St. Petersburg, Russia (2000)

I visited St Petersburg fourteen years ago (a gasp of realisation at how long its been), whilst I was a European Volunteer in Jyvaskyla, Finland. Given the protocols and procedures needed to get into the country, it can be seen as a once in a lifetime experience…reading this took me back to not only the experience but also in my writing career as this is an example of my early writings…

…By now you should have received your postcards. So here is an in depth report. I travelled with 4 other people, Kevin (French), Joyce (Dutch), John Paul (South African/English) and Marie (French)
After sitting in a cafe we made our way to the bus at 22:50. The bus was packed with Russians and all the seats were taken, most of them didn’t have tickets and so we got priority because we did but I also think that it was more to do with the fact that we were westerners who were going to spend alot of money. Only Kevin and Joyce sat together initially, me and John Paul sat either side of the aisle and Marie sat down the front. She had a problem with this because she was on her own. I offered to swap because I didn’t mind but the bloke next to me swapped instead, and then John Paul swapped with me, which I was glad about because me and Marie were hardly on speaking terms.

So we set off and I put my stereo on and closed my eyes, preparing for another ‘mezzanine’ trip similar to the one up to Muotkavaara, but thankfully we’d already lost an hour because St Petersburg is 3 hours ahead of London, and 1 ahead of Helsinki. I have to say that I loved the journey, despite Marie’s complaints about the situation, I think she was expecting first class on an aeroplane. The situation made me feel as though I was travelling on a refugee bus, too many people, 7 or 8 year olds sleeping on their parents’ laps and in the aisle, babies crying, bad smells most likely from the babies. I fell in and out of sleep and spent most of the journey with the child next to me’s legs on my lap which I didn’t mind because I put them there and it made it easier for the mother. It seemed as though the night never arrived as it was fairly light all the way through. After 3 or 4 hours travel we reached the border, where it was suddenly was obvious that you were going into another country. There were barriers, the checkpoints, the flags and the soldiers, all things I’d never seen before. As soon we as saw the soldiers in the uniform both me and Kevin had to restrain ourselves from our first instinct which, after hours of playing ‘Goldeneye’ was to shoot them, the excesses of spending too long on the computer. It took an hour to get through the border as the Russian side was very particular but I received my stamp in the passport at last. Finally we were in the former Soviet Union, which would have been virtually impossible and very dangerous not so long ago.

We stopped at a cafe to take in some much needed coffee, as the sun began to rise properly. I bought a packet of Chesterfield cigarettes for 18 Rubles, which is about 45p. We carried on through thousands of trees and a town that was preceded by a former soviet army camp, complete with watchtower and barracks. The town was so rundown and I was shocked by the blocks and blocks of flats with broken windows and doors, balconies piled with rubbish, and shocked moreso that people lived in them. Now I can understand the plight of the Russians, seeing the news images there in front of me as a reality. I think that maybe it should split into autonomous republics as it is too big to provide adequate and equal standard of living for all.

We entered St Petersburg from the north over the Trotsky bridge where both me and Kevin recognised the road by the river as the place where James bond drives the tank down in ‘Goldeneye’, later I would also recognise the place where he stole it from, which now the political museum but also the library level in the game. From this point until about noon, we wore big grins on our faces, we were here in this mythical, historical city. The bus stopped and we set foot on civilized Russian soil.
We did have an itinery taken from Marie’s guide book but this soon disappeared when the problem of having five people and no leader occurs…no one wanted to take charge. I had different objectives to the others, different things I wanted to see and this would probably cause a conflict as our time here passed by. After we’d drank some not very nice coffee, seen a few more Russian officers (that instinct again) and found a bar called ‘Liverpool’, I took the map and being virtually the only one with a sense of direction, subsequently took control. For a start we were walking in the wrong direction so I quickly changed that and we set off on foot towards the centre, along Nevsky Prospect. It was funny to see the trams, it felt like being transported back…way back in time, and then there were the buses with electricity contacts connected to the roof. Both were also packed with people whose faces were pressed up against the window, this poor and rundown city reflected in each of their faces.

