01 September 2008

Russia

We last left our heroes bound for St Petersburg on a Finnish train... what adventures awaited them? Read on...

The train carrying us from Helsinki slowed once we switched from Finnish to Russian tracks, so we had time to admire the scenery en route to St Petersburg and the city’s welcoming committee had time to hoover the gigantic red carpets used to welcome all visitors to the city known as the ‘Venice of the North’. (n.b. The bit about the carpets is a lie, but it’s a nice idea, should any city councillors be reading this)

The Russian scenery was little different from the Finnish scenery, actually. Old men strode purposefully along the track-side carrying switches for their afternoon saunas, while young boys sat idly giving the finger to the passing tourist trains. As we neared the fringes of the city we passed numerous outlying train stations full of Russians queuing for local trains to the big city.

Soon we arrived at St Petersburg’s famous Finland Station, as referenced in the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’:

You’ve got a heart of glass or a heart of stone
Just you wait till I get you home
We’ve got no future, we’ve got no past
Here today, built to last
In every city, in every nation
From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station...


Okay, being referenced in a Pet Shop Boys lyric isn’t the station’s prime claim to fame. It was here in April 1917 that Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland to foment revolution and thereby undermine the Russian war effort on the Eastern Front, having been whisked across enemy territory in the notorious Sealed Train. Within six months of Lenin’s arrival the October Revolution had erupted and ushered in Bolshevik control, with Lenin at the head of the new government.

These momentous events are today marked by an exhibit of the steam engine and carriage that transported Lenin. But our attention was focused on more prosaic matters, like getting from the station to our hotel. Steve had booked a transfer but they’d not bothered to show up, and the office hung up whenever we telephoned. As there was no Metro stop near the hotel and we were yet to learn how the bus network functioned, we plumped for a cab, which didn’t cost the earth.

Soon we were ensconced in the suburban Hotel Karelia, which accommodates travellers participating in On The Go tours. Their tour brochure had cautioned us that it was best not to equate Russian hotel star ratings with those in other countries, so we had wondered what sort of dive it might be. But despite its dreary exterior the Karelia proved to be entirely decent. We knew not to drink the tap water, as St Petersburg is built on a massive swamp, but it was still a surprise to see the colour of the tapwater… not to mention its smell… (Note that this is not a complaint against the hotel - it's like that everywhere, apparently)

Soon it was time for our first meeting with our tour guide and with our fellow travellers. Our guide was the eloquent and amiable Artem, a well-travelled sociology graduate with impeccable English and a fondness for the phrase ‘by the way’. As he filled us in on the delights awaiting us, we got to know our fellow travellers: nine Australians in all. Six of these were Queenslanders travelling en masse, linked in a confusing tracery of siblinghood, mateship, marriage engagements and an initially worrying predilection for careers in accountancy. Despite the latter they proved to be excellent company! There was also a mother and daughter team hailing from Melbourne: Sue and Sue’s Mum (yeah, we forgot her name, sorry Sue), and lastly a lady chef from Geelong with a penchant for changing money into every currency imaginable other than Russian roubles, thereby single-handedly securing the financial viability of the Russian money-changing industry.

After a team dinner in the hotel’s restaurant downstairs we New Zealanders retired to our rooms and channel-surfed through the 24 Russian stations on offer until we chanced across a Tri-Nations rugby match between Australia and South Africa, with a Russian commentary. This was enjoyable fare and helped to prove the adage that anything’s better than Murray Mexted.

