Novgorod: the medieval origin of Russia

October 26, 2017

When the alarm erupted at 5:30 AM, I popped out of bed, but it didn’t feel good. I needed to catch a train to Novgorod at 7:25 AM! To where? You say? This post is for you!

After a hurried breakfast of tea and pretzels, I tossed my things into my bag (which seemed harder to close than before) and lugged the roller bag down two flights of stairs to ground level. I had planned it out in some detail with the hotel concierge; I would run next door to the Lady of Kazan, flag any bus or trolley other than Bus 22, then get off when I see the tall pole with the star. I popped on board the first bus, but my metro system card produced a red ‘X’ on the contact. I popped back off the bus at the next stop. I started jogging down the street toward the train station, but then another bus heaved into site. I popped on board the bus. The red ‘X’ sent me right back to the street. I then just jogged as fast as I could with the roller back until I reached Ploschad Vosstaniya, with its high star guarding the train station. I entered at the proper place for “suburban trains” and found the track with ease. The train let us on board with around ten minutes before departure, and I dozed off soon after we pulled away. The train was considerably more placid than the tiger that hauled me from Beijing to Shanghai; it tooled along at a leisurely 100 kph, at best. The temperature outside hovered near freezing, never getting above 3 degrees Celsius. In less than three hours, I was at Novgorod.

Why Novgorod matters

Where did Russia start? Some will mutter about Slavs or Scythians, and others will darkly mention the Vikings. Most will assume that Moscow was where this spark first ignited. Moscow, however, developed in prominence quite late in the game. (I will leave Kiev aside, since it is in the Ukraine.) Novgorod (specifically Velikiy Novgorod) was a town that developed on the Volkhov River just to the north of Lake Ilmen. Different groups in the area had sparred over time, but they decided to band together and call in a prince named Rurik from the Vikings (Varangians) to rule them. Rurik started a dynasty that ruled until the 17th century. The “Tale of Past Years” was compiled around 1113 to chronicle the history of the “Kievan Rus” from 850-1110, and it provides this telling. To see where much of the culture that dominated Russia for centuries began, one must come to Novgorod!

I spent my first day steeped in the religious culture of early Russia. The “Rus” were Christianized late in the tenth century when Vladimir the Great was baptized, and Novgorod became the seat of a bishop. The first (wooden) cathedral built in Novgorod lasted only about fifty years before burning down, but the current stone cathedral was completed in 1050. Let me repeat that: the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Novgorod was completed 967 years ago! It is the oldest Russian Orthodox cathedral still standing.

My first day


The fortified wall of the old city

Happily, Novgorod lies near the route from St. Petersburg to Moscow. I decided to spend a night in the city; because of the train schedules, I arrived around 10:30 AM on a Thursday and left around 9:00 PM on a Friday, traveling overnight to Moscow.  Walking from the train station to the Novgorodskaya Hotel was no problem, even with my roller bag towed behind me and a chill breeze blowing.  From there, it was a quick hike to the historic center of town, which is enclosed in a kremlin (fortified walls, or detinets).  Having passed through those gates, I soon saw the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom on my left.


St. Sophia

When I say cathedral, many readers probably think of a Gothic construction like Notre Dame. Keep in mind, though, that the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom had been standing for about three hundred years when the last features were completed for Notre Dame. The concepts of Gothic architecture didn’t exist when Holy Wisdom was built. From the outside, you might think it’s a bit small to be such a significant church. It’s 38 meters high on its highest dome, while Notre Dame features towers that are 69 meters in height. Holy Wisdom was built with older engineering tools in hand, and that meant that its floor space is pocked with columns subdividing its space. The main nave is separated into three bands from the altar to the back, with each of two rows containing four columns. Since the light from side windows is blocked by columns, the church relies on dusky light filtering down from the domes, high above. It gives the interior an almost brooding feel.

Holy Wisdom does not allow photographs of its inside, so I will draw from those I can find online to describe it. The altar is a solid screen of icons, with Jesus painted in the middle with “clothes” of gold over him. Saints and angels to either side all face inward toward him. The principal icon I saw on display was Our Lady of the Sign, which dates from the first half of the 12th century.. The icon is a little disturbing to look at, for me, because it appears to have suffered an awful restoration attempt in the 17th century. The relic that most drew my attention, however, was the Novgorod Cross, a heavy stone artifact in an alcove of the church. The carving was divided into five zones, with a crucifixion scene in the middle. It seems like a massive object from another time. I hoped to find a replica at the gift shop, but they had only a small marble one that might be too big for my stuffed bags and a small silver one that was a bit expensive for a whim. I was a little surprised I could not find anything more than a silhouetted of that cross on the net!


The Church of the Transfiguration sits in the middle of a grassy lot, with just a sidewalk leading to its entrance.

I had high hopes for the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior. The church, built in 1374, was frescoed by Theophanes the Greek in 1378. Theophanes was one of the greatest icon painters of Russia (though he was born in Byzantium). There are very few fragments of his work remaining in the world, though. I walked the kilometer or so over to Ilyina Street. The wind was really howling, and the temperature was still close to freezing. I was glad that I had tucked my scarf and hat into my backpack!

When I arrived at the church, however, I saw a sad sign on the door. When the humidity gets too high, the church closes its doors to protect the precious art inside. I walked around the church, noticing the crumbling walls. I am glad the World Heritage Site is assisting this city to protect its history. I kept hearing a rattle off to the side, so I looked in the direction of the neighboring church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign (1686). The rattling came from the wind bouncing the metal sheets that had been bolted to its roof to protect the church.


This “ruin” has a lot of life left in it!

I took a closer look, sure that the building was in ruins. No! Its doors were still open! I walked into its main entrance and saw that walls and roof had been covered liberally in frescoes. I paid the entrance fee and was stunned to see how the 17th century colors played throughout that nave.

Yaroslavl’s Courtyard: outside the kremlin walls


I am standing next to the monument for the Hanseatic League.

I trudged back toward the river, this time stopping at the area informally called “Yaroslavl‘s courtyard.” Back before Germany existed as a united country, several of its regions had banded together in a trade network called the “Hanseatic League.” Novgorod was the northeastern-most of the cities in the League, and that history has led to funding from the Hanse Organization to restore this area!


This Russian Orthodox take on the Last Supper was restored in the 1990s.

I visited a small museum in the St. Nicholas Cathedral (1113) that showed how much the area had changed over the last hundred years or so. I was glad that some of the original art and structure for this church could be brought back to the modern world.


Yaroslavl’s Courtyard, as seen from the bridge connecting the area to the kremlin (on following morning)

The Archbishop’s showcase: The Faceted Chamber


The Faceted Chamber Museum

I returned to the area around Holy Wisdom, and I decided to enjoy one last museum, the Archbishop’s “Faceted” Chamber. It turned out to be much more developed than the museum in St. Nicholas, with a wealth of religious treasures to showcase within a building created by the fifteenth century Archbishop Evfimii II as a visual illustration of the power of the church.


Ribbed ceilings in red brick (before plaster was added)

The architecture of the Faceted Hall was quite nice. I liked a ribbed brick ceiling that had been plastered and painted (each layer was visible). As I passed through the building, I think I snapped a photo of each original fresco I observed. It was in Novgorod that I learned of the Ostromir Gospels, the earliest dated book in the East Slavic language. They were created in 1056 or 1057, and they are apparently kept at the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg. This will not be the last item that makes me hope I can return to that city!


I don’t know what its purpose is, but I know it is beautiful!

Some of the last treasures, in particular, really took my breath away. I have seen many icons that had “clothes” of gold or silver and jewels atop an otherwise indifferent painting. The final room of the museum, however, showcased a cover for a painting that was around eight feet in height. I checked the caption to learn that it was a silver sheet that had been gilded, but still, where did all this silver come from? The lovely processional crosses, Bible covers, priestly garments, etc. were quite an eye-opener.


Given the mass of gold, I imagine this book required a cart for transportation.

