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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 1:34 AM

January 27, 2006

More on Russia


Last week I had written about visiting the local Museum of Russian Art. It reminded me of when Brian and I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1995.

The art we viewed at the Museum of Russian Art brought back memories of purchasing art from street artists, which was very good.


While walking the streets of Moscow, we had to pet every dog we saw since we missed our dogs back in Minnesota. For some reason, I was surprised that people even had pet dogs in Russia.


In the evenings our tour group was entertained by folk dancers, visits to the ballet or performances at the Moscow Circus.


The Moscow Circus with its live animal acts and tremendous talent, such as this little girl, was a highlight.

Another amazing experience was getting inside the walls of the Kremlin. Guards were stationed all around.


But inside the walls was a rich history of the Russian people, including their military history as well.


The day we spent inside the Kremlin walls was picture postcard perfect with a deep blue sky. The sun glistened off the onion shaped domes of the various buildings and churches.

On our last day in Moscow, our hotel waiter informed us that he had something "very special" to help us celebrate.

We wondered if we would receive some fabulous caviar or perhaps some vintage champagne. The waiter returned a short time later with a covered silver tray. With a proud look in his eye he removed the cover and we found ourselves looking dogs. "Oscar Meyer for you," announced the waiter. "Very difficult to obtain."

How very kind he was.

Next, St. Petersburg.

Posted by maasx003 at 8:30 PM

January 21, 2006

Без перевода

Weekend Outing: Recommendations for the Locals

This weekend, we threw all our compulsory chores aside and had some enjoyable family time. On Saturday, we started out by having breakfast at a new Minneapolis diner that Brian had read about in the STrib. Of course because of the great review this meant that we had to wait 30-minutes to be seated.

It was worth it. Hot Plate is a diner like the kind you imagined you visited as a kid, kitschy 70s decorations and all. The staff was harried but attentive, the food was wonderful and the prices very affordable. It felt like an NYC diner but with a Minnesota flare.

I had pumpkin-buckwheat waffles and Brian opted for the lower carb breakfast burrito. Graham had a banana-pecan muffin and silver dollar pancakes. The parents both ended up skipping lunch that day, to be sure! If you live in the metro area, you should definitely check this diner out.

I suppose you are wondering about the title of this entry. It is Russian for "good morning" and I’ve included it because after breakfast, we went to the Museum of Russian Art. We were all very impressed. Even Graham found many interesting things to search for in the paintings. And I was pleased because I’ve wanted to see this new museum for quite some time.


Stunning in its re-use design, this former church is now a museum that offers many styles of 20th Century Russian painting, including classical realism, Russian impressionism, socialist realism, the severe style and modernism, among others. The collection on view is impressive with works by such important Russian artists as Aleksandr Mikhailovich Gerasimov.

Gerasimov was one of leading Realist artists from 1925-1932. As the first president of the USSR Academy of Arts, he presided from 1947-57, until compelled to resign by Nikita Khrushchev. Gerasimov was awarded Stalin Prizes in 1941, 1943, 1945 and 1948. He is the artist most closely associated with the Party line in Soviet art of the Stalin period. In 1958 he received a Gold Medal at the World Exhibition in Brussels. His works hang in many Russian museums, and he exhibited in Paris, Tokyo, Cologne, Pittsburgh, Damascus, Moscow and at the World Exhibition in New York in 1947. Two of his paintings are on display, one of which is Trees In Bloom which is shown below:


The other is Still Life with Flowers from 1935. You'll have to visit the museum and see that one for yourself. If you are looking for different art experience in the Twin Cities, head to the Museum of Russian Art. You’ll be very pleasantly surprised.

My interest in Russian art started in 1995 when Brian and I traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg for eight glorious days. I was working at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts at the time, and I helped lead a members’ tour of 65 senior citizens to see the “Hidden Treasures Revealed? exhibit at the Hermitage. Brian came along as an additional “sheep herder?.

Our group was filled with some truly great people who had incredible stories to tell, including many a tale of World War II heroics and life in America under the Cold War. Hearing the stories while walking Red Square one evening was something I’ll never forget.

Brian was influenced by Lenin’s van Dyke beard on the trip and decided to grow one for himself. Not that he was making a political statement! He just saw the beard on so many faces and in so many museums that he had to try it. He wore that style of beard for about eight years.

I’ll probably post a few more photos from that Russian trip during this week. We visited a ton of places and got behind the sealed doors of the Kremlin. A trip of a lifetime, indeed. And I hope to get back again some day.

Paint by Number for Adults

The décor at Hot Plate included many, many paint by number artworks, which made me think about the 2006 calendar I purchased.

I’ve always wanted to learn to paint with watercolors. I even took a class on how to do it. The most important thing I learned was that you need to know how to draw before you can paint. Oh, well…

This little daily calendar offers me the best of both worlds – individual watercolor paintings that have already been sketched in. I just have to paint them, sort of like paint by number for adults. Could it be any easier? Or more fun?



Next week – the gardening bug has returned. Stay tuned!

Posted by maasx003 at 4:59 PM