==

Peter the Great founded the city that bears his name as a window through which Russia could learn from the ‘civilising’ influences of Western Europe. While he chose to erect this grand city in a rather inopportune location, what with the swamps and yellow water and all, Peter was not a man to be trifled with. He was not content with merely building a smart new capital city of stone to replace smoky, wooden Moscow, or with founding Russia’s first navy in the new port city. He also issued edicts to re-shape Russian society to meet his exacting standards:

After his European tour in 1698, he imposed a ban on beards and personally cut off those of his leading nobles. Russian traditional dress – a loose robe or kaftan – was also outlawed, and ‘German dress’ was adopted. Ladies at court were instructed to adopt the plunging décolletage that Peter had admired on his travels, although the older custom of painting women’s teeth black seems to have survived rather longer than old-fashioned modesty in female attire (John Darwin, ‘After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000’, 2007)




The skies over St Petersburg were grey and laden with rain-showers as we set off in a minibus with Artem to take in some of the sights of the city. We saw old women in headscarves bustling around worshipping icons in the gilded church of St Nikolai’s; we admired the gaudy domes of the Church of the Spilled Blood; and while on the riverside we admired the Cruiser Aurora, the ship that sparked the October Revolution in 1917. Then it was time to enjoy a smorgasbord lunch, one of the few affordable dining options available on the expensive grand thoroughfare, the Nevsky Prospekt.

After lunch and a little more sight-seeing we readied ourselves for what I hoped would be the highlight of our visit to St Petersburg: a visit to the world-class collections of the famous Hermitage Museum, Catherine the Great’s most lasting contribution to the pantheon of architecture gracing the city. The French word hermitage means ‘a hermit’s abode’ or ‘a lonely place’, but the Hermitage is far from simple or rustic. It vies with the Louvre in Paris as one of the world’s great museums housed in one of the world’s most sumptuous and glittering palaces. Its collections hold thousands of artworks of astonishing variety and incalculable value, and the building itself has played host to a myriad of key moments in Russian history.









While the spectacle of the Hermitage was awe-inspiring, the practicalities of the visit left much to be desired. Understandably, given it was Sunday afternoon, the museum was crowded and stuffy. Unfortunately our guide, Olga, was very knowledgeable but paced our journey through the many wings of the museum poorly, so as the 5 o’clock closing time neared it became obvious that we were going to miss seeing some key staterooms, and we had to hot-foot it through whole sections of the art collections. Lucky I’m not much of a fan of French Impressionism then, because we did those rooms at a run!

One way to savour the Hermitage experience at leisure is to watch Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 masterwork, the film Russian Ark, which filled me with awe at the Wellington Film Festival a few years ago. Not only is it a beautiful and interesting trawl through the history of this grand palace, it also holds a special place in cinema history. This complicated yet elegant film depicts 33 rooms of the Hermitage and features over 2000 actors in period costume, but the truly remarkable thing about the act of filming it is that Russian Ark was filmed in a SINGLE shot. The longest shot in the history of cinema. There are no cuts. This astonishing piece of cinematic history has to be seen to be believed.






That evening we convened at the Nikolayevsky Palace for a Cossack folk show put on for the throngs of tourists swarming over St Petersburg. Starting out with an eight-strong male voice choir with impressive booming vocals, the programme moved on to Cossack dances, often with comic overtones, with much flirting and prat-falling and plenty of handkerchief and/or scarf flinging. In the second half after the audience was topped up with Russian champagne and vodka the troupe returned with a jovial display of how to play accordions of increasingly small size, from a giant behemoth down to a minuscule squeaker, and finishing with a novelty accordion shaped like a boot. Sure it was cheesy entertainment, but it was great fun.

Left to our own devices, we ventured into an Azeri restaurant that had been recommended to us for dinner after the show, but the meal didn’t go so well, with some orders mixed up (Queenslander Louise was damn well going to be served a tonic water whether she wanted one or not!) and our tip proving not to their liking. I managed to lose my coat check chit, so was lucky to get my rain-jacket out of their clutches, but the guy behind the counter kindly relented, and would have been justified to think me a daft tourist. How hard is it to keep hold of a coat check chit?

After a bit of navigational debate and a decent walk down a rain-slicked Nevsky Prospekt we finally caught a minibus back to hotel for something like 20 pence, and called it a day as the clock approached midnight.

==

The next morning in the hotel restaurant we marvelled at the Russian chap starting his day with a cup of coffee and a shot of vodka. The day started out rainy but fined up as the morning progressed. It was to be another day of minibus touring around the city, visiting palaces and admiring canals and parks, assuming we could actually see them through the blizzard of Russian newlyweds having their picture taken.

