Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia Trip
by John Fuhring
The last stop we made in Russia was St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad, now back to St. Petersburg again). Ever since the days of Peter the Great, St. Petersburg has been the intellectual, cultural and (until the Revolution) governmental capital of Russia. As you know Peter the Great in the early 1700’s wanted to transform a very backwards Russia to a more modern state so that the Industrial Revolution wouldn't leave it behind. He couldn't accomplish his reforms from Moscow because the backwards looking Russian nobility were too powerful there. Pete decided to build a European style city with a European style grand palace (as elegant as Versailles ) in a new place altogether. By the way, this grand palace is the famous Peterhof, also know as the Petrodvorets, that was built to rival the grandeur of the great European palaces and their elaborate palace gardens.
During WW II the Germans got as close to St. Petersburg as the Peterhof and utterly vandalized it. The palace was rebuilt after the war and restored to its original splendor, but very little of what you see is original. The story of how the palace was restored is fascinating from a technological and artistic standpoint. The Russians had nothing to go by except a collection of black and white photographs of the interior and exterior of the buildings, but by very clever analysis of the silver pigment of the photos, they were able to deduct the color scheme of the original wall hangings and tapestries. I have to say that I was very impressed by the quality and very fine detail of the workmanship that went into the restorations. It is hard to believe that the original Imperial workmen could have done as good a job. Where the Russian government got the money to, in essence, create a new Imperial Palace that hitherto only the Czar could afford, is a mystery to me. Remember this too, this wasn't the only place in Russia that was rebuilt and restored in a country that had been absolutely flattened by the invading German vandals. (By the way, at the time I was there the name 'Peterhof' was considered too German and the guides unerringly referred to the palace as the 'Petrodvorets.' The old name 'Peterhof' is now back in fashion starting a few years ago.)
Our guide at the Petrodvorets was a very pretty and vivacious young woman. She took us all though the palace both inside and outside, but when we got to the portrait gallery we saw something quite amusing. In the gallery was a large and detailed portrait of Peter the Great as a young Czar. Standing next to the life-sized painting, there was absolutely no mistaking the remarkable resemblance between our guide and Czar Peter himself. If she had been his daughter or even twin sister, the resemblance couldn't have been more remarkable. She seemed embarrassed when this obvious fact was pointed out, but I'm sure that, together with her excellent language skills and intelligence, this resemblance was an important factor in her getting a job as palace guide.
To change the subject, our hotel was at the end of a very famous street that appears in many Russian novels and poems called Nevsky Prospect. By the way, Nevsky Prospect and the Neva River itself is named after a very famous Russian hero and saint of the Orthodox Church, Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, who beat my ancestors in battle when he defeated the German Teutonic Knights on frozen Lake Peipus (known as the Battle of the Ice) in 1292. In 1938 the famous Sergei Eisenstein (with music composed by Sergei Prokofiev) made highly acclaimed movie 'Alexander Nevsky' to lift the depressed spirits of the Russian People who were alarmed by the seeming invincibility of the German Army in the war everybody knew was coming. The movie, as I remember it, drew unmistakableparallels between the Teutonic (German) Knights and the Nazis. T he common German soldiers captured in the battle wore the distinctively shaped helmets of the Wehrmacht and were shown as confused and frightened little men being humanely and generously treated by their huge, robust and good humored Russian captors.
Right across the street from our hotel was a little cemetery that contained the resting place of all the great Russian composers and writers predating the 20th Century. I am not a great culture buff, but I was surprised at how many of the names I recognized and how much of their music I had heard over the years. In the alley in back of the cemetery and out of sight of the main streets and sidewalks was this lane filled with beggars. I have never seen anything like this in my life. The beggars all had the most disfiguring and disgusting diseases and exhibited themselves for the greatest effect. One old guy appeared to have a case of untreated diabetes that had progressed to the stage of huge ulcers that extended down to the bones of his legs. Naturally, he was not shy in exposing himself to "medical" examination by passers-by. This was so unexpected because drunks and other public scandals are quickly whisked off the main streets by the police, but on the back roads and alleys you may find Lazarus begging as he has since the time of the Bible.
Our hotel on Nevsky Prospect was a huge modern affair and the best one we stayed at while in Russia. It would have been great except none of the lights (except in the bathroom) worked. We didn't miss the lights much though because it didn't get dark until after 11 PM. Of course we didn't have air conditioning or screens on the windows and so I had to listen all night long as my roommate played host to the mosquitoes that flew in for dinner from the nearby Neva River.
Of course the street vendors are everywhere in Russia and outside our hotel was no exception. Most of these street vendors belong to the "black market" and will take American Dollars or change dollars to rubles at much higher rates than the official exchange rate. They are polite and not too pesky, but will sometimes cheat you, especially if you bargain then down on items. I had "the old switcheroo" pulled on me a couple of times. I was warned against it, but I bought some Russian Beer out on the street for just a few pennies and people were right—it was worse than awful. One taste and that was enough.
Speaking of money, I brought five stacks of brand new one dollar bills. It really worked out great. The Russians love those dollar bills and a person can make a real good deal with those bills. Officially, all purchases are supposed to be in rubles and in Moscow the police enforce the law when they see people dealing in dollars. I made a deal with a street vendor in Moscow for what I wanted in dollars and we agreed to a price. I then stepped away, walked down the street, peeled off the required number of dollars, rolled them into a tight little cylinder and walked back to the vendor. I quietly handed him the roll, he looked at me kind of surprised, then smiled broadly and said "yes, thank you very much for understanding."
