Tag Archives: Europe

Rivers and Agency in Pakenham’s _Scramble for Africa_

[The map above comes from the Atlas of British Empire.]

If humanity first developed on the continent of Africa, why was the continent so vulnerable to the greed of European nations during the Victorian era? How did the life of David Livingstone, inveterate explorer and ardent opponent of slavery, inspire European commercial interests to exploit forced labor on an altogether massive scale throughout the continent? The Age of Imperialism destroyed indigenous governments throughout Africa. Despite European claims that they were bringing the “three Cs” to Africa (Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization), it now seems clear these claims were just euphemisms behind which they hid robbery, barbarity, and subjugation.

Thomas Pakenham has authored three books on African history (The Mountains of Rasselas, The Boer War, and The Scramble for Africa). While he doesn’t have graduate training in history, his books have dramatized history for popular audiences. Having recently read Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa (1991), I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the work.

“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” from the French edition of Stanley’s book “How I Found Livingstone” (via Wikimedia Commons)

The book launches its story from the last years of David Livingstone, a missionary and explorer who developed a profound anger at the activities of slave traders. His 1857 speech at Cambridge resounded long after his death in 1873: “I go back to Africa to make an open path for commerce and Christianity; do you carry out the work which I have begun. I leave it with you!” His successors such as Henry Morton Stanley, however, drifted quite far from Livingstone’s humanism. Stanley was apparently born for confrontation, earning himself the nickname “Bula Matari” by his penchant to dynamite any rock in his way. This predilection extended to his treatment of human beings, too.

Image from Ernst Keil’s Die Gartenlaube, 1884 in Wikimedia Commons

Before reading the book, my vague understanding of the Scramble for Africa was that the “The Berlin Conference” (1884-1885) amounted to a conspiracy among European nations to parcel out the continent of Africa to zones where each had already established or intended to establish a colony. In the book, however, this conference is positioned in roughly the middle of the Scramble. The conference is cast as an effort to prevent tensions over acquisitions in Africa from boiling into European wars, with some nations playing their cards openly and others indulging in deceit. The book does a good job of illustrating why a crown domain (such as King Leopold’s special zone in the Congo Free State) was different from a federation (such as one where Britain handled international affairs for the Transvaal) or from the gradually solidifying trade relationships that predated the Scramble, such as between Britain and what is now the nation of Ghana.

The mighty rivers of Africa

The rivers of Africa were the points of entry for colonial powers. Created in R with Natural Earth and GGPlot

What I most needed to help my understanding of the Scramble was a proper river map of Africa. For a continent reputed to be dry, Africa has a considerable number of major water-courses, particularly in the sub-Saharan region. There’s a temptation for a modern reader of Pakenham’s book to ask, “in what modern country does this chapter take place?” Frequently, the place names are challenging to pin down to modern locations. I was confused for quite a lot of pages why British, French, and Belgian forces were all careening hell-for-leather to reach Fashoda, for example, when I could not place it on the map! Today it is the town of Kodok, in South Sudan. Its importance, however, stems from a marsh in the upper White Nile. Britain and France might easily have gone to war over its ownership, since Britain was determined no other nation would control the upper Niles while it controlled Egypt.

Image of Pool Malebo (sometimes called Stanley Pool) taken from the International Space Station

Americans are frequently taught that the Amazon River discharges more water to sea every second than any other on earth. The second-largest river on earth, however, is the Congo River. It was the site of a bitter rivalry between Henry Stanley and Pierre de Brazza, an explorer of Italian birth who worked for the French. Both were hoping to create a navigable channel from the “Stanley Pool” (now called Pool Malebo, with the capital cities Brazzaville and Kinshasa on opposite banks) to the Atlantic Ocean. True to his nickname, Stanley was blasting the lower cataracts of the Congo River with dynamite, while Brazza explored a route inland via the Ogooué River, flowing through what is now Gabon.

Dakar-Bamako railway map from Margaret O. McLane “Railways or Waterways: the Dakar Railway Network and the Senegal River

Before reading Scramble, I had never heard the name Gustave Borgnis-Desbordes, a French military commander tasked with establishing forts to connect the Senegal and Niger Rivers by railroad. (Awkwardly, Pakenham makes no mention of explorer Paul Soleillet, who had championed this railway.) The challenge of linking these two rivers fills me with awe. In the maps above, the Senegal and Niger Rivers appear quite close together, but of course river basins generally are separated from each other by high ground or even mountains. The French were making the best of their established position in Algeria and the Sahara; if they could link the two rivers by a railway across the desert, they would be able to reach any part of the Niger basin by navigating up the Senegal River instead. A route from the Atlantic Coast to the Niger River was actually completed, though not until 1923, running from Dakar, Senegal to Bamako, Mali on the Niger River; the finalized train route bypassed the Senegal River entirely! This theme of connecting river systems also explains why the Belgians (who eventually controlled the royal colony in the Congo) were interested in Fashoda on the Nile. If a reliable route could be found between the upper Congo and upper Nile, the interior of Africa would be ripe for exploitation.

This image from Wikimedia Commons illustrates the relationship between the Vaal and Orange Rivers.

