Monday, October 1, 2007

Meet me in Saint Petersburg (August 31 - Sept 8)

This year my very brave parents decided to close their eyes, hold their breath, join hands, hope for the best and make their first trip to Russia. After hearing so much (much more than they ever wanted to know, perhaps) about my travel here for more than 4 years now, they decided to check it out. Although I have yet to convince them to visit Siberia or the Far East, Mom and Dad did come to Saint Petersburg for the first week of September. This first picture is my mom and dad on the Catherine Canal (from Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg's largest -- and quite famous -- downtown thoroughfare.)

Petersburg was the first place I ever visited in Russia; I lived there for a month in July of 2003, but haven't been back since. I still learned plenty of new things for myself this time around. One of the coolest things was my parents' interest in the siege of Leningrad (1941-1944), so this time I learned a lot about the city during the years of WWII, the colossal efforts that must have been taken to restore it since then, and more.

Despite knowing no Russian or the Cyrillic alphabet, my parents did learn to recognize words like "coffee house," "restaurant," and, of course, "McDonalds" (something they wouldn't see in Vladivostok) by the end of the trip. Overall they deserve quite the kudos for trying to learn more about strange and overwhelming country that their daughter is for some reason fascinated by. My dad was even reading War and Peace on the plane ride over! And, after surviving the Petersburg metro several times, hopefully they now feel ready to take on anything.

Also, this blog entry is made possible by the photography skills of my mother. Thank you for being the photographer, Mom!

This is something else I did not do in Petersburg my first time around -- get my picture taken with Peter and Catherine the Great! Peter the Great was tsar of Russia from 1682-1725, and he founded St Petersburg and moved the capital of Russia there (from Moscow) in 1703. The capital stayed in St Petersburg until 1918, when the Bolsheviks moved it back to Moscow. Catherine the Great ruled Russia from 1762-1796. While Peter won Russia a northern port, St Petersburg, on the Baltic, Catherine won the country a southern port, Odessa, on the Black Sea. Ports of course were very important to Russia's development -- it's no fun being land-locked. There are Peter and Catherine the Greats all over St Petersburg and the palaces on the outskirts, just waiting to take their picture with tourists (for a $4 fee).

St Petersburg is a city of palaces. Tsars' palaces, people richer than the tsars' palaces, you name it. Above is St Petersburg's first palace -- inside is preserved the wooden house where Peter the Great lived when the city was being built. Peter didn't really like big stuff. All the palaces he built for himself were pretty little.

And on a more grandiose scale... This is the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, picture taken from Palace Square, where Nevsky Prospect ends. The 4 palaces of the Winter Palace (this is just a view of the most famous one) were built in the mid-1700s. The Winter Palace was the winter residence of the tsars. Obviously, they gave themselves a little upgrade over Peter's modest digs. Today you can go inside the Winter Palace, but you can't see what the tsars' rooms looked like -- the Bolsheviks weren't really too big on preserving that stuff. Instead you can tour the Hermitage, one of the world's largest art museums. The collection was started by Catherine the Great, and initially was a private collection of the tsars. Today the Hermitage has over 3 million pieces of art -- you could literally spend a lifetime there -- including 2 Leonardo da Vincis, Raphaels, many Rembrandts, etc. The interiors of the Hermitage alone are quite unreal and extravagant. Perhaps my mom will post a picture of them in the comments section :-).

This is the Aleksandr Column, in Palace Square in front of the Hermitage/Winter Palace. It commemorates Russia's victory over Napoleon in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars. (Aleksandr I was tsar at the time.) At the top an angel is crushing a snake with her cross. (You guessed it -- Napoleon is the snake.) This column has no foundation and rests on its own weight.

Here's another snake-crushing monument. (The dudes in front are part of one of numerous wedding parties.) This is a monument to Peter the Great called the Bronze Horseman, since made very famous in a poem of the same name by Russia's greatest writer, Aleksandr Pushkin. As my dad astutely observed, the back hoof of the horse is also crushing a snake. However, this snake is not Napoleon but the Swedish king Charles XII, whom Peter defeated in the Great Northern War to win the territory that includes St Petersburg.

In the summer the tsars got away from their drab living in St Petersburg and the Winter Palace and went out to the suburbs. This is me and my mom in front of part of the main fountain cascade at Peterhof, the construction of which was started by Peter the Great in the early 1700s. Peterhof is on the Gulf of Finland, 20 km from St Petersburg. Peter may have abandoned his modest principles *just a little* when he went to build this palace and particularly the beautiful grounds, meant to rival Versailles. There is quite a lot of gold and many amazing fountains here, and it is difficult to imagine a place being more extravagant, although I suppose we'll just have to go to Versailles to compare. Like all the tsars' suburban palaces, Peterhof was occupied by the Germans in WWII, and much of the grounds and palace interiors were destroyed by them. From here the German army used to fire on St Petersburg, aiming for the huge gold dome of St Isaac's Cathedral downtown.

This is the main palace, or Catherine Palace, at Tsarskoye Selo. (The weather wasn't as super for our visit there -- St Petersburg can already be pretty chilly, windy and rainy at the beginning of September. Fortunately we had sunny -- if cool -- weather about half the time.) Peter the Great gave the land here to his wife, Catherine I, as a present in the early 1700s. Most of the building was overseen by their daughter, Elizabeth (her architect was Rastrelli, responsible for much of the baroque architecture of St Petersburg), and then Catherine the Great. Both Tsarskoye Selo and Peterhof are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

St Petersburg was home to come of Russia's greatest literary and artistic geniuses. This is Dostoevsky's tombstone.

This building is home to the House of Books (Dom Knigi) on Nevsky Prospect. It just looks cool. It was originally built to house an American sewing-machine company, which I suppose could serve as a partial explanation of the architecture.

This is the Church on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Tsar Aleksandr II was assassinated in 1881. Fortunately this church was not destroyed by the Communists, although it was closed and used to house theater props, among other things. It took longer to restore it (25+ years) than it did to build it. The inside walls are covered in very ornate mosaics. Along with Kazan Cathedral and St Isaac's Cathedral, this is one of the most famous churches in St Petersburg -- and they are all right downtown, literally within minutes' walk of each other.

This bear is helping us toast our trip. You have to indulge in the Russian stereotypes sometime. The vodka was in fact really good.

The Venice of the North? Many people claim that St Petersburg deserves this title.

We also took a trip to Novgorod for the day, climbed St Isaac's Cathedral, wandered around the Peter and Paul Fortress in the rain, visited the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, where many of the estimated 1 million victims of the siege of Leningrad are buried in mass graves, and much more. Perhaps Mom will post some more pictures.

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