My first day in Novgorod was quite the contrast with St. Petersburg.  A town settled in the ninth century is going to show lots of differences from one created in the eighteenth, after all.  I was really pleased to see that Novgorod’s historic and architectural treasures are being protected for the future.  I was impressed by the effort that had been put into making the city accessible for tourists, with a well-equipped information booth, a sign-posted “museum city,” and some eye-popping items on display.  During my visit, it seemed that most of the tourists spoke Russian.  Over time, more foreign guests may come as more people become aware of the richness of this “first city” of Russia.  For me, Novgorod seems key to understanding the origins of Russian culture.


St. Petersburg: jeweled eggs and ships of war

October 25, 2017

I had to make some tough decisions on how I would spend my last full day in St. Petersburg. Would I take a hydrofoil over to the Peterhof, Russia’s answer to Versailles? Would I take a suburban train to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo? I decided against both since I didn’t want to work the logistics of getting to either, and opulent palaces depress me; imagine if that money had created a network of high schools instead? I opted instead to visit two local museums: the Faberge Museum at Shuvalov Palace and the Central Naval Museum in Truda Square.


Our Lady of Kazan

Since Faberge opened at 10 and the Navy opened its doors at 11, I started walking east around 9:30 AM. I decided to pause at the Kazan Cathedral since I had a spare moment. The magnificent building has a splendid colonnade arc framing the central cathedral that reminded me of St. Peter’s square in the Vatican (the model of the architect), though obviously on a smaller scale. When I walked in the door (there’s no admission fee), I saw the sign barring photography and sighed a bit. It’s an active church, and I understand the tackiness of disrupting devotions with camera flashes.

In many respects the cathedral’s raison d’être is to house an early copy of the Kazan icon. This icon, discovered in 1579 after a fire razed the city of Kazan (east of Moscow, north of the Caspian), is credited by many faithful as the Holy Protectress of Russia. As I wandered the insides of the cathedral, I saw a consistent queue of parishioners waiting for their chances to pray at the icon and to kiss it. The tourists mostly seemed quiet after being shushed at the entrance. I could hear a priest intoning words in a sonorous bass voice. I decided to buy a small copy of the Kazan icon to accompany the Nevsky icon I bought at the lavra.


The Shuvalov Palace is the perfect setting for a decorative arts museum.

I continued to the Anichkov Bridge and turned north, and I found the Faberge Museum easily. When I paid the entrance fee, the security folks pointed me to the cloak room to divest myself of the backpack and don baggies over my hiking shoes; everyone must do his or her part to protect the floor! I was really stunned by the beauty of the palace in which it is housed. The restoration is first-rate. I borrowed one of the guide books in English so I would know what I was seeing. The first couple of rooms were something of an appetizer, featuring work in silver that had been produced in service to the court. I loved a little sleigh drawn by to horses.


Seven of nine eggs at the museum: Rosebud, Imperial Coronation, Cockerel, Fifteenth Anniversary, Bay Tree, Order of St. George, and Chanticleer (not Imperial)

When I entered the “blue room,” it was clear I was in for something special. This collection includes nine of the Imperial Easter Eggs. The “Coronation” egg is probably the best-known, containing a small model of the coach in which the tsar arrived to receive his crown.  Of course, there’s a lot more to see in the museum. I really liked a picture frame cut from rock crystal, and there’s a lovely pendant featuring aquamarines around a massive rose-cut diamond. The enamel work was also outstanding! During my visit, the museum had a temporary exhibit on Russian Orthodox icons, which seemed helpful given my exposure to the Kazan icon that morning.


Not only the eggs shine at the Faberge Museum.

I wandered in the direction of the Naval museum, but I broke up the long walk to the southwest by stopping twice, once for a bookstore (where I acquired postcards and a book on the Romanov ruling family) and once for lunch. I chose to eat the The Idiot Restaurant. The menu tells a humorous tale to relate the restaurant to the author of The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but I couldn’t really discern whether the story was tongue-in-cheek or not. While ordering, I tried to get a glass of kvass, a traditional drink made from rye, but alas, they only carried it in summer time. When my meal came, I was surprised to discover that they include a shot of vodka with every meal! As I ate my parmigiano and mushroom tagliatelle, I kept eyeing the shot glass with suspicion. Having finished my meal, it was still there, staring back at me. The waitress was there when I decided to gun down the shot. POW! After I downed it and started feeling the burn, the waitress pointed urgently to the slice of lemon. Yes, the lemon helped.


The view across the water toward Au Pont Rouge shopping area

I continued on to the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was murdered. When I got there, the ticket seller was unhelpful, and she only wanted the 700 RUB (!) entrance fee. I handed over my credit card, but she decided without trying it that it wouldn’t work and insisted on cash. I walked away instead. The stories about Rasputin’s assassination seem pretty untethered to fact, and the Palace benefits from heightening that mystery.

From there, I had only a short walk to the Central Naval Museum. The entrance fee was also pretty high, at 600 RUB, but it’s an established museum with a long track record. The museum roughly divides into two areas, a cavernous space featuring naval history from ancient times to Peter the Great’s era, and a series of roughly 20 rooms that consider the navy fielded by Russia over time.


The botik of Peter the Great shaped his future when it was rediscovered in 1688.

Of course, you know that my chief draw for the museum was to see the boat in which Peter the Great learned to sail! The St. Nicholas was built in the 1640s for Peter the Great’s grandfather and was moldering at the Izmaylovo Estate when a sixteen-year-old Peter discovered it. He asked for help from a Dutch seaman who taught him how to sail against the wind (not possible with Russian ships of that era). His intense love of ships grew from that discovery, and at one point the boat was displayed at the Peter and Paul Fortress with the words “From the amusement of the child came the triumph of the man.” The boat took part in many state events thereafter. Today, Peter the Great’s boat is one of the first things a visitor to the Central Naval Museum sees!


Torpedo guts!

I’ll be up-front with you. The Central Naval Museum is a tough visit if you don’t read Cyrillic. Perhaps you are the sort of person who likes little wooden models of sailing ships. Perhaps you spent a fair amount of your adolescence building tiny plastic models of military equipment. Perhaps you’re curious what the inside of a torpedo or depth charge looks like. If these describe you, this museum is going to be a winner for you. I was very, very sad that I couldn’t find an English translation or even Latin lettering until I was halfway through the museum. I could sound out a few of the names, and I could get other terms by context. For example, the earliest part of the history hall showed an oar from a twelfth century viking ship. Some of the models were really impressive, such as one showing the Admiralty at a time when it was hosting multiple ship-building crews simultaneously. I also got a kick out of a two-person submarine on the upper level of that big hall. Even if I couldn’t read details there, I was still impressed with what I was seeing. I see from the website that English tours are available for groups of five or more, but I would happily have settled for a little book like the one I toted around the Faberge Museum.


Память means “in memoriam.”

The History of the Russian Navy was easier to follow because each room had a brass plaque to contextualize what I was seeing, and a few of the rooms had computer terminals that would provide an English summary plus photos of exhibited items (albeit without English captions). The descriptions were a bit weak on detail. For example, what were the circumstances of the battle in the Russian-Japanese War featuring the Varyag? Why did Port Arthur and Vladivostok require defense in that war? The computer describes the Battle of Tsushima as “one of the most tragic and heroic pages in the history of the Russian Fleet,” but one needs to know some external history to realize that two-thirds of the Russian Fleet was sunk in one battle in 1905!


World War II rocket artillery

My attention really came together when I came to the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II). Suddenly Stalin was everywhere, and hammer and sickle flags were on display. I saw a strange-looking rack in the corner, and then I pulled to an abrupt stop. It was a Katyusha multiple rocket launcher! Those things were the bane of the German Infantry in World War II. By war’s end, 518 batteries were in service.


It’s so stark that it immediately arrested my attention.

As I moved into the Cold War part of the museum, I entered an altogether different mood. This was the stuff of my nightmares from when I was a child. Sea-launched ballistic missile submarines, the heavy cruiser Kiev, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, rocket powered torpedoes, and supersonic cruise missiles. I left that hall thinking, “the world survived that. It looked like disaster was coming, but the world survived that!” Even a more than two-meter high head of V.I. Lenin couldn’t bring my spirits down!