(A note on Russian weddings: everyone getting married in Russia seems to cram their ceremony into the warm summer months, and afterwards they all seem to hit the town in stretched white limos to have their pictures taken in front of historic sites. Consequently, we seldom walked a single block in St Petersburg and Moscow without running into another wedding party. It was nearly the end of the trip until we finally espied a groom in a dark suit, the preference seemingly being for cream or white, and bonus points go to Steve, who spotted the altogether rare sight of a stretched Corvette limo!)

Our first stop for the morning was the Peter and Paul Fortress, established by Peter the Great in 1703 in a prime location overlooking the Neva. For generations it served as a prison for political detainees who fell foul of the autocratic Tsars and their secret police, including the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky of ‘Crime and Punishment’ fame.


Within the fortress the small but elegant Peter and Paul Cathedral serves as the resting place of almost all of the Russian tsars. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great are both buried here, with dignified marble tombs above their resting places. In an annex to the side lie the tombs of the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II and his family, who were laid to rest here in 1998 after decades of confusion and Soviet misinformation about the location of their remains.

Just outside the cathedral I was surprised to run into a former colleague from the Competition Commission. Luckily David, who visits Russia every year for the ballets, is a thorough gentleman, because I called him ‘John’ by mistake, such was my surprise at seeing him out of context.

Next it was back on board the minibus for a visit to St Isaac’s Cathedral in the centre of the city. This splendid neo-classical exterior and baroque interior took 40 years to construct and was the largest church in Russia when it was completed in 1858. (It’s thought that the cathedral’s design greatly influenced the design for the Capitol Building in Washington DC). The Soviets later chose to make an example of St Isaac’s and converted it into a museum of atheism, and also used its impressive interior for vast physics experiments using a Foucault pendulum, which were witnessed by huge crowds. Nowadays it’s not a fully-functioning Orthodox cathedral, but some chapels are open and services occur on key dates.





We then paused for lunch amongst the fallen splendour of the now slightly threadbare Polovtsev Mansion in the central city, and enjoyed its set menu of borscht, tasty beef stroganoff and delicious icecream for dessert. I didn’t relish the borscht, or the knock-down powerful vodka that accompanied the meal, but I did my best!

The afternoon was occupied by a trip to the suburbs to stroll in the historic Peterhof gardens in the warm Russian sunshine. Peterhof, known as ‘the Russian Versailles’, was constructed by the busy Peter the Great as his out-of-town summer palace, and throughout his life the gardens were expanded to lavish proportions. While the palace itself was closed to visitors, the huge upper and lower gardens with hundreds of spurting fountains took several hours to explore. As the terrain included a large bluff the lower gardens boast impressive water jets powered by the hydraulic action of water being piped down the slope towards the Gulf of Finland. The Grand Cascade is a particular highlight with its riot of fountains and golden statues reflecting the sunlight.

The lower gardens also feature a number of ‘trick fountains’ installed by Peter to play practical jokes on his guests, including one disguised as a tree to lure unsuspecting passers-by to shelter under its branches (and then get royally soaked). A nearby park bench also imprisons those who sit on it beneath a curtain of water jetted from behind, which no doubt generated howls of laughter from the monarch and polite laughter from the soaked subjects, if they knew what was good for them.





Dinner back in the city was at an appealing Chinese restaurant. Afterwards we walked to the beautiful Admiralty building and along Nevsky again to catch the minibus back to the hotel. Before bed I watched a bit of Russian football, mainly to deploy my Russian alphabet skills to work out the name of the teams playing: it was Lokomotiv v Spartak, a 2-all draw. At 11pm it was still light outside.

==

After breakfast we checked out of the Karelia and checked our luggage at the Moscow Station in the city, in preparation for our train journey that afternoon. There was some free time available, so our first stop was the Church of the Spilled Blood, the ostentatious onion-domed house of worship built on the exact spot of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by anarchists in 1881. Inside, its opulent mosaics still dazzle despite the throngs of tourist admirers. During the bitter siege of Leningrad during the Second World War the deconsecrated church served as a potato warehouse and suffered considerable damage.




