Winter always comes early in Russia.
There was already a thick layer of snow on the road when I arrived on the second week of December. My driver assumed that I speak Russian and he immediately chatted about Saint Petersburg when we entered the city proper. In my poor Russian, I was able to grasp bits and pieces of his story, how the city changed from Saint Petersburg to Petrograd and back to its original name and how for a middle-aged former Communist soldier like him, the city will remain a beloved Leningrad.
My association with Russian seafarers as well as my numerous collections of Russian novels influenced my fascination with Russia. After taking a short Russian course in the Netherlands, the natural course of curiosity would be to spend some time there.
Saint Petersburg is said to have a European face and a Russian soul, a fitting description to a city that had been inspired by European architecture but was built in a true Russian fashion. For locals, the city is known only as Peter, after Peter the Great whom others believed to be a lunatic when he built Saint Petersburg on a marshland.
The city was often ravaged by floods and was not suitable for habitation. Peter the Great recognized its strategic advantage and after winning the Northern War against the Swedish, decided to build a fortress to protect the Neva frontier. In May 1703, Peter I moved in to a 60-sqm wood cabin to personally oversee the construction of his new city.
According to historical facts, the Tsar wanted the city to be built on stone but since he cannot afford a stone house, he ordered his cabin’s wall to be painted as if they were made of brick stone. The Cabin of Peter the Great still holds the Tsar’s original belongings, a reminder of how humbly he lived while fulfilling his dream of a new city.
PETER BY FOOT
The weather made daily activities a struggle. Daylight lasted mostly for five hours only. Temperature dipped to minus 25 degrees and walking through thick snow in bulky winter clothes was a feat for someone who grew up in the tropics. It took enormous effort to get out of bed in the morning and even harder to leave the warmth of the apartment to go sightseeing. Although the city has an excellent subway system, it still takes a considerable amount of walking to get from one tourist spot to the other.
In between daily lessons and assignments, cooking and sleeping, I would spend my time navigating the deep subways of the city and wandering the long streets of Saint Petersburg, particularly in NevskyProspekt (the main street), desperately trying to follow a map.
Oftentimes, I would get lost before arriving in my destination but it also allowed me to observe the daily life in Russia – from the people shovelling snow and scrubbing ice off their vehicles, to the babushkas selling food and knitted products outside the metro stations despite the extremely cold temperatures and the bus drivers who put the heater as high as they can so their vehicles feel like a cramped sauna. Because the city is so big, it would take a good amount of walking to truly appreciate its uniqueness.
At the Palace Square, I would look at the iconic Alexander Column towers over the enormous green building of the Hermitage Museum (Winter Palace) and the elaborate sculptures of the Imperial Army General Staff until my neck hurt. Then I would continue staring at the paintings inside the Hermitage Museum.
It will take several days to look at all the displays at the Hermitage Museum. Tsarina Catherine dedicated a considerable amount of fortune acquiring rare pieces of art and precious jewellery, most of which are now on display. Walls, ceilings and columns are decorated in intricate trimmings of gold and precious stones while life-size paintings of the Tsar’s family hang in the hallways, an overwhelming display of opulence and power.
ON THE TRAILS OF DOSTOEVSKY
Fyodor Dostoevsky vividly used Saint Petersburg as the setting of Crime and Punishment as well as his other novels. Because the city’s facade has not changed very much through the years, a reader familiar with his works would not have a hard time finding the places mentioned in his books. I decided to visit the Apartment-Museum of Dostoevsky and get a glimpse of how the literary genius once lived.
It was very easy to miss the Dostoevsky Apartment-Museum. The entrance is marked only by a simple brass signage written in Russian, which looks like any other signage in the front doors of regular buildings in Peter. Dostoevsky lived in a modest five-bedroom apartment near the Cathedral of Our Lady of Vladimir where he was a parishioner. He shared the house with his wife Ana and their four children.
The museum preserved some of the most intimate belongings of Dostoevsky – his pen, a cigarette box, his notebook, manuscripts written in shorthand of The Brothers Karamazov and the family’s chinaware. His personal collections of books were arranged neatly on the shelves and an icon of the Virgin adorned his study. Half the apartment was turned into a small theatre for poetry reading and dramatic performances, guarded by old Russian women who spent most of their shifts beside a portable heater buried in thick books.
Sunset found me at the cemeteries of Alexander Nevsky Monastery and I ended my Dostoevsky’s visit at his graveyard. His tomb was not difficult to locate because the old woman manning the entrance already marked it on the map for me. Apparently, it is one of the most popular graves in the cemetery along with that of Peter Tchaikovsky.
The next morning, I took a 45-minute ride on a marshrutka (shared taxi) to the outskirts of the city to Pavlovsk Park, another prominent setting in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. The vast wooded park is part of Pavlovsk Palace, the home of the recluse Maria Feodorovna, widow of Tsar Paul 1 when the latter died. I intended to take a leisurely walk around the park but the snow was knee-deep and my hands were already numbing from the cold. I could not go farther than the Sculptures of Twelve Paths so I decided to just go to the palace.
Pavlovsk Palace is more modest compared to the Winter Palace but it has a homier ambiance compared to the detached atmosphere at Hermitage Museum. It has the same display of luxury – gold carvings and crystal chandeliers. Pieces of the family’s furniture and other belongings were arranged as if they were still living there.
DECEMBER WITHOUT CHRISTMAS
Russia follows the Orthodox calendar so December 25 passes like a normal day. To brush off the loneliness creeping through me, I headed to the center as soon as my class finished. I am not religious but I grew up spending Christmas mornings hearing the Mass. In Peter I found myself inside the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood on Christmas Day.
Officially called Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, it has a strong resemblance to the St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, particularly its colorful onion domes. The church was built in the traditional Russian Orthodox style of architecture with an impressive ceiling-to-floor mosaic paintings. More than its aesthetics value, the Church on Spilled Blood was where Alexander II was attacked by a terrorist group that caused his early death.
Not wanting to be completely devoid of the spirit of Christmas, I headed to the Christmas market at the Ploshchad Ostrovskovo (Ostrovskovo Square) afterwards. The Christmas market has just opened and what is usually a regular square in NevskyProspekt transformed into a lively place sparkling with bright lights and live performance of Russian folksongs. I was flying back to Amsterdam in a few days so instead of going to the mall, I did my Christmas shopping at the market, taking home with me pieces of Russian memories.
– This article first appeared in Cruising #GoingPlaces magazine.