My walk back to my hotel was in brilliant sunshine as the sun was no longer masked by clouds. I inspected the bronze doors of St. Isaac’s Cathedral (modeled after those of the cathedral in Florence), took another photo of Peter the Great’s monument, and paused to photograph a memorial to the siege of Leningrad during World War II.  I paused in Palace Square as the sun descended toward the horizon.  I spun in a circle with my camera, taking it all in, one last time.


Palace Square is glorious in sunlight!

Just before dinner, I bough an oil painting by Ivan Kapitonov at a boutique near the Church on Spilled Blood. It will remind me of this city I love.


I took a little bit of St. Petersburg home with me!

St. Petersburg: the Communists make their move

October 24, 2017

Americans can be forgiven for thinking that the Communist revolution centered on Moscow, but in fact St. Petersburg was home to some of the most intense conflict surrounding the 1917 revolution. Remember that it was the capital under the tsars, not Moscow! I used my penultimate day in the city to retrace some of the key events leading to the Bolshevik takeover.


Part of the twelve colleges complex

Since I had a little time before museums opened this morning, I decided to take a walk over to Vasilevskiy Ostrov, the largest of the islands in the mouth of the Neva. My particular target was to see the “Twelve Colleges.” In the States, we think of the executive branch of government being divided into departments, each headed by a secretary in the Cabinet. Peter the Great sought to modernize Russia’s government by replacing the older prikazy system with one where nine colleges would handles areas such as Justice, Revenue, Commerce, etc. These administrative groups would be housed in the set of twelve college buildings he created all in a row on the island, and they would be joined by the Senate, the Synod, and another ministry for trade. The buildings, finished in 1744, are a lovely baroque style.


Mikhail Lomonosov is the Russian Benjamin Franklin.

I mentioned visiting the grave of Mikhail Lomonosov yesterday, and I was pleased to see his statue relaxing just outside the Twelve Colleges. From there, I wandered to the point of the island facing the rest of the city. I walked past three “fifth-wheel” trailers parked in a row. I look forward to sharing the photo with my aunt and uncle, who remodel antique camping trailers.


Hi, Aunt Joyce!

I also saw the old stock exchange, which again looks worse from the back than on the side facing tourists. The antique Rostral Columns, which once served as lighthouses, are still impressive. Giant figures at the base symbolize the four major rivers of Russia, the Neva among them. Ships’ prows point out the sides of the columns in a sort of ladder.


The Artillery Museum

My walk next took me by the artillery museum, on the near-land side of Rabbit Island (dominated by the Peter and Paul Fortress). As I passed the massive artillery pieces, I tried to figure out which kind would have been pointed at my father had fighting re-erupted in Korea while he was stationed there. Soon after that, I had arrived at my destination, the Museum of Russian Political History. As usual, I had arrived early, so I paused for twenty minutes on a convenient bench. As the hour arrived, a group of primary school children in reflective vests arrived, and they happily clattered into the building as the security guard opened up.


The mansion doesn’t look much like a Communist landmark, does it?

This museum is located in a building that seems far from the Communist ideal. It was a gorgeous mansion! Prima-ballerina Mathilda Kshesinskaya had the home constructed in 1904-1906 in an Art Nouveau style. It included a grand hall where she occasionally rehearsed before a big show along with the normal rooms of an affluent mansion. Her talent in the arts brought her to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II in the three years before he married (starting in 1890), and his favor led to her being advanced in her career. As sentiment in St. Petersburg became increasingly revolutionary in 1917, she decided to move away in February of that year, moving to France in 1920. Her home was occupied by soldiers and soon thereafter by revolutionary organizations, particularly the Bolsheviks (they had formed relationships with many of the enlisted men in the armed services).  Her story is told in the 2017 film, “Matilda.”

The museum bridged the Kshesinskaya mansion with the Brandt mansion behind it during the 1950s, and more recent work has modernized the facility to a great extent. While I found the flow through the museum a little confusing (the wings told separate stories from the core of the building, so one moved upward rather than outward), the material seemed well thought-through, though it occasionally assumed visitors had a bit more information than the average American might know, (Do you know who Sergei Kirov was? Do you know why he was assassinated? I didn’t.)


The Decembrists, rendered in cut paper

It was helpful that the museum walks visitors through the nature of the discontent with the Tsar. A childlike model visualizes the 1825 Decembrists’ occupation of Senate Square. They exhibited the clothing of a man shot down in the 1905 Bloody Sunday incident (which took place in a plaza next door to the museum).  By the time an empire uses its military against large-scale protests, the end is not far away.  the wall featured a full-scale recreation of a portrait of Nicholas II with bayonet tears gouged through it. The teenage dream of Tsar Alexander I to transform Russia into a constitutional monarchy (start of the 19th century) might have succeeded before all these disasters took place.


National emblem from the House of Soviets (Moscow)

When revolution came, a strange three-body dynamic formed. The Tsar abdicated in favor of his brother, who also soon abdicated. The Russian Provisional Government claimed control over all the government offices and military forces, but the Communists gained credibility day by day until the military only nominally answered to the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks suborned all the other Communists until they were powerful enough to launch a successful coup against the Provisional Government. Suddenly their message of “we will create a paradise” had some rather serious teeth!

A real highlight of the museum comes from the fact that V.I. Lenin made real history right in the house. His “April Theses” were announced in the mansion on April 4, 1917 just after he arrived. He wrote around 170 works between April and July of that year, working from a table that has been returned to the place where he used it.


It’s just a table, but what a history!

That room featured a small balcony, and Lenin frequently made speeches to crowds gathered below from the balcony. The room now features a painting of his oration from that window! Meetings of the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party took place in the large room downstairs where the dancer had practiced her moves. It felt a little spooky, frankly, to stand in that space. I am glad that the Kshesinskaya Mansion has been restored to be essentially as it was historically rather than being turned into exhibit space. Being in Lenin’s old office is powerful in an almost opposite way to what I experienced in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which was constructed in the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.


Lenin’s balcony, as seen from below.

I did find some inspiration in this museum. I loved this quote from the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersberg (1990): “Any enterprise should begin with a human being and not with a government decree, any project should end with a human being. Legal rights are nothing more than a necessary means of maintaining order in society, not an instrument for turning a human into a cog in a machine but for addressing the early concerns of an ordinary person. A legal state begins with understanding this simple truth.” (Anatoly Sobchak, The Road to Power) I popped over the gift shop to buy a folder full of Soviet-era propaganda posters entitled Vice, Get Out!. A fair number of them focus on abstaining from alcohol!


Solovetsky Stone Memorial

I went to the park next door to acquire some photos of the mansion and its balcony, and then I headed to what was once Revolution Plaza (now called Trinity Park). A large boulder, called the Solovetsky Stone, stands as a monument in the plaza to victims of political repression.

I stopped at a cafe on a side street. At first, I thought I couldn’t eat there since the menu wasn’t in English, but then another customer stepped up to translate. I ended up with soup, salad, a full plate, and tea. Another customer stepped forward to help me with the tea urn. This city shows real warmth to visitors!

[The following section has been borrowed from October 21, 2017.]


The Aurora

I turned my sights east so that I could visit some sites relating to Russia’s revolutionary history. The Aurora is permanently moored at the site where a river empties into the Neva nearby. The Pallada-class cruiser had seen action in the Russo-Japanese War, but it was returned to Russia at the end of hostilities. The ship was undergoing major repair in 1917 as the population of St. Petersburg grew in revolutionary fervor. The ship’s crew joined the side of the revolt, and the ship’s captain was killed when he tried to halt their actions. This ship fired a blank from its forecastle gun on October 25th, 1917 (old calendar) to signal that the assault on the Winter Palace was to begin. The October Revolution had officially shifted from speeches to action.


My photographers were a bit shocked that I wanted a picture with the statue.


This engine pulled Lenin into town on two occasions.

I continued east, walking across the Sampsonlevskiy Most (bridge) along the waterfront beside a major highway (the Pirogovskaya Nab). At last I reached the Finlyandskiy Station, or Finland Train Stration. At first, this might not seem a tourist hotspot, but the site didn’t make it into the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” for nothing! This is the train station where Lenin arrived in Russia after his exile in Switzerland. The plaza to the south of the Station features a massive (and famous) statue of Lenin giving an impassioned speech before a crowd of workers.

