Last day in St Petes dawns, gloomy and overcast
So what to do? Well a quick visit to St Isaacs cathedral and a side trip to the statue of Peter the Great seemed in order. 🙂
St Isaac’s is a big sleeping mastiff of a building, crouching on 11,000 oak pilings it looms, brooding, above the St Petersburg city-scape. The views from the rooftop are great although in winter it’s a little bleak up there. After the trip to the roof, and saying hi to the ravens, we headed across the Senate Square to check out the bronze horseman, the equestrian statue of Peter the Great erected at the direction of Catherine the Great. Just the making of the statue is a tale in itself, with a cast of characters ranging from an eighteen year old French sculptress to a greek Lieutenant Colonel engineer of the Russian Army. And of course there’s a poem by Pushkin, in Russia, I’ve discovered, there’s always a poem by Pushkin.
All in all a good way to bring our stay in St Petersburg to an end. Next stop Helsinki then points north for the Manchester of Finland, see you there.
Aurora, has a couple of meanings it can mean the great lights seen twisting and turning in the night skies of the north, or it can mean sunrise, or it can in fact mean the roman goddess of the dawn. So Aurora is an interestingly ambiguous name to give to a naval cruiser. On the other hand she was laid down in St Petersburg, so maybe the first meaning is closest to the mark. Aurora’s most famous for firing the first shot in the assault on the Winter Palace that kicked off the October revolution, she also fought at the battle of Tsushima, where she covered the retreat of the fleet and subsequently broke through the Japanese lines to Manilla*.
She is, along with the Mikasa (Adm. Togo’s flagship) the only survivor of Tsushima, and the USS Olympus in Philadelphia, she’s one of the few remaining pre-dreadnought warships still afloat. Oh and her guns were also used in the defence of Petrograd, so you can understand why the old lady is treasured the way she is 🙂
After the Aurora our day was pretty much done and we walked through the winter darkened backstreets to Gorkovskaya metro and then home.
*Guess who picked the Russo-Japanese war as an essay topic at the Naval College.
The second last day
Our room was cold in the morning, possibly because I opened the window a crack in the night to get some air. Larissa our host was somewhat horrified by the idea of opening a window, the draft you know, but it is if nothing else a great incentive to get up, so we did. After breakfast with Larissa we walked to the Petropavlovskaya fortress jut across the Neva from where we are staying. Built (like a lot of war machinery) for a threat that never eventuated, the fortress has had many uses including as an infamous prison during tsarist and revolutionary times. There’s a working mint, plus museum as well as the cathedral of Peter and Paul. For us the most absorbing part of the visit was walking through the grim cell block of the Trubetskoy bastion reading about the prisoners and how they were kept, bleak is a word that springs to mind. After that we adjourned to a restaurant for a late lunch and to thaw out a little bit. Next stop the Aurora.
So tonight we attended the Mariinsky theatre for a performance of the Magic Nut. A great theatre and a just about the most amazing ballet I have ever seen. We left a little late so it was a dash across the city, then a flat out run at the end to get there before curtain up, because that’s how we roll. 🙂
We’d booked our tickets before we left, and the choice was between a performance of Swan Lake or Chemiakin’s The Magic Nut. In the end we decided that the Nut was the one, because where else are you going to see a performance of it? Answer nowhere. The Nut’s a tale of the magical Crackatook nut, Princess Pirlipat and Herr Drosselmeyer’s enchanted young nephew. In Hoffman’s Nutcracker tale, Herr Drosselmeyer tells the heroine Marie (Masha) this story while she is recuperating from the attack of the Mouse King. In other words this is the back-story for The Nutcracker.
And what a back story, the surrealist sets, my favourite the undersea kingdom, the eclectic mix of electronic and traditional scoring and finally a Hoffmann story that’s just a little…edgy. I also really like how when you get to the theatre and all the winter jackets and boots are removed everyone is wearing their best. Lot’s of kid’s in the audience and they definitely enjoyed the opera. Then it was a walk back along the Kryukova canal, over the Moika river to the Neva and then a crossing of the Blagovensishkiy bridge. Yeah St Petersburg, kind of like Venice, just with more snow.
In this city of determinedly western style the Church of the Saviour is a sudden shock of medieval romanticism. Built on the site of Alexander the second’s assassination, the church embodies an inherent contradiction it’s a resolutely backwards facing shrine to the most effective, and pragmatic, reformist tsar since Peter the Great. Continue reading
Stopping off for cake and coffee at Sever, that icon of Soviet era pastry making. A little known fact of the Cold War was that the Americans were just as concerned about the eclair chasm as they were about the missile gap. You can find the latest incarnation under the Grand Palace (44 Nevsky Prospect). Weird coloured pastries, good coffee and quick service, what’s not to like.
