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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.