Monday, July 02, 2018

Visiting Russia

Visiting Russia

For a moment this evening, it seemed as like we wouldn’t be able to leave Russia after all.  First, we learned that our departure was delayed because the ship in front of us to leave was missing 800 passengers. Then, after pulling out from the dock, we returned after a few minutes because the winds were too strong: 43 knots or Force 9 winds (these are gale force).  At 7:45 pm, the captain announced that we were going to make one more try to leave port.  The winds were reduced at the moment. If we did not succeed, he told us, the winds would return in strength and our departure would be delayed until 10 am at the earliest or possibly 6:30 pm tomorrow.

At 7:55, they powered up the heavy motors and we began to swing away from the dock. At first, we reached the point where we had made it the first time.  I was standing with the cruise director and assistant cruise director and we were willing the ship to continue to move.  Slowly, slowly we pulled further away from the dock.  I walked to the port side to watch the Russian tug pull with all its might.  Soon, I could see that we had cleared the Ariana and its tug, the магеллан (Magellan).  Now, nearly an hour later, it looks as if we’ve cleared St. Petersburg harbor.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting in St. Petersburg.  I had always heard amazing stories about the art and the palaces.  At the same time, I knew that the government was incredibly reactionary.  I suppose that in an odd way, the most frightening thing was how normal the society felt.  The government is highly repressive, yet people can easily go about their daily life without feeling it.  It struck me as a disturbing vision of how easily one can accommodate oneself to an illiberal government. 

We had a wonderful tour guide here in St. Petersburg.  Marianne picked us up after we cleared passport control.  The day was cold and blustery, and I was glad I urged everyone to bundle up.  After a short introductory tour of the heart of St. Petersburg and the Neva River, we headed over to the Winter Palace and the Hermitage.  The opulence of the Winter Palace is overwhelming.  In fact, throughout my tour of the various sites of the Russian nobility and aristocracy, I found myself reverting to Republican and even Socialist sympathies.  It’s hard not to be conscious of how this extraordinary wealth and grandeur was restricted to only a handful of families, while millions toiled and suffered. 

The Hermitage is, of course, gorgeous.  It would take multiple visits to really get a firm sense of the collection.  We had about two hours.  As a result, we only could see the highlights:  the two da Vincis, some beautiful Renaissance works, and some very important Dutch masters.  The Rembrandts were particularly nice, although by that time, the energy of many of us was flagging and we needed a break for lunch.

The museum café was surprisingly good.  After our rest, we headed across the square to the General Staff Building. This houses the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.  We began with a room of wonderful Monets and Toulouse-Lautrecs, followed by Pisarros and Degas, and then Cezannes, Van Goghs, and Picassos.  The Matisses were absolutely fabulous, and it was fantastic to remake my acquaintance with The Red Room, which I saw in 2010 in Amsterdam, when it was at the Hermitage’s branch office there.  We ended with Shayna’s favorite, Kandinsky, who I also love.

After two hours, we were pretty much done with museums for the day.  We drove down Nevsky Prospect, seeing the main promenade and shopping street in the heart of St. Petersburg.  Among the highlights were the Stalny Church and the Mikhailovsky Castle, where Tsar Paul I lived due his fear of being murdered.  It’s also where he was assassinated.  We also saw some lovely art nouveau buildings, including a wonderful food hall, and the Singer Sewing Machine building, whose roof decorations make it look like The Daily Planet branch office.

Today we woke up a bit earlier and headed to the tsarina’s village of Pushkin, formerly Tsarskoe Selo.  There, we toured Catherine’s Palace and Gardens.  The palace feels like the Russian version of Versailles.  Dad, Matt, and Shayna all made audible ooohs and aaahs when we entered the ball room.  For me, the highlight was the gorgeous reconstructed amber room.

The gardens were lovely, though the weather – windy and drizzly – didn’t show them off the best.  After a visit to an amber store, we made a short stop at a local Holocaust memorial, one of the only ones in the area, before heading back to St. Petersburg for lunch near the Church on the Spilled Blood.

Before we visited the church, however, Matt spotted the World Cup Fan Fest Center, so we went in to check out what they had.  There weren’t that many people, it was at least three hours until the next game, but there were souvenir stands, huge screens showing a Russian pop star singing, and dozens of “volunteers” who were trying to dance to the music to make it feel as if something were happening.

Unfortunately, to leave the center, we had to go out on a street that required us to take a long, roundabout way back to the church.  Still, we had a lovely stroll along the canals and parks until we made it back to the church.

I was surprised that dad never complained once (at least not to me) about the art or splendor in the church. From there, we drove to the Grand Chorale Synagogue, the main (or perhaps only) synagogue in St. Petersburg, dating from 1893.  After that we headed back to the ship, where we profusely thanked our guide and driver.

Dinner was very nice, and dad, Matt, and Shayna enjoyed the comedian (I skipped it to see if we would make our way out of the port).  As of a few minutes ago, we cleared Kronstadt, a town and naval base on Kotlin Island, and Fort Alexander, and we just passed the St. Petersburg Flood Prevention Facility, which spans the Gulf of Finland.   Next stop:  Helsinki.

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