Friday, July 9, 2010

St. Petersburg/Moscow Russia

Map picture

White Nights In The Baltic

The world is an amazing place! At the latitude in which we are traveling, it is light all day, hence “White Nights.” Right now we are at a latitude of approximately 60 degrees North, about equal with Anchorage. Technically, dawn arrives at 3:58am and dusk occurs at 11:10pm. In reality, however, there is always some light in the night sky. As we travel further north during our cruise, we will eventually reach the point in which the sun never sets and there is always sunlight.

I mention this fact because it explains in part why in both Russia and today in Finland, the cities are very quiet – everyone is “on holiday” during July. These days of sun are a BIG deal in this part of the world, because with the coming winter the reverse will be true – they will live in perpetual darkness, and cold. Right now the waterways are filled with pleasure craft, but within 3 months all of these boats will be stowed safely ashore since the waters in this area of the world all freeze solid. By December, this area will live with 18 hrs a day of total darkness. The sun will rise around 11am and set around 3pm and everyone talks of just how difficult life becomes in the winter.

Anyway, Lisa and I have just completed four very difficult and tiring days. Our ship left Stockholm and traversed the Baltic for a day before entering the Gulf of Finland. We continued until we reached the city of St. Petersburg, Russia, where the ship would remain for three days. On our arrival we joined another couple for an overnight trip to Moscow. What an experience! We departed the ship shortly after docking and transferred to the domestic airport, where we took a one hour flight to Moscow. Security procedures are still left over from the Soviet Era however. We learned that the ship has to pay large bribes in order to obtain clearance for us to go ashore. Teams of people board the ship and they expect cigarettes and alcohol as “gifts.” In fact, last year they expected the ship to open the shops onboard for “inspection” where they went on shopping sprees filling bags with everything they could take. We understand that the ship has started resisting, but to some extent it says a great deal about Russia today. Indeed we had to arrive with a Russian Visa, papers from our Travel Company, and infinite patience to stand in line while officials checked each and every page of our passports and documents, all the while frowning and grunting as if this was just an impossible situation. Welcome to modern Russia!

Moscow is not only the Capital of Russia, but the heart and soul of the country. It is a city of over 11 million people. It took almost 2 hours just to drive from the airport to our hotel, the famous Metropole Hotel, just off Red Square. At check in, our passports were photocopied and our papers checked, then after a quick lunch we set out on a city tour which ended with a walk around Red Square. We walked for almost four hours until everyone could just drop. Moscow was unusually hot, with the temperatures reaching 90 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Arriving back at the hotel a little after 6pm, we were immediately supposed to leave for an evening at the Swan Lake Ballet. Lisa and I were so tired that we went instead for dinner and an early evening. The other couple elected to attend the performance, however, when they arrived at the theatre they found that it was not even air conditioned. By the end of the first act they said that it felt like a sauna, and so they left to find dinner on their own.

The next day was even more stressful. We departed our hotel at 8am and literally walked all day with the exception of a brief lunch stop at the famous Writer’s Club. On checking out, we were each given a very official document loaded with stamps and signatures that we were told to keep with our passports. When I asked what this was our guide got very vague, but said that it was no matter, “just something that we might need to show authorities to prove where we spent the night.” Our day was full of exciting things. We saw much of the city including visiting one of their top museums for 2 hours, and then we visited Cathedrals and even took a ride on the city’s subway. The subway by the way has over 100 stations and is an impressive sight to see.

Finally, we reached the Kremlin itself. The Kremlin is a very old fortress and within its walls is the center of Russia’s government. Both the President and the Prime Minister live within its walls. Arrangements had been made for us to visit the Armory Chamber within the Kremlin. It was a spectacular sight that far surpassed a visit to the crown jewels of England in the Tower of London. The highlight of our tour occurred when we were actually granted entry into the official staterooms of the Kremlin. This would be the equivalent to a tour of the public rooms within the White House.

At the end of a very long and very tiring hot day, we still faced the trip back to St. Petersburg. We eventually reached our home, the Crystal Symphony around midnight and literally fell into bed bone tired. By 8am the next morning, we set off for an all day tour of St. Petersburg. By comparison to Moscow, St. Petersburg is a very old city and was the home to the Russian Czars. At one point, the city was surrounded by 13 magnificent Palaces. However, during the Second World War the Germans surrounded St. Petersburg for almost a year. They reached the very suburbs of the city, but were never successful at capturing the city. Instead they destroyed the surrounding countryside including all 13 Palaces. The Palaces were blown up, burned and looted leaving behind merely piles of rubble. Today the government has elected to fully restore 6 of these structures to their former glory. Fortunately before the Germans arrived, many of the treasures were taken away and hidden for safety, so while the buildings are reconstructions, the interiors, furnishings and paintings are mostly original.

We elected to drive to Peterhof, the Grand Palace of Peter the Great. Equally impressive to the buildings themselves are the magnificent fountains and gardens on the property. By the end of our three hour walk, Lisa and I were really dragging. We made it to the hydrofoil that took us back to the city center where it let us off in front of the Hermitage, which is one of the best museums in the world. Unfortunately Lisa and I had reached the end of our ropes, and we elected to return to the ship, where we both fell into our beds fully clothed and fell asleep.

That narrative gives you a good idea of our experiences in Russia, but I would like to add some observations of what we saw. I was stunned by the cars I saw. In both Moscow and St. Petersburg the cities were full of mostly new upscale cars. Russians are not buying Russian vehicles; they want to own Mercedes, Lexus, BMW’s, Jags, etc. Yes, there were some Ford escorts, but by and large the cities are filled with new, very expensive cars. I asked each of our three different guides about how people could afford these cars and all I got in return were very vague answers that in reality were not really answers.

Some segments of Russian society are awash in money, and they are very vocal and obnoxious about it. Most of society however lives a meager existence. On our drives there were blocks and blocks of large apartment buildings that looked rundown and in poor repair. Most of these buildings were around 15 floors in height, and many did not even have elevators, and certainly did not have air conditioning. It appears that there is a large split in Russian society between the old and the young. The old people grew up during the soviet era and worked their entire careers with a clear understanding that the State would provide for them when they retired. They never had any extra money to invest and would not have known how to do so anyway. There was no investment market. The State was providing them ¾ of their earnings at retirement for life. Suddenly the Soviet Era is over and these people are left hanging. The Government today provides retirees a measly $200/mo. They cannot survive on that small amount of money and so many are trying to work; others are begging their children and still many others are committing suicide. It is as if an entire generation has been abandoned. Meantime the young people have embraced capitalism and the internet. They are taking advantage of the new society and growing rapidly in confidence and sophistication.

This was our fifth visit to Russia, and once again I leave feeling glad to be gone. I find Russia to be drab, and a society struggling to find its identity.


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