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We Discover Northern Europe, #5 – Russia

November 9, 2016

Russia: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery
inside an enigma.”
—Winston Churchill

Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci
Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci

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.

A Gallery in the Hermitage

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.

Portrait of Saskia by Rembrandt
Portrait of Saskia by Rembrandt


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).

Samson and Lion fountain at Peterhof
Samson and Lion fountain at Peterhof

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.

St. Isaac's Cathedral
St. Isaac’s Cathedral

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.

Church of Spilt Blood
Church of Spilt Blood

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

St. Catherine's Palace
St. Catherine’s Palace

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.”

The Amber Room in St. Catherine's Palace
The Amber Room in St. Catherine’s Palace

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.”

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We Discover Northern Europe #3 — Estonia

October 19, 2016

Estonia City View - from, "Insight Guides" to Baltic States
Estonia City View – from “Insight Guides” to Baltic States

All our lives, we’d heard about the three fascinating Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; three small neighboring Northern European countries that have shared histories, similar geographies, different languages, and separate identities. They lie between Scandinavia to the north, Poland to the south, and Finland and Russia to the east. Their combined total land mass is only 67,000 square miles, about the size of Oklahoma—even smaller than Austria. Although they are much alike, they are also distinctively different from each other. According to Insight Guide editors, Lithuanians are stereotypically the most outgoing and nationalistic. Latvians are the most rural in outlook; because Russia did its utmost to swallow up its identity, today only 60% of Latvians are Latvian rather than Russian. Estonia is more influenced by Scandinavia. Under the heading of “Showing Affection” in the guidebook is this thought-provoking paragraph:

Old Town Fortress
Old Town Fortress

“Estonians have mastered the art of being impeccably polite without being friendly. Friendship, for them, is for life…. Despite their differences, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are united by a love of nature and the outdoors. Admittedly, they enjoy it in different ways. Lithuanians will drive their car to a beauty spot and blast their surroundings with pop music, whereas Latvians will organize barbecues or swimming parties. Estonians tend to regard such habits with horror, going to great lengths to find a truly solitary spot where they can sit in silence.”


Walking to Old Town
Walking to Old Town

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, it was only possible for us to visit one of the three: Tallinn, the fairytale capitol of Estonia. It was a heartstoppingly beautiful blue-sky day when the Zuiderdam arrived. It took some getting used to for us to shake off distance misconceptions. Tallinn is only 53 miles from Helsinki, Finland; and 80 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia. This close proximity to giants such as Russia has resulted in a tragic past for the Baltic States. Every time Russia sneezes, they shudder. This is one reason they pay so much attention to U. S. politics, for if Russia should once again swallow them up, if the U.S. refuses to honor its treaties, one gobble and they’d be erased from the face of the map.

But it’s not just Russia that has dominated Estonia. The first conquerors wereestonia-alexander-nevsky-cathedral-scan the Danes; since the Estonians held off 1,000 ships, Denmark called in Teutonic Knights; together, in 1227, they took over Estonia. Sweden was next, but proved so repressive that Estonians turned to Peter the Great. By 1721, Russia was firmly in control. Estonia remained subjugated for 270 years until on August 20, 1991, with Russian tanks rolling into Tallinn, Estonia formally declared its independence. Thus, Estonia has only been independent for a paltry 25 years in its entire history!

Tallinn is a medieval walking town with      meandering cobblestone streets. Unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to stay long in the lovely old city. Apparently, it is today being loved to death by Russians, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Germans, and Danes—just for starters. Yet, in spite of it all, Estonians revel in their newly won freedom.

Just as was true of the Danes, Estonians were all outdoors, savoring the early May sunshine. They are so far north, Northern Europe is, that they have very long gloomy winters, with precious little sunshine. Consequently, when May comes, no one wants to stay indoors!

It was with great reluctance that we watched Tallinn receding from view, vowing to return in order to explore more of those three magical little nations, each reveling in its new-found freedom.

Toompea Castle