I requested permission to see the Lenin train, and a station worked telephoned for backup. The security person introduced herself and guided me onto the train platform. We walked over to the east side, and there, encased in glass, was engine 293 with its coal tender. It was hard to believe I was looking at a train that twice had shipped the famed revolutionary to Russia (Lenin had been forced to flee to Finland during the “July Days“).

After that satisfactory moment, I retired to a side street to enjoy some California rolls at a sushi restaurant. I was surprised that they recognized that term but not “maki,” another common type of sushi.

[…and now we return to October 24, 2017.]


Tauride Gardens

For my last act of the day, I decided to find the building that had served as the first seat of government for the Bolsheviks after their coup. I had become confused between the home of the provisional government (before the coup) and the home of the Bolshevik government (after the coup).  I set out for the Tauride Palace, only later realizing I needed the Smolnyy Institute instead.  I took the metro to the Cherneshevskaya to take in the sights. Sadly, the nearest metro stop is quite some distance from both those buildings! I trudged over to the Tauride Gardens, and I am glad I got to see them. The grounds a truly lovely. Heavy clouds had been threatening all day, and a few drips started hitting the ground. When I was standing in front of the Tauride Palace, I got the sense that I was in front of a government institution, and I wasn’t even sure that photographs were allowed!


Smolnyy Cathedral

I continued heading east, since I had suddenly realized the Smolnyy Institute was just south of Smolnyy Convent, a major religious structure to the east of central St. Petersburg (I had seen it far off in the distance, looking like a wedding cake, since it is quite tall). My reasonable walk to Tauride had become an unreasonable walk. I was happy to photograph the Smolnyy Convent, and when I reached the Institute to its south, I knew I was in the right place!

A quote from Karl Marx spanned both halves of the entrance gate. Halfway down the drive, I encountered a bust of Marx facing a bust of Engels across the road, almost as though they were still locked in conversation. When I arrived at the security gate for the Institute, the security guard allowed me to take photographs inside the gate, so long as I didn’t approach the building. Both Tauride and Smolnyy would be obvious candidates for running a government since they’re both mammoth structures.  I learned, in retrospect, that this is where Sergei Kirov, a rival for power among the Bolsheviks, was gunned down.


Panorama of Smolnyy Institute facade

I opted to trudge back to the metro by a different route. Suvarovskiy Prospekt took an awfully long time to bring me back to Nevsky Prospekt, though. I was compelled to stop at the halfway point back to eat a chocolate cake at a bakery. It only rained on me a little bit. I hopped on the subway for the last leg back to my hotel.

St. Petersburg: The docs on the Orthodox

October 23, 2017

Today I tested the hypothesis that I would eventually grow weary of looking at churches. My methods subjected the test subject to continued exposure, with sites selected from those available near the historic center of St. Petersburg. My results suggest that David does not weary of church observation, though his feet tire easily. In conclusion, I claim that Dave has an unorthodox interest in ecclesiastic architecture and art.

I awoke before 7AM, a first for this trip. My plan for the day began at the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra (a lavra is the most important class of monastery in the Orthodox tradition; Russia contains only two lavras). You may have heard the name Alexander Nevsky from the eponymous film made by Sergei Eisenstein in 1938, designed to whip up Soviet antagonism against the rising power of the Germans (and against the Catholic Church). Nevsky himself was a thirteenth-century prince of Novgorod and then grand prince of Vladimir (he won this title by betraying his brother). He paid tribute to the Golden Horde (the northwestern sector of the Mongol Empire) in order to save his military strength for use against the Germans and the Swedes. His fame largely rests on two chief battles: the Neva Battle of 1240 against the Swedes (from which he took his name) and the Battle of the Ice on Lake Peipus against the Livonian crusaders of the Teutonic Knights (both battle sites are within a few miles of present-day St. Petersburg). By keeping Russia’s borders secure, he protected the Russian Orthodox faith. His reputation, unlike that of St. Wenceslaus, stems from military prowess and prudent conciliation.


Nevsky stands guard at the SE end of his Prospect.

Because my feet were grieving me, I opted to take the subway line to the monastery. The process was reasonably painless. I bought a card for 90 RUB ($1.50) and then I charged it with ten subway trips to be used over the next 7 days (355 RUB). Unlike other subway systems I have used, St. Petersburg drove its metro system very deeply underground. The escalator ride down took almost as long as the subway ride itself! One of the books I found on St. Petersburg commented on the Soviet-era artistry that has largely been left in place down there, and I did glimpse Lenin giving an impassioned speech from one of the stations I visited today. In any case, I rode my two stations to the southeast to reach the far end of Nevsky Prospekt (the lavra originally gave the road its name– interestingly the road ran through deep woods and was scourged with packs of wolves for its initial few years). I came above ground to see a mighty statue of Alexander Nevsky, dressed as a medieval Rus warrior atop his horse.

I walked through the lavra gate and into the grounds. The centerpiece of the monastery is pained bright yellow, with two large square towers and a large, round cupola. The ground was still frozen from last night’s chill, and the sun had just begun to rise. When the bell tower of the church rang the quarter hour, it was a special moment. I snapped a few photos and entered the church.


The central church of the lavra

Because no photos are allowed in the church, I will need to point you to some online images instead. As may be obvious, my goal was to find the chapel in which Nevsky’s relics are retained. Nevsky’s remains were, for a time, stored in a massive reliquary made from a ton and a half of silver, but the Communists moved the reliquary to the Hermitage, leaving his remains in a more ordinary silver box (yes, I am kicking myself for failing to see the reliquary when I was there the day before). When I found his chapel at the lavra, it was flanked by an Orthodox monk who was intoning from a beautiful book. From time to time (especially for the alleluia) he would break into song, and the pilgrims standing in the audience would join in. I recorded a few moments of it so you could hear it.

I noticed something odd about the Russian Orthodox churches that coincided with what I’d seen at the Peter and Paul Fortress Cathedral. In this and other churches I visited today, there are no pews to be seen. As one might imagine for Orthodox churches, I see an almost continuous line of icons at chest height around the perimeter of the cathedral. I was surprised to see that several of them had what looked like dish towels beside them. I’m guessing that the glass over the icons gets smudged by continual kissing! The long beards and different robes distinguished the images of the saints from what one might see in a Catholic church. I stopped at the gift shop and bought a small icon on Saint Nevsky to remind me of this special place.


A place of chilly tranquility

The lavra is also known for its cemetery, which was the place to RIP during the eighteenth century. I spent at least half an hour exploring the main cemetery behind the cathedral, hoping to find some of the famous people buried there. It’s a peaceful place, despite the traffic noise on the other side of the wall. A little chapel overlooks a pond surrounded with gravestones. I kept trying to decipher the names of people I knew to be buried at the monastery from the map at the front gate, but my Cyrillic skills were not up to the task. Eventually I asked some folks for help, and the second someone gave me good directions despite our inability to understand each other’s language.


Tchaikowsky’s final resting place

I was in the wrong cemetery! On the entrance path to the lavra, there are gates to the left and right. These represent the famous people burial plots (in the “necropolis of Art Masters” and “necropolis of the 18th century”). I paid the 400 RUB entrance fee and enjoyed strolling among a truly amazing collection of classical composers; Tchaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky, and Glinka all rest here. I entered a small exhibition hall and found a charming collection of statues managed by the State Museum. They had models of large-scale sculptures across the city, and the exhibit even had an interactive map to show their locations.


The dapper Domenico Trezzini designed the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

I crossed the lane to visit the 18th century necropolis and spent a moment visiting with Mikhail Lomonosov, who discovered the atmosphere of Venus and the law of mass conservation, and with Leonhard Euler, a mathematician of staggering importance. I hadn’t even realized that the Swiss thinker had visited Russia, but he is buried here (I later learned he spent most of his adult life here and in Prussia). A burial vault in the corner opened at 11AM, and I was able to see some of the well-preserved burial markers in this space. Some of the piecework in marble was really amazing.

