiling. Our guide told us that, growing up, they were taught about the “horrors” of democracy, and in fact the word “democracy” was as scary to them as the word “communism” was to us!