First thing this morning, we travelled around the city to see a couple of beautiful churches. Russian Orthodox churches are impressive, but leave me longing for the ones we saw in Scandinavia, and the ones I’ve seen in Ireland, Scotland and England. (The gold leaf gets old after a couple of churches, but the mosaic doesn’t. The icons are amazing, but I miss the lines of pews, places where you can sit and pray. Here, there are masses of people….swarming through these places. It’s hard to find a bit of quiet, unless you linger by an open doorway, or rush into the next room ahead of everyone else.)
St. Peter and Paul Cathedral is a beautiful baroque building that was created between 1712-33 as the main cathedral in the new capital of the Russian Empire. This is the place where most of Russia’s rulers are buried, including Peter the Great and the Romanovs. People still leave fresh flowers on his grave, and on the graves of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, who were assassinated. You’ll likely remember, if you like European history, that their bodies weren’t found or properly identified until the 1990s. Once identified by DNA testing, they were interred in the small chapel of St. Catherine on July 17, 1998. It’s the saddest part of this church, in my mind. It’s roped off, with a couple of blank grave markers for two of the tsar’s children who are still off being identified via DNA testing. It feels incomplete, brutal, and raw.
In opposition, oddly, there is a cathedral cat which sits on a chair near some dead tsar’s grave. That cat has been there for ten years. It sleeps on the chair and I suppose that the staff of the church feed it, but it seemed out of place. In some ways, though, I guess you could think that maybe the cat is a symbol of how life goes on. (Cats are a big thing in St. Petersburg. There is a street in the centre of the city where there are two cat statues high up near opposite windows. There are also a lot of cat tote bags and cat stacking dolls. It’s strange, and I won’t pretend to have figured out why they fancy them so much, but I will research it at some point.)
From the cathedral, we went into the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison. Our guide called the Bolshevik Revolutionaries “terrorists,” which I found interesting. (Earlier in the morning, my friend Dan had asked about the Russian view of the situation in the Ukraine. Then, the guide had said that most Russians support Putin in his attempts to gather in Russian people who just happen to live in the Ukraine. He also said that the view of Gorbachev in the 1990s (from inside Russia) was that the west was all taken in by what he called “Gorbamania.” Then, he went on to say that Putin is mostly loved by Russians. Yesterday, I was surprised to see a young man, maybe in his early 20s, wearing a t-shirt with Putin’s torso on it, dressed in a suit, with the caption: “One and Only.” It isn’t hard to see that the views inside Russia are different from the views we see in Canadian media.)
Anyway, back to the prison. I found the history about the Bolshevik Revolution pretty fascinating and want to do more reading when I get back home. I did a history and English degree in my 20s, but it’s been a while now, and I feel my brain is rusty. The cells for ‘regular prisoners’ were surprisingly large, with a window. They were allowed to read and smoke. The only time these privileges were taken away was if they were in solitary confinement, when they were only allowed to read the Bible, and not permitted to smoke at all. Our guide told us about one prisoner who lived in the prison for about twenty-two years simply because the warden had lost his papers. The man lost his mind there, even losing his ability to speak or communicate. It really isn’t a nice place. The solitary cells are extremely awful, echoing and aching, dark and without any light.
This afternoon we went to visit The Hermitage, which is actually a vast series of museums. We only saw a fraction of it, but the part we did see was in The Winter Palace. I found the rooms more fascinating than the actual art works. (I’ve been drawn to windows and doors during this trip, taking photos of them, as well as of floor and ceiling patterns. I’m not sure what this says about me, if you were to psychoanalyze me, but there are almost too many photos of that ilk on my phone and camera.)