As we walked along the history-infused pavements, the city was awakening and the cultural differences were beginning to show themselves. One contrasting scene that made for ‘artistic’ photography, was down a side street. There was this pale blue and white, clean church set right in the middle of these disused and rundown housing blocks with piles of debris and rubbish outside. It was either a visual metaphor for the church being an oasis in the desert of poverty, or a visual metaphor of how wealthy the church and how far removed from the people in poverty it has become.

Carrying on along the prospect among the multitude of Lada’s and beeping horns which signal the Russians lack of patience, the diesel fumes choked and it reminded me of what pollution is, a concept long since forgotten due to it not being a noticeable problem in Finland where the air is generally cleaner. The others’ lack of knowledge about what to see led to a mini discussion about going to see ‘The Church of The Bleeding Saviour’, one of the places I wanted to see. Now to clarify, this church is not like a ‘normal’ church, normal to someone who has grown up amongst the standard design of Anglo-Norman churches this one is similar to the Kremlin. The church looks like an ice cream decorated with hundreds and thousands. It has gold plated, (signifying that it is Russian Orthodox) swirly domes at the top of its towers, this was enough to be in awe but a closer look at the exterior walls and you’ll see that its made up of square mosaics, like someone’s vinyl collection with each cover being a story from the bible, there were at least 250 of these placed next to the gold drapes and outlines. This building was a truly beautiful sight. The church was built upon the site where the Tsar Alexander II ‘the liberator’ was assassinated in 1881, which makes it all the more amazing given that it is only 120 years old. The interior makes strengthens the awe as the entire inside is covered with different mosaics of different saints, disciples, and of course, Jesus. In the centre of the church there is a memorial to Alexander…I stood quietly, looked at his face and allowed my skin to absorb the history.

Next we, or rather I found our way through to the riverside ‘tank road’. Once more this was the point I also took hold of the guide book so that at least someone knew what we were seeing. We walked passed the Winter Palace and The Marble Palace, although I didn’t know what they were at the time. Although I guessed that as St Petersburg was once the capital that the buildings were maybe the parliament building. I apologised to Kevin for not knowing what these buildings were but he said it was fine because at least I know alot of the history and could guess. I took us on a trip passed the Admiralty and the maritime-dominated west part of the centre, the giant yellow ‘History of St Petersburg and Maritime’ museums, with the sculptured Neptune on the top imposing themselves on the cityscape here . The museum is flanked at the headland by two monuments featuring the ancient sea gods and various parts of ships. Later when we sat down in the Peter and Paul Fortress gardens for a rest, I explained that St Petersburg was the port where the famous Russian Fleet – the second only to the British in size and dominance – accessed the North Sea and its slightly easier access to the Atlantic, and subsequently the rest of the world. A fact which the Russians accepted but were desperate to improve as the British and French kept a tight grip on the Crimean/Sebastopol Port on the Black Sea.

John Paul and Marie were getting tired of walking because they were more accustomed to using the public transport in Helsinki to travel a 100 metres, whereas I walk nearly 10km everyday so I’m used to it but I kept pushing them. I don’t like to travel on public transport when its not needed.

We stopped for an ice cream and watched the local police force travel around in their rundown lada’s, before we went into the magnificent fortress built by Peter The Great. The Main attraction is the cathedral, whose spire shines with gold across to the main centre but it is only covered on one side, the side facing the city to show the Tsar’s people the wealth they had – image then as now is seemingly everything. Inside the cathedral the Tsars’ and their families eternally rest, gathered together in family groups. It was amazing at first to think the bones are inside the marble cases and so I went off to look for the ‘famous’ tsar’s only to find that the writing is, of course, in Russian so I didn’t know who was who, so I just took pictures of them all. Peter The Great was obvious by the bust on the top of the coffin. Nicholas II, the last Tsar was there, he arrived in 1998 after the discovery of the bones outside of St Petersburg at the place of execution, but I also think there was some politics associated with his transportation. The ‘altar’ of the cathedral is solid gold and a beautiful sight as was the entire interior, they certainly know how to design and construct interiors here. At this point it was apparent that the others (with the possible exception of Kevin) were on a sight seeing tour without really thinking about what they were seeing, whereas I was on a history trip, seeing for real the things I’d only read about in the books on the A-Level European History reading list. I was looking and thinking about what I was seeing, whereas they were thinking about the next sight, so after 15 minutes inside I had to continue due to the “shall we go?” phrase. Under this pressure we were ‘pulled’ through the prison which once housed Trotsky, Gorky, and Dostoevsky. Time was of the essence and John Paul still believed we had an itinery. We ate dinner on a boat, I wanted to taste Russian food such as Bear but in its absence I had to settle for chicken, how boring. Then we set off for the afternoon history trip.