It was a morning well spent, and I resolved to waste a bit of my afternoon shopping in a district off the tourist trail. My target was the Sennaya Ploshchad (Plaza), but I wanted to take in a couple of churches to its south and west. Since I was so close to the train station, though, I decided to stop to purchase train tickets for the next to legs of my trip (down to Velikiy Novgorod and then on to Moscow). To power my stroll, I bought a bit of fried bread that turned out to contain onions and dill. It chilled rapidly in the cool breeze, but I felt good about my adventure in street food.

Buying tickets turned into quite a taxing ordeal. I waited twenty minutes in line for the chance to talk to an agent for long-range trains. When I arrived, she didn’t even try to communicate with me about the tickets I needed. Instead she wrote “4” on a piece of paper and gestured pointedly at the corresponding booth. I then waited another twenty minutes in a different line to reach booth four. I spoke with a Spanish journalist in the line about my trip. I reached booth four, and the young woman was able to say a few words. I conveyed that I needed to go to Velikiy Novgorod on October 26th, and she denied that I could buy the ticket at long-range trains because it was classed as a suburban train (it’s a two hour train ride). It didn’t seem to matter that I had been directed to long-range trains to buy the ticket. As for the ticket I needed from Novgorod down to Moscow, no such train appeared on the system. I began to get shirty. The Spanish journalist came to check in and intervened in time. The agent for booth four left to do a consultation. When she returned, she was able to find the train from Novgorod to Moscow, and I acquired it for 819.70 RUB ($14.20 USD). It took me forever to find the suburban train ticket desk because it was surrounded on three sides by construction. When I reached the desk, the clerk didn’t speak any Russian, but she still managed to get all the information she needed by writing bits of information on her sheet of paper and holding it against the window. For 579 RUB ($10.07 USD), I had my ticket to Novgorod. I felt victorious in the face of an uncaring system!


Love those blue domes!

I didn’t have a firm location for the first church on my list, the Trinity Cathedral. My eye had been caught by the lovely sky-blue of its domes, and they were even sprinkled with stars! I took the subway to Pushkinskaya, and I ended up walking much more than I’d hoped to find the church. Again, I could not take pictures inside, but I enjoyed learning a little about the story of the church. It suffered a serious fire in 2006, during the effort to rebuild it after Communism, and the main dome and a smaller one both collapsed. The building is once again intact, and the inside was pretty, if a bit more barren than other churches I’d seen.

I was glad to find an informal street market right outside the church, and as I exited the church to start looking for bargains, the clouds opened up, dropping tiny hailstones that bounced off the ground and then melted. The shopping tents all started folding up in unison. Instead of shopping, I headed north to my next stop, the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral.


Canal intersection near St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral

St. Nicholas has a strong link with the Russian Navy; for years it was called the “sailor church.” As I walked the last few yards toward the church, I was reminded of St. Petersburg’s nickname as the “Venice of the North” when I crossed a canal that intersected another canal at right angles. The city requires quite a few bridges to navigate all the different channels of water that have replaced the marsh that existed here long ago! I only saw St. Nicholas from the edges of the park surrounding it. It’s also a pretty blue color, but it’s not the nice shade that I saw at Trinity!

When I reached Sennaya Ploshchad, I was pretty disappointed. My tourist map had shown the district to be a pedestrian street only, but the plaza has two really heavy car intersections in it. Instead of finding a plaza filled with booths selling this and that, I saw crosswalks where hundreds of people contended with streams of cars. The outside of the plaza was lined with small shops. I decided to pause at one to have a late lunch (it had already come to 3PM)! Natasha reminded me that Russian food is a perfect match for the Dave since it involves a fair amount of frying and dough. I enjoyed some stroganoff with vegetables to dip in humus along with some juice. Then I marched to the northeast to shop!

If I wanted to buy cell phone accessories, the shops I found would have been ideal. I visited a sporting goods store to get some new laces for my hiking shoes, but they, like everyone else, didn’t sell shoelaces. As I continued on my way, the area ahead started looking a bit dodgy, so I headed north on Lomonosov only to discover that I was merging into Nevsky Prospekt right beside the Cathedral of our lady of Kazan (essentially next door to my hotel). I must say that Kazan looks rather unappealing from the backside. The city definitely pays more attention to the side the tourists see on this and other monumental buildings.


The Irrepressible Ekaterina II

I bypassed it to visit the statue of Catherine the Great. At first, a pigeon had decided that the top of her head was the ideal resting place, but I decided to wait him out on a nearby bench. I had hardly sat down when the bird scuttled off. I jumped off to fire photos of the statue along with the lovely Alexandrinsky Theatre behind it.

Did I have room for one more church? I did! I headed north to see the Church on Spilled Blood. Even though this church has a very striking appearance (almost like Ivan the Terrible’s church in Moscow), I had held off seeing it up close. I saw the heavy maintenance work taking place on its main spire and even questioned whether it would be open for business! As I came close to it, though, I felt excited about it. The detail work on its exterior is just amazing. Maybe I should see the inside, too! Happily, I was there an hour before closing (well, 5:11 PM). I paid my 250 RUB and popped inside.


Feeling sanguine at the Church on Spilled Blood

Imagine every Sunday School story from the Bible come to life, thrown through a Russian Orthodox imagination, then picked out in fine detail through mosaics ON EVERY AVAILABLE SURFACE? It’s really quite overwhelming. The team that began renovation on this church in 1993 went to incredible effort. I kept discovering new details, even when I sat down on a stool (there weren’t many of them) and stared at the same wall.


Art in every direction

I liked that when I stared upward in the four small spires at the corners, I could see a mosaic face staring back at me! When I saw Moses with the Ten Commandments picked out in little tiles, I chortled to myself about “Mosaic Law.”


Peering straight upwards into the spires gives you a little reward!

The Church (of the Savior) on Spilled Blood, of course, has a story, and it’s an unusual one. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was traveling by carriage along the embankment of the Griboedov Canal when an anarchist tossed a bomb at the carriage. He missed, but the tsar got out of the carriage to yell at him! A second conspirator tossed a second bomb that mortally wounded the tsar and killed the bomber. This church was built not as an ordinary church but rather as a permanent testament to the murder of Alexander II, on the site of this attack. Of course, the Communist Revolution did not feature a lot of people who loved the Tsar, and it wasn’t known for its love of religion, either. Revolutionaries ransacked and looted the structure, and it was closed in 1932. During World War II, the city was under siege by the Nazis, and the building was used as a morgue. Twenty-seven years were required to restore the mosaics and the exterior, and more time was required to build new “Holy Gates” for the relics. I was pleased to see St. Nevsky playing a prominent role on one of these barriers (to the left of the shot below), neatly book-ending my day!


Holy gates

Having visited the site of five different churches in one day, I was ready for dinner. I sat down with schnitzel and some jasmine tea, and all was well with the world.


St. Petersburg: no seclusion to be found at the Hermitage

October 22, 2017

When National Geographic named the top ten museums and galleries in the world, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage was an obvious inclusion, alongside the Smithsonian and the Louvre. Why does the Hermitage rank so highly?

Mammoth collection
With more than three million items, visitors can look for a lifetime!
Historic setting
The museum encompasses nearly all the buildings on palace square, including the Winter Palace that gives it the name.
Charismatic founder
The original museum collection was the personal collection of Catherine the Great.
Intense draw
Almost all of the art comes from outside Russia, so locals can sample the world.
Rare collections
If you want to understand the Golden Horde were more than barbarians, the Hermitage collection is the best!

St. Isaac’s Cathedral


Nicholas I, rampant!

St. Petersburg is a late riser on the weekends, so I had a couple of hours to kill before the 10:30 opening hour for the museum. I walked past the Admiralty to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The building’s columns loomed above me on this gray morning. I certainly hope I will get to see its massive interior on this trip. To the south, I enjoyed a massive equestrian statue of Nicholas I in St. Isaac’s Square. It seems very dynamic since the massive horse and rider are balanced on only two hooves.  It seemed well-framed by the government offices in the Mariinsky Palace behind it.  As I trudged back toward Palace Square, I was happy to find a whimsical monument of Peter the Great building a boat; it celebrates friendship with the Netherlands, whose citizens taught Peter quite a lot about ship-making.