Now St Petersburg’s biggest and oldest bookshop, Dom Knigi (house of the book), formerly the Singer company of America’s corporate headquarters in downtown St Petersburg. The story is the company wanted a sky scraper, like their head offices in New York, but St Pete’s strict building code prevented it, so they went all out with a gaudy Art Nouveau exterior, heaps of glass (thanks to a steel frame borrowed from skyscraper design), air conditioning, lifts and a system to clean snow off the roof.
The building’s had a chequered history, it was the American embassy during WWI, but after the revolution it ended up as a bookshop and it’s been operating that way ever since (even during the siege). The two heroic but slightly cold looking winged ladies on either side of the windows are industry and navigation. Got a feeling we’re standing on the road bridge over Griboedov Canal, looking along Nevsky Prospekt.
Palace square is big, I mean really, really big*, on the monumental scale it’s close to titanic. So in the middle of winter with only a few people in the square you feel ant like walking across the centre of the square, all of which may have been the intent. The Hermitage, an imperial palace damaged by fire then rebuilt, a treasure trove of art, the sight of the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905, yes that Sergei Eisenstein film, then later the headquarters of the Kerensky government after the Tsar’s abdication, yes this is the government building that the Red Army stormed during the glorious October revolution of 1917**. Continue reading
We’re staying with relatives while we’re in St Petersburg, so we have a place in Valsilyevsi Ostrov on the 6th line, yes just like in New York they give the streets here numbers. Also just like Manhattan Valsilyevsi Ostrov is an island, in fact the largest of the islands on which St Petersburg is built. Today we’re going to visit the Hermitage, but first a stroll along the Neva to see if the central Admiralty Museum is open, it was closed for renovations as it turned out. Continue reading
We’re taking the Sapsan express from Moscow on a 650km three and a half hour rail journey that will take us to St Petersburg across the snow covered landscape of Russia. And when we get off the train in St Petersburg there’ll be the Farewell of Slavianka playing over the station speakers to welcome us. Now this is why I like train travel.. 🙂
Woke up on our last morning really early, in fact early enough to catch G’s father in the kitchen on his way off to work, with the sodium lights still illuminating the empty snow filled pre-dawn streets. Our run of
good brilliant weather continued with a dawn of clear blue skies, so naturally it was off to the University sports centre to hire a couple of cross country skies… Continue reading
In the evening we visited Olga and Sasha, childhood friends of Galina, for dinner at their apartment. One thing I’ve noticed about Russian apartments is that there’s just enough room to swing a cat as long as the cat doesn’t mind having some nasty clips around the head. Olga, Sasha, and Katya their daughter are all squeezed into what we’d call a one bedroom apartment back in Australia. Sasha told the story over dinner of how, when he’d been naughty as a child, his father who worked at one of the local rocket plants, would come home and threaten to pop him in a rocket and send him off into space, “no, no daddy, don’t send me off into space!”. Olga got to practice her english on me during the meal and I tried out my conversational Russian, which by the way is way worse than Olga’s english.
After dinner, and a few vodka’s, we all headed down to Revolution Square to see the Ice Village by night. Ice Villages are one of those Russian winter traditions that springs up in the centre of any Russian city of sufficient size in about November of each year and last until about March. The ice statues and houses are fashioned from ice blocks brought in and glued together with melt water to get the rough shape, then the blocks are hand sculpted to their final form. You can actually go inside some, and of course there’s the obligatory slide for the, er, kids.
Back in the day, Chelyabinsk was one of, if not, the most important tank manufacturing sites in wartime Russia, to the point where the city ended up being nicknamed Tankograd. The monument below is on Lenin prospect in the tank factory district, where unsurprisingly they still make tanks, along with tractors. The monument is a real tank the model IS 3, nicknamed the pike, which was finished just in time to miss the end of the great patriotic war but just in time for the start of the cold war.
You can also get your MacBook Air fixed in the tank factory district, which made Galina very happy. On the way home from that we ended up having bear dumplings at a restaurant, as you do in far off Chelyabinsk.
OK, so what do you do on your second day in Chelyabinsk?
Why walk through a gateway to the future of course. 🙂 Well more precisely walk through an ice replica of the ancient Mayan gate to the future at Labna on the Yucatan Peninsula. As to the gate there’s a few simple rules, first make a wish, second hit the tambourine on the way through and third walk through in the right direction. Of course if you walk through in the wrong direction…
After (hopefully) navigating into the future, rather than marooning ourselves somewhere in the 1980’s we walked down Kirovka boulevard, where you’ll find a series of life size statues of the inhabitants from various historical era’s. The other thing to note is that there are still some wonderful old wood and brick buildings left, I kind of hope they don’t pull them all down which is what usually happens in city centres. After stoping briefly at the opera house to see whether there was anything on of interest (there wasn’t) we went off to visit the apartment where G grew up and have afternoon tea with a friend of the family. Finishing up the day with a walk in the forest in the winter dark, cold and very clear.
So what do you do when you’ve just landed in Chelyabinsk on Christmas Eve?
Answer, after supper with the parents (and the shape of dinners to come) walk around to the hospital chapel for midnight mass. Mass had actually finished so G and Kira (G’s sister) lit some candles and we headed home to bed.
