Cathedrals, Empresses and Tsars

Late neoclassical with a hint of Byzantinium.

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.

Interior of St Isaacs

Interior of St Isaacs with G contemplating a miniature of St Isaacs, the religious images started out as paintings, some by Karl Bryullov, but as the paintings started to decay in the cold and damp they were replaced by mosaics at the direction of the architect Montferrand.

Interior of St Isaacs looking up

Interior of St Isaacs looking up into the barrel vaults of the naves.

The interior of the dome, somewhere up there is a white dove.

The interior of the dome, like life, somewhere up there is a white dove.

View from the dome walkway over the Neva

View from the dome walkway over the frozen Neva.

View from the dome.

View from the dome and a hint of St Isaacs square to the left.

Petro Primo Catharina Secunda - To Peter the First from Catherine the Second.

Petro Primo Catharina Secunda – To Peter the First from Catherine the Second. The bronze horseman statue, a big damn statue on a big damn stone.



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.

On the ice of Neva

Standing on the ice of Neva. On our way to the Aurora we decided we’d see whether the the ice was thick enough to take our weight. Yep, it was, though I wouldn’t guarantee it out in the centre of the channel. 🙂

The Aurora, a protected cruiser (that means lightly armoured).

The Aurora, a protected cruiser (meaning lightly armoured). Three funnels and ventilators so that’s three boilers down in the engine rooms, secondary armament along the side and note the ram style bow, all typical warship thinking of the period.

looking forward from the aft gangway

Looking forward from the aft gangway


Zayachy Island and the Petropavlovskaya Fortress


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.

Apartments early light

Leaving the apartment, if you look closely you can see the windows are doubled to give a form of double glazing, you can also use the space between as a natural refrigerator in winter. Checkout the oversized downpipes as well, I guess they’re not as easy to jam with ice.


From Zayachy Is. That’s actually a floating restaurant called the Flying Dutchman in the distance. The floating house in the foreground is the headquarters of (I think) the water police.

Crossing over onto Hare Island

Crossing over the Kronsverksky strait onto Zayachy Island via, of course, the Kronsverksky bridge (1938) with a couple of dis-interesed looking pigeons.

By the time the bastion was built the threat of a Swedish invasion had waned and the fortress was used 'mostly' as a prison for political prisoners, Dostoeveskvy did time here.

The Peter and Paul fortress bids you a cordial welcome, now don’t get any bright ideas. By the time the bastion was built the threat of a Swedish invasion had waned and the fortress was used ‘mostly’ as a prison for political prisoners, Dostoeveskvy, Bakunin,  did time here and so (strangely) did Tito. After the revolution the prison continued in use, this time for the enemies of the state.

Peter’s botik, it’s not actually a dinghy but a scaled down version of a warship that Peter discovered at one of the royal estates. Unlike Russian boats of the period it could sail against the wind, Peter learned to sail in it and the rest, as they say, is history. Or in Peter’s own words, ‘From the amusement of the child, came the triumph of the man’.

Peter the great statue by Chemiakin, the face of Peter is taken from his death mask but the proportions of the body are closer to the old iconography. Needless to say it was a controversial work at the start...

The Peter the Great statue by Chemiakin, the face of Peter is taken from his death mask but the proportions of the body are deliberately modelling the elongated proportions you find in the old iconography. Needless to say it was a controversial work with the locals.

Peter and Paul Cathedral

Peter and Paul Cathedral in the centre of the bastion. There’s a steeple as well, tallest building in St Petersburg, which strangely I didn’t take a photo of…

The bones of the last Tsar and his family were repatriated here.

The bones of the last Tsar and his family were repatriated here.

Shrine to the slain Tsar

Shrine to the slain Tsar


Man that is a lot of gilt…

Renovations continue

Renovations continue.

Chandeliers again

Chandeliers again


Spears, arrows, shields and swords surmounted by the double eagle. A little bit of martial whimsy on the way out of the Fortress.

Looking back at the ... gates.

On the Ioannovsky bridge looking back at St John’s gates. This is what you build when you figure out that cannon have made traditional castle style static defences redundant, think of it as Fortress 2.0 Although castle’s still look much more impressive… 🙂

Walking back

Walking back across the Ioannovsky Bridge, our destination for lunch just to the right of Galina’s hat.

A night at the Mariinsky theatre

Mariinsky theatre,  with Aleksandr Golovin's luxury curtain of 1914 and the Tsar's box to the left

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.


Kryukova canal and Moika river looking back towards the Mariinsky theatre.

More winter dark

More winter darkness and snow on the banks of the Moika river.


Crossing the Blagoveshchensky Bridge by night.

There’s this cake shop…


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.

House of the book


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.

The Hermitage

Palace square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad) and the Alexander column, biggest of it's kind in the world.

Monumental moments

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

A walk along the winter Neva


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

From Moscow to St Petersburg

Somewhere in Russia on the Moscow to St petersburg express

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.. 🙂