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Published: November 15th 2009
Every trip has a distinctive beginnning, and what better way to start Russia than with a bureaucratic entry form that, if lost, could cause an indefinite barrier to exiting Russia. This is a very similar system to the United States, one of many similarities to ensue.
Upon my arrival in Saint Petersburg, I was immediately rejected by customs because I hadn't filled out the second half of the entry form marked "exit". My fault. It took less time overall to enter Russia than the United States...and I'm an American citizen. Go figure.
On our way from the airport to the hotel we were immediately confronted with real Russia. Saint Petersburg is often considered (and was designed to be this way in fact) the pretty European facade for an otherwise struggling nation. Real Russia was filled with scary, scary looking apartment complexes as Russia is an extremely urban nation...despite their vast space. Part of the Soviet plan was to move people to cities, even farmers, for a more communal, shared experience.
We also passed some Stalinist buildings and squares. Neoclassical in design and well built. We learned about the stark contrast between pre-Stalin Soviet era, Stalinism, and post-Stalinism. Culture
1, pre-Stalin was marked by the constructionist designs used in Europe and America...extremely simple buildings built for utility and with little attention to design (aka they all look extremely shitty). Notice these in the pictures.
Stalinist buildings include buildings with an imperial, neoclassical, powerful look to them and were extremely well made. Lots of government buildings are still housed in the Stalinist buildings. Despite the questionable policies and possible mass genocides undertaken by Stalin, he built good buildings.
We arrived at Hotel Москва right off Nevsky Prospect, one of the most central streets in Saint Petersburg. We turned in our passports to the hotel for registration with the hotel and the Russian government.
After a short break, we concluded the day with a rather extensive walking tour at night around Nevsky Prospect to our dinner at Cafe Jam, a traditional Russian restaurant, ran by two Danes. We used the metro to get to and from the cafe and what an interesting experience that is. If you've ever rode the London Underground you know how far down one must go to reach the trains...double that and it will be closer to the depth of the Saint Petersburg metro.
Due to the swampy, river filled area Saint Petersburg occupies, the metro could only be dug very far into the earth. So, you ride an escalator for 3 to 4 minutes to get there and back.
The food was delicious. I tried reindeer! I hope HyVee carries it at home. Russia cuisine is apparently known for its appetizers, which were very, very delicious. Other Russian staples include: Borsch, a beet soup that's awesome, and beef stroganoff. Our professor gave us all vodka shots and taught us how to be Russian. No mixing. Vodka shots straight down the throat followed immediately by a little food. The Russians eat all throughout drinking, they find American drinking without food silly.
After a sound sleep, we woke up to a breakfast buffet hodgepodge which I later found out was not Russian at all, no need to elaborate. We started the day with a bus sight-seeing tour of the city all the way to the infamous Peter and Paul Fortress and Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral are all the Russian Czars and royal families since Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in
the early 18th century. Nicholas the II, the last czar of Russia, was murdered along with his entire family during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918. They were originally haphazardly buried in the woods but in the reconstruction of the Russian state in 1991, the Romanov family was moved into the cathedral and Nicholas was annoited to sainthood, the federation's way of closing a very painful memory of the Soviet consequence.
One member of the royal family, Empress Marie Fedorovna, the consort of Alexander III fled Russia prior to the murder and lived in her native Denmark (she's part of the Danish royal family) but was considered a black sheep in all of Europe...no one royal house wanting to take her as a refugee. Thus, she lived in seclusion in Hillerød, where I live currently. She did not attend Danish state functions and was originally buried in Roskilde Cathedral before being repatriated to Russia in an elaborate ceremony to rejoin her with her husband. You may be questioning the importance of her story...all DIS trips point out Danish connections across Europe haha.
We dined for lunch at a super trendy Russian restaurant on delicious starters and borsch. In Russia,
it's considered rude to not check your coat at the door, don't worry: it's free. I especially liked this...in Russia you're always with your coat and it's nice to not have it on your chair during a meal.
In the afternoon, we toured sections of Saint Petersburg mentioned in Dostoevsky's ( A famour Russian author) works. Our professor, an avid Dostoevsky fan, whizzed us around the city to see the houses believed to be used for his characters' homes and scenes of action. What I got out of it: great canal pictures.
Being in Russia is not scary, they aren't evil communists, and they are actually quite nice people. That being said, their command of English is somewhere between the French's and the Italian's command of the language. They know a little, aren't against English like the French, but aren't nearly as fluent as the Italians. Couple this with the fact that their language is not only not connected with Latin, a Romance language, let alone English, but it is written in a completely separate alphabet: Cyrillic. Knowing this, you'll understand why when my friends and I had to provide dinner on our own we headed to an
The food was delicious and for a beautiful meal on the main street I got it for approximately $12 (348 rubles). Steal. Love outside-of-Copenhagen prices 😊 We ended the day splitting a $3.27 bottle of Champagne. The Russian cost of living is only rivaled by the United States and Eastern Europe haha.