In the morning it was clear blue skies and -14 C so after breakfast we headed out to see the sights. Kira came with us as far as Revolutionary square but got cold feet (literally) and turned back. Turns out revolutionary square was where the winter fair was this year so we amused ourselves on the ice slide under the watchful eyes of Lenin.
After that we walked to the St Alexander Nevsky cathedral and got tickets for the organ recital that evening. And yes that is an oddity, a church in Russia with an organ. The story goes back to revolutionary days when the church was de-sanctified and used for various purpose before ending up as the concert hall for chamber and organ music. Now it’s a church again and the local clergy is rather unhappy about having this organ in their Russian orthodox cathedral. There’s a bit of a tussle going on between the music lovers and the church as a result.
Then we walked along the main road to the University to see some of the places where G lived, went to school and worked when she was growing up. Weather was just extraordinary, snow falling as tiny diamond bright crystals out of a blue and cloudless sky, with no wind. We ended up walking along Lenin prospect all the way to Igor Kurchatov’s monument at the edge of the recreation park, which is an amazing sculpture of two slab monoliths with an inscribed split atom, apparently there used to be an electric arc that ran between the two halves but the power bill was a bit excessive so they turned it off.
For those of you not familiar Igor Kurchatov was the director of the early Russian nuclear program, he’s a local lad, born in Sim a small town about 340 km to the west of Chelyabinsk. He swore not to shave his beard until they’d successfully tested the A-bomb but subsequently decided he liked his beard so he kept it, cutting it into ever more extravagant designs as he got older, no surprise, his nickname ended up as ‘the beard’. Much of the soviet nuclear program was (and still is) located in the Chelyabinsk region, which is also why the area is heavily contaminated by radiological waste.
After paying our respects at Kurchatov’s memorial we walked through the snow covered forest behind then headed back stopping at Stollie’s pies for lunch then headed home to freshen up before the concert. As it turned out it was a great concert, the organ is one of Russia’s best made by the German Hermann Eule company and finished up with an Beatles encore. Also included was a large lady in a dress appearing between works to declaim I’m not quite sure what. But according to G, this is part of the fun of going to a concert in Russia. 🙂
Because nothing says winter in Moscow quite like a Ferris wheel ride above a snow covered VDNKh park.
Take the metro to the VDNkh station, walk outside and across the street and this is what you see, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space erected in 1964. While getting to the moon was one hell of an achievement for the United States, my affection is still for the Russian space program and what they achieved with determination, ingenuity and bravery. Had things gone just a little differently, well maybe there’d by a Tsiolkovsky lunar encampment in the sea of Tranquility today…
In the base of the monument is a space museum which is where we headed after admiring the monument in the somewhat frigid temperature. FYI it’s not made very obvious but you need to buy an extra ticket to take photo’s, and there are photo police wandering the exhibition (which annoyed the crap out of G). Despite that this is a great little museum brimming over with history, but still suffering from the hangover of soviet circumspection about it’s failures. To my mind it could be so much better by talking honestly about the near misses, disasters and tragedies of the program as well as showing more of the story of all those involved in the program e.g. the engineers and technicians, as well as the husbands, wives and children* of the cosmonauts. Definitely worth the visit, and worth being pestered by the photo police. Oh and the idea of making the monument out of titanium, literally priceless.
*For example Elena Yurievna Gagarina the eldest daughter of Yuri Gagarin is the director of the Kremlin State museum (The Armoury) which we’d visited yesterday.
Day two and an earlier start thanks to setting the alarm and figuring out where the coffee filters were. Also found out that if you really want to cool the kitchen down quickly just open the window a crack in the early morning of a Russian winter, works a treat, although G is convinced I’ll catch my death from the draft. After breakfast we headed out and took the metro to Red Square, arriving at around 10am where we queued at the ticket office in Alexandrovsky Gardens. My first queue in the snow, which I believe is traditional in these parts. Then with Armoury tickets in hand it was a quick walk through the Borovitskaya Tower entrance, along the wall of the Armoury to join another amiable queue for half an hour, still snowing. Finally we got inside dropped our jackets in the cloak room, donned the white plastic overshoes, and ascended the stairs to the Armoury. Continue reading
On foot, in Moscow, in winter…
We woke, late, and headed out into the Moscow morning, it’s a cool day but not unusually so at about -10 C with snow falling in big fat flakes. Our staring point for the day is, you guessed it, Red Square. But after that our trail gets a little more eclectic. Continue reading
And a New Year in Russia (2013)
The day after new years day I’m sitting in Hong Kong airport transit lounge at four in the morning waiting for the connecting Aeroflot flight to Moscow, big M4 parka in tow. I have my visa, all other paperwork is in order and G is meeting me at the airport. Purpose of visit? Why to visit my parents in-law and for G to show me her home. First time to Russia, it’s a little exciting, besides which there’s the prospect of the central naval museum in St Petersburg. Continue reading