If I may, I’ll highlight one more story about rivers, this time as borders. Sometimes South Africans will speak of the Boer South African Republic (1852-1902), but instead one generally hears the area called the “Transvaal.” This reflects that the Boers traveled across the Vaal River to reach an area beyond Britain’s claims at the Cape Colony. The Vaal River, in turn, is the northern tributary to the Orange River on the river map above. The Orange (or !Garib or Gariep) River is itself a national border between South Africa and Namibia. I had not realized just how suddenly Germany changed from its position that colonies were a distraction to claiming four areas of Africa as national colonies. Namibia and Tanzania are two that I have written about previously. Scramble had quite a lot to offer in explaining how the nations along the northern border of South Africa were established. Cecil Rhodes definitely comes across as a man who needed watching; his “adventures” launched any number of wars in Southern Africa.

Agency: Africans were not passive in the face of invasion

If one were to read Scramble for Africa inattentively, it would be easy to come away with the conclusion that Africans were bewildered and helpless in face of Europeans coming to plant a flag on a given riverbank. A closer look, though, shows many forms of effective resistance on display in even this Eurocentric account (many historians have commented on its weaknesses). I want to highlight a few of the African leaders that really stuck with me.

Cetshwayo spent 1879-1884 exiled from his Kingdom. British Library HMNTS 10097.df.8 via Wikimedia Commons

King Cetshwayo of the Zulu humiliated the British Army at Isandlwana in 1879. On many occasions, the armies of Europe failed to take seriously the African forces opposing them. To assume that African tactics were ineffective or that their warriors were cowards or fools was dangerous. To assume African soldiers were armed only with spears was foolish given that Europeans had been trading arms to Africans for more than a century. At Isandlwana, perhaps as many as 1500 British soldiers and support staff died because of the arrogance of Lord Chelmsford. Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa describes the Battle of Isandlwana almost entirely from the perspective of the British, doing little to let us understand the movements or motivations of the Zulu.

This 1896 image of Menelik II was cropped from an image in a 2016 Estelle Sohier paper from African Arts.

Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) successfully defended his country from an army of Italians seeking to colonize Ethiopia from the neighboring Italian colony of Eritrea. The Italians under General Oreste Baratieri had attempted to bait the Ethiopians into attacking their well-prepared lines, but then the Italians attempted to advance toward the enemy in a mist-shrouded night, precipitating the Battle of Adwa. 4000 Italian soldiers and staff died, and another 1900 were captured. Ethiopia is right to feel pride in avoiding becoming a European colony during the Scramble! Sadly, Mussolini decided to send Italian forces into Ethiopia during World War II, using chemical weapons to break resistance. Italian forces occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941, as a result. Again, Pakenham’s treatment of the Battle of Adwa emphasizes the foul-ups of the Italian troops rather than the careful maneuvering and preparation of the Ethiopian forces facing them.

Muhammad Ahmad of Sudan (1844-1885) came to be seen as the Mahdi for many Muslims in that region. His followers, the “Mahdists,” challenged Egyptian forces (led by British officers) in much of the upper Niles. The city of Khartoum, Sudan, sits at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, making it a key point for control of the river. As the Mahdists gained power, the British elected to withdraw many of their forces from the upper Nile, but Major General Charles Gordon refused to leave the colony he led there. The Mahdists laid siege to Khartoum, and British relief forces were unable to reach the city in time. Gordon’s death and beheading in 1885 represented a profound setback to British morale. For years, the Mahdists controlled the Sudan, though Khartoum itself was reclaimed by British / Egyptian forces under Kitchener fourteen years later. Pakenham makes clear that the Mahdist army was a substantial barrier to British consolidation of its Egyptian colony, but the only portrayal of events within the Mahdists comes from Rudolf Slatin, an Austrian soldier held captive by the Mahdists who had converted to Islam.

Image from p.16 of Timothy J. Stapleton A Military History of Africa, Vol. 1

West Africa presents us with at least three different empires that resisted the incursions of the French and British. The Tukolor Empire under Ahmadu Seku pushed west as the French were pushing east on the Senegal River during the 1850s and 1860s. They were problematic enough for the French that they used treaties to buy time for building up their forces. The Tukolor held substantial power until 1890, when the French obliterated their capital Segu with artillery. Three years later, the last rump of the army was defeated by the French. Samori Toure had been developing the power of the Mandinka Empire by purchasing firearms from the British. By the 1880s, his army of 30,000 soldiers had become a substantial force in the area, resisting the French push southward to link up with the Ivory Coast. The 1883 French occupation of Bamako gave their colony access to the Niger River. The Mandinka counter-attacked in 1885 to destroy two French forts built too far forward, and a treaty was signed to pause hostilities. Despite the treaty, the French came after the Mandinka again in 1891; the Mandinka had prepared by acquiring repeating rifles. Samori Toure and the Mandinka were driven steadily further east until they came up against the Asante, whose military conflict with the British I have discussed before. While the Tukolors and Mandinkas account for quite a few pages between them, the Asante Kingdom barely rates a paragraph in Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa. Essentially his only mention is that the British were intent on taking down King Prempeh, whose “bloodthirstiness” is taken as a given.

My assessment

I am glad I took the time to read Scramble for Africa at last. To read academic papers about each of the different conflicts that the Scramble entailed would take quite a lot of time, and Pakenham generally keeps the narrative flowing through nearly 700 pages(!). I would certainly caution readers that this book reflects an older style of historical narrative that largely ignores the perspectives of “the other.” Since its 1991 publication, we’ve had three decades of scholarly soul-searching and reappraisal. The notion of Africa as the “dark continent” has been brightened considerably by subsequent research. This may be one reason why the (racist) original subtitle of the book (The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912) has been omitted from later printings. Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa is a relatively easy way to get a grip on Europe’s sudden mania for colonies in Africa. Read it to understand the interplay of European interests. Read it to grasp the gestalt of “explorers” invading river systems across a continent. Do not expect, though, that this book will shed much light on the lives of the people most affected, the 19th century inhabitants of Africa.

