Salutations from St. Petersburg ,Russia. It is the land of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great so by sheer osmosis it feels very much like home to Ted The Great. There is more gold leaf in the palaces than there is in Fort Knox. It is fascinating that both here and in Copenhagen a palace can be nothing more than a big building downtown.Just something some duke or duchess just had to have. In fact yesterday we passed the biggest of them all, KGB headquarters where I am sure the court is replete with minstrels and clowns including the Major Domo. (I better wait until we are out of Russian waters to post)
As a rule you hear very little of Putin. The locals probably still worry about who is listening. The guides we have had are very pleasant but conspicuously restrained when it comes to talking about anything other than the script. By contrast in Estonia the two young people were quite engaging and downright proud. The young girl who took us on a cross country bike trip relished the fact she had participated in the human chain in the late eighties. She said thousands held hands over many hundreds of miles and won their independence without any violence or their countrymen and women being killed. There is something exciting about that freedom thing.
When you study the history of the region you pick up a lot more of the subtleties or maybe I was just asleep during those lectures too many moons ago. War is a part of the culture not only for Russia but also Denmark, Norway, Germany and one of the biggest thugs later in the millennium was good old Sweden. I thought they just skied and knit sweaters there. There are fortresses and turrets of old in every hamlet and quiet harbor. The paintings depict this battle or that. Countries are played like pawns on a regional chess board. Finland Knight four to Russia Castle five.
The intrigue is that over thousands of years, countries and shires were formed by tribes migrating from Mongolia et al. Some stayed in one spot and others moved on. The language took hold in one place and then was adapted in another. All was well until one particular tribe wanted to grow and needed more space. What else would one do but send over some Goths or Vikings or whatever and rape and pillage all in the name of the Motherland? And all this has continued relatively unabated for millennia .
Russians have borne a lot of the brunt. They have been laid siege by the French under Napoleon and the Germans under Hitler even they thought they had non aggression pacts with each. The abhorrence of Mein Feuhr is pretty evident in any presentation. Here in St Petersburg they were bombarded for 900 days straight during WWII. The various churches, museums and government offices were numbered one through ten on the Luftwaffe hit parade. The Hermitage was number nine.
I questioned why Russians always look so dour, sad or even angry? They say it is cultural but I think the right term might be environmental. Since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 the state was in control of everything from media to your home life. You were afraid to say anything of a personal nature for fear you would be reported, questioned and very possibly sent to Siberia.These were not idle threats. If you thought Lenin and Trotsky were bad you would not believe the cruelty and savagery of Joe Stalin’s boys. It is always ironic for me to see Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin yucking it up in Yalta as they divvied up the spoils of war.
Imagine your country has been blown apart by warring factions over many centuries. The weather is bad and only gets worse with mind numbing cold and snow in the winter. I think I would be a bit paranoid about both my allies and my enemies and from the weather point of view wondering why I would want to live here? Look at the tenor of the writings of Dostoyevsky or the music of Tchaikovsky. They reflect the times and you can hear it. I did ask one guide what the difference was between Pre 1991 and after? She said the jury was still out. There was freedom to make as much money as you want but at the same time there was risk. There were positive things in the security of the state. Very interesting.
As for our view of the metropolis Kathy and I found it depressing in many ways. The city has a grimy facade that is rusted and crumbling in many spots. Most of the buildings are monochromatic grey and have the feeling of the old Cabrini Greens or lower East Side projects. Contrast that with the Hermitage and Winter Castle with over a thousand rooms you really wonder if things have just been replaced by a new aristocracy. The truly odd part is that while BMW’s, Range Rovers, Audis and Mercedes are in ample supply, the inhabitants don’t seem particularly well dressed. Maybe it is all part of the enigma that is Russia today. .
Overall you get the impression that once again the country is spending its resources on building up industry and by extension its military. Corruption is still rampant which is on display for a stadium being built for the World Soccer Cup. It was started in 2004 and scheduled for completion in 2007. It still looks only halfway finished and is the laughing stock of the denizens for its snail’s pace and the lining of several bureaucrats’ pockets.
There is no doubt the Palaces, gardens, fountains and Hermitage are spectacular. You hear about Sotheby’s auctioning off a Picasso for umpteen zillion and yet in the above there is a room with twelve of them. Cezanne, Monet, Rembrandt ? How many do you want? But beneath the surface as with any good patina it’s where the rubber meets the road. You have to look at the bones of the structure. From this man’s vantage point it feels old and tired. That’s it for now.
Ted The Great.
Josef Stalin took power in the twenties right through to his death in 1993. It is estimated that during his rule from executions, starvation and war dead the number rises to almost 43 million lives lost.
There is a hotel in St Petersburg where Hitler planned to have his party celebrating the conquest of Russia. He had invitations printed with both the time and the place.
St Petersburg is actually a series of islands that hold some 5 million people. During the war there were 1500,000 shells lobbed at it during the siege. They removed all the paintings, furniture and chandeliers from museums and palaces and transported them inland. Hitler’s troops tried to destroy any vestige of the Russian culture.
It is interesting to note that a large portion of the art we viewed here and around Europe has a religious theme. Huge cathedrals have been built and everything from tapestries to paintings to sculptures reflect interpretations of the bible. Yet not many people go to church anymore. Hmm.