The remainder of the afternoon was spent wandering the streets of St Petersburg taking a few more photos. We enjoyed a bargain lunch at a pie café Fiona had tracked down, which was a pleasant antidote to the otherwise expensive food on offer in the city. St Petersburg is an expensive place…

Soon it was time to congregate for our train into the heart of Russia. Hoping to stock up with food before we departed, we endured a half-hour queue at an understaffed pizza joint in the Moscow Station – fast food is not an option in Russia, it seems.

Finally we were able to board our 14-carriage train, and after a great deal of organising luggage and swapping seats, we managed to settle into the long journey south-eastwards to our next destination: the historic former capital, Vladimir. After the train departed on time at 5.32pm (why not 5.30pm I wonder?) we played cards as the train pulled us across the map of Russia. Once it finally got dark sometime after 11pm we converted the seats into bunks and turned in for the night. Mine was aligned with the axis of travel and had a bulkhead at each end, and I know it was six feet long because my head and feet touched the walls at each end!



After a middle-of-the-night pause at Moscow to allow passengers to leave the train, we journeyed for several more hours to the east until we reached Vladimir, where we tumbled off the train at 4.53am (yes, it was light then) and onto a waiting coach that whisked us to our accommodation, Hotel Russian Village, where we could shower and grab a few hours of sleep to recover from the unsettled night.

==

The day turned out to be a cracker, very hot with clear blue skies. The Hotel Russian Village was a great oasis of calm, with its ring of timber cottages surrounding a lake with its own squadron of guard ducks and a selection of inscrutable Russian cats patrolling the perimeter, looking for a sunny spot to doze in.




After our breakfast we headed out across the croplands to nearby Suzdal, another former Russian capital boasting a multitude of onion-domed cathedrals. We enjoyed touring a walled monastery, where we witnessed beautiful mosaic work, a three-man choral group performing in a chapel, and a bell-ringer who set up a concatenating clangour using 16 bells of varying sizes. It was an impressive performance, if not an entirely tuneful one, given that none of the bells were actually designed to be played together: they were collected during the Soviet period from churches across the USSR.





After this interlude we visited a nearby folk museum and enjoyed its displays of traditional Russian timber buildings, including a set of summer and winter churches (the summer ones being prettier, while the winter ones are stockier and warmer inside). Then the others went to soak up the heat in a Russian banya, while the non-heat-seeking remainder rested and chatted in the sun. At our lunch I struggled to cope with the complimentary two shots of vodka that came with the meal. On receiving a double-sized shot glass full of jet fuel, I coped as best I could and eventually succeeded in consuming the firewater with the aid of some juice. I had assumed that the double-sized glass contained both of my vodka shots, but no – there was another one of equal size once I’d finished that. I quickly admitted defeat.

On the hour-long journey back to Vladimir our coach driver was stopped by traffic police twice and had his ID checked, which was an educational glimpse into the prevalence of the authorities in Russia. We stopped at a brand-new hypermarket the size of a couple of aircraft carriers to stock up on snacks and cheap Russian bubbly, and then spent the long evening sitting in the sun playing cards and relaxing. The only interlude was the dinner in the main hall, during which middle-aged local Russians danced up a storm to the polka-themed music. After one woman’s strenuous efforts to get Steve up and shakin’ his thang, we beat a hasty retreat!



==

We were sad to bid farewell to the Vladimir but in the morning it was time to move on. Our coach took us onwards to Moscow, and in the three hour journey to our hotel we passed several armoured personnel carriers on the motorway. Heavy traffic indeed.

Soon we arrived at the Hotel Vega, a hotel complex of four buildings built for the 1980 Olympics. My room was on the 24th floor, with views over the huge Izmaylovskaya Park (nice) and the railway lines (not so nice). And, wonder of wonders: the TV had BBC World! We checked out the nearby market stalls, which were overloaded with inexpensive knock-offs and souvenirs, then headed into the central city on the nearby Metro (station: Partisanskaya - see below for its impressive statues) for a quick familiarisation tour with Artem.