Manchester on foot

An index to this series appears on the first post.

I was very fortunate to get a perspective on Manchester from a friend who had lived there for many years. My friend Paul, from the University of Manchester, displayed a great combination of knowledge and opinion about his city, supplying enough anecdotes of its underside to accompany the broader scope of wonder he feels about its history. I saved sixteen locations I visited in Manchester to a Google Maps list; you can view that here.

August 26, 2019

The Principal Manchester marks your entry to downtown as you head North on Oxford Road from the university district.

We started our tour by retracing my steps up Oxford Road from the day before. This time I paused to photograph the Principal Manchester, an Alfred Waterhouse design completed in 1895. I was strongly reminded of many buildings I had observed in Pietermaritzburg, also of the Victorian era. I was able to enter its magnificent lobby later in my trip and was surprised by a larger-than-life horse sculpture in metal under a massive glass dome ceiling. In contrast, the neighboring St. James Building, completed in 1912, adopted an Edwardian Baroque style with exaggerated column capitals. Architectural styles can change quite quickly!

I did not expect such a massive lobby space on the ground floor of the Principal Manchester!

Paul showed me an alley nearby that had frequently been used as a stand-in for 19th century New York. The nearby rail bridge presented a large arch, and an enterprising Mancunian [sic] had transformed this space into a pub dubbed “The Thirsty Scholar.” Apparently this use of bridge arches has become increasingly popular in Britain.

Emmeline Pankhurst was a passionate civil rights crusader.

Our pass through St. Peter’s Square returned to the central library, but this time Paul guided me to a recently-installed statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, a suffragette born in 1858. She led the “Women’s Social and Political Union,” a political organization branded as extremist radicals for their unwillingness to tolerate delays and excuses for denying the vote to women. I appreciated that the artist had modeled her to stand atop a chair to make her ardent appeal. Paul also pointed out a patched dedication stone at the central library, reflecting that someone had attempted to scratch “Ireland” from the title of George V. Paul noted that the honeybee is a mascot of sorts for Mancunians, a feature it shares with Utah; a colorful model nearly my own height stood in the central library atrium and at several other locations throughout the day.

The town hall (right) and its extension (left) dominate the center of the city. The Central Library is at the extreme left.

No walking tour of Manchester would be complete without a few different looks at the city hall. The town hall, completed in 1877, is a prototype of Neo-Gothic architecture in Britain. Its main structure features an impressive tower and a many-arched exterior; this part follows the pattern of many Victorian buildings.

The curvature of this town hall extension hallway matches that of the outer wall of the adjacent Central Library.

The extensions to this building, however, take their cues from other classes of buildings altogether. A curving hallway of public-facing offices and an extended lounge runs in orbit around the central library. This curved face is paired with starkly flat faces to the building where it abuts nearby plazas and the town hall itself. Viewed from St. Peter’s Square, the structure looks more like a modernist cathedral than an office building. The ground floor is open to the public as a library with standard-height ceilings; apparently the upper floors are administrative offices for the city. Two steep-roofed metal skybridges link this annex to the main structure of the town hall.

Distributing trainloads requires warehouses, and the Great Northern Railway constructed its massive facility near the center of Manchester.

As we turned south onto the A56 toward Deansgate from Peter Street (the A34), we passed the massive London and North Eastern Railway Goods Depot, a structure that striped an entire city block in red and white ranks of brick. The area was used to house goods brought from the rail cargo lines before they were transported to stores. Soon we reached Deansgate Station, an area dense with bridges and canals. It seemed that none of these routes met at right angles, so the metal arch buttresses were offset from each other to produce an eye-catching effect.

I love the pattern of arches for these angled bridges!

The Castlefield and St. John’s areas were home to two notable sites for tourists. I mentioned the Museum of Science and Industry in my prior post. The other was the remnant of a Roman fortification from the “Mamucium” colony. A variety of structures on this site guarded the area for a span of 330 years (~70 AD through ~410 AD).

The area near Deansgate has been occupied for more than 2000 years.

I tried to buy a hot chocolate at a coffee shop with some pounds contributed by my mother-in-law, but I was bewildered to hear that the pounds were an old type and were only exchangeable for new pounds at a bank. Paul and I found one right around the corner, and I soon had shiny new coins in my hand. Apparently the prior pound coin had proven itself relatively easy to counterfeit, and a substantial number of forged coins had entered circulation. I liked the new bimetalic pound coins.

A 1996 bomb at this site next to the Arndale shopping centre led to substantial investment in the restoration of the city center.

Our course continued east on the tony “King Street,” and the buildings were in much better nick than some of the soot-smeared structures we had seen in less-monied neighborhoods along the way. As we passed west of the Arndale shopping area, Paul pointed to a location where Irish nationalist bombers had detonated a device some years ago. A stylish footbridge, encased in a glass tube, had been constructed to guide foot traffic across the busy road beneath. With just a few more steps, we had crossed into Exchange Square, which is dominated by the impressive 1897 Corn Exchange building from the Victorian Era. The square is currently bisected by a blue wall to mask repair work for a water feature.

This originally served as a commodity exchange rather than a stock exchange.

