Monday, August 08, 2011

St. Petersburg (Across Russia, Part 2)

This is where is all started.

St. Petersburg, a city built on the order of Peter the Great by an army of conscripted peasants in a place no city was meant to be, is an amazing city today. It was meant as a monument to the power of Russia and as proof of a level of sophistication and elegance in Russia that rivaled any of the European countries. Founded in 1703, soon became the capital of Russia and the home of the nobility and aristocracy of the Tsars. This is were Peter Fabergé crafted his famous eggs for the Tsar. This is where Rasputin would become a legend and killed. This is where the wealth of a nation and the suffering of a nation would meet in revolution in 1917 and Lenin would rise to power.

It was also the first stop on our trip across Russia. After flying in here, we would head to Mongolia, by train, with stops in Moscow, Suzdal, Tomsk, Irkutsk, and Ulan-Ude, before finally getting on an Aeroflot flight back to Stockholm. Over the next few weeks, I'll be covering those here on the blog, so follow me!

We were lucky enough to see St. Petersburg under the height of the White Nights. St. Petersburg is far enough north that it gets a taste of the midnight sun during the last weeks of June and this has become part of the image of the city. During this brief period people are out all night, there are festivals that last far into the morning, and it is light all night long. The sky becomes white but never dark as the sun sinks just beyond the horizon only to appear an hour or two later.

As the former capital of Russia and home to many of the wealthiest and most successful families, the city is also home to many fantastic buildings with either a classic imperial or art nouveau style. Many of the old building still remain, although the city itself shows sign of neglect in many places. Many of the buildings are actually made of brick with stucco over it, shaped to look as if they were made from stone. This choice in construction also means that there are constant upkeep issues with the city: The bricks absorb humidity during the summer which then freeze when winter hits and cracks. It also gets water in behind the stucco, which is also not good for the building. The buildings are beautiful, especially ones like the Singer Building (as in the sewing machines and the one just above this paragraph, but many more are in need of help and restoration.

Another treat of classic St. Petersburg is the plethora of churches...

Not only do the churches vary wildly in style, from the imperial Kazan Cathedral (top) to the completely charming Chesme Church (bottom, ironically a block or two from the massive House of the Soviets), but they are amazingly active churches. In fact, I have never encountered a more active church than the Russian Orthodox church in Russia. From the start of our trip to the end, nearly all churches saw daily and active use. In these two churches I just mentioned, we walked in on people in the midst of their weddings! Most other churches simply had a chapel open to the public during the day where people would come to pray or light a candle for their loved ones. In all of Russia, this was actually one of the most interesting things to behold.

Of course, not all of St. Petersburg was built under the Tsars. In the outskirts of the central area, developments like these exist, along with a subway to connect them all. Built exceedingly deep in the ground, the subways were also meant to be both palaces to the people (the stations are quite nice) and bomb shelters if the city should be attacked again. Soviet housing blocks, such as the ones above, are common in the outer parts of the city where the Soviets had free reign to rebuild the city in whatever image they wanted. The wide streets and identical blocks, as ugly as they look to us today, once likely represented a rebirth of the city into a new, modern era after it had suffered nearly two and a half years under siege during World War II.

In the end, today St. Petersburg is a probably the most tourist friendly and easily accessible cities for visitors. There is a wide range of sights to see, including the massive art collection of the Hermitage, and a clash of styles from Russia and Europe that come together to create an interesting environment. The Russians here are also among the most friendly you'll encounter on your trip (at least when it comes to "official" situations, like ordering at a cafe or restaurant). While the city here still reflect much of the grandeur of the old Russian empire, our next stop (to be posted next week) is the heart and home of the current generation of power brokers, as well as the center of power under the Soviets. Next week, we're off to Moscow!

PS: Want to know who this is? It's Chizhik-Pyzhik (Чи́жик-Пы́жи)! This little bird is an unofficial mascot for the city and even has his own song about going down to a bridge and having a little too much vodka. If you are in St. Petersburg, be sure to keep an eye out for these souvenirs!

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