Less an iron curtain and more of a veil these days, nonetheless there are distinct differences to the rest of Europe once you land in what once called itself the USSR (or CCCP if you are being pedantic). Not least of these is the Soviet levels of service that greet you in the (greying, crumbling) airport at St Petersburg. “Hey. You. Look at camera”. I look at the camera. She raps impatiently on the glass to my right. Am I supposed to not look at the camera now? Ah, it seems I am to look at her so she can ascertain I am who I say I am according to my passport photo. I pass muster. I get the stamp, the sound of which echoes around the terminal. “NEXT!” Service with a smile is a phenomenon that did not make it in to the approved government processes once Glasnost took effect.
If this is to be expected then it all becomes confusing once you set foot in St Petersburg as this is clearly not a city of the Russian stereotypes that have done the rounds since 1917. Readers of Russian Literature might not be surprised to know that St Petersburg is still the premier city for cultural touchstones, but for anyone whose knowledge is of Moscow and little else, it will come as a wonderful surprise to find yourself in a beautiful, mostly well kept and distinctly European city. Despite heavy bombardment during the War, most of the old city is in good condition and probably much the same as when Dostoevsky last set foot there.
While there are a host of pleasantries on offer – St Isaac’s Cathedral, The Church Of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood, a wander down Nevsky Prospect, not to mention the various parks and canals – the main draw of the city is The Hermitage. The building is part of the Winter Palace complex and its aristocratic roots are clear to see throughout. While admiring a Van Eyck, you can also be admiring the room in which you are standing which might be lined with red velvet floor to ceiling and crowned with intricately carved cornices. Some of the rooms are vast and no doubt held many events that took in the wealthiest members of European society. There are rooms dedicated to European masters: a Mattisse Room, a Van Gogh Room, a Picasso Room and so on. In the basement is a vast collection of Russian archaeological findings dating from 10,000BC including an original full size birch-wood funeral carriage, sarcophagi of Kings that are made from entire trees and original religious codices from the birth of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is quite the marvel, and will easily eat up several hours if you let it.
Wandering around town when the weather is fine is a delight in itself. At one time, it was set to be the Venice of Russia only the canals kept silting up. These days, a smaller number of canals are still evident and they bring a spacious sense of order to the centre of town. The parks are also of a very European style, and now with the added charms of Soviet Kitsch, which is there in spades in every over decorated marble/coral fountain to the sometimes bizarre statues dotted around.
After four nights of cosiness in the magnificent Soul Kitchen Junior hostel (extremely highly recommended), it was off to Moscow on the new high speed train called the Sapsan. In a little over four hours I was in the big capital of Mother Russia, and the differences were very much evident.
First of all, unlike St Petersburg, everything is in Cyrillic. It was something I was told about beforehand by people coming the other way and being able to read Cyrillic meant this wasn’t much hassle for me, but for most visitors this would certainly throw you through a loop. The Metro in particular would cause issues as you wouldn’t actually know where you were at any given time…
I took a walking tour on my first day (another “Free” tour – payment by tips. A great innovation) and it was a very different beast to St Petersburg. The city was very much affected by Soviet planning and destruction. Many churches remain, but many more were bulldozed to make way for god awful ugly grey apartment blocks that can be seen all over the place. In the centre, as land is so expensive, this simply means a dearth of older buildings with the Kremlin complex being the obvious exception. The Kremlin is certainly an interesting place. At once the seat of government (and God, don’t they let you know about it if you accidentally start walking down the wrong pathway), it is also home to a collection of some of the most remarkable religious buildings I have seen.
There are several “onion domed” churches, covered in gold, all with their own merits and histories but one thing stands out for two of them and this is the artwork that adorns every square inch of space inside them. From floor to distant ceiling (including the ceiling itself), icons and scenes from the bible are painted in rich colours and gold, dating from the 12th century to a few hundred years thereafter. Even the columns supporting the roof are adorned with artworks. In one building, a great number of sarcophagi hold the remains of many, but not all, tsars from history (the later Romanovs being interred where they were shot, a few hundred kilometres east in Yekaterinburg).
Other sites for the briefly stopping visitor are all around Red Square. Sadly, the square was closed off when I visited due to a large stage being erected in honour of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Lenin was also off limits, so he mouldered in peace for the day. The two other main sights are St Basil’s Cathedral which you will certainly know by seeing it if not necessarily by name (it’s that cathedral. Yes, that one you associate with Russia. That one), and GUM department store. The latter was always a famous edifice in the Soviet Union even if most of what it offered was long queues for outdated technology and moth eaten clothing. These days it is a Mecca for capitalism with very exclusive brands from Armani to Mont Blanc filling up the aisles. It has been preserved/restored extremely well, and is a great place to watch the glitterati and wannabes pass by, dripping with Louis Vuitton bags and sable neck warmers.
A Russian entrée for a Siberian main course. The next destination was to be on a train – for four days no less, and then beyond to the east. But that’s for next time. Stay tuned!