I was taking us towards the gold plated dome of St Isaak’s cathedral but I had incorporated the sights I wanted to see along the way. We walked past the Admiralty building, yet another reminder that the Russian fleet was the second biggest in the world. They seem to make more of it, or either the British reminders are lost in the chaos of London. The scale of the building and the massive anchors on both entrances are a testament to the prestige of the Russian Fleet. At the end of the Admiralty, St Isaak’s cathedral is visible but before we’d reached it I went to see the Peter The Great statue which is enormous, I was expecting a smaller scale one, but this statue dominates the park in front of the cathedral. It was dedicated to Peter The Great and commissioned by Catherine II (The Great), the Tsarina who overthrew her Husband, Peter III after a year. The inscription on the rock reads ‘To Peter The First From Catherine’. The statue is made of bronze and depicts Peter on a horse crushing a snake with its hind hoofs, the snake symbolising evil. The stone was brought from the shores of the Gulf Of Finland and is said to be the rock from which Peter looked out at the swamp and planned St Petersburg. The others didn’t like it and so didn’t photograph it, but to me it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, its an historical monument and a St Petersburg sight and so has the right to be photographed.

From here we moved to the cathedral. Its an enormous building which has either 100kg or 1000kg of pure gold on the towers and domes. The cathedral was commissioned by Alexander I and built by the French Architect, De Monterrand. We couldn’t afford or were not really interested in the museum so made straight for the top. After climbing the hundreds of steps we reached the top. The walkway is way above St Petersburg and so provides a view of the entire city, which was breathing taking. I took some pictures then had to descend as me and heights don’t really mix, and besides my camera film had run out and needed to be changed.

By this point confidence in my ability to navigate us through the streets was split. We were going to the Winter Palace via the Palace Square but on the way we got distracted by an open air concert by some Russian Heavy metallers. The young people are really into their heavy metal here and were making that international rock sign (the index and little finger punched into the air) which has really, long since passed by, but because its what you’re supposed at rock concerts many hands were being thrust into the sky. John Paul was not impressed but as we decided to stay for a bit longer, John Paul went and sat under a tree saying it was too noisy.

After about half an hour we left for the Winter Palace but I was more interested in the Square and so disappeared to take pictures of the place where the Marxist ideals were first applied in practice. I was definitely not bowing to any pressure to keep moving. I was going to stand and think about what happened in 1917. The Bolsheviks entered through the archway and gathered outside the Palace, which was home to the provisional government, convened after the February Revolution which had ended the Tsar’s dynasty. The battleship ‘Aurora’ fired an empty shell over the palace which both scared the government and signalled the Bolsheviks to storm the palace. Stood there in silence, I could almost hear the shouting and the organised chaos of that day in October 1917.

The square was also where Catherine II (the Great) was crowned Tsarina. The centre point is the Alexander Monument, a tall column created by De Monterrand again, to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon in 1812. There is an angel carrying a cross at the top, it faces the palace and maybe if it had been facing the arch the Bolsheviks may not have succeeded, facing the palace symbolically supporting the actions of the revolution. However, I was slightly disappointed that the historical square was now home to beer tents and ice cream stalls but I suppose that is ‘progress’. I had my five minutes of reflection time, whilst the others hurried across the paving to get inside the Winter Palace.