In a few hours we got our bearings and saw the major sights within a short walking distance of the central city: the imposing Kremlin walls and the guarded eternal flame, the sweeping expanse of Red Square with the mysterious Lenin Mausoleum, the gaudy and iconic (no Russian pun intended) St Basil’s Cathedral, the famous and luxurious GUM department store, and the fearsome Lubyanka, formerly the headquarters of the KGB and now the HQ for the Russian intelligence services.




We dined at the bovine-themed My-My (‘Moo-Moo’) restaurant, and enjoyed their fare, although due to a communication breakdown we assumed that the kebab on offer was simply a skewer of meat rather than a full plate of food. This led to the soon-to-be-famous nickname, Steve “Two Dinners” Cutting…

Soon it was time to head back to the hotel – four stops on the blue line. There was time to watch Barack Obama's Tiergarten speech live from Berlin, and then I played cards with some of the Queenslanders, who were polite enough not to thrash me. I rounded out the night by watching BBC Click Online. Ah, the good old BBC…

==

The next day the Queenslanders went on an expensive tour to Star City, a centre of the Russian space programme. While we were a little jealous, we decided to save our roubles (it was *really* expensive, mind) and see a few more of the capital’s sights.

After another walk around the middle of town to take pictures, Steve, Fiona and I spent an hour or two soaking up the culture in the famed Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. I particularly enjoyed the selection of classical and later statues and its old masters – the room of Coptic Christian coffin portraits from the early part of the first millennium was spectacular – but I couldn’t find a book of the museum’s collections to buy despite there being several museum shops. (No photography was permitted inside). While this was disappointing, I did have some helpful advice from the elderly man running the bag check-in room, who made certain I was aware (through the international language of mime) that the token should be placed Firmly and Securely Within My Pocket. He was quite emphatic about this. And when Steve went to check his bag in, he got the same instructions. Maybe the chap had heard about my chit-losing exploits at the Azeri restaurant in St Petersburg.

After a walk along the Arbat, Moscow’s old merchant quarter boulevard, Steve and Fiona went on a river cruise to beat the heat, while I decided to make a beeline for the Tretyakov Gallery. In my rather over-heated walk along the riverside I took in the ludicrously large memorial to honour the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great’s founding of the Russian Navy. While it’s certainly a spectacle, it’s almost too huge to take seriously: it dwarfs everything around it, and looks as if it should collapse at a moment’s notice if the wind got up. In the end, I decided that I liked it because it was quite, quite mad.



I met up with Steve and Fiona again inside the cool air-conditioned halls of the Tretyakov Gallery, which boasts a superb collection of Russian paintings derived from an individual collection gifted to the nation. Aside from umpteen bust statues of Catherine the Great (it seems she spent her reign doing little else than posing for sculptors), and an excellent range of Russian landscapes throughout the years, the most impressive spectacle was ‘Christ Appearing to the People’, a frankly enormous canvass by Alexander Ivanov. And the Tretyakov improved on the Puskhin by offering an excellent art guide, which now sits in pride of place in my notional bookshelf.

Returning to the city centre we passed another Russian marital tradition: the bridge of locks. This short pedestrian bridge has numerous metal trees erected on its thoroughfare. Newly-wed couples bolt a sturdy padlock to the trees to symbolise the eternal security of their love, forming a billowing impromptu sculpture of metal as the locks stack up. (I presume at the end of the summer the city council comes along with a hacksaw to clear space for next year’s newly-weds, but that's not a particularly romantic notion to bring up…)



This provides a useful juncture to detour into the cul-de-sac of Russian women. Having mentioned the beauty of the Swedish variety, and noting the almost universal popularity of Ms Maria Sharapova amongst male tennis fans (okay, amongst males in general), I was interested to see how the womenfolk would scrub up. Suffice it to say, they are often very attractive, but perhaps their beauty is at least partially undermined by a preference for belt-width skirts, ridiculous tottering heels and earrings the size of Saturn’s rings. Anyone familiar with the 1980s stereotype of the Essex girl would recognise the traits, although given the reports that there are perhaps 75 billionaires resident in Moscow, perhaps some of the attire is actually astronomically expensive. As for Russian men? Let’s just say I think they’ve been watching a little too many episodes of Miami Vice.

