From Russia with Love

As a youngster growing up in Australia, both the evening news and pop culture led me to believe that the Russians were the bad guys. This perception was only enhanced during the mid-1980’s when I was taught 20th Century History in Japan by a predominantly American teaching staff. The USSR was placed on the wrong side of the moral debate on every issue from the Cuban missile crisis to the invasion of Afghanistan. Perhaps rightly so, but I suspect I was only getting one side of the story.

Stalin’s re-education camps, Nikita Khrushchev declaring he will “bury” the west, a vast arsenal of inter-continental nuclear missiles aimed at ever major American city, mutually assured destruction; we lived in fear that madmen were in charge at the Kremlin and the end of world was, indeed, nigh.

Then along came a man named Gorbachev and, with remarkable alacrity, Russia re-engaged with the West and the Russians suddenly appeared less evil and became our friends.

Some attribute the change to Ronald Reagan’s stirring speech calling for the Berlin Wall to be torn down, others give credit to Rocky Balboa’s equally stirring speech at the conclusion of Rocky IV. Both theories seem equally likely to me.

Perhaps wise men on both sides simply recognised that the path they were heading down was untenable and decided to do something about it.

In any event, I had this history firmly in mind when we arrived in St Petersburg and I strode confidently across Russian soil. As a teenager in the 1980’s, with a reasonable awareness of global affairs, such a future seemed most unlikely. It’s remarkable how quickly the world can change.

We had two days to explore St Petersburg, with the assistance of our guide, Sasha; a young Russian lady of heavy build. Sasha spoke perfect English (something, we learned from other passengers, which certainly could not be taken for granted) and was very knowledgeable. There was no question she could not – or would not – answer…

After seeing a striking statue of Lenin in the town square, I asked Sasha how he was regarded by modern-day Russians. She replied, frankly, by telling us that he was mostly just the butt of jokes. Stalin fared worse.

Sasha also informed us that had she been a guide in the 1970’s, she would have been required to attend a government office at the end of the day and provide a written account of every question we had asked and every answer she had given. In those dark days, the dissemination of State approved propaganda was just as important has giving tourists the historical background of various sites.

Clearly, those days are in the past. Whilst having lunch in a small restaurant on the second day of our visit, I asked Sasha whether such a business could have been opened during “the Soviet era”. She candidly replied that it would have been impossible. I remarked that “there must have been restaurants though”. She shrugged her shoulders and told me that there were not many and they were mostly confined to hotels. All the takings went to the government; the chefs and wait staff would have been paid a wage. She added that life was difficult at that time and now it was “better”.

For example, Sasha has been able to travel to West, whereas her parents suffered severe travel restrictions. She added that Finland is her gateway to the European Union. Even today, travel to the United Kingdom or the United States requires the completion of an arduous 20-page form visa.

Looking around St Petersburg, it is difficult to imagine that – just 20 years ago – the metropolis could have been so barren. During our visit, I saw McDonalds, Subway and Haagan Daas stores, amongst many others. Some may debate whether the arrival of these franchises represents an improvement, however, at least they provide the people of St Petersburg with a range of choices they did not previously enjoy.

Some aspects of the authoritarian Soviet era remain, however. Part of our tour included a short journey on St Petersburg’s subway system. Whilst waiting for Sasha to purchase our tickets, Huckleberry B  innocently (she thought) brought out her camera and took a photograph. Within seconds a grim-looking man in an uniform of some sort strode over, pushing his way through the throng, and spoke to us sternly in Russian. We didn’t know exactly what he was saying, but readily assumed from his tone that he was not offering to pose for a happy holiday snap. He left us with the impression that he missed the good old days when he could add our names to a list of dissenters. He should apply for a job at Lord’s Cricket Ground. He’d fit in very well there.

The Beauty of St Petersburg

St Petersburg is a beautiful city. Situated on the Baltic Sea on the far western side of Russia – and about an eight hour drive from Moscow – the city has been built upon a number of islands in the delta of the Neva River, creating a series of picturesque canals.

Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, St Petersburg – or Leningrad as it was known by the Soviets – is Russia’s second biggest city and was the Capital prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.  Czar Nicholas II and his family were living in St Petersburg when they were first placed under arrest, before being taken to Siberia and murdered.

(By the way, Sasha assured as that the woman claiming to be the youngest Romanov daughter, Anastasia, was a fake. DNA testing has established with 99.9% certainty that Anastasia’s remains were buried with the rest of the family.)

Today, St Petersburg is home to Vladimir Putin and President Medvedev. Sasha told us that when he comes to town, the city grinds to a halt with all the road closures.

We actually wanted to take a helicopter ride over St Petersburg. However, this was not possible because some VIR (`very important Russian’) was in town. Not only was it possible that the VIR wanted access to the sole helicopter in St Petersburg, flights over the city were also restricted whilst the mysterious VIR remained in the vicinity.

Our first day in St Petersburg was dominated by tours of Peterhof Palace and Catherine’s Palace.

Both venues are remarkable places. Peterhof Palace, which we reached by hydrofoil, is a magnificent white palace where Peter the Great made his home. Whilst we did not venture inside, we did spend an hour or so strolling around the grounds and amongst the fountain-dominated gardens.

Apparently, Peter the Great loved a laugh. There is one garden featuring ceramic tulips. Should a guest peer into the top of the tulip he or she would be squirted with water!

Catherine’s Palace is equally beautiful. The exterior of the Palace is painted blue and white. One a glorious day, the blue of the Palace complements the blue of the crisp sky. On a winter’s day, the snow complements the white aspects of the Palace walls.

Remarkably, Catherine’s Palace was stripped of most of its glory by the Nazis during World War II. Photographs we were shown demonstrated that all that was left was the brick structure. All the treasures had been removed. However, the Palace has been painstakingly restored over recent times and now reflects its former glory.

The clear highlight of Catherine’s Palace was the amber room. This room – evidently Empress Catherine’s favourite – is lined entirely with pieces of amber. The different shades of amber are arranged in a pleasing mosaic of colours which creates a unique and dazzlingly effect.

Our second day in St Petersburg – after visits to the St Peter and Paul Fortress and the Church on Spilled Blood – was dominated by a visit to the famed Hermitage Museum. We have been told that the museum is so large that if you examined every item for one minute, it would take you 15 years to see everything. We had a mere two hours to see the highlights….

Our two hours were, however,  well spent. We saw art work by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Monet and Cezzane. However, the highlight was a long room dedicated to the Russian victory over Napoleon which featured a portrait of each of the three hundred generals engaged in the war. Each portrait was painted by the same artist and was unique.

The Prima Ballerina

Perhaps one of the highlights of our visit to St Petersburg was a night at the Mariinsky Theatre to see a gala ballet performance. When in Russia do as the Russians do.

There was one dance where the prima ballerina – somebody famous judging from the raucous reception she received upon entering the stage – danced for a good five minutes or so on the point of her toes, each step graceful and fluid.

Just to make it clear, she was not merely on tip toes. She was dancing with the entire weight of her body placed upon the points of her toes with her feet positioned perfectly perpendicular to the stage.

As I watched her, my eyes as wide as the base of a small vodka glass, I tried to imagine how long she must have practised before she could perform these steps and for how much of that time she must have found the steps impossible. Yet she prevailed.

There must have been times when she never thought she would be able to perform – let alone perfect – this extraordinarily difficult (and, one imagines, very painful) dance.

Yet there she was; dancing on the points of her toes as though she was taking a carefree stroll through the gardens at Peterhof Palace.



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