Retreating to the Present

When we stepped into our boat on the River Neva, we also stepped into a world without internet connections.

For the first time 150 people experienced life before instant access.  It took us a few days–and many attempts with texting–to realize that we had stepped back in technological time. No longer could we instantly discover what the weather would be every hour, what might be happening back home.  E-readers didn’t work: emails were inaccessible.

For me, my newly acquired habit of blogging stopped completely.

As we boated through the waterway gradually built up to modern capacity through the years since St. Petersburg was built, we were carried away into other times and spaces as well.  In Kizhi we walked through the first wooden church built when Christianity had taken over the pagan culture of the time.  Yaroslavl and Rostov the Great we were taken back to the Times of Troubles when Russia was a series of provinces attempting to emerge out of Tatar, Polish and Lithuanian domination.  In Uglich we were reminded that in Russia churches, not monuments, were put up to commemorate actions, people and events.  There a lovely church recalls the death of 7-year-old Dmitry, the last of the Rurik dynasty.  A huge fresco opposite the iconostasis records the event.  At least it records one of the two versions:  Dmitry’s death at the hands of the usurper, Boris Gudenov.  The church stands beside the last remnant of the house where Dmitry and his mother lived.  Its spires are visible from the river and the town, a permanent part of the town’s memory and the nation’s history.

My only way of communicating all of this was through postcards, the time-honored way of all Western travelers since the time of mail service.  Two weeks from the sending date, those postcards will arrive at their addresses–long after I get internet access again.

I have truly been experiencing another time and place.  Once one has cleared one’s expectations, it’s like being on a retreat.


Buildings, Power, and Money

The beauty is created by bricks, stucco, prefabricated concrete blocks and paint.

How was it possible that the tsars could build and live such ostentatious lives?  St. Petersburg almost forces me to ask that question.  Tentative answers come in bits and pieces during our tours.

Certainly the serf system provides a reason.  Even though the system wasn’t watertight, even though the serfs became peasants again in 1861, the feudal system remained one that concentrated wealth at the top.  But that is certainly not the only explanation.

That Russia had—and has—a great deal of natural resources, including gold, needs to be taken into account too.  There was much available to be used.  Even the most primitive methods produced wood, metals, and other goods in abundance and for wealth acquisition.

St. Petersburg’s status needs to be taken into account as well.  When Peter the Great made it the capitol of Russia, he insured that the power—and the wealth that accompanies power—becomes concentrated on building programs in that city.  As a result, Nevsky Prospect is lined with palaces.  According to our guide, a palace requires 200 rooms; anything less is a mansion.  One such family, the Yusepovs, had four palaces in the city.  One of them faces our hotel.

These palaces are built in one of two styles:  Russian Baroque or Neo-classical.  Both of those styles impress.  I walk the streets with head craned up to see the grandeur—and feel myself the lowly guest invited in only because I’ve purchased a ticket.

Finally, building materials.  None of the buildings or churches in St. Petersburg took centuries to build.  Why?  Because they are either brick or concrete blocks covered with stucco and painted.  These techniques are very old, Roman in fact.  But the relative ease of building means that huge buildings can be completed in relatively short order.  In St. Petersburg, only the columns might be stone like granite or marble.  Perhaps the altar or the pilasters are faced in stone.  The floors have marble, but sometimes Russian marble, which is cheap and uninteresting.

So St. Petersburg is really a very modern city.  Built quickly, it rested on power, money and an architectural sameness that have been perfected in the 20th century.

The result impresses.


The layers of history in Russia are like those of an archeological dig.

On our way to the Catherine Palace, as we drove out of St. Petersburg, we got a lecture not on tsarist history but on World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, and the Russians call it).

Why such a lecture?  Because the Siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again) saw the battle lines drawn around the city.  So anybody driving out of the city will cross those lines.

So when we came to the place where the armies had faced each other across a small river, the line was marked with two Soviet guns facing across the river to the German lines.  This was on one side of the freeway.  On the other side of the freeway was a huge memorial monument marking the mass grave of the Russian soldiers who died in that confrontation.

The Catherine Palace was behind the German lines and was used as a hospital and headquarters.  German guns fired out of its windows, setting fire to the structure.  What the fire didn’t destroy, the shelling did.

As we toured the palace, reminders of the devastation were all around us in photographs and in the narration of our guide.  Although the Palace was a museum at the time of the war, it was still furnished as though the tsars occupied it.  Before the German army came, museum staff worked hard to strip it of its valuables and send them off to be saved.  When it became obvious that not everything could be moved, they began saving sample furniture pieces so that the palace could be restored.

The work of restoration is a big part of the Catherine Palace story.  So much of the interior has been reconstructed; so much of the decor has been created from photos and archived decoration plans; so much furniture was recreated from those samples.

All that work of preservation and restoration was done during the Soviet period by expert museum staff and people trained in ancient methods.  Why, given the political philosophy of that time, would such care be given to that kind of work?  Another story!