The Palace was the Tsar’s winter residence and was home to the dynasty’s art collection started by Catherine II (The Great), Alexander I or II reduced the collection by selling those paintings he didn’t think possessed artistic merit. But despite this it now houses one of the biggest and best collections in the world. The ground floor is home to Egyptian and Roman art but we made for the European art on the first floor. The carriage of Peter, with its gold, silver and Bronze plating was there but really there was too much to take in, added to the works of art was also the amazing interiors and historic rooms. Kevin and Joyce left to sit on the grass outside, at this point I independently walked off to leave John Paul and Marie, I was here to look not idly walk past thinking ‘nice picture’, and I soon lost them. It was quite tiring walking around and soon I had to give in and left to meet the others outside. It was now blatantly obvious that I was going to become independent, especially as they talked of seeing the five palaces on the outskirts of the city on day two.
During this quick break in proceedings I will just clarify the Tsar Dynasty.

– Peter I: created the city in 1703 and died in 1725

– Catherine I: wife of Peter I ruled until 1727, first Tsarina

– Peter II: Ruled from 1727-1730

– Anna and Elizabeth: followed ruling from 1730 until 1761

– Peter III: ruled for one year then was overthrown by his wife

– Catherine II: ruled 1762 until 1796, coronated in palace square, presented Peter I with the statue and started the art collection

– Paul I: 1796 until 1801

– Alexander I: 1801 until 1825, defeated Napoleon in 1812

– Nicholas I: 1825 until 1855. The new regime sparked the Decemberist uprising in the park in front of St Isaak’s which resulted in a massacre. Also started the ill fated Crimean War, died in 1855

– Alexander II: Took over as ‘The Liberator’ freeing the Serfs in a spate of Welfare reforms, also controlled Finland but was assassinated in 1881 on the site of ‘The Church of The Bleeding Saviour’.

– Alexander III: 1881 until 1894

– Nicholas II: 1894 until overthrown and executed in 1917. 1905 saw ‘bloody sunday’ in Palace Square, when the troops fired on a group of demonstrators, this more or less signalled the end of the dynasty.

After the Winter Palace we decided to take a boat trip along the Neva River, I sat apart from the others as I was the odd one out I didn’t mind as I could concentrate on what the boat was showing us. We sailed passed the ‘Aurora’ and I began making my plans for day two, I saw the Lenin Statue from a great distance and kept in mind how to get to it. The trip was lovely but I was finally beginning to feel tired. When it’d finished we decided to go and find our hotel, I said I could get us as far as the road it was on but as I didn’t have the hotel information it was up to Marie to finish the mission, she failed and at the junction where I thought we should turn right she decided to turn left. So we wandered up this road and came across a McDonald’s, although the word didn’t look like McDonald’s it was the golden arches so we headed there.
The McDonald’s was in the Turkish Quarter and after I’d bought my cheap, cheap cigarettes I saw a real breakdancing crew doing their stuff just like in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The McDonald’s was simply a McDonald’s, enough said. After I’d orientated myself and took us off to our hotel.

Our hotel was very nice but the shower was very bad, the water was cold and dirty. We’d already been told to not drink the water in the city as it was disgusting, but this was the only shower where you felt dirtier when you’d finished than when you went in. Joyce and Marie had collapsed from exhaustion and were sound asleep and so had John Paul, so me and Kevin went to the lobby bar where we tried some salmon caviar for about 50p. Eating it was such a strange sensation, the eggs bursting and popping in your mouth but it did taste really delicious. We went to sleep at 1210 after we’d photographed the 1200 sunset.

After much needed sleep and a feed we set off for the city centre. I bowed to the demands to use the metro. It had been much better to walk because of the chance to see so much more but the metro was an experience. Very crowded, very old and very confusing, there were, of course, no seats and this brought complaints, cabin fever was setting in already but me and Kevin just went with it not really caring very much – travel is a chance to experience life and the world, not get annoyed because the place you’re visiting can’t adapt itself to your way of life…you adapt to the place, not the other way around. The metro had no platforms just kind of elevator doors that opened when the train was there. it was weird to see all these people waiting outside these doors before we knew what they were. We made it to the main metro station and it was at this point that I decided to drop the bomb that I wasn’t going with them to the five palaces because there were things I hadn’t seen here yet and knew that by the time they’d got back I wouldn’t get the chance. We agreed to meet later and so I had 7 hours, and after refusing the map – I’d looked at it enough times to have a mental picture and besides they needed it more – I strode off and disappeared into the St Petersburg crowds, knowing that behind me was an envious looking French man and a very annoyed looking French female, annoyed that I had the confidence, independence and sheer nerve to go off on my own in Russia.