The next day, we started with a "Behind the facade" tour of Saint Petersburg led by a local Russian journalist, a friend of our professor. The city was founded by Peter the Great, the first czar of Russia to ever study outside Russia and spend any considerable time abroad. So taken with how Western Europe was living, he decided in 1703 to build his own European city right on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, furthermore on land obtained from the Finns only shortly before. The Russians thought he was nuts but the city was built and is an extremely perfect example of the European Grand Manner style. Large connecting avenues, perfectly aligned streets at neat angles, beautiful vistas all adorn the city which was 100% planned, something completely unique to a city it's size and importance (Saint Petersburg is the 4th largest
city in Europe).
The tour sought to show another side of Saint Petersburg, one that is behind the pretty European exterior. Petersburg buildings are built with a series of backyards connecting each other. Behind the street facade, the backyards are no where near as pretty and indicate a definite prioritization of the street facade. We also went to a local doughnut and coffee shop, a place once coveted by the Soviet people, as it was the only public restaurant basically allowed to exist. I had the best coffee I've ever had in my entire life. Too bad it's in Saint Petersburg and not at school...
Next, we visited a Russian food market, completely indoors. There were Russian minority workers (so said the journalist) working the different counters where they packaged the pickled goods, spices, or vegetables you wanted to buy. Then we visited the Russian chocolate counter where we learned all about famous Russian chocolates which are very tasty.
We then visited a communal apartment left over from the Soviet era. It was something that I thought I had prepared myself for, but it was completely shocking to actually see it. The Soviet government decided that in
order for everyone to be able to fit in an urban setting that they would allocate people to rooms based on square meters of space. In the smallest of spaces you would find 3 to 5 people. In order to create these communal apartments, the government took the "wealthy" apartments in central Saint Petersburg and destroyed their interiors into seven to eight mini-dorm like apartments which shared a bathroom and a small, small kitchen. When we entered the stairwell to the flat, you could still see the beautiful, ornate leftovers of how the apartments used to look before they were converted into Soviet slums.
This type and style of living was introduced in order to promote social contiguity and community among the people. Unfortunately this ideal turned into social stress in such cramped conditions. Because the tenants usually had no incentive to clean for their neighbors, you would see (and we did see) stoves that were shared by two families where half the stove is clean. Bathrooms would sometimes have seven or eight light switches and lightbulbs because each family wanted to pay for exactly only their share of the light bill. To this day, communal apartments can be
pointed out from the street because their windows are always dirty where a renovated, single apartment does not.
On the positive side, these communal apartments are starting to disappear, but it's a slow process. Due to the fact that these apartments are literally owned by 7 to 8 separate people, it's difficult to get them all together to sell out. About 20% of Saint Petersburg still has them but they've been mostly reconverted back into livable apartments.
To conclude our behind the scenes tour, we visited what during the Soviet Era was a gold mine for getting goods not sold in the strictly controlled stores. Consignment shops are the closest way of describing these thrift stores where you would either sell on consignment your old goods or buy some old or interesting treasure. There were countless Soviet, pre-Soviet, and modern relics: from records, to war uniforms, to lamps.
We had lunch at a quirky little restaurant that kind of took the Applebee's idea of stuff on the wall and went a little crazy with it. The bathroom was interesting: there were 8 or 9 locks on the door. I used two: risky, I know.
five course lunch, we sprinted over to the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, the art museum inside the palace. I paid 200 rubles so I could take pictures inside. Enjoy them. We toured through the grand, grand palace rooms. Russia is a great country and has lots to boast, and it did/does. The sheer wealth of the nation is evident, despite it's problems. The Hermitage also has some great art collections, including two Leonardo da Vinci paintings which I instantly recognized.
After my friends and I dined at the Irish pub across from the Opera House, we attended Le Corsaire at the Saint Petersburg Opera House: a grand, studded affair. It was one of the most awesome experiences. Russia is said to seem to have very 19th century entertainment in relationship to the rest of Europe...if this was an example of it, it was was very cool! The ballet was entertaining and beautifully well done. No one regretted their high ticket price.
Back down the metro and back to the hotel! As we tried to go to bed, Russian 12 year olds on a school trip begged us for vodka. You know there is a drinking problem when
12 year olds are doing this. Later, the 12 year old girls carried the 12 year old boys back to their rooms; they had passed out.
Welcome to the first three days of Russia.
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