Rather weary from all our walking and fashion judgementalism, we met up with the Australians and sampled some of the local raspberry wine (!) in a pavilion near the Bolshoi Theatre, before trooping back into Red Square once more for the obligatory night-time photos in Red Square, with the splendid domes of St Basil’s illuminated against the black sky like floating Russian jewels in the night.






==

The next morning I went shopping in the market with Fiona looking for souvenirs, and picked up a couple of ultra-cheap CDs of dubious provenance (an album by ultra-hip Parisian jazz combo Nouvelle Vague, and the debut album by The Last Shadow Puppets). Then we joined Steve and took the Metro to town for our tour of the Kremlin, the fortress that has been the focus of power in the Russian state for centuries.

The Kremlin itself was an interesting place to visit, and we enjoyed seeing its historic chapels with their solemn iconography, and the brobdingnagian spectacle of the huge Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon. The Bell is enormous – it weighs 216 tons! – but it was never rung because it cracked only two years after being cast in 1735, when a fire caused a large chunk of the bell to break off.





As it turned out, the Kremlin tour changed from a simple tourist visit into an ordeal of endurance. We had started the tour at midday and planned to be finished by 1.30pm for a late lunch. However, our assigned Kremlin guide, Natalya, had different ideas. She was very knowledgeable about the Kremlin and its history, but proceeded to share this information at great length and minute detail, often pausing to impart some of her heart-felt ethical and religious views with her famished tour group. By 3pm we were exhausted and trying desperately to evade her sermonising, and even when we’d finally said farewell and repaired to a nearby food-court to recover, she turned up in the queue at the same establishment as us!

A brief word about Russian queuing etiquette: there is none. If you can push in without anyone seeing you, or, failing that, without actually being punched, they will push in front of you. Learn to live with it; they're not about to start asking nicely.

After lunch we sat in the Aleksandrovsky park beneath the Kremlin’s walls, along with hundreds of other tourists and locals taking their R&R on a hot summer afternoon. However, we barely had a chance to get settled when a lone policeman approached and asked where we were from, and then asked us to move along. No sitting in the park. This was news to us, and to the hundreds of others minding their own business. We did what everyone else seemed to be doing, which is just to move a hundred metres or so to a different part of the park. The policeman seemed to be trawling for illegal immigrants, or perhaps a juicy tourist he could arrest for some bribeable misdemeanour.

After a bit more tourist photography along the river, we bade farewell to the view of St Basil’s and made our way back to the hotel, where we had an unpretentious dinner in a nearby restaurant and listened to a duo perform Russian folk songs.

==

On our last morning in Russia I had time to purchase a few stamps from the hotel kiosk, only to realise that they’d charmingly put a 100 percent markup on them. Ah well, that’s the spirit of enterprise for you. We then said farewell to Artem, who had been an excellent guide, and boarded our shuttle to the airport.

Our SAS flight from Moscow stopped off in Copenhagen en route, and on the way in to land I was able to see the remarkable feat of engineering that is the Öresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen to Sweden. I didn’t realise that a portion of the crossing is actually an underwater tunnel. In Copenhagen airport I pondered the effectiveness of its peculiar smoking booths: transparent phonebox-like structures in which those desperate for a fag could light up.

Soon enough we were on our way back to Heathrow, and onto the crowded and hot Piccadilly Line to our respective homes. Our Russian adventure was over, we'd had a fabulous time, and the only conceivable disappointment is that we had failed to hear Boney M's 'Rasputin' being played during our visit. For shame, Russia - what were you thinking?

Many thanks to Steve and Fiona for inviting me along with them!

More photos: St P, Vlad/Suz, Moscow
Culture: t.A.T.u., All The Things She Said
Culture: Boney M, Rasputin
Tourism: Visit Russia
Blog: Steve's report
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