My first point on my trip through 19th/20th Century history was the Lenin statue but first I crossed the Trotsky bridge and took a closer look at the Aurora. I also passed Peter’s summer cottage which is where he surveyed the building of his city in 1703. Along the way before I reached the statue I saw the headquarters of the army, again…suppressing the Nintendo64-conditioned instinct once more as the many privates, sergeants, and high ranking officers walked passed. I finally made it to Lenin. I sat underneath his outstretched arm and smoked a proletariat cigarette or threeand then photographed it and paid my respect to the man with the right ideas which Stalin messed up. From here the next stop was to be the Smolny Institute.

On the way I saw the aftermath of a not too surprising car crash, it wasn’t surprising as the Russians are incredibly impatient and drive incredibly fast. I was also wary of the police as some are known to abduct tourists, to combat this I employed my ‘Russian Face’ a miserable looking kind of scowl, it seemed to work. I walked about two miles to the institute, my brain still insisting I’d see more of the city this way. Just before I got there I found an oasis in the desert, a streak of sun in the rainy sky, yes, yes, it was the British Consulate, I suddenly felt safe. Walking through the park I stumbled across the driveway of the former aristocratic girl school, which looked very prestigious with its Arc D’Triompe style gateway. Half way down the driveway are busts of Marx and Engels. These were here because within the gates of the institute, in fact behind those very walls, Lenin and Trotsky planned the Revolution, there were inscriptions on the gateposts which probably said something like ‘workers of the world unite’. The building wasn’t what I expected it to be, I thought that the socialists would have a plain looking building, not something that resembled a Tsarist palace. But it was inspiring to see the place where the utopian ideals were formulated into something concrete.

I then wandered through the streets and along the Neva, asked a Russian Orthodox monk if this inside was how I got to the famous tombs and then paid a visit to Tschiakovsky and Mussorgsky at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. The first cemetery contained the tombs of famous public figures and statesmen. I read through the leaflet but didn’t recognise any of the names, and besides I was looking for the Artists, so I crossed the cobbled street and passed the blind beggar woman into the Artists cemetery. I made straight for Tschiakovsky who was next to Borodin and Mussorgsky, and faced Rubinstein. Mussorgsky was given my respect because he created one of my top five classical pieces, ‘A Night On Bare Mountain’. I sat opposite Tschiakovsky and wrote the postcards. Although it was peaceful underneath those green-leafed and shading trees, I was slightly unnerved by the bust on Tschiakovsky’s tomb as he looked really pissed off, but I think you would be if your employer told you that because you’re a homosexual and would shame the company, you could choose between murder or suicide. It was a strange sensation to think that four of the world’s greatest composers were lying just two metres away and, in Rubinstein’s case, virtually on my shoulder. On the way out I stopped by at Dostoevsky’s place, who I later discovered while reading ‘Crime and Punishment’ that he had perfectly captured St Petersburg. With photographs taken and respects paid I set off to walk the entire Nevsky prospect.
The prospect was packed (still) with Lada’s and people, and I could truly believe that the 5 million population in Finland could all fit into St Petersburg, which is a bizarre thought that Finland is one of the five biggest countries in Europe. The walk didn’t really take that long, about 45 minutes, this included a stop at Uprising Square with its obelisk island as a tribute to the soldiers of the wars, it has a gold Soviet Star shining at the top, to serve as a reminder about the past. The square is named after the uprising during the February events leading up to the revolution. The Cossacks turned and fought against the police resulting in many deaths. It demonstrated that the once loyal Cossacks were not supporting the Tsar, and so the dynasty was surviving by the skin of its teeth. By the end of the month there would be no dynasty. As I waited for a poor excuse for a tram to move, I was once more unnerved by the three yobbish looking policemen sat on their car, however employing my ‘Russian Face’ I passed by without trouble. I think part of surviving in unfamiliar and potentially dangerous places is walking with a definite confidence, purpose and direction and not looking obviously like a tourist.