The Manchester Cathedral, largely completed in its present form in 1506 (but containing stones dating as far back at 700 AD), was just north of the Corn Exchange. I spent a few minutes trying to get the ideal photo of the structure, but when we came to its open doorway, we learned that a church service was in progress, and tourists should steer clear. After seeing the cathedral in Seville, I would think any cathedral is smallish. The Manchester Cathedral, though, has invested in some lovely work along its exterior walls. I would really have liked to visit its interior as well.

Paul and I passed along Withy Grove, the road north of the Arndale Mall, and we stopped in at a small, odd independent bookstore with silly advertising. The first shopping aisle in the store was pretty conventional stuff, but as we turned the corner we encountered an equally large aisle crammed to the rafters with pornographic magazines from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I laughed and beat a hasty retreat to the other section. I found an inexpensive book titled Central Manchester Through Time for five pounds. I laughed again when I noticed the shopkeeper wrapped it in brown paper for its trip home with me.

Keeping just the facade from historic structures is one way to honor the past while preparing for the future.

We passed down High Street to Market Street, and Paul pointed to the interesting and intricate graffiti murals that occupied most walls in the square. We passed the former site of the “Wholesale Fish Markets” at Thomas and High Streets, facing a massive tiger mural. The developers in this area decided to retain the historic facade of the former structure but to build an entirely detached set of condominiums behind it. It was an interesting way to preserve the historic look of Victorian Manchester, I think.

Queen Victoria projects the weight of empire in this Piccadilly Gardens statue!

Interjection from July 29 (a return to this area)
On my way to a lunch with Profs. Anna and Rene, I paused at Piccadilly Gardens. It was loaded with relaxing people on this rare sunny day, and the fountains were full of children cooling off. The environment was not perfectly idyllic, though. Evangelists from a variety of religious sects (Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Hare Krishnas among them) were standing at every exit of the park. One church was setting up a sound system as I passed, with a camera readying to shoot video from a nearby tripod. A local warned me that the park is frequently home to drug dealers and drug buyers, so I did not linger. I did, however, try to take a photo of the imperious Queen Victoria statue there.

Turing and me? We’re alright.

Back to my July 26 walk with Paul
We soon passed the street leading to Piccadilly Station (a primary train destination), and we came to the Sackville Gardens. I had a particular interest in reaching this site because it is home to a statue of Alan Turing, one of a select set of researchers who can be considered a parent of computer science. Turing is also an important reminder that visionaries may be profoundly mistreated by their societies (see also Socrates and Galileo). In Turing’s case, the state ordered him to be chemically castrated after convicting him of indecent behavior (sex was illegal for homosexuals in the 1950s). Turing committed suicide soon after, and his conviction was only pardoned in 2013 (with a corresponding change of the law in 2017). I paused for a photo with his statue.

With that, Paul and I turned back to my hotel. We paused on the way at a massive statue devoted to VIMTO, a cordial drink that is very popular in Manchester (and was invented on Granby Row). We passed into the northeastern campus of the University of the Manchester, largely featuring buildings from the 1960s ad 1970s. Apparently the University is now discontinuing operations at this campus because it is somewhat removed from its other facilities. We also paused at a pub popular with graduate students of the University of Manchester. We each raised a pint (Paul a beer and I a cider) to a well-spent day on foot!

June 29, 2019

The somber altarpiece at St. Mary’s sets a mood.

On my map of the “Civic Quarter” of Manchester, I saw the “Hidden Gem,” the 1794 Roman Catholic St. Mary’s Church. I found my way into it from the South side, past a substantial construction site (the church is not visible from Dalton Street). The church offers a very distinctive set of modern paintings representing the Stations of the Cross. The altarpiece is somber and relatively modest, with statues in beige against a white background and relatively little gold trim. I couldn’t tell if the columns were real marble or simply painted to look that way. The light from the high cupola was quite pretty.

The city’s art gallery sits near the town hall.

With less than an hour left before closing time, I walked into the Manchester Art Gallery. Its special exhibition of pottery work by Halima Cassell was very lovely, with mesmerizing geometric patterns on spheres and bowls. The regular exhibits are a bit limited, I think, but I did see some paintings I really liked. My attention was drawn really strongly by “The Desert,” a massive painting of a male lion reclining, fully stretched out. I felt sad to learn that the artist had used a recently deceased lion from the zoo as his model for this and other works. In the next room, I felt moved by an 1856 painting from Adolphe Yvon. His work showed the leadership of Marshal Ney trying to keep his army alive as the French army retreated from Russia during in 1812. The painting that drew my attention in the next chamber was a bit naughty! “The Hireling Shepherd” used really vivid colors to capture a stolen moment between two young people who really should pay attention to their sheep-herding activities. The sheep are shown going into the corn and getting into other messes as the boy and the girl flirt with each other. As I exited the exhibit, I looked up to see the tall entry hall’s decorated walls. I took a moment to appreciate again that a civic museum could operate with no entrance fee and still offer free Wifi. I wish all cities were as civilized!

Manchester is not London, and that’s a good thing. The city’s industrial past meshes well with its hard-working present. If you are willing to put a couple of miles on your shoes, you will be well rewarded by a wander through its many parts!

Manchester: “Cottonopolis” and Peterloo

Index to the Manchester series:

Because I co-supervise an M.Sc. student in radio astronomy through DARA, I got the chance to visit Manchester in the United Kingdom for the first time. The Greater Manchester Built-Up Area, home to more than 2.5 million inhabitants, was the second most populous in the 2011 census, after the Greater London BUA. Despite its size and historical importance, though, I knew next to nothing about this city. I would like to introduce it using my walking tour of its streets and museums.

