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Published: June 22nd 2017
Geo: 59.939, 30.3158
This morning, we headed off to Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great that he constructed to outdo Versailles. He didn't succeed, at least in terms of the building. The gardens, however, were spectacular, with hundreds of fountains, all of which were powered only by gravity. When Peter talked to Louis XV, he took note that Louis was frustrated at having to constantly fix the pumps at the Versailles fountains. Peter was determined to pick a location where pumps would not be necessary. In this he succeeded.
On the way to Peterhof, we had some interesting discussions with Natalia. She pointed out the factory where the 1905 workers' protest originated. In a peaceful protest at the Winter Palace, unarmed workers were shot under orders of Nicholas II. This was a precursor to the 1917 Revolution.
Natalia also discussed with us the later life of Svetlana Stalin, Josef's daughter. She mentioned "Stalin was never popular with the common people" and "He was suffering from paranoid disease." Power + paranoia = not good. Svetlana managed to escape the Soviet Union under the pretense of scattering her second husband's ashes in India, but while there, sought asylum at the U.S. embassy. Though she
was under KGB surveillance, the U.S. managed to sneak her out and onto U.S. soil. Natalia did not speak favorably about Svetlana's decisions, as she abandoned two young children in the U.S.S.R. Today, Svetlana resides in rural Wisconsin, and her American born daughter is an employee of Wal-Mart.
It was news to the history majors that Stalin was actually not Russian, but Georgian, and spoke Russian with an accent. It was nice to have a discussion about history and politics rather than art.
Another random Natalia quote: "Here in Russia, anyone who has land grows potatoes." We nodded.
We stopped for a visit to a "model Russian village" sponsored by Volkswagen and Kraft Foods. There were various buildings designed to represent different aspects of rural life, agriculture, and livestock.
Then, we arrived at Peterhof. Unlike the Winter Palace, that had been retrofitted into a museum, Peterhof has been painstakingly restored after its near destruction by the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name always used for WWII). Again, we noted that European royals shared many expectations in the world of comfort, as well as gathering a wide variety of goods from other countries. In Peterhof, we saw Delft tile furnaces (Holland), a
portrait of Queen Victoria, and a bust of Julius Caesar.
One of our favorite rooms was the oak paneled study of Peter the Great. Peter clearly had a sense of humor, as evidenced by the "trick fountains." Innocent passers-by risked being sprayed with water on the Road of Rain, the mushroom umbrella, and the tree and tulips. What a funny guy, we thought, until we remembered he ordered the execution of his own son, Alexi. Maybe he suffered from the paranoid disease, too.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the gardens. Near the Gulf of Finland, Peter constructed a nice "beach house." Inside, and on the table, was a large crystal container. It was kept full of vodka. If someone showed up late for a meeting, he was forced to drink the entire contents. Vodka has had a lot of uses in Russian history, ranging from tax revenue to punishment.
On our way back to St. Petersburg, our van was pulled over by a police officer. One of our guidebooks, called "Top Ten St. Peterburg" listed off the top ten things to avoid. Number one: police. We were advised not to even make eye contact with the individuals our
previous guide called, "road rubbish." Our driver, Slava, was detained for "documents check" for about 15 minutes in the squad car. We suspect he paid a bribe, and we were on our way. It was unsettling.
More political discussion ensued, with Natalia asking us about the U.S. and also sharing her views on things. She said that Russians were shocked at Obama's election, because "he is black" and, while in California, she observed some racist behavior. She also shared that most Russians do not believe Osama bin Laden was killed. "Too little evidence and no body," she remarked.
Back in St. Petersburg, we regrouped at our hotel and then went out for a nice dinner at another outdoor restaurant that was so popular a reservation was required. It was called Tepto, and though pricey compared to other places we have eaten, it was a great place to spend our last night in St. Petersburg.
As we prepare to leave Russia tomorrow evening for Riga, Latvia, here are some of our thoughts and observations about our time here:
1. The Cyrillic alphabet is really something.
2. Modern Russia walks a balance between repudiating the Soviet past and walking lightly into a capitalistic future.
you want to eat food, be ready for dill. It is the universal Russian seasoning.
4. If you want to visit a lavra, be ready for onion domes. They are the universal Russian religious rooftop.
5. If you want to wipe your hands, be ready for cocktail napkins. They are the universal Russian clean up tool.
6. If you seek a friendly, international city, visit St. Petersburg. For something else, visit Moscow.
7. Be prepared for random traffic and pedestrian stops. Have your documents in order.
8. The rules of the road are, the road rules. Pedestrians, stand back.
9. Construction during the Soviet Era was probably managed by the Chicago Housing Authority.
10. Even when squinting one's eyes and gazing off into the distance, Sarah Palin is not visible.
Thanks for reading. It will probably be 48 hours before we are back. Until we meet again, da svidanya!
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