Russia is a shadow of its past glory. It is no longer the common name of a vast empire of smaller countries. It is no longer the incredible super-power that looked the US in the eye without ever blinking. It, in a sense, has returned to its roots, still a vast nation, but searching inward rather than outward for fulfillment. Join me on a tribute to the best that Russia offers the tourist. Then check out the photo album which follows.
1. St Petersburg
St Petersburg, Russia, is an elegant and cultured city which has endured much Tsarist history and the consequences thereof. Lately, however, after years of deterioration and neglect, it has reemerged to its royal splendor. The city, sometimes called the “Venice of the North” is built on 42 islands, part of the delta of the Neva River as it empties into the Baltic Sea. Its grand palaces and regal facades can be best appreciated by strolling the streets, especially along the Nevsky Prospekt, a wide, imperial avenue which stretches for three miles through the most elegant part of the city. Walk into Palace Square and admire the regal Winter Palace, now one of the most famous museums in the world, the Hermitage.
Besides its extensive collection of masterpieces, including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael, El Greco, Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir, and many others, the Hermitage building is an incredible attraction itself, for this vast collection is housed in the Winter Palace, the urban residence of Russian rulers from Catherine the Great (1762) to the premature end of the reign of Nicholas II, during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The palace’s 1000+ rooms are dripping with opulence. Several must see areas include the Malachite Room, with its columns made from the green gem, the Great Throne Room, with its bronze and marble, and the Gallery of the 1812 War, with portraits of the generals who took part in the war against Napoleon.
In the museum itself, the first floor contains ancient art, including relics from Egyptian, Greek, and Roman eras. It also houses the Treasure Gallery(Golden Room), which contains precious gems, jewelry, gold and silver.
The second floor houses primarily European Art, especially of the Renaissance. Because the Russians loved the French, there is a particularly large collection of French art.
The third floor houses more recent art, including the Impressionists, sculptures by Rodin, paintings of Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, and many others.
Because of its immensity, it is easy to spend the better part of a whole day in the museum. Purchase a multi-access ticket which allows the visitor into the Hermitage, the Treasure Gallery, the wooden Winter Palace of Peter the Great, and the Menshikov Palace.
There are many churches in the city which are significant and worthy of a visit. In particular, St Isaac’s Cathedral, with its 16 foot thick walls and golden dome (45 pounds worth), the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, whose name derives from the assassination of Tsar Alexander II which took place on this spot in 1881 — its many colored domes and mosaics are modeled after St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Kazan Cathedral, and Smolny Cathedral.
The Peter and Paul Fortress, built for the defense of the city, was used as a prison and has an ominous past. It is now a museum.
There are also many fine palaces outside the city which make great day trips. Most important is the Peterhof Palace, located about 20 miles west of St Petersburg, which was constructed in the early 1700’s by Peter the Great as his Summer Palace. Here, the grounds of the palace are perhaps more significant than the buildings.
In the Lower Park, visitors will be impressed by the Great Cascade, an integrated collection of waterfalls, fountains, and gilded statues, and amused by the “trick fountains” which may spray water on unsuspecting individuals who step on a particular stone in the path. (Kids will love it, especially in summer!). Above the Lower Park is the Bolshoi Dvorets, a sumptuous house which has a commanding view of the entire complex.
The Upper Park is not as interesting or fanciful, and is basically a formal garden with a central fountain, the Neptune Fountain.
The main palace building has several notable rooms, including the Audience Hall, the ultimate in Baroque design, the Chinese Study Rooms, the Picture Gallery, with paintings by the Italian artist Rotari, the Throne Room, with its beautiful parquet floors and splendid chandeliers, and the Oak Study Room, the only vestige of Peter’s original design, since the rest of the palace was remodeled extensively.
Also worthy of a day trip are the Pushkin Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, which contains the magnificent Catherine Palace, with its Golden Gallery, Amber Room, and Ballroom, and finally the Pavlovsk Palace, with its English-style garden.
Moscow is the capital of Russia and was the center of Communism from 1917 till its ultimate downfall in 1991. It is a fairly somber city, without the exuberance of many world capitals, but this is changing. A nationalistic spirit is emerging which will probably transform the city as well.
The city’s focal point is still, and will always be, Red Square. It is both red and beautiful. However, it is difficult for the tourist to forget the menacing reputation