A tiny history

Manchester developed into a city largely because of the Industrial Revolution. The city became known for weaving cotton cloth after the arrival of the Flemish in the 14th century, but this process moved from homes to factories through a long series of inventions that paired well with the city’s humid environment (think Seattle) and hinterlands featuring rapid rivers and good coal availability. The inventions included:

The culmination of these inventions arrived in 1783, when Richard Arkwright began production at the world’s first steam-driven cotton mill. Manchester is 40 miles inland, and yet it had become England’s third-largest port through the construction of the Bridgewater Canal in 1761 and the Ship Canal in 1894. The first project brought coal to Manchester, and the second allowed easy shipment of its products to markets worldwide.

June 25, 2019

St. Peter’s Square is dominated by the Central Library (above) and the Extended Town Hall.

My first brush with the city’s uneasy reputation for protest came when I wandered to the Central Library at the heart of the city. My flight from Atlanta had arrived just before 7 AM, and I needed to keep my body busy to stay awake! The Central Library simply looks like a piece of history, even if its present structure only dates from 1934. When I entered the second floor Great Hall, I immediately slowed my pace to a tip-toe. The enormous ceiling of the chamber is a shallow dome, making the room an inverted paraboloid. Even incidental noises are rapidly transmitted across the space.

The quote lining the dome comes from Proverbs 4:7.

I had only been in the room for a couple of minutes when it became apparent that someone was having fun with the special acoustics in the space. A teenager or young man was capering across the floor, taking exaggerated steps and tapping different objects so he could hear the echo. He seemed entirely oblivious to the angry laser-glares focused in his direction from all the readers. I felt vaguely embarrassed, thinking the young person suffered from a mental disability. I said my farewells to the space and headed for the exit.

I walked back toward the entrance but lingered while looking at the lovely stained glass and ceiling insets of the entrance hall. That examination was soon interrupted as the young person angrily descended the stairs, followed closely by a beefy security guard. “I’ll call the police!” the youngster shouted many times. “You can’t do this!” he hollered as he was escorted through the exit. “You’re a [naughty word]!” he shouted after getting a few feet away from the guard outside. The guard watched him passively for a few minutes to ensure the kid understood he would not be readmitted to the library.

June 26, 2019

“The Rocket” has only recently returned to Manchester.

I became friends with Paul Brack in 2018 through our conversations at the HUPO-PSI Quality Control Working Group. He invested several hours in showing me his adopted home city! Paul introduced me to the Science and Industry Museum. Until a few years ago, it was still possible to ride a steam locomotive from the world’s first passenger railway station (part of the Museum site). Paul was absolutely delighted to see “The Rocket,” the first steam train to support an intercity railway, built by Robert Stevenson. Other exhibits explained how steam engines revolutionized the manufacture of cotton cloth, showing a weaving machine designed to take is motive power from a rotating axle in the ceiling of the room. We also took the opportunity to visit the Air and Space Hall just across the road from the Museum of Science and Industry. Paul showed me a complete model of a rocket-powered “Chrysanthemum” kamikaze plane dating from World War II. I had read about these fighters for a grade-school project, and it was really something to see one in person all these years later. With that, we retired to lunch at the Oast House, close to the Crown Court building. I couldn’t help but try the fish and chips. The pea mash was particularly notable!

Steam engines provided the power needed to drive the cotton weaving machines.

Our walk took a vaguely north-easterly direction. First we perused the John Rylands Library, completed in 1899 on a Basil Champneys design. It was clearly intended as a cathedral of books, with an impressive collection ranging from an early fragment (2nd/3rd century) of the book of John to a meter-tall volume of North American birds by Audobon.

A library, or a church? John Rylands’ book collection resided in style.

Paul noted that the creating such an elegant building was a bit rich, considering that the neighboring street was home to the Manchester and Salford Street Children’s Mission as well as the Working Men’s Church (1905). The Rylands Library ran into financial problems with its upkeep after only a couple of decades, and the establishment of a state archive, along with an associated annex of inventive architecture, was necessary to bail it out. The city was conducting an exhibit about “Peterloo,” a massacre of 18 civilians by police and military units (including “Hussar” cavalry and artillery pieces). This exhibit spanned both the Rylands Library and the Central Library. I was really wowed by the “nave” of the library, and the statues of luminaries lining the chamber included both Shakespeare and local boy John Dalton.

They’re luminaries, not saints.

June 29, 2019

I felt unsure how to spend my last day in Manchester, but I followed a suggestion from someone on the train to visit the People’s History Museum on the left bank of the River Irwell separating Manchester from Salford. A cylindrical column of rising doves was perched on the corner of Bridge Street; I learned later that this statue marked the occasion on which Manchester became a “Nuclear Free City,” due to the efforts of its peace movement during the Cold War. I appreciated that the museum tried to explain how the neighborhood in which it was situated had evolved over time. Below some of the windows, historic photos were displayed that showed how a bridge had been replaced or a jail had been demolished. As one might guess from the name, the People’s Museum was devoted to topics such as popular suffrage, government services, economic inequality, and socialism. I really appreciated the three-story mural in the main space that showed the major civil rights events on the timeline from the English Civil War (1600s) to the Representation of the People Act in 1948.

Give peace a chance.

