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In Search of St. Petersburg
Russia's Crown Jewel City
Both Polished and Tarnished

Stepping off the ship, we could only marvel to ourselves, "We are in Russia…fabled land of czars, Bolsheviks, and Soviets!" The three-day stopover in St. Petersburg had been the primary reason we had taken this seven-country Baltic Sea cruise. We had heard of the wonders and history of the majestic city created by Peter the Great. Now, ten years since the dissolution of the USSR, what would it be like to visit the best-preserved site of Russia’s czar dynasty? What would be our feelings on seeing the remains of the Soviet Union alongside the evolving conditions and population of the new Russian Federation? Three days of tours would give us the highlights of the city’s treasures, yet leave enough time to experience firsthand today’s Russia.

Neva River
Neva River view with St. Isaac's dome, center

Intriguing History

The history of St. Petersburg had captivated our imaginations. Czar Peter I (Peter the Great) established a fort here in 1703 while battling Sweden. Entranced by the location, he decided to site a city here, named after his patron saint. He planned St. Petersburg as Russia’s "Window on Europe." He moved the capital of the Romanov czarist dynasty here in 1713, developing the city to take advantage of its river location with lavish royal palaces, churches, and monuments. He and his successors amassed a huge European art collection at the city’s Hermitage winter palace. The city grew considerably when harbor facilities were developed in the 1800s. However, the poverty of the factory and shipyard workers contrasted greatly with the luxury of the royal court, leading to uprisings in 1825 and 1905.

The Academy of Art, viewed from the Neva River

The czars were finally overthrown in March 1917. Then the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, overthrew the newly formed provisional government in November 1917. Russia started down a socialist course that evolved under Stalin to the point where the totalitarian Soviet state owned, operated, and "shared" all property and information with its citizens. In 1918, the capital was moved to Moscow, and, following Lenin’s death in 1924, St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. German WWII forces destroyed much of the city, and over a million residents died in the conflict. In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev began a series of reforms (information openness or glasnost, and restructuring or perestroika), which resulted in dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Leningrad remained part of the Russian Federation, the largest of the newly independent countries, and the city was renamed St. Petersburg. The new government has concentrated on refurbishing many of its historical sites to increase the positive economic impact of tourism.

Becoming Oriented

Peter & Paul Steeple
Peter & Paul

St. Petersburg has one of Europe’s best city layouts. Several bridges span the broad Neva River, while the majority of the interesting sites are located south of the river along three concentric canals, Moika, Griboyedova, and Fontanka. The major boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt, runs from its origin at the river, near the Hermitage, in a southeasterly direction, crossing all three canals. Once we understood this simple city plan, we felt immediately "oriented" for our explorations. We started at the city’s birthplace, Peter and Paul Fortress, which looks across the river at St. Petersburg’s low skyline. The thick-walled fortress had seen duty over the years as a military outpost, a political prison (Lenin stayed there), and site of the Romanov czars’ royal cathedral and their tombs. The quantity of gold throughout the interior almost made us gag. Even the towering steeple, viewable for miles, was gilded. However, the fort’s walls and other buildings were in obvious disrepair…a sign of the currently tough economic climate.

Next, we crossed into the city past the czars’ Summer Gardens and the Hermitage to huge gold-domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral, built by Czar Alexander I. We were even more impressed by the Church of Our Savior, sitting alongside Moika Kanal, with its St. Basil-like domes and fabulous mosaics. It is one of an increasing number of Russian Orthodox churches again functioning religiously. Further explorations brought us to Palace Square, where the revolution started near the Hermitage, and Decembrist’s Square with its bronze horseman statue of Peter the Great. A number of other sites highlighted the city’s czarist history: Kazan Cathedral; the Russian baroque Smolny Cathedral; the Mariinskii (Kirov) Ballet building; the Russian Museum, and the statue of Catherine the Great. As we completed our orientation, we had mixed feelings: impressed by many czarist sites; saddened to see other czarist sites and public buildings in disrepair; and in wonder why there seemed to be so many loiterers and street workers seemingly "on a break." We wanted to learn more about the human spirit of the new Russia.

