Our Trip to the Baltics, Part IX (St. Petersburg – perhaps the end)

I realized that there is no need to discuss each day, each site, each meal in detail, so I am ending (at least for now) the write up of our trip with a description of a view incidents and impressions that I think might be of interest.

First, the Russians we spoke with are quite pessimistic about the direction of their government and the future of their country. Recognizing that they have free speech and freedom of movement that they did not have previously, they do not think that they are living in a democracy or that there is any prospect of Russia becoming truly democratic in the near future. For the average person, even in St. Petersburg, probably the second most prosperous city in the country, good housing and good wages are hard to get, although the people on the street certainly look prosperous enough, and the shops and the restaurants don’t look like they are hurting.

Second, when you go to the major tourist sites, the crowds are astounding – I am thinking of places like the Hermitage, Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin. These are not museums where you have the ability to wander around at your leisure; there are large and small groups waiting to get into each room, and wherever you are, there are multiple tourist guides (virtually all women) giving the same talk, in varying languages, to their groups. And the tourists seem quite diverse – Russians and Europeans and Japanese and Asiatic types of unrecognizable obvious ethnicity. Surprisingly few Americans.

Third, that the traffic really seems to vary from time to time. I have written about the heavy Sunday traffic we came in contact with on our first day in the city – the night time traffic, on the other hand, seems relatively quiet, except for the ocassional drunk (I assume) driver, bounding around a corner at 11 p.m. at some Formula One speed. The cars seem for the most part to be in good shape, except for the occasional Lada, Russian made, which all look like they were just retrieved from the junk yard, even if they are only a few years old. They tell me that Ladas are still being made and they are cheap. Not only that, but that they are sold throughout Europe. Hard time believing that one.

The young Russians that we met seem to have traveled through the country, at least to Moscow, on a regular basis, and perhaps have been on a trip or two to somewhere in Europe, but they clearly are not world travelers. Most learn English in school, so language is not a terrible problem, although most are not particularly fluent in it.

Certain museums seem to be less well attended by tourists, but should be visited more often – such as the Russian Museum, which displays Russian art from icons through the entire twentieth century, including a wonderful display of socialist realism art. And certainly the monument and museum dedicated to the Nazi siege of the city. And the Yusupov Palace, with its oriental room, its internal concert hall/theater (plush with a deep stage, orchestra pit, and velvet seats and velvet covered balconies), and its exhibits dedicated to the murder of Rasputin, which took place in the palace in 1912.

Being an American tourist is pretty easy, I think, particularly if you take the time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, so you can sound out words – on signs and in restaurants and hotels, many of the Russian and English words are closer than you may think.

At the Hermitage, the rooms are as much the attraction as the art and artifacts in the rooms – the wall and ceiling treatments, the light, and the inlaid parquet flooring. Although there are extensive grounds, and small buildings of varying design set on paths and lakes, the rooms are the biggest attraction at Catherine’s Palace, including the famous Amber Room, the original of which was dismantled and stolen by the Germans during the war and never recovered (it probably no longer exists), but which has been completely rebuilt by Russian craftsmen. At Peterhof, it is the palace as well as the grounds,the gardens, and the many fountains, which extend to the Baltic, and the outbuildings. These are all enormous properties. You need to see them to appreciate their scale, and to see how different the lives of the Russian royal family and nobility were from those of everyone else.

One of the most ornate buildings on Nevsky Prospekt is the Singer building, built in the early twentieth century by the Russian branch of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, its ornate design is a visual treat. For decades, during the communist years and after, it has housed the Dom Knigi, the city’s largest book store – three stories of every type of book (mostly in Russian, of course) that you can imagine. I was in this store in the 1970s, and back again this year – then it looked like a basic book store, with little in the way of design, but now it looks like a top notch shop like you would find in major cities throughout the world. Not that Dom Knigi is the only book store on Nevsky Prospekt – there are several, new and used, which would put any American city to shame. The Russians must still read a lot of books. Not only are the shops there, but they seem to be packed with browsers and purchasers. An extra treat at Dom Knigi is the second floor cafe and sandwich shop, run by famed St. Petersburg chocolatier Chocolonitza, where you can get coffee, tea, pastries, chocolates, egg dishes, salads and sandwiches, while you look out the massive windows across Nevsky Prospekt to the Kazan Cathedral.

We visited the large Choral Synagogue, an attractive and quite large building, with a separate smaller chapel and a wedding chapel, and heard an interesting presentation from a young woman who works as a guide at the synagogue. Interestingly, she is from Yaroslavl, and old Russian imperial city, and is a convert to Judaism. It is hard to tell how many Jews live in St. Petersburg – this is the only synagogue building, it seems, although there are several smaller congregations that meet in homes, apartments and the like. The estimates of the population range as high as 100,000, or as low as 30,000. Most are not affiliated with a synagogue or the community – and it certainly depends on how you define someone being Jewish. It’s not like the old days, when your nationality was printed on your internal passport, and having Jewish as your nationality was a detriment, and whether people today are still avoiding being labeled Jewish, or embracing it, is a matter of debate and discussion.

There is so much more to write about in St. Petersburg, and perhaps I will now and then. But for now I will leave it here, and move on…….

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