The Russian Revelation
A hundred years after the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar, St Petersburg has now come full circle
SITUATED on the Neva River that flows out to The Baltic Sea, this beautiful city offers a flavour of Russia to whet all appetites, and with a plethora of events to mark the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution this is a good time to visit – some will run until next year. Leningrad, Petrograd and now again called by its original name, this Venice of the north is not to be mistaken for the slice of Florida baked in year-round sunshine that shares its name. It gets cold in this St Petersburg and you’ll need your
jacket year round, but with long days (sunsets after 11pm for most of June and July) the white nights are optimum time to visit. I’ve the teens with me, Mark and Nicole, and I’m curious to see their reactions to subtle differences between this and other metropolises − such as the Cyrillic script on shopfronts and familiar places like KFC and McDonald’s.
The sweeping boulevards are laced with meandering canals, comparable to the opulent grandeur of Paris, making it seem oddly similar from a distance.
It’s only when we pass by The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, which is also the most photographed Russian Orthodox Church, that we are catapulted headlong into somewhere completely alien, a sight for the kids to savour in contrast to the Europe they know.
Balloon-like turrets decorated with patterns of lozenges, diamonds and encrusted with gold leaf point to the sky and all the pomp of an elaborate wedding cake − this church is mighty impressive.
Brushing up on my history is one of the joys of travel and while taking a guided tour with the lovely Svetlana, who has the knowledge of a university professor and aloofness of a prison officer.
I learn that St Petersburg was a hotbed of activity during the second revolution and rise of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. She’s brutally honest, describing harsh living conditions for the average worker who lives in a 700 square foot apartment.
Nobody seems to own a house and she tells us that the conditions of an apartment can be gauged by the quality of the windows.
Time for a bit of shopping and Nevsky Prospekt is the place to start. Traditional purchases are, of course, the Matryoshka Dolls or Babushka (meaning old woman) dolls, or the desirable Fabergé eggs.
Fabergé is a name that is synonymous with the pomp and decadence of the Tsarist Autocracy that reigned for over 500 years and stirred up the peasants to revolt in the first place. Mark and Nicole have a mini-revolution of their own and insist on finding western stores – which I find carry extortionate prices.
Western makeup and clothes seem to be just as expensive, if not more so, in the luxurious shop fronts and malls.
I remind them that we didn’t come to St Petersburg to shop –besides it’s time for lunch.
The Hotel Moscow resembles a 1960s airport terminal from the outside but its location is ideal and it has all the home comforts that Europeans expect – especially free Wifi which is a must when travelling with teens.
We enjoy a bowl of borscht (beet soup), followed by orange caviar appetiser and Beef Stroganoff (which I’m sure has beet in it) finished off with apple tart − sweetened most likely by beet.
Vodka is liberally served with our meal and if I’m not mistaken it’s much sweeter than the type I’d buy in my local at home – perhaps there’s beet in that too!
Travelling is easy with a metro close by, and stations are richly decorated with elaborate stucco work, chandeliers and sculptures. Avtovo is regarded as one of the most beautiful stations in the world. Designed with the theme The Defense of Leningrad it was opened in 1955.
The wall of the central hall is decorated with a mosaic of Victory holding her child. ‘Are you sure this isn’t a museum?’ The teens ask. Not yet but we are on our way, I warn them.
The Hermitage or Winter Palace is one of St Petersburg’s most recognisable buildings and houses a hugely impressive collection of European art. Some of Picasso’s blue period and a host of Rembrandts, including some renaissance paintings bought by Catherine the Great – but thanks to the Russian Revolution of 1917 the art became accessible to all.
This great museum is so vast, with over 400 rooms spread out over three floors, that there is no chance of getting around it in a day – especially with two teens. Buying museum tickets online before arriving can help avoid the long queues (visit hermitagemuseum.org). I decide to take my teens to The Cathedral of Peter and Paul to visit the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, and hear about the gory details of their gruesome end after the revolution.
Old Russia: The Winter Palace
Regal: Our Michelle and Tsar Nicholas I