I arrived at Palace Square by 10 AM, and I saw that the great outer gates had been opened. I joined the line, and we marched in toward the entrance, where we waited another half hour. I chatted with some Thai visitors behind me in line. Once 10:30 arrived, the guards began allowing groups of perhaps twenty people in at a time. People who already had their tickets, however, bypassed the line and simply walked in. I should have acquired mine the day before!


The gates of the Hermitage / Winter Palace

At long last I was allowed into the bedlam of the ticket hall and coat check. I was allowed to pay the 700 RUB entrance fee by credit card because I had my passport on hand. After spending a half hour waiting for the museum to open, a half hour before my group passed through the doors, and fifteen minutes in the coat check line, I was free to wander through the museum!


Peter the Great’s Preobrazhensky uniform

Climbing the monumental staircase in the Winter Palace entry feels rather epic. The simple scale of the floors, the light pouring through the windows, and the blue and gold trim of the stairway were designed to awe the visitor. The following rooms maintain that scale. The Small Throne Room (Room 194) is lined with red velvet with silver-threaded double eagles. A small nave at the far side features a lovely painting of Peter the Great and a small throne. Room 195 (Armorial Hall), is the second largest in the palace, and I was astonished to see the outfit I most associate with Peter the Great, his officer uniform for the Preobrazhensky Regiment. In my imagination, I had expected it to be fitted for a giant, but then Peter I was just over two meters in height.


The back wall of the Great Church

The next room to knock my socks off was the Great Church of Room 271. Such light! So much gold! It was sumptuous. I was pleased to have the room almost to myself, but then a massive tour group arrived en masse. I felt a panicky need to get away from the crowds. I burrowed into remote exhibitions that were not yet overwhelmed with people. I was thrilled to find a dark corridor that was nearly free of people, and it seemed every portrait was one I had seen before! Enrico Belli’s portrait of Peter the Great was there, as was Fyodor Rokotov’s portrait of Empress Catherine the Great. The pair appear on essentially any biography of these two figures.


The library also features a lovely stair to its second floor.

As I wandered, I encountered the personal library of Nicholas II (the last tsar), and I felt immediately at home in the space, which was decorated in an English Gothic style. It felt like something out of a story book.

I tried to find some of the artwork that my Eyewitness Guide to St. Petersburg had mentioned. Frustratingly, the pieces were frequently not in the locations given within the guidebook. I did find a statue and bust of Voltaire, and they were very impressive. I searched in vain for “St. John the Divine in Silence.” Michelangelo’s “Crouching Boy” was as enigmatic as promised. I was frustrated when a pair of girls tried at least ten snaps for the perfect selfie with the statue. Then a tour group mobbed the statue. I never got a good look at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna Litta” because the tour groups queued up, one after the other, to mob the small image. Titian’s “St. Sebastian” was lovely, though the details were a little hard to make out since the image is so dark.


Houdon’s Voltaire

I wanted to see the distinctive collection of artifacts from ancient peoples of Russia, so I headed downstairs for a look. I saw collections from the nomads of the Altai (a region of Siberia between Mongolia and Kazakhstan), Uzbekistan, Volga Bulgaria, and other regions surrounding the Black Sea. It was important to see people from the end of the first millennium brought back to life. Fragments of their clothes, their weapons, and plenty of horse gear were there to be seen. I was surprised how affected I felt by the funerary masks in the collection. When the collection moved forward in time to the early medieval period, I saw items from the “Golden Horde” that really challenged my naive view of the Mongols as warriors with little culture of their own.


Reconstructed costumes from Arzhan-2 barrow (mid-7th century)

Even though my feet were grieving me, I didn’t leave the museum. Instead I ventured into a bit of the palace that I hadn’t seen. I was wowed by a half-size recreation of a roman mosaic floor. Oddly, the space seemed to work quite well for a massive mechanical golden peacock clock that has an animated tail and neck (the video of it in operation is quite stunning!).


Even a cover of a classic can be a lovely song!


Dave with mighty Jupiter

On my way out, I happened to walk through the antiquities wing, and I was bowled over by the massive statue of Jupiter from the first century AD. I didn’t even come up to his knee when I stood beside the pediment. I also passed through the special collection of Egyptian artifacts from a museum in Turin. I love Egyptian archaeology, but my brain was rejecting further inputs. As is traditional, I paused to rub the toe of one of the 5m statues at the old entrance to the Hermitage, and I made a wish!

I was not feeling athletic or creative in my lunch, in large part because it was three in the afternoon. I stopped at Burger King. I am pleased to report that St. Petersburg knows what it means to produce a large drink (South African chains routinely hand me a cup that looks suspiciously like a medium).

My ticket for the Hermitage was not only good at the main museum but also at the General Staff Building, which houses additional paintings, including their substantial Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections. I was pleased to discover that the museum was considerably more modern inside, with well-designed flow and support services (it was certainly a more efficient cloak room!).

In the remaining time before they closed (6PM), I mostly visited their fourth floor, which focuses on Impressionism and its aftermath. From the map (which they offered in English, unlike the main museum), I thought the French impressionists I love most were all in room 430. In fact, the very first room I visited was dominated by my favorite artist, Claude Monet. They offered around ten of his paintings, if I recall correctly. I asked for some help getting a photo of myself with his paintings, and my helpers struggled with the fact that stabbing the shutter button down on my Canon EOS M doesn’t take a photograph; the camera’s focus is so slow that it cannot shoot on that time scale.


Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.

I enjoyed the Picasso and Van Gogh collections. In particular, I enjoyed a Picasso oil titled “Absinthe Drinker” and a related pastel titled “Absinthe.” I don’t remember ever seeing these elsewhere. His self portrait in ceramics was also very clever. Kandinsky has been a bit inaccessible to me in the past, but I spent some time with Composition VI, and I decided I rather like it.


Kandinsky can-do!

I was passing through the third floor on my way out at closing time when I saw a dress that gave me a serious double-take. I saw a green dress titled “uniform costume of Empress Catherine II.” Could this be the real thing? Catherine the Great became the ruler of Russia essentially through a coup d’état against her husband, Peter III. Part of her appeal to the soldiers who supported her was her expression of unity with them, even having dresses made that looked like their uniforms! The dress I saw dated from 1775, however, and her coup had taken place in 1762. She probably had continued her effective tradition in later years!


Catherine II “Uniform” and Life Guards Regimental uniform

With that happy discovery in my mind, I tottered back to my hotel room and climbed into bed.

St. Petersburg: the Greatness of Peter Romanov

Over the next several posts, I will be telling my story of two weeks in Russia.  While I will stick with the essential chronology of my trip, I will also do some amount of reorganizing to group related parts of my visit.  A visit to St. Petersburg must start with the story of one of the most visionary leaders to have shaped Europe: Peter the Great.  I hope you’ll enjoy it!

October 19-20, 2017

The big day arrived! I packed my medium 26″ roller bag with my hiking shoes, sneakers, and shiny dress shoes. Do Russians like their conference speakers to be formally dressed? I tossed in a couple of ties, as well, just in case. The taxi arrived for a drive time that would get me to the airport before Cape Town rush hour hit its peak.

The drive to the airport would have been no big deal except for a gang-related shooting at the drop off area on the morning of October 18th. My taxi driver reported that the area had been crowded with police all through that day. My drop-off, on the other hand, was completely uneventful. I saw a couple of police officers, but otherwise nothing seemed out of place.

My flight path to St. Petersburg ran through Dubai, because the tickets purchased for me used Emirates Airline. It’s been a good option in the past, and this time I was able to supply my South African Airways frequent flier ID to get some credit for the trip (the two airlines are both part of the Star Alliance). There’s not a lot to differentiate a flight with Emirates Airline from a flight on British Airways, but there are a few characteristic features. Their flight stewardesses have stylish veils that are part of their headgear. Every movie begins with an advertisement for cultural events and hotels in Dubai, and they advertise very upmarket watches. I was delighted to discover both my seats were on the aisle. That mattered particularly for the first leg, taking off from Cape Town at 8:05 PM and landing at 7:25 AM in Dubai (this is much faster than the flight straight to London). While in Dubai, I traded 500 Rand I had brought with me from Cape Town to Russian Rubles. Google tells me that I should have received 2105.47 RUB with a market exchange rate and no commission. Instead, I received only 1210 Rubles and 3 UAE Dirham in change. I bought a cup of tea with cardamom from the change, easily the most satisfactory aspect of the trade.

