March 28, 2020

St Petersburg, Russia

Apr 2016

St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 after capturing an area that housed a Swedish fortress on the shores of Baltic sea.  He named it after St Peter of his religion.  The city was the capital of Russia for about 200 years (until the Communists shifted it to Moscow).

The city was renamed thrice:  As Petrograd in 1914 (when WW1 broke out, to avoid any German connotation), as Leningrad in 1924 (after the death of Lenin), and as St Petersburg in 1991 (after a popular referendum).

St Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia; with twice the area of Singapore, similar population, and about a tenth of the size of Singapore economy.

In the days we visited, a visa to Russia was valid only for the flight by which you are scheduled to arrive.  We were not aware of this; and thanks to last minute changes in plan reached St Petersburg from Paris instead of from London.  We had to wait at Immigration for almost an hour until our papers were referred up the chain and the senior officer decided to let us in.  However, all the while, they were courteous and tried to make us as comfortable as possible.

The historic city center of St Petersburg is substantially located in Vasiliyewsky island (on Neva river, just across the Winter Palace).  The island contains "Peter and Paul Fortress", the Tsar's citadel in the city.  Inside the fortress is the "Peter and Paul cathedral", the St Petersburg Mint, and Trubetskoy bastion with its grim prison cells.  God, money, and criminals all in one neighbourhood.

View of Vasiliyewsky Island and the towers of Peter and Paul Cathedral from the Spit

View of Winter Palace (where Hermitage is located) from the Spit

The Peter and Paul Cathedral was the first building to be built in the city.  No building in St Petersburg can be taller than the towers of Peter and Paul.  Most of the Romanov rulers of Russia are buried in its cemetery.  The remains of Nicholas II and his family who were all executed in the Bolshevik revolution were brought back from Yekaterina and buried in Peter and Paul seventy years after their death.

View of Peter and Paul Cathedral from across the river

Russian Orthodox Churches have some unique features.  The churches use local language of the community; not Latin.  The sanctum sanctorium is separated from the main body of the Church by an ornamental screen with three doors.  The church is rich in iconography.  Icons are venerated and worshipped.  The Church uses Julian calendar and Christmas is celebrated on 7th of January.  And Easter is more important than Christmas.

The rich iconography in St Sampsons Cathedral is quite representative of the three tier triple door screen before the sanctuary in Russian Orthodox Churches.

St Sampsons Cathedral

St Isaac's Cathedral in St Petersburg was built over 40 years (leading to a local phrase that translates "to build like the Church of Isaac") and its dome is coated with 100 kg of pure gold.  It is the fourth largest church in the world.  Its large size saved it from German blitzkrieg.  German pilots were able to see it from air and use it to locate other targets.  (The locals coated the gold dome with grey grime to avoid unnecessary attention).  The Soviets stripped it of its religious strappings and converted it into a Museum.  When the new Russian government offered to restore it as an Orthodox Church people voted to let it stay as a Museum.

St Isaac's Cathedral, currently a Museum

Climbing up to the 43 m base of the dome offers a spectacular 360 degree view of St Petersburg.

View of Winter Palace from the dome of St Isaac's

St Nicolas Naval Cathedral (or as the locals call it, "Sailors Cathedral") is right next to the Kryukov canal with a Venice like atmosphere.

St Nicolas Naval Cathedral

However, the most impressive and the most popular one is the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood next to Griboyedov canal.  It is built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II (a liberal) was assassinated after several failed attempts.  The church was built by his son Alexander III (a revisionary, peacemaker).  The Church has the onion shaped domes similar to St Basil in Moscow typical of medieval Russian churches.  The Soviets converted this into a vegetable market.  The new Russian government restored the church in 1997 however it still remains a museum on mosaic and is yet to emerge as a place of worship.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

Iconographic Door at the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

Footpaths and Artisan shops on the banks of Griboyedov Canal behind the Church

The wide open Dvortsovaya Palace Square (with the Alexandrinsky Column in the centre) is as important to St Petersburg as Red Square is to Moscow.  On one side is the Winter Palace.  On the other side is the General Staff Building for the Russian Army.  At center is the freestanding column.  The column stands on its own weight and has no foundation or fixture to hold it.  The architect had to prove it is safe by walking around its base quite often.