Like the Central Library and the John Rylands Library, the People’s History Museum had produced an extended exhibit in connection with the Peterloo massacre. Their explanation was really well executed, starting with a map showing the distances people had traveled to come to St. Peter’s Field in Manchester for the big event (up to 30 miles). The ten-minute video they’d assembled helped to explain why speakers Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford, and Mary Fildes were such a draw. It seems hard to believe that Manchester had no member of Parliament in 1819, while districts with only seven voters were represented there. I was particularly staggered to learn that only 2% of the inhabitants of England qualified for the right to vote. No wonder a popular protest erupted!

As we’ve seen in other cases where armed forces were used against civilians, there’s a lot of ambiguity about who gave what orders. Obviously it was inadvisable to release the poorly trained and ill-disciplined yeomanry militia on the crowd. Obviously the reservations of the hussar commander on the spot should have been heeded rather than sending heavy cavalry into the mix. Did the authorities not realize how problematic it would be that many of the wounded and dead were women? With 600-700 wounded and 18 dead, the injustice of power would be very memorable, and the recent carnage at Waterloo was readily adaptable to name the massacre. A journalist who was radicalized in that crowd started the Manchester Guardian newspaper just two years later (it later became the national news outlet of the same name).

With that special exhibit, the People’s Museum really set the stage well for the two floors of regular exhibits. The museum has quite a lot to say about broadening the right to vote to a larger base. I was unaware that the population of Manchester identified strongly with the slaves in the cotton plantations of America (whose cotton powered the main industry of Manchester). While the British cotton weavers were nominally “free,” they were very much captive to the clocks at the factories, and they had little power to make their lives better with a long line of potential laborers pouring into the cities for work.

We spend too much time thinking of our parents’ children and our children’s parents.

The museum features a rich collection of historic banners, for example during the rise of the socialist party or from trade guilds or later labor unions. I was surprised to see the tiny table upon which Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, which was just as influential in England as in the United States. I had never heard of The Beveridge Report, in which William Beveridge outlined his plan to rid the world of “Idleness, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor, and Want.” As a person who grew up while nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union was a talked-about possibility, I was very moved by a banner extolling peace (“I want to grow up, not blow up”) from the 1980s. A banner from 1996 titled “Our Children’s World” illustrated the stark choices facing the world in environmental protection.

Of course, the museum spent some time discussing the apparent setbacks dating from the Conservative party leadership begun by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Their display of puppets representing Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, John Major, and Tony Blair was pretty funny. Just the same, I think the museum took a responsible route in talking about the Conservative Party rather than reflexively excoriating them.

Putting it together

In many respects, Manchester is the prototype city of the Industrial Age. In it, we can see all the attractions that drew people from the countryside, hopeful to find work. We can also see the harsh conditions in which the laboring class toiled. It is no surprise that Friedrich Engels would contribute to the creation of socialism in such an environment! We can only hope that the labor and voting rights protections fought for by its population will be retained as history moves forward.

Why did we honeymoon in al-Andalus?

Over the next several posts, I will describe some of the remarkable places that Natasha and I visited during our three weeks in southern Spain. I believe it is a trip that I will always remember!

Posts in this series:

Both Natasha and I have substantial travels under our belts already, so when we began planning our honeymoon together, we faced quite the conundrum. In what place on Earth would we most like to spend two or more weeks? Which would have good availability and safety over the end-of-year holidays? Could we keep the total voyage cost affordable?

In the end, I suggested al-Andalus because southern Spain met almost all our criteria. Natasha loves places where different societies have come into contact. That explains our trip to Zanzibar at the close of 2017! Nowhere have the Muslim and Christian worlds intersected more interestingly than in Spain (I detail a timeline below). Neither Natasha nor I had ever visited the area (my closest brush was at Barcelona in 1994). Our earlier thought of visiting Turkey and Greece was scuttled by travel warnings at the U.S. State Department.

flight route visualized by the Great Circle Mapper, http://www.gcmap.com/

With our target fixed on Spain for late December, we began assembling our plan in earnest during September, when we purchased our flights on Iberia Airlines, the flag carrier for Spain. We were grateful that our flight course would require just two “legs.” We decided to enter Spain from Madrid rather than Malaga (which is on the southern coast) because Madrid had more places we hoped to visit, and Malaga gets a substantial number of holiday tourists from the U.K.

Once we knew our flights were December 18-19th and January 7-8th, we could allocate days to cities we wanted to visit. We decided to plan no travel during Christmas and New Year holidays; we did not yet realize that January 6th is Epiphany or the Three Kings’ Day, which is a big deal in Spain. Based on our reading ahead of time, we picked Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada as our destinations, leaving some room for an extra trip to Antequera along the way. We allocated six nights each at Cordoba and Granada and a further three nights at Sevilla (easily the largest of these three cities, but only a third the population of Madrid). With the benefit of hindsight, our trip followed the design shown in this map:

Madrid - Cordoba - Antequera - Sevilla - Granada

For once, I was able to travel without getting a visa! American citizens can enter Spain as tourists for up to 90 days without going through the visa process. Natasha, however, was not so lucky, and the “Shengen” visa process for South Africans was pretty intense. She was required to provide evidence of health insurance coverage, a roster of all the places we would stay, and bank statements among other elements. In the end, however, she was successful! I was saddened that her visa would rule out a visit to Gibraltar, which would count as another country on her visa application.