I looked for somewhere to post my cards and found two postboxes together, thinking they maybe different I ventured inside the ‘post office’ which was very dark, very hot and very rundown. After about twenty minutes I was finally told that there was no difference between the postboxes. With my cards posted I went off to find my final destinations which included a photograph of the ‘tank road’ from Trotsky Bridge. Before I could do this I had to buy another film as I’d used up 2 films already. I took the picture and made my way to the meeting point on Nevsky Prospect Central Metro Station. I walked through the Mars Field. Mars being the god of war it is in relation to fighting that took place here during World War Two In the centre there is a tribute to the Soviet soldiers who fought to protect Leningrad as this city was known then, and kept the Germans at away (the pillars outside of St Isaak’s are chipped from shrapnel from the German Artillery). In the centre of the tribute is an eternal flame. I stood next to it and once more paid respects to those who fell (its seems that St Petersburg is a place where alot of respects are paid). Leaving the tribute I was careful not to stand on the grass as it is a mass grave.

I decided to have a beer whilst waiting for the others. I noticed that its maybe not so much that there are alot of immigrants in St Petersburg but rather that Russia is so big that it contains many different races of people, the Turkish Quarter may well have been the refugees from the Russian regions near to the middle east. I reflected upon the past two days. I had seen just about everything, including a statue of the writer, Pushkin, who died in a dual with a French Officer who was cracking onto his ballet dancer wife, Natalaya. Joyce had commented on how I take alot of photographs of statues but to me they’re not just statues, they’re living history and proof that these things happened and that these people were alive. Being here now in this city is being in history. The history comes alive through the memorials, the buildings and the statues. The statues are the people who made history and changed the world, they’re not just bronze or metal structures they’re real, living history.
After my beer I moved closer to the metro station entrance which was a bad idea as I kept having Russians coming up to me. In this situation its a benefit to be bilingual as I spoke Finnish to them and said that I didn’t speak Russian or English, trying not to disadvantage myself by speaking English. They only wanted cigarettes which was fine. But the point came where I had to move, this Russian guy wanted to buy a cigarette off of me, he held out 8 rubles so I took the 5 ruble piece, he said it was okay and went to his girlfriend not looking too happy. Next time I look at him, his girlfriend is holding him back from coming over to me, I thought this is too much, I don’t want to die over 5 rubles which in English money was 12p. Yeah I can see the headlines ‘Fake Finn Knifed in St Petersburg Over 12 pence’. It was too much trouble I picked up my bag and walked over and offered it back but the guy was still saying it was alright so I had to physically put it in his hand and breathed again as I walked off to wait by the abandoned music stage which, minutes earlier, had been buzzing with energy.

Having met the others, we made our way back to the bus stop opposite the rows of containers that ‘house’ the poor of St Petersburg. Behind those green metallic ‘walls’ lives the contrast to the beauty and prestige of the former Russian capital. This contrast was recorded as one of the caravans was stationed outside the marble palace, it made for an artistic photograph. Its sad that for a city so steeped in wealth and history there are many forgotten people, gypsies, beggars, people with no legs and wheelchairs…and people with just no legs. Its so shocking and sad but maybe this is the history of these people and now they have progressed from the serfs and poverty to city dwellers and poverty. This was no more apparent than when we got on the bus that would take us back to the ‘western world’. Whilst the others were sorting their bags out, a man on crutches was begging for money, pleading with us “please give me money, no one cares about me, no one looks after me” I wondered just how much truth was in that statement. The truth is that Russia has too many people and not enough money, I wonder how the country would have been had Stalin not messed with the ideas and plans of Lenin and Trotsky. Whilst the others were filling in the customs form all I wanted to do was to say goodbye to the history, to this city, I think I’d become more attached to it because I knew its past and I’d spent more time amongst its baroque and neo-classical buildings, I’d soaked up the atmosphere and mingled with its people, I was an historian not a tourist.

The bus back highlighted the difference, the bus back was not a refugee bus, it was a ‘western’ bus, there were about 20 people on it, I had two chairs to myself, there were no Russians with their children on their laps, only affluent Finns who had been to buy cheap cigarettes and beer, it was an affluent, rich western bus, As the checkpoint was passed and Russia was far behind I felt sad at leaving the people’s poverty without helping and also thought it would have been enough just to go to Russia, but St Petersburg as well, well this was special, that’s an experience, Living History.


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