The St. Petersburg airport seemed much like any other airport, though the lines for passport control took some time to pass. I was still worried that something wouldn’t be accepted about my visa, but I need not have worried. The officer’s only question for me related to the airport from which I had flown to St. Petersburg! Collecting my luggage and passing through customs was similarly straightforward. I opted to use the taxi desk to pay for my taxi into town. I like using public transportation, but in this case I would have needed a bus followed by the subway to make the trip. I put a 2000 Ruble charge on my credit card and breathed a bit easier ($35).

As the taxi left the airport, I breathed a deep sigh of contentment. The fall colors are on full display in late October! I don’t often think about trees in South Africa unless I’m talking about one of the non-indigenous pines or eucalyptus trees. There’s still plenty of stands of trees near St. Petersburg, though. The airport is south and west of the city proper, and all along the drive east I enjoyed the sights. Then we turned north, and almost immediately we were surrounded by city. As a tourist, I spent almost all my time in the historic center, but the drive in reminded me that the city has more than five million inhabitants, bigger even than Cape Town. It’s not really a city that has turned to skyscrapers, either, so a visitor sees medium-height buildings throughout.

I had decided to stay at the Abajour Nevsky, a small hotel right in the heart of the historic district, since I like to do my tourism on foot. Its street address, in fact, is right on Nevsky Prospect, the road sloping south-southeast from the Admiralty. From the cab, I walked through a gateway into a courtyard off the main road. I found the right door, but it took me a while to figure out that I needed to dial “20” to reach the hotel itself. I trudged up two flights of stairs and was checked in right away. The only thing on my mind at that point was to get a proper shower! There’s nothing like living in a city under extreme drought conditions followed by an overnight flight to make me crave lots and lots of steaming water!

I didn’t want to try any serious exploration as sunset arrived, so I simply walked down Nevsky Prospect a few blocks until I found the “Manneken Pis,” a somewhat Belgium-themed pub. I enjoyed a draft Estonian “black currant” cider with chicken ratatouille. For once I followed Natasha’s adage that you cannot call it dinner unless it has something green in it!

October 21, 2017


Bronze of Peter the Great’s head, from the Moscow State Historical Museum

I framed today’s journey on Peter the Great, the emperor of Russia who decided that Russia would create a “Window on Europe.” Just over three hundred years ago, St. Petersburg was a frozen marsh. Within Peter’s lifetime, however, the area had become Russia’s imperial capital. At the start of the eighteenth century, the region of “Ingria,” connecting Lake Ladoga to the Gulf of Finland, belonged to the Swedish Empire. The Great Northern War, however, wrested this area to Russian control. Peter the Great began building his city on this site to anchor his control over the area.


The Eternal Flame

I walked north from Nevsky Prospect to reach the river Neva. I passed by several worthy sites, such as the Cathedral of our Lady of Kazan (next door to my hotel), the Russian Museum with its statue of Pushkin, the Mikhailovskiy Castle, and the “Field of Mars” with its everlasting flame commemorating the victims of violence in St. Petersberg. I reached my first goal site of the day at 9:40, but it didn’t open until ten. I had reached the Summer Garden!


Small Orangery in Summer Garden

Many visitors to St. Petersburg visit the Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum, but the Summer Palace gets far less attention. It was a lovely, quiet start to my day. Peter invested considerable effort in the garden, with whimsical fountains, quiet walkways, and statues from his own personal collection. I enjoyed the orangery, imagining Natasha happily planting another box of greens. Soon enough I found the Summer Palace. It’s a tidy little white building with mythological scenes sculpted in brown panels on the sides. It’s hard to imagine the Emperor of Russia holding court in such an intimate space. The insides were in renovation during my visit, but I still enjoyed the visit.


The Summer Palace hardly looks like the home of an emperor!

The summer palace was built very early in St. Petersburg’s history, but Peter built an even earlier home here! I headed across the Trinity bridge to cross the Neva River. It crosses at quite a wide point, and I received my first view of the Peter and Paul Fortress, to the north, and of Vasilevskiy Island, to the west. On the north side of the river, I walked through a small park where dozens of high-schoolers were raking leaves into piles. I saw the massive and lovely blue Sobornaya Mosque, and I looped back to the edge of the Neva to find the cabin of Peter the Great.


How else do you preserve a cabin from 1703?

For 200 Rubles (bless the ticket booth attendant for offering me the student price, though), I got to visit the building. It’s a bit confusing, though, because the cabin is encased within a modern structure. The new structure is in pretty rough shape, with peeling paint, but once I was inside I saw that it is doing its primary job of protecting the log cabin Peter lived in during a few weeks of 1703. The furnishings of the cabin are visible through the windows, and tourists are kept from entering or otherwise touching it. I also got to see a boat that Peter had built for himself. I enjoyed imagining Peter strolling up and down the shore of the Neva, imagining what he would create in his newly conquered territory.


Why settle for a plaque when you could get a bust instead?

[I have excised a tangential hike for later discussion]

Instead of descending to the subway like a sane person, I began trudging west on my tired feet. I didn’t stop moving until I had come back west to the Peter and Paul Fortress.  I wanted to see the cathedral and the city of St. Petersburg history museum, so I bought the all-museum ticket for 600 Rubles. I paused for half an hour at the Museum of Space Exploration and Rocket Technology, where I learned the history of Valentin Glushko, the Russian father of jet engines.


The Peter and Paul Fortress, as seen from the Trinity Bridge

As I walked to the main square of the fortress, I was presented with a lovely view of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, crowned with a gilded spire that can be seen for miles. I entered the Cathedral and was surprised to see that its nave had been emptied to make room for tourists who visited the many tombs of the royal family. I spent a moment at grave number one, that of Peter the Great himself. His is unique in that it features a bust of the sovereign.


The Cyrillic letter “Pe” looks like a pi.

When I examined the map of tombs, I was in for a double surprise. Catherine the Great is also buried in the cathedral! I spotted her resting place in the row behind Peter’s. The other surprise I alluded to is that post-Soviet Russia relocated the remains of the last royal family, that of Nicholas II, to the Catherine chapel within the cathedral. I paused for a moment at its entrance.

From there, it was a short walk to the museum of the history of St. Petersburg. I was surprised how much this museum packed into its space. Many of the individual exhibits have only Cyrillic descriptions, but at least each room had a full-page panel in English to help foreign visitors. I enjoyed the maps showing the early development of St. Petersburg, and the eighteenth century anchor in one room just dwarfed everything else.


The platform where the Decembrists were sentenced is out of shot, to the left.

I was in for a bit of a surprise when I reached room 11. St. Petersburg had a substantial population of military men, and when discontent with autocracy grew during the nineteenth century, secret military societies began plans to overthrow the tsars in favor of a different system. On 14th December of 1825, three thousand soldiers launched a revolt in Senate Square (next to the Admiralty). When the “Decembrists” had been put down by artillery, the leaders were arrested and interrogated in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Room 12 of the commandant’s house (now the history museum) was where judgment was passed on the Decembrists, with several sentenced to execution. The room has been arranged just as it was on that day, with a raised platform where the rebels stood when sentenced.

The remainder of the museum was generally more cheerful, celebrating the development of Nevsky Prospect and describing the improvements to the city over time. The installation of city-wide plumbing and electricity was more problematic than one might imagine. To this day, visitors to the city receive recommendations not to drink the tap water! The last room of the museum is more somber, though, as it shows a diorama of a mansion in the city being attacked by Communist protestors with red banners.


I will have much more to say about this mansion a couple posts after this one.

[I have borrowed the following from October 22nd.]

Just to the west of the Admiralty, I came to two impressive buildings forming the western edge of Senate Square. The first was the Manege Central Exhibition Hall. The double structure of the next building reflected its dual role as the home of the Senate and the Synod, representing worldly and ecclesiastic authority, respectively. This square continues the story of the failed “Decembrist” uprising. The rebels were hoping to acquire power from the top by staging their revolt here.  Senate Square has changed its look quite a lot since the nineteenth century, though.  The area looks more like a park, with trees enclosing quiet paths on the side closest to St. Isaac’s Cathedral.