The Back-and-Forth of Muslim and Christian kingdoms in medieval Spain

Many people with whom we’ve spoken have been surprised to learn Spain was ever Muslim! The map above gives a big hint as to how that happened; Africa and Europe very nearly touch at Gibraltar. At the start of the 8th century, Spain was run by Visigoths, who had become the Christian inheritors of Roman civilization. In 711, however, North African Muslims (Arabs and Berbers) stormed across the narrow strait at Gibraltar. Within a year, they had subjugated almost all of the Iberian peninsula (the name “al-Andalus” comes from an Arabic term for the area, first appearing on coins in 716). For the first few decades of Muslim Spain, the area was ruled by the Umayyads from Damascus, but in 756, Abd al-Rahman I established an independent emirate ruled from Cordoba. The high water mark of this Muslim kingdom came during 929-1031, when Abd al-Rahman III declared himself Caliph at Cordoba. (As with “Pope,” the Muslim world ostensibly can have only one Caliph– this declaration led to battles with forces from others who called themselves Caliph). After the reign of Abd al-Rahman III, Muslim Spain was riven by the rule of a dictator, and it dissolved into taifas, or smaller principalities.

Muslim Spain regained much of its former power in 1086, when the Almoravids arrived from North Africa. The newcomers perceived the earlier Spanish Muslims as too cosmopolitan, and the Almoravid dynasty brought some degree of fundamentalism to the new Muslim kingdom. Ironically, much the same happened again in 1147, when the Almohads reconquered the peninsula from the Almoravids. In 1154, the Almoravids regained control of Granada.

In the 8th century, the Christian armies were almost entirely destroyed, and the remaining forces were driven into the mountains of the northwest and into the area surrounding Barcelona and the French Cote d’Azur. It was quite some time before they were able to reassemble themselves into functional kingdoms. Catalan, Aragon, Navarre, Castile, and Leon had emerged as autonomous kingdoms by the fall of the Caliphate in 1031. These Christian kingdoms, however, were quite prone to attacking each other and trying to seize the title “king of Christian Spain.” On many occasions, the Pope had to incentivize the Christians to attack the Muslims rather than each other by offering Crusader benefits.

People sometimes speak of the “Reconquista” as a single long war against the Muslims by the Christians in Spain, but this is actually a pretty wrong conception. The Reconquista spanned centuries, and its battles were sporadic and separated across time. Alfonso VI (king of both Leon and Castile) was able to retake Toledo in 1085 in the aftermath of the Caliphate’s fall. Around the same time, “El Cid” gained notoriety as an independently-minded soldier involved in an astonishing variety of battles (“El CID” was also the name of my first proteomics software!). A huge step forward for the Christians came in 1212, when the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa broke the forward momentum of the Almohads. When the attention of the Almohads drifted to a power struggle in North Africa, Ferdinand III recaptured Cordoba in 1236 and then formed a coalition with the other Christian kings plus the Almoravid king of Granada to recapture Sevilla (then the largest of the Muslim cities in Spain) in 1248. Isn’t it ironic that the Christian kings would complete the most ambitious parts of the Reconquista in coalition with a Muslim ruler?

Because the Muslim emirate of Granada paid tribute to Castile, the Reconquista went on hold for a very long time except for battles with the Almohads, based in North Africa. It wasn’t until the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella that the campaign to recapture Granada took place. In 1492, Muhammad XII surrendered Granada. In total, then, we see a period of more than 700 years in which a Muslim kingdom existed in the Iberian Peninsula. The major events of the Reconquista stretched for more than 400 years of that period.

I hope that this little history helps to set in context the following posts about our visit to al-Andalus!

Strolling the Heidelberg Altstadt

To visit a city with as much history as Heidelberg only to spend 100% of one’s time at a conference would be a great injustice. Between my wanderings on my arrival day and this evening, I have really come to appreciate the beauty that this city presents at unexpected moments.


The lovely banks of the Neckar River

Heidelberg architecture begins its ascent in the twelfth century, with a local Benedictine monastery dating to 1130; the name “Heidelberg” didn’t appear in writing until 1196, though. Over a period of five hundred years, the Counts of the Palatinate and the Prince Electors resided in this city. A fortification on a hill overlooking the Neckar River was mentioned as early as 1303; today, this site is dominated by the ruins of a majestic castle!


A schloss by any other name…

In many respects, though, Heidelberg gained fame as a center of learning. Prince Elector Ruprecht I founded the “Ruperto Carola University” in 1386, making it the oldest university in Germany. After an early 19th century reorganization, the institution came to play an even greater role, with luminaries such as Hegel advancing philosophy while Robert Bunsen invented gas-analytical methods (and inventing the Bunsen Burner) and Hermann von Helmholtz investigated visual perception.


The old university plaza, featuring a tower from the nearby Jesuit church, was an ideal place to read a book!

For two decades in the early 19th century, Heidelberg became the focus of the “High Romanticism” literary movement. At the opening of the 20th century, the city constructed a palatial university library in the heart of its old town. In December 2014, UNESCO named Heidelberg as its tenth “City of Literature.”


The library in the old town is tremendously impressive!



The churches of the city are really striking, as well. Peterskirche, the oldest, was originally constructed in the 12th century. Its tower almost seems like a post-modern deconstruction of a Gothic chapel, with flat faces in each cardinal direction and shuttered windows flush to the surfaces below its clock dials. I would have loved to explore its insides, but its doors were shut late on Tuesday afternoon when I visited.


No nave is complete without a giant, reflective cross!