Church of Our Savior

Hermitage, Winter Palace

The Hermitage was worth our full day visit. A major highlight was viewing the imposing stairways, halls and czar "living rooms" (rooms 188-198) of the 400-room structure. Here the attraction was history, as we viewed the draped, gilded, and jeweled chambers where Russian royalty once cavorted. In the green-pillared Malachite Hall the Provisional Government that briefly succeeded the czars held its last meeting before being arrested in the adjacent dining room by the Bolshevik forces that stormed in from neighboring Palace Square.

Hermitage Salon
Hermitage Salon

Palace Dining
Royal Dining Room

Royal Coach
Royal Coach

The Hermitage art collection, three million pieces, occupies most of the Hermitage structure. We ended up concentrating on just the paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Leonardo, Rafael, El Greco, Goya, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, and Matisse…to drop a few names. The czars spared no expense in developing their collection. Unfortunately, we were greatly saddened to see that it was not being maintained in the conditions that it deserved. On a warm, sultry summer day with no air conditioning the masterpieces were being subjected to ruinous temperature and humidity…more tarnish on the jewel.

Peterhof, Summer Palace

On our third day we visited Peter the Great’s large summer palace, where we best experienced the feeling of czarist Russia. Peterhof (also know as Petrodvorets) is situated 18 miles west of the city, surrounded by huge gardens and connected by a canal and pathways to its dock on the Baltic Sea. The Grand Cascade with its three waterfalls, 64 fountains, and 37 statues elicited a tourist outburst "Aaah!" as it thundered into action at noon. Trick fountains were scattered throughout the gardens, a reminder that czar Peter would catch his garden-walking guests off guard with an occasional drenching. The sumptuous palace interior, including the Throne Room and the silk-wallpapered Partridge Dining Room again reminded us that the czars wanted to think of themselves as just a cut above their subjects.

Peterhof Palace
Peterhof Palace and Fountains

Royal Musicians

Peterhof Canal
Peterhof Canal to the Baltic Sea

Today’s Russia: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In the course of our tours and our "evenings on the town," we started to gather a better picture of today’s Russian Federation. First, the Good experiences and observations… When we attended a theater presentation of Russian folkloric song and dance, which spanned the peasant, Cossack, and Jewish traditions from across the country, we were impressed with the talent, energy, friendliness, and proud spirit of the large cast. Our forthcoming guide indicated that their has been a tremendous amount of rebuilding and reparation of the city’s major tourist sites and that tourism is having a positive impact on St. Petersburg’s economy. The fact that a number of churches are again operational was also a positive sign of the recently won freedoms of the population.

Now, the Bad and the Ugly… Perhaps the largest challenge facing the new government and its citizens is developing a general feeling of honesty and trust. When we asked our guide the average salary and the unemployment rate, she responded honestly that nobody has a clue — "everyone" tells the government they have a job, when in fact many are idle, and "everyone" reports only a portion of their income to avoid the outlandish tax rates. When we heard her response, we no longer wondered why organized crime is reported to control 30-40% of Russia’s economy, why there appeared to be a high number of loiterers and beggars, even why most young couples avoid marriage in order to avoid government recognition. In our own brief time on the streets of the city we did not sense the type of elevated energy and purpose exhibited by the residents of other ex-USSR countries that we had visited. Fortunately serious crime has been on the decline in St. Petersburg over the last few decades. Even a criminal lawyer from the United States would probably travel to St. Petersburg these days.

State-Owned Apartment Complex

Street Musician
Street Musician

The housing situation in Russia was another indicator of the challenges ahead. Our guide showed us the living conditions of the average Russian in a small apartment in a huge apartment complex. Almost all housing continues to be owned by the government; the supply is limited (multi-year waiting lists), and the prices have risen. It will take years before private industry will develop sufficiently to bring the government out of the housing loop. With the current problems many older Russians are living together, crowded into a one-room apartment. The challenges for Russia are significant.

Unforgettable Experience

Would we return to Russia?…probably not in the near future. Are we thankful for our three days there?…absolutely! As we sailed from St. Petersburg’s harbor we reflected on our visit to Russia’s most accessible and historic city. It occurred to us that over the centuries, until 1991, the average Russian has never experienced personal freedoms and has always relied on the rulers (be they czars or the State) for their life "direction." Russia's biggest challenge may be in developing self-reliance, responsibility, and initiative in its citizens. The trip was hard to describe, yet we knew that this had been one of our most intriguing travel experiences...we won’t forget St. Petersburg.

Click here for details to plan your own trip to St. Petersburg, Russia.

Les Furnanz
Photos by Rita Furnanz

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