We started our weeklong trip in St. Petersburg. After arriving at the Copenhagen airport well before day break, we boarded the plane for a short hour and a half flight. Upon arrival we were greeted with a light misting rain and grey skies: it was exactly the kind of weather that you would expect to encounter in Russia. As we drove to our hotel, Jon started what would be a constant narration of our trip. We used head-sets with ear pieces so Jon could speak normally in to a microphone and everyone could hear him. Normally I would have laughed at the idea but it was absolutely brilliant; you could stop, take pictures and walk at your own pace and still hear everything Jon had to say. And trust me, he had something to say about everything.
Despite the less than stellar weather when we landed, our first full day on Monday was full of sunshine. We set out on a canal tour to see the city and made our way through the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Summer Gardens, The Church of the Spilled Blood and a market full of Russian souvenirs. Jon talked the entire time and it was incredible being in the city with someone who knew it so well.
The next morning we toured the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum. I've been to a lot of museums in my life but I have never seen anything that can compare to the opulence and excess of the Hermitage. Most museums are lucky to have two or three Picasso paintings; this museum had two entire rooms devoted to the artist. Jon told us that the museum has a policy of buying any valuable painting that went up for auction and it was blatantly obvious that the policy had resulted in massive amounts of priceless works.
Afterwards, we had an incredible opportunity to go "behind the facade" and were given a tour of a residential area of the city by a local student. The tour included shots vodka (of course) and the chance to see a communal apartment. Think of every 1930s movie you've seen and you'll have an idea of what the apartment looked like. One of the residents who lived there spoke to us about what it was like to live in a single family apartment with eight or so other people. From what we could tell, he was relatively indifferent to the situation. He didn't seem eager to move and we surmised with input from the student tour guide that there wasn't really anywhere else he could go.
We also got to attend the opera Boris Godunov at the Marinsky Theater before boarding our midnight train to Moscow. Fun fact: I tweeted a photo from the event and the theater retweeted it. Dorky, I know, but it was pretty cool to be twitter-famous in Russia.
By the time we left St. Petersburg, we all felt that we had a pretty good handle on the city. The streets are long and designed to stretch your vision towards the horizon every time you look down an avenue. Arriving in the bustling metropolis of Moscow was definitely a shock after the quaint streets in St. Petersburg (but more on that later).
I was admittedly a little nervous to go to Russia; while I'm well aware of the chaos and poverty that arose when the Soviet Union crumbled, I've always considered Russia to be powerful. Any nation that can compete in the space race is "developed" in my book. Maybe this is an ignorant view but it's the neccessary background to understand why I was so shocked about certain aspects of the city. For one, you can't drink the water in St. Petersburg. It's not like being in other parts of the world were the locals drink from the tap but foreigners are advised not to so because they aren't used to the bacteria in it. In St. Petersburg, you can't drink the water because it actually isn't clean. Everyone, and I mean everyone, drinks bottled water.
While many of the buildings are beautifully designed, their pastel-colored exteriors were often dirty and unkept. All the wiring in the city is external and above ground, creating a spider-web effect over the streets that added to the grungy-ness. Cross walks were hard to come by and no one drives in their lane or follows traffic signals. The escalators in the metro are flanked with wood panels that look like they are straight out the 60s. Being in Russia was like stepping back in time or entering a movie set; nothing felt real.
I'm still working through all my thoughts on the city, but I would say my working theme for St. Petersburg is "contradictions." The art museum has at least a billion dollars worth of Picasso paintings but the sewage system is so horribly outdated that you can't flush any paper products. Nearly half a million people in the city live in the soviet-style communal apartments but every street is lined with shiny BMWs (often parked on the curb, in the crosswalks or blocking other drivers). If you've made it this far in the blog post, you might think I left St. Petersburg with a negative view of the city but that couldn't be further from the truth. I feel that I left with a deeper understanding of what the country has gone through, where they've been and what they're doing now. In a country that used to be a world class empire, it's easy to understand why they put forth a gilded front at all their culture landmarks.
I'll be doing a second post to talk about Moscow and will then tie all my observations together. Stay tuned. More to come!