When we stepped into the palace grounds, we stepped into the 21st century’s version of place.  Under our feet lay the layers of history represented by Peter the Great, Elizabeth, Catherine II, the October Revolution and World War II.


Old Friends in New Places

On our first day in St. Petersburg, a few of us followed up our city tour with a trip to the Russian State Museum.  A short walk from The Church on the Spilled Blood brought us through the gates and into the collection of Russian art housed there.

I had no idea what to expect.  The collection was new to me in the sense that I didn’t know exactly what pictures I would encounter.  Yet I knew that the material, the outlines of the collection, would be so very familiar.  After all, I’d been meeting many of these pictures over and over again in books and on the web.  Some of them I’ve used in my many slide lectures and presentations.  What would it be like to meet them in person?

By the end of the afternoon I had my answer.  The experience was a overwhelming, like meeting many, many pen pals with whom one has had long and deeply personal relationships–but never met face to face.

In my case, that experience was repeated in room after room after room.  Through every doorway were more treasured faces:  Kromskoi’s beautiful portraits; Perov’s satire; Polonov and Levitan’s landscapes; Repin and Serov with personalities too large for one room.

Also, many surprises.  Seeing art reproductions is nothing like seeing the real thing.  After all, Repin’s Council canvas is huge, beyond imagination, and occupies its own room.  Preliminary sketches of the heads are hung in that same room and are the size of “normal” canvases.  His portrait of Nicholas II–the figure standing alone and so vulnerable in a cold palace expanse–radiates life and personality that simply doesn’t come through in the versions I’ve projected on powerpoint screens.

Perov’s satire comes comes on small canvases too.  We had to get up close to see the faces and details that deliver his critique.  Kramskoi’s portraits show their personalities in ways that make the viewer feel in intimate conversation with each person.  Levitan’s lake, when viewed up close, is a study in the variety of colors that exist in evening water. Gonchanrova’s Four Evangelists are life-size and stunning.  In two rooms Malevich’s artistic development is larger than life.  Even The Queue (The Line, in Americanese)is present:  a difference version than the one that is part of the Zimmerli collection.  This one is much darker in color, seems smaller, and doesn’t have the statue of Lenin visible through the feet and pointing in the opposite direction.

So many old friends!  So thrilling to meet them in person.

Sharing the Joy

One of the most exciting elements of this trip to Russia is sharing the experience with my 27 interesting and interested tour friends.  The ability to talk about what we are seeing, comparing it to our pre-conceived ideas, enthusing over cultural “finds” makes this trip special.

One such moment stands out in my memory.  A group of my travel companions and I were standing in front of Repin’s Barge Haulers at the Russian State Museum.  Suddenly, somebody exclaimed, “Carol!  I remember that picture!  You’ve showed that picture so many times!  It’s, it’s it’s…”

“Repin!” came another voice.  “They’re pulling the barge.”

At that moment, I knew the joy of sharing knowledge, excitement, and enthusiasm with others.  And that has been true throughout the first three days of this trip.  I’ve overheard people remembering things that we’ve seen in the slide presentations I’ve given.  I’ve had people come up to me with their cameras to show me pictures of art that they remembered from our discussions, lectures and video preparation sessions back in Minneapolis.

Can there be anything more enriching than having one’s own enthusiasm shared by others?  This trip to Russia is re-enforcing that joy.

First Impression

So what is the most important picture of a new country, a new culture, and a new experience?  I think it must be the first vivid visual.

For this trip, my first visual happened as we came down through the clouds in preparation for landing at the St. Petersburg airport.  Suddenly out of my window, I saw the Gulf of Finland with the modern buildings of the city stretching away along its coast.  The vista contained too much to take in.  The brief moments held far too many details to mentally record beyond the general impressions of the water meeting the land, the city arching away along the coast.

Below me stretched lush green of fields with clumps of towns here and there.  Sunshine burst through the cloud cover highlighting parts of the color scheme:  white city buildings in the distance, blue gulf waters, and green fields.

Highlighted below me–and transfixed forever in my memory–was my first visual of Russia:  a stark white, four-square white church with a single dome rising above its center. Surrounded by an expanse of green, it glowed in the sunlight that spotlighted it.  I kept my eyes on it as we came down, down, down.  As it disappeared behind our plane and the wheels of our plane touched the tarmac, I knew that I would remember this moment forever.  I was in Russia

We’re off!

While we’re still on the ground and attending to final details, the excitement of take-off this evening is giving our feet early wings.  Russia is “visible” from our front door at last!

Months of preparation with our tour group provided some great background both on the history and culture of Russia and on relationships with the 27 wonderful people who will share my first trip with me.  I am looking forward to our airport reunion and enduring that long plane trip together.

As I am able–given internet access–I will post our trip’s adventures and try to include pictures.  Our itinerary looks like this:

St. Petersburg:  four nights

Waterways cruise:  seven nights

Moscow:  three nights.

Tonight, we will wave goodbye to the lights of Minneapolis…