Dvortsovaya Palace Square, General Staff Building, and Alexandrinsky Column

On one side of the square is the Winter Palace housing the Hermitage Museum.  We went to St Petersburg primarily to see the Hermitage Museum (set up by Catherine the Great in 1764 and opened to public in 1852).

Hermitage is the second largest museum (next, only to, Louvre) in the world with about 3 million exhibits displayed over 20 km of walkways.  If you spend a minute at each exhibit and see stuff for eight hours a day, it would take you 25 years to see the entire museum!  Of course you can restrict your time there to see the "big ticket" ones to pack more bang for your buck.  

Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace

Hermitage Museum:  Golden Peacock with intricate mechanisms to announce the hour

Hermitage Museum:  Leonardo Da Vinci's Madonna and the Child

Hermitage Museum:  "Secret Lovers" (Psst, your husband is on his way in!)

Hermitage Museum:  The room where Soviet Union was established.  The clock is frozen to that time.

Catherine Palace (named after Catherine I, not the more popular CTG) is located in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, about 30 km away from St Petersburg.  The Palace has luxurious chambers and an extensive garden.

Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo

Catherine Palace: Photographer photographing the Photographer

Pavlovsk palace, about 30 km away from St Petersburg in the town of Pavlovsk was built by Catherine the Great for her son Paul I.  The palace, though grand, is not as grand as the ones in St Petersburg.  We saw two drawings depicting a tall temple in South India that was presented to the Tsarina to get an idea of how temples look in South India.  Of course, she had a far more precious thing brought from South India for her by her lover Gregory Orlov:  The Orlov diamond which was the eye of the deity in Srirangam temple!

Pavlovsk Palace

"Apollo's chariot" painted on a ceiling in Pavlovsk Palace

The most impressive, next to Winter Palace, is the Peterhof Palace commissioned by Peter the Great.  The palace and its gardens are quiet grand.  Locals refer to it as "Russian Versailles".  During WW2 the golden statues in the garden were all taken away and buried to safety even as the Nazi army occupied the palace as a war time office.

Peterhof Palace: Main gate

Peterhof Palace

The fountains in Peterhof palace gardens do not have any pumps.  They use gravity!

Gardens of Peterhof Palace

We also visited a more moderate Yasupov palace, owned by a peripheral member of the Royal family.   He conspired with a few other noblemen to invite Rasputin for dinner, and kill him with poison (to protect the Royal family from Rasputin's influence and counsel).  The poison did not work.  Rasputin was stabbed.  Before the killer could go and fetch help, the body had vanished.  The killers got scared; hunted for the body, found it (Rasputin had moved in half consciousness a few yards), wrapped it in a carpet, and drowned it in the river.  Tsar Nicholas II had all the killers, other than the member of the Royal family, executed.  The Madam Tussaud style figurines in the palace re-enacting the gory scene was quite scary. 

The Yasupov palace displays the original "abdication letter" signed by Nicholas II in favour of a relative.  However rapid unfolding of Russian revolution put an end to monarchy itself within months.

Abdication letter of Nicholas II (the last Czar)

On the last day of our ten days' stay in St Petersburg we were rewarded with a bonanza.  We visited the Russian museum.  We thought what can the second best museum in town have when the best is also one of the best in the world.  We were in for a surprise.  I enjoyed my time in the Russian museum more than my time in Hermitage.  There were priceless treasures to be discovered.  Next time I would allocate two to three days for the Russian museum (and a week for Hermitage!)

Russian Museum.  St Petersburg's #2 museum is far better than the #1s of various cities

Russian Museum:  "The beginning of Music"

Russian Museum:  "The Nymph".  With a Magdalene and Christ at the background.

Russian Museum:  Ye who has not sinned be the first one to throw a stone at her.  Each face has one expression.

Russian Museum:  100th year of State Council.  Who would have imagined the Bolshevik revolution was coming!

The most famous citizen of St Petersburg?  In my view, it is Alisa Rosenbaum.  She was born here and raised here and went from the city that gave us communism to evangelize an ideology that is quite opposite to communism.  She was known to the Western world as?  Ayn Rand!

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