BLOG #45, SERIES 7
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WE DISCOVER NORTHERN EUROPE #5
November 9, 2016
Russia: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery
inside an enigma.”
I’ve long been fascinated by Russia. In fact, its literature represents one of emphasis in my doctoral program. Especially have giants such as Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, etc., intrigued me. Thus one of the key reasons for taking this cruise was that it enabled me to at least get a two-day-long glimpse of a tiny portion of the largest nation in the world. At 6.5 million square miles it is twice the size of Brazil. It stretches across a staggering 11 time zones!
But if a glimpse should be all that life should grant us, and that glimpse being the almost mystical city of St. Petersburg, it would be well worth it. It has been variously called “Sankt Piterburg,” “Sankt Peterburg,” “Petrograd,” “Leningrad,” and now “Saint Petersburg.” It was the brain-child of that titanic emperor, Peter the Great (1672-1725). Tired of Russia’s being considered a medieval back-water nation, Peter abandoned Russia for over a year and traveled incognito throughout Europe, spending most of his time in the shipyards of Holland and England. His three passions were: a fascination with the West, a gift for waging war, and a determination to build a navy. And, not coincidentally, establish a new capital facing westward on a desolate piece of land at the mouth of the great River Neva. He then had constructed great palaces on the order of France’s Versailles. Catherine the Great (1729-1796) built more, making the Venetian type capital (44 islands connected by 432 bridges) a wondrous place. It is estimated that 100,000 people died of exposure and disease while constructing the city. After the 1917 Revolution, Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow.
The Western World owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the citizens of the city. Hitler made one fatal mistake: opening a second front when he attacked Russia during World War II. Then Leningrad was under siege by the Germans for 900 days! (from August 1941 until January 1944), leaving nearly a million Russians dead, most from starvation. Had it not been for this second front, it is doubtful the allies could have successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy.
Ever since I was young, on my bucket list was St. Petersburg’s great Hermitage Museum, so vast that it includes the Winter Palace; and the Small, Large, and New Hermitages. The Winter Palace was Russia’s imperial center of government from Peter the Great’s time until 1917.
Because there is so much to see, Holland America made an exception for our Russian stop: two days in St. Petersburg rather than the normal one-day per port. The city is so far north that its citizens spend much of the winter predominantly in the dark (November to March). But life returns in May, June, and July when the city is bathed in an eerie nocturnal translucence, which makes it difficult to sleep. There is an annual celebration called the “White Nights” (the sun is up 17-18 hours each day). We disembarked there on May 9, a national holiday in Russia, (“Victory Day.)” Since our ship was one of the first cruise ships to arrive for this season, they opened the Hermitage for us, even though it was closed for the holiday. It took us two days to see it. Thus the crowds that first day were extremely small (much different from the mobs that descend on it when cruise ships fill the harbor).
The only sour note of our visit had to do with the insolence of those who stamped our passports in the port of entry. We lost well over an hour of our day just moving through 30-40 people in our line alone. A jarring surprise had to do with the chasm between the opulent golden palaces of the city and the third world ugly Stalinist apartment complexes the average Russians are forced to exist in.
Other than that, the two days were glorious as we were privileged to tour the great St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The dome is covered with 200 pounds of pure gold. Inside, it is almost overwhelming, its grandeur and size reminding us of St. Peter’s in Rome. In fact, in the entire world, only St. Peter’s is larger.
And there was that incredible “Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood,” reminiscent of the 16th century Muscovite masterpiece, St. Basil’s. It was named for Czar Alexander II who had been mortally wounded here in 1881. Over 7,000 meters of dazzling mosaics make it a sight to see. Further out is the magnificent Peterhof Palace with its great cascade and golden sculpture of Samson tearing open the jaws of a lion. There are 144 fountains in the 1,500 acres, all operating without a single pump. Most all of the fountains are plastered with gold.
Even further out is the magnificent Catherine’s Palace [named for Peter the
Great’s wife]. We were overwhelmed as we walked awestruck, from room to room, with soaring columns of marble, gold plastered everywhere, and fortunes of precious stones. But one of the world’s greatest wonders has to do with the Amber Room. This priceless 18th century masterpiece was created for Friedrich I of Prussia’s palace in Berlin; his son gave it to Peter the Great in 1716. The Amber Room comprises six large oak wall panels (covering 592 square feet), inlaid with six tons of amber, and Italian mosaics containing precious stones. In 1941, the Nazi’s removed it to the German city of Königsberg where it was reportedly destroyed by RAF raids in 1944. In 1979, Russian craftsmen began the laborious task of reconstructing it. It took 20 long years to re-create it. The room was re-inaugurated in 2003. We were almost speechless as we drank in this so-called “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Only two days of our lives—but a lifetime of splendor experience in those 48 hours in that beautiful city called “The Venice of the North.”