There in St. Petersburg we all paid extra money and had a caviar and Champaign lunch that was very good, but I was disappointed because Russian Champaign was not served (a good Spanish sparkling wine instead). Well, later we all took a evening cruse on the Neva river that included singing, dancing, vodka and real Russian Champaign. The singing was great, the dancing was great, the vodka was vodka, but the Russian Champaign was not to my taste. It took two shots of vodka before I could drink any of the stuff and even then it wasn't good. I don't know, maybe it was too dry (I hate bruit Champaign). I got a little drunk and my hosts knew it. They showed me this Cossack Army Greatcoat that was for sale and boy I wanted it, but I was still sober enough to know that the price was way too high. By the way, do you know that the word "vodka" is derived from the same word as "water." If you have ever watched Russians drinking it, you know why they call it water.
The Neva River flows through St. Petersburg and ships can tie up at many places. There are many draw bridges, but you have to be careful if you stay out too late at night because they raise the bridges around 1 AM and don't lower them until 8 AM so boat traffic can sail up and down the Neva River. I don't know what the actual incidents of violent crime might be in the Russian cites, but it must be considerably lower than in our cites because we were never warned not to be out late. Can you imagine walking around Los Angeles after dark and being trapped away from your hotel by a bridge being up? Fortunately LA doesn't have any bridges, but I'd not want to be out after dark in most places in LA.
St. Petersburg is another city that is wonderful to walk in. While walking along the Neva river with my roommate (Peter the not-great), near the Hermitage, I pointed to a fellow standing on the bridge of a tug boat tied up near by. I said to Peter, "hey! there's an old goat like you" since he had a beard very much like Peter's goatee. Peter looked up, waved and yelled something in Russian at the old guy in the tug boat. The old guy yelled something back and motioned for Peter to come aboard. About 15 - 20 minutes later Peter returned and I asked what that was all about. Peter said that he had had a very interesting chat with the captain of the tug boat and found out that he is a retired Russian Navy captain. He was a senior officer, but he couldn't live on his retirement so he had to go back to work as a tug boat captain. Peter asked me how much I thought he made a month as the captain of a boat. I had read a Time article before the trip so I guessed about 2,500 to 3,000 rubles which was almost exactly right (3,000 rubles). Believe it or not, at that time, that amounted to about $25.00 to $30.00 A MONTH (American money)!
Speaking of money, by our standards everything in Russia was incredibly cheap. Food, lodging and all kinds of goods sold on the streets and could be had for very little in American dollars. I bought a very nice quartz pocket watch that keeps perfect time for $6.00 and a new pair of officers boots (that will make good riding boots) for $15.00, but by Russian standards things are incredibly expensive because their money is just worthless. Just a couple of years ago the Communist government decreed that the Ruble was worth the same as an American dollar, today it is worth less than a penny on the black market. For a Russian, food is very expensive if bought in the open market. Because it is so expensive, many Russians are willing to wait in those incredible lines in those bare State stores for Government food. I guess it is possible to live on typical Russian wages if you don't mind waiting in those huge lines and can get by with not having much. Most all the essentials, entertainment, public transportation (less than 1 cent to go anywhere in Moscow on the subway) and apartment rent is very cheap and somehow the Russians are getting by (for now anyway).
Speaking of food, we ate very well on the trip. The food was plentiful but tended to be very heavy. The big meal is eaten at noon and is always served very elegantly with waiters, linen, china and silverware. Bottled water is always served since it is dangerous to drink tap water anywhere in Russia (especially in St. Petersburg).
One disappointment was that we didn't get to see the famous Mastodon that was found frozen in Siberia. We got the directions to the museum and made it down there, but it was closed for renovation. What a bummer! It seems that many years ago they found this and other Mastodons frozen in Siberia and I have even heard that there was once a dinner for famous explorers where Mastodon meat was served.
Before I quit writing about our stay in St. Petersburg, I just want to mention that historic buildings (like the palace of Catherine the Great, the famous Hermitage) and reminders of historical events may be seen everywhere. Military artifacts abound from the Napoleonic wars up to the present day. One of the more interesting (and larger) things to see is the Cruiser Aurora. The Aurora was commissioned in 1903. She is a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, WW 1, the Bolshevik Revolution and WW 2. Even though she is nearly 100 years old (now 107), the ship is pick and span and looks brand new, it is so well taken care of by the Russian Navy. It was the Aurora that fired into the Czar's summer palace that started the infamous October Revolution and in doing so, saved Lenin and his communists from certain defeat in 1917. Without the Aurora it is unlikely the communists would have come to power and how different the world might have been.
The last Russian city we passed through on our way to Finland was Vyborg, a city captured by the Russians during some war a long time ago. Time had not erased the architectural influences of Scandinavia and it looked very different from any Russian city we had visited. There was a large navy base nearby and many Russian sailors and their girlfriends were walking around. On a sidewalk was a big strapping body-builder of a fellow who obviously did a lot of "pumping iron." He was walking with a mixed group of young men and women, some in uniform. When he saw our bus (painted in garish colors) he knew we weren't Russians and were probably Americans (only about 1/2 of us were American). He put an ugly expression on his face and gave us a "one finger salute." I noticed several other sailors doing the same as we passed by. To tell the truth, I was not particularly offended. I was a sailor myself and if I would have seen a whole bus load of "wealthy Russians" going by gloating and laughing at my dismembered nation, I probably would have flipped them the bird too. Of course, nobody in my group ever laughed or gloated over what they saw in Russia. Once I did say to my guide that the consumer technology looked to me to be about the same as I remembered it as a kid 30 years ago (she replied that yes, they knew it, were very embarrassed and were working to do something about it).