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January 29, 2006

On to St. Petersburg

Continuing on our Russian journey in 1995, after four days in Moscow we traveled overnight by the famous Red Arrow to St. Petersburg.


We each had a personal berth on the very comfortable train. To protect us on our journey since there had reports of robberies on the train, our group had its own bodyguard, a young named Yevgeny (Eugene) who spoke good English. I’m not sure how much a slightly built 20-year old boy who slept in the hallway could offer but who knew what really was inside that battered briefcase he carried?

One of the retired seniors in our tour group recounted the time he had traveled the same route in the 1950's. At that time, the window shutters were locked during certain parts of the route to St. Petersburg so no one was allowed to look out.

After a restful trip, we arrived in St. Petersburg the next morning ready to begin exploring Russia's “window on Europe.� One of the first places we visited was the famed Peterhof palace on the Gulf of Finland. Founded in the very beginning of the eighteenth century by Emperor Peter the Great, not far from his new northern capital St Petersburg, Peterhof was intended to become the most splendid official royal summer residence. It has over 170 fountains, the most famous of which is the Great Cascade:


We arrived on a perfect autumn day with a cobalt blue sky and vivid autumn leaves on the trees. I highly recommend traveling in September! Our bus was met by a performing band, dressed in vintage military costumes, which played some American tunes for our entertainment, including “Blue Moon.�

Our tour of Peterhof included its numerous gilded statues of ancient gods and heroes, remarkable collections of sculpture, painting and works of the minor arts.


The palace interiors were spectacular as well, but the weather was just too nice to spend a great deal of time indoors...


especially when we discovered the outdoor gardens. We did a thorough study of the gardens and brought back ideas for our own, including building a pergola similar to this one.


On our way back from Peterhof, we stopped at several WWII memorials placed just a short distance away from the city of St. Petersburg. We learned these were memorials to show how far the German army had advanced in the war. Brian wrote down the story of one of the memorials:

The Germans reached the outskirts of what was then Leningrad but they weren't able to conquer it, beginning a siege that lasted for 900 days, from September 8, 1941 till January 27, 1944. The city (whose population then totaled nearly three million people) was completely cut off from the rest of the country, and it was Hitler’s intention to literally starve the city into submission.

Food and fuel stocks were very limited (1-2 months only). All the public transport stopped. By the winter of 1941-42 there was no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little food. In January 1942, in the depths of an unusually cold winter, the lowest food rations in the city were only 125 grams (about 1/4 of a pound) of bread per day. In just two months, January and February, 1942, 200 thousand people died in Leningrad of cold and starvation. But some of the war industry still worked and the city did not surrender.

Harrison Salisbury, in his book 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, wrote:

This was the greatest and longest siege ever endured by a modern city, a time of trial, suffering and heroism that reached the peaks of tragedy and bravery almost beyond our power to comprehend...Hitler’s attempt to wipe Leningrad off the map resulted in an almost unequaled example of courage, strength and determination from the city’s populace.

In the midst of this misery, Dmitri Shostakovich was composing the Seventh "Leningrad" Symphony, a work of music that bore the stamp of genius, from a man who himself had suffered Stalin’s scorn.

When he finally finished the symphony, there were only 16 members still alive of the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra, which had previously numbered over 100. And the symphony was scored for a large orchestra. Signs were put up all over Leningrad, asking any musicians who were still alive and could play an instrument, and could get to the symphony hall to assemble. Word got around and musicians came from all over the city and from combat units, and assembled to rehearse this Seventh Symphony. For an entire week this ragged group of tired, sick, emancipated but incredibly dedicated musicians rehearsed the symphony.

On the day of the performance, the commander-in-chief of the city’s armed forces ordered his heavy artillery to knock out as many German guns as possible so that there would be no interruptions in the performance. As the bombardment subsided the first note of the symphony sounded. The performance was not only the most emotion-laden presentation of the work imaginable, but was surely one of the most electrifying concerts ever given. Whatever the technical shortcomings the performance might have had counted for nothing; the impact on the audience was truly extraordinary.

In January 1943 the Siege was broken and a year later, on January 27, 1944, it was fully lifted. At least 641 thousand people had died in Leningrad during the Siege (some estimates put this figure at 800 thousand). Leningrad still remains a symbol of Nazi brutality and aggression on the Eastern Front.

Stories of such bravery and oppression stay with you for a long time.

Back in St. Petersburg, we also visited the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. This marvelous Russian-style church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by a group of revolutionaries who threw a bomb at his royal carriage. As you can see, it is magnificent.

I could write pages on the wonders held in the Hermitage. I could go on and on about the malcachite and lapis lazuli walls of the beautiful St Isaac's Cathedral (as seen here at dawn) from our hotel window, just across the street. But you can look Google these places on your own.

One palace that we fell in love with was Tsarskoe Seloe, also known the Catherine Palace. Catherine the Great transformed St. Petersburg into a truly European city of Imperial pretension. She patronized the arts, music and education and purchased the paintings that became the Hermitage collection. No other Russian monarch appreciated beauty as much as Catherine; she set the stage for the emergence of a national Russian culture that would emerge as something unique and wonderful in the 19th century.

The facade and interior of the Catherine Palace is very European, typical of what you’d expect to find in Vienna or at Versailles. The only Russian addition is the gilded domes.


Again, the weather on the day that we visited was exceptional. We strolled in the outdoor gardens and wandered the palace rooms, the highlight of which was the Grand Ballroom.


Posted by maasx003 at January 29, 2006 1:34 AM | Family