I also loved the Jesuitenkirche and its accompanying college. The church encompasses three parallel naves of equal height. I stepped inside and was delighted to see all the light pouring into the nave from the setting sun. I listened surreptitiously to an organist rehearsing for a service. I tried to set my phone down on a large table at the back so I could make an audio recording, only to realize that it was a fountain of holy water! I pulled it out of its damp case and got the recorder working properly.


Springtime on Philosopher’s Walk

Learning that the “Philosopher’s Walk” led to a beautiful vista of the castle and old city from above on the opposite bank of the Neckar River, I began my walk up the slope. What I hadn’t seen mentioned is that the Philosopher’s Walk is steep. This middle-aged professor huffed and puffed, particularly on the initial parts of the ascent. After a while, the slope calmed down and I only needed to take care of the sun, which was beating down pretty well for a day in early spring!


The Church of the Holy Spirit, as seen from Philosopher’s Walk

The climb was definitely worth it! I found a lovely flower garden at one scenic overlook, and the vision of the old city below was astonishing. To see the churches standing tall among the surrounding buildings helped separate them from the background. The castle’s architecture makes it seem like a fantasy rather than anything brooding. As I looked to the west, I saw modern Heidelberg spilling out along the riverbank. Heidelberg’s history, its legacy, and its charm make it a very appealing package.

The first leg of the triangle: from Cape Town to Heidelberg

April 17, 2018

When my travel itinerary gets too intense, some of the plates I am always spinning may slip away and smash. Almost everything was right for this journey to Heidelberg, Germany, but I left something rather important out of my plan!

My journey started with a pleasant taxi ride. The driver was the same fellow who had carried me to the airport for my Russian adventure last year, and he remembered my ambitious plan to tour three cities there. It was nice that he had taken the time to listen and remember. I was at the airport in plenty of time, which was helpful when we encountered a logjam behind a completely burned car in the approach road to the drop-off site.


My JNB-FRA flight used a Boeing 747-8.

My flights to reach Frankfurt started with a quick dog-leg to Johannesburg.  I had initially thought I would be flying from JNB during the first part of my planned sabbatical at the Human Metabolomics Centre, so the dog-leg was a late addition. Happily my Visa card lets me use the Bidvest lounge at both CPT and JNB airports. With a well-fed belly, I boarded the ten-hour flight to Frankfurt. I was happy to watch “The Last Jedi” for my third time, and I enjoyed “The Shape of Water” after a fitful patch of sleep. An hour later, (just after 5AM) we touched down in Frankfurt!


Your life will be easier if you learn to read these diagrams!

My next task was to make the run south to Heidelberg, the site of this year’s HUPO-PSI workshop. The train station at the airport, however, is not the same as the hauptbahnoff at Frankfurt, and that added some complexity. In the end, I used the S8 subway to get to Niederrad and then caught a stopping train to Mannheim. After that I had just another fifteen minutes south on a final train to Heidelberg. Not so bad for 23 Euro!


Alas that I could not also visit Worms!

To be honest, I was hoping for someone holding a sign at the train station, directing me to the conference destination. I had come to understand that EMBL was quite a bit off the beaten path. As things were, I waited a couple minutes for the tourist information center to open at 9AM. I learned that city bus number 39 would run directly to EMBL, but I’d need to catch it at Bismarckplatz, the central point for the bus network. Since it was a “twenty minute” walk to reach the site, I set out with my backpack and 26 inch roller bag in train.

Have I mentioned spring is my favorite season? Tired dirt suddenly springs forward bits of green, and trees burst out with unexpected sprites of color. Breathing the air along my road hike was just the inspiration I needed to get past my night on the plane. I was able to walk directly to the bus stop where I could catch bus 39 away from the madding crowd. I was a bit disoriented when I realized the bus was chock-full of American accents! Yes, many of the researchers doing their work at EMBL are American or set their English accent in the United States. I funneled off the bus at the same place as they did.


Route 39 (purple) gets you from the center of Heidelberg to EMBL. The lower star is the train station. The upper star is where I found lodgings!

I should mention that I have gotten spoiled by the HUPO-PSI meeting in the last two years (Ghent and Beijing). In last year’s meeting, the Phoenix Center hosts set me up with a lovely suite knowing that the lovely Natasha was joining me on the trip. I had misunderstood a couple of comments on the HUPO-PSI Steering Committee phone calls and mailing lists to suggest that at least the Steering Committee would be housed at EMBL. Imagine my shock when I learned that EMBL has zero housing on-site at its training center! I had no place to stay for these four nights!

I went into damage control mode. I hit up my favorite hotel booking website to see what lodgings I could find for four nights starting with TODAY. Understandably, the pickings were pretty poor. Badly-located cots did not appeal, and paying more than $1000 USD for a hotel seemed a bit extreme. I decided on the youth hostel next to the zoo. It was on the wrong side of the river, but one bus would bring me back to the central hub for the buses, and another would bring me to EMBL.

On a trip already featuring a taxi, two planes, a subway, two trains, and now two different buses, I was relieved to pay my 2.60 Euro to retire to my hostel room, shared with five other men. I took a “Hollywood shower,” lingering under the steamy water for longer than strictly necessary. It was my first proper boiler in months, since Cape Town’s water crisis prevents this luxury.

In my next post, I’ll talk about my experiences walking around the lovely, historic city of Heidelberg!

St. Petersburg: jeweled eggs and ships of war

An index to this series is found on its first post.

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 two 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

An index to this series is found on its first post.

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 worker 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

An index to this series is found on its first post.

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

An index to this series is found on its first post.

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.