Senate Square is now a quiet park!

Senate Square was on my list so that I could see the massive Bronze Horseman monument that Catherine the Great erected to her “ancestor,” Peter the Great. I was pretty amazed by its appearance; the horse is mounted above a massive plinth of rock called the “Thunder Stone.” Seeing the snake (Sweden?) trampled beneath the horse was a very romantic image.


This monument also bore witness to the Decembrists!

I stopped by the stand of a painter who was outside in the cold with me, and I acquired a small watercolor of the Bronze Horseman. He named the buildings on the Vasilevskiy Island shore facing us, and I paused to capture images for a panoramic photo.


South waterfront of Vasilievsky Island

Ultimately, the greatest monument to Peter the Great is not a bronze or stone or wood artifact from another age.  It is the city of St. Petersburg itself, which owes its life to this determined man.  His vision opened the eighteenth century in a startling new direction for Russia.  This city continues to be this nation’s welcome to travelers from the West.

Russia: acquiring a tourist visa for the world’s largest country

June 22, 2017

139_logo_clinprot_180My inbox held an email from a researcher I met in Austria. Her Institute of Biomedical Chemistry in Moscow was co-organizing ClinProt2017: a meeting on “Post-Genome Medicine” to take place during October 30-November 1, 2017. The conference would pay my travel; could I attend the meeting and deliver a talk? Did I want to visit Russia for the first time? You bet!

Over the next few days, we agreed that I would expand this opportunity to visit St. Petersburg and Novgorod by train before continuing to Moscow for the conference. I was thrilled that the conference would fly me in through St. Petersburg and back from Moscow.  All I would need to field was the train ticket cost.


I recently worked with Tiaan Heunis and Anzaan Dippenaar at Stellenbosch University to publish a “proteogenomics” investigation for tuberculosis. In brief, we used genomic sequencing information alongside proteomic tandem mass spectrometry to identify strain-specific differences in M. tuberculosis microbes that had been cultured from the lungs of patients in South Africa. I agreed with the organizers that this work would be ideal for my talk at the conference.

I’ve built a long-lived interest in quality control for proteomics. With my friend Xia Wang at the University of Cincinnati, I’ve published a variety of papers looking at large-scale data sets from the CPTAC initiative at National Cancer Institute. More recently, I became the chair of the Human Proteomics Organization (HUPO) Proteomics Standards Initiative (PSI) working group in quality control. As a result, it made sense for me to teach a two-hour workshop for this subject at Moscow. This wasn’t a task that they asked of me; I volunteered. At base, I feel that they’re going out of the way to help me by funding this trip, and I want to give them full value. It did, however, add some strain to the weeks before I left for the trip, though.

July 18, 2017

My United States passport from 2013 was the standard issue: just 28 pages. After visas from China (twice), Brazil, and South Africa (each requiring two pages), plus many other stamps, I was almost below the required number of blank pages for adding another visa. I checked on the possibility of adding more pages to my existing passport, but the United States no longer does that. Instead I needed to order a fresh passport. The new one would automatically be the larger size (52 pages) since I was ordering it from a foreign country. I decided to add a passport card as well; while I cannot use it to travel by air, it would come in handy if my passport were ever stolen.


On July 18th, ordering the new passport required that I drive down to Tokai, a southern suburb of Cape Town. The security there is a bit involved. The security started at the parking lot, when they wanted to see inside the trunk (“boot”) of the car. I left my keys and phone with the security office and headed down to the office. It wasn’t very busy, so I was up for my interview in no time flat. I was surprised to recognize the consular officer, since I had met the staff at a voters’ instruction session at the American Corner. After a brief chat, I left my paperwork with the consulate and hit the road north.

I was really excited to see my passport was ready for me to pick up on August 1st. I was a little hesitant, at the same time. My temporary residence permit for South Africa was in the 2013 passport. Any time I left South Africa, I would need to carry both passports so that I could get back in! Just the same, I was about to leave for my vacation to Durban-Lesotho-Bloemfontein, so I felt it would be good to get the first stamps in the book before my use of it in Russia.

The final piece, the passport card, was not ready when I picked up my passport on August 1st. Instead, I had to wait for notification on August 24th that the passport card had arrived. I picked it up on August 29th, the same day as my dress rehearsal for the Cape Town Chamber Choir concert!

September 27, 2017

The last week of September ran by in a bit of a blur. To apply for a tourist visa to visit Russia and attend the Clinical Proteomics 2017 conference, I needed a whole series of documents:

  • A completed application form
  • A photograph of my face against a light background
  • A passport with at least two blank pages
  • Confirmation letters from the conference and each hotel
  • An itinerary for transportation to and from Russia
  • An application fee of R980 ($72.50 USD)

My packet began forming on September 5th, when the conference organizers sent me a letter confirming my invitation to the conference and another letter from the travel agency confirming my reservation at the conference hotel. On the 13th of September they completed the purchase of my flight reservation, flying into St. Petersburg and out of Moscow (I will purchase my train ticket to take me between the two cites once I am in-country). The next steps, though, depended upon me! On September 20th I made reservations through for lodgings in St. Petersburg and Novgorod. Two days later I made a hurried correction; I had reserved a room for the night of September 26th rather than October 26th! With these in place, I was ready to apply for my visa.

Grappling with the application itself was surprisingly onerous. One item that left me a bit bewildered was a question on whether or not I had any training relevant to chemical or biological weapons. My doctorate in Molecular Biotechnology seemed relevant, even though we focused on preservation of health rather than its destruction! Further, I had collaborated in research to detect pathogens on the battlefield while a post-doctoral researcher. The other issue I encountered was the personal nature of some questions. Once I answered that I was divorced, for example, the site questioned me about the date and place where my ex-wife was born. It all felt quite intrusive.

With my application packet forming up, it seemed time to check in with the consulate for any missing paperwork. I learned that they were downtown, just a few blocks south of St. George’s cathedral, where I had sung with my choir a few weeks before. I dropped by the office before going to UCT on the morning of Tuesday, September 26th. Gratingly, I learned that I was not permitted to enter the elevator up to the consulate without an appointment on the books. I called the consulate, but they replied only that I would have to call them after 2PM in order to discuss the matter.

Naturally, I tried to use the website to get an appointment on the books, but the website insisted that my application number was invalid (even though I could log into the application editor to see my responses without a problem). When I spoke to the consulate on the phone that afternoon, however, they set up an appointment for 9AM, Wednesday the 27th. The person I spoke with also reaffirmed that the consulate expected to see a confirmation letter for each hotel where I would stay, not just the one in Moscow (I had interpreted the directions to limit the confirmation letters to just two).  No, a letter from was insufficient; I needed a stamped confirmation letter from each individual hotel.


Confirmation letter from Novgordskaya Hotel

A feverish evening passed. I was able to speak to the hotel in Novgorod by phone via some credit with Google Hangouts. They had their confirmation letter to me before bedtime on Tuesday the 26th! The hotel in St. Petersburg, however, was more challenging. I reached them on the phone a couple of times, but the same woman answered both times, and she spoke only Russian. She still managed to give me an alternative number, perhaps for someone who spoke English. I never understood the recorded message on that other line. I asked the conference planners to intercede for me, and they assured me that the hotel would put its confirmation together for me as soon as their office opened on Wednesday morning (8AM, South Africa time). I found their confirmation letter in my mailbox just after returning from the copy shop with my confirmation letter from Novgorod. I dashed back to the copy shop and printed the St. Petersburg letter and then dashed back to the Russian Consulate.

The visit with the consulate was quite uneventful. We had a moment of discussion about the need to document my health insurance. It was unclear whether my South African insurance (through Discovery) would be useful in Russia or not. In any case, it appeared that requirement applied only to EU citizens. I paid my application fee, accepted my receipt, and headed off for my day with UCT!

On October 2nd, I received a bit a jolt when the organizers sent me feedback on my application, contributing a new invitation letter and suggesting some revisions to my application. I started sweating. Would I have to start all over again with a fresh application? Happily, this was not the case, and I was able to return to the consulate on the morning of October 3rd to pick up my passport, with my shiny new visa in place!

In less than a month, I would be in Russia!