Thursday, August 25, 2011

Petrograd – Leningrad - St. Petersburg

Petrograd – Leningrad - St. Petersburg


Map picture

We just completed a whirlwind three day visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. Founded in 1703 by then Tsar Peter the Great, the city was established to be European in architecture and design. Even today, the city feels much more European than any other city within Russia, having beautiful boulevards and flowing buildings from bygone eras. The name of the city has changed over the centuries; it was first known as Petrograd; then following the Bolshevik revolution, the name was changed to Leningrad; and finally, in 1991 the citizens voted to rename the city to St. Petersburg. Today it is home to over 5 million people, and as such is the second largest city in Russia after Moscow.

There are, in my mind, two main attractions of this city. The first are the magnificent palaces from the Tsarist Era, and second, the Hermitage, which is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. First let me talk about the Palaces.

To discuss the Palaces, it is first necessary to recount the history of this city during the Second World War. The Germans laid siege to the city in 1941, and continued for over 900 days before abandoning their effort to seize the city. During that time it is said that over 1million people lost their lives and the destruction of the city and its treasures was one of the most destructive in modern history. Of the roughly 13 major palaces, all but one was completely destroyed. They were first bombed and shelled, and then troops took refuge in the ruins and while doing so systematically destroyed everything in sight. When they withdrew, they then set the buildings on fire. For example, the fire at Catherine’s palace alone burned for three days. Fortunately for the sake of history, the citizens of Leningrad took it upon themselves to remove from the Palaces as much as they could and hide it from the Germans. It was a massive undertaking with rare items of art and furniture systematically removed and hidden by ordinary people in basements, homes, and virtually everywhere. Amazingly after the war, most of these items were returned to the State.

So, what we see today was the result of a massive, long and costly reconstruction effort by the State to restore seven of the former Palaces to their original states. The results are nothing short of spectacular! I do hope you will take a minute to look at the pictures which tell the true story. During this trip, we visited

St. Petersburg, Russia Catherine’s Palace,

St. Petersburg, RussiaAlexander Palace,

St. Petersburg, RussiaYusupov Palace,

St. Petersburg, RussiaPavlovsk Palace and

St. Petersburg, RussiaPeter & Paul Fortress.

The second main reason to visit St. Petersburg is to see the State Museum at The Hermitage. Opened in 1764 by Catherine, The Great, it is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, being home to over 3 million items. The Hermitage currently houses the largest collection of paintings in the world. It is said that if you were to spend only 30 seconds looking at each painting in their collection non-stop, then it would take you 30 years to view the complete collection. Today, the collection is housed in six historic Palaces along the Neva River, including the Winter Palace which was the residence to Russian Emperors. As such, any visit to the museum usually begins with a visit to the State Rooms of the Palace, and our visit was no exception, even though we told our guide that we had been here several times previously and that our main focus this trip was to be the impressionists’ paintings. It made no difference –“you must see the State Rooms,” she said, and so we did. We finally got to the paintings, and it was the most awesome display I have ever seen. Along the way, we tripped across theSt. Petersburg, Russia Rembrandt Gallery, and again, I have never, ever, seen such a display of his works.

Just as we were preparing to depart the museum our guide casually mentioned that there was a special exhibit on the first floor of Impressionists’ Paintings “on loan” from France. All I can say is that this “special” exhibit was absolutely the best I have ever seen. As it turns out, the State expects this “loan” to turn into a gift from France in payment for art taken during the war – so the “loan” has been here for six years, and as far as the museum is concerned it will never leave Russia.

On a more personal note, I would share some interesting stories with you. This is our third visit to St. Petersburg, and the changes are most impressive. I recall when we first visited the city, it seemed drab like most Russian cities. It was dirty, lots of people living on the streets, and very run down. That is not what we saw this visit. Indeed, flowers were everywhere, we saw no one living on the streets, and the streets themselves were clean and in good repair. When I asked about this, I was told by two different people that it was because Putin had become President of Russia. Putin came from this area, and as President he saw to it that money was given to improve the conditions in his home city.

It was also interesting that I never saw an iPhone! When I asked our guide about it, she honestly did not even know what an iPhone was! Now can you imagine a place in the world where Apple does not have a foothold?

Finally, I have to share a bit about our departure yesterday. Our small ship was able to sail right up the Neva River to within sight of the Hermitage itself. The only thing that kept us from docking alongside the great museum was a bridge in our way. This is one advantage of the small ships that can literary go right into town in many places. However, when it came time to depart I looked around and wondered how in the world we would manage to get out of there. The river at this point was fairly narrow, but even worse there were ships docked along both sides of the river making the channel even that more narrow. Just to add to the mix, the river was flowing at a rapid rate.

When we departed, every corner of our ship had an officer stationed there, even in the pouring rain. The officers of ALL the surrounding ships were also standing at the rails to watch the show. The lines were dropped, and our ship moved sideways into the rapidly flowing river, having to increase the propellers just to stand still. Then ever so slowly the ship started to inch FORWARD. Wait a minute! Going forward meant we were headed straight for the bridge – our way out was behind us! This was bound to get interesting. Ever so slowly the great ship inched forward. I thought for sure we were going to hit the bridge – at this point, we were only a block from the Hermitage – what a disaster. I ran to the room and turned on the TV where I could get a picture from a camera view of the front of the ship. I swear I do not think the bow of this ship was more than 10 ft. from the bridge, when we came to a stop, engines straining to hold us steady in the running river. Suddenly the giant side thrusters fire up on the bow and at the stern in a maneuver to pivot the ship around 180 degrees. Ever so slowly, the ship responded, but this meant that we would now be turning sideways against the river, which was already beginning to move us back downstream quite rapidly, as well as pushing us backwards right towards a Russian Patrol Boat. We missed that boat just by a few feet and ducked in towards the jetty right in front of a freighter. “Whew,” I thought, until I looked at the TV screen and saw that our bow was now only feet from another small cruise ship that had been docked in front of us.

I will make a long story short – I don’t know how the Captain managed that maneuver, but my hat is off to him. He made it look easy, but I could tell from the tension among the crew it was far from a normal departure.

Today we have pulled into Helsinki, Finland, but Lisa and I are taking a day of rest, having been here many times. We might go walk around later, but we’ll see.

I hope everyone is well, and I do encourage you to look at the pictures of St. Petersburg.


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