The Hermitage visit, while interesting, was stressful. I don’t do well with masses of people pressing up against me, and there are a number of tourists-of-the-world out there who seem to not follow basic courtesy. Guides warn you to watch out for pickpockets, but it’s hard to do that when you are pressed up against four or five different people on all sides of you, and you have no space at all to move or breathe in. (Of course, then I got thinking….how quickly would a zombie plague spread in The Hermitage? Quickly. How quickly would any scary disease spread? Quickly. Then, I talked myself down and ducked into another room to take a hit of my asthma puffer….because it felt like I was either headed for an asthma or anxiety attack. Yeah, I’m cool like that…one more reason I’m single. ;)
Tonight, we went to see a folklore show at the Winter Palace, in a little theatre built to entertain one of the Russian princesses. Anyway, we had to wait at the bottom of a flight of stairs, in a gorgeous building, for the last group of people to come out of the first show. It seemed reasonable until it turned into a bloody mosh pit. (Listen, I’ve seen U2 twice now in major stadiums, but I have never seen tourists lose their shit in a beautiful historic palace. Tonight, I did. It wasn’t pretty.) The seats were not reserved, so we were told to rush up two flights of red carpeted marble stairs and then find seats close to the stage. Our group of eight figured out a strategy. Four of us would go ahead in a calm manner and then sprint to find seats, while the other four would follow as quickly as possible. What we didn’t expect was a fellow trying to smuggle his girlfriend in through the lined up crowd which now filled the lobby. Before you knew it, people were booing, the two security guards pushed the girlfriend away, back into the lobby and the guy yelled out “We’re not going to see the show! We’re just having dinner!” as if any patiently waiting person would love or accept that excuse.
All of the sudden, there was a pressure behind me. People were pushing forward. One guard told a few of our group to go up the staircase ahead, so they did. When that happened, an entire three busloads of tourists swarmed the staircase, moving from left to right. I was on the right hand side, stuck between some stupid gates that were meant to control the crowd. In all my life, I have never seen anything so awful. My new friend Morgan, who is in his late 70s and early 80s, nearly had quite a fall. I kept trying to push back at the people behind me, but to no avail. The only way to move was forward, and it wasn’t at all safe. It was like being carried upwards in a crush of people….not of your own accord. I kept thinking, stupidly, that I could talk to the people behind me. “It’s the theatre, for God’s sake! Stop pushing!” but I’ve never been a mosh pit girl so I didn’t understand that the push from behind is something that comes from far back, not from directly behind your back. There would be no logical arguing of facts…who knew Russian folkloric dancing and singing could cause such a riot?
Once we got upstairs and into the theatre, people rushed for seats. If the theatre had only assigned seats, it might have worked more courteously and safely. I’m surprised they haven’t thought about how assigning seats could reduce accidents and maintain some sense of decorum. It baffles my mind.
The show itself was amazing. Mad, frenzied dancing and lovely choral singing. The irony was that, in turning around to look at the other people watcing the performance, I found everyone pretending to be proper! These were the same swarm of people, from China, Israel, Italy, and Germany (from the guide signs I saw hovering), who just minutes before had nearly squished me. Bizarre!
So…my impressions of St. Petersburg: when the sun is shining, things look beautiful, but when it’s rainy, it feels sad; the Amsterdam-inspired buildings that Peter the Great loved to build are lovely, but the blocks and blocks of apartments built in the 20th century reinforce how rough it must have been here in Russia; the river is beautiful, and places within the city look a lot like Venetian canals; I like borscht, and, um, well, I like that Pushkin is still talked about proudly here.
Tomorrow we go out to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s beloved ‘getaway palace.’ Based on today’s disorganized chaos, I’m expecting to see a great historic place bogged down with masses of humans…and I know I’ll want to give a lesson in courtesy. (Since when in any part of the world is it okay to take out an elderly man, or squish someone, or bounce into them and knock them out of the way just to take a selfie in front of a piece of art? It isn’t….) It seems to me that, while Scandinavia was busy with tourists at the various historic sites and museums and churches, things seemed better organized. Maybe tours were scheduled, so that they weren’t pushed up against one another, or staff marshalled groups through with a bit of timing. Today, it was chaos…and the pushing is just too much.
After Peterhof tomorrow, we are going to see Swan Lake. I’m praying there is assigned seating because I’d like to at least pretend I’m traveling back in time. I can’t do that if people body check me out of the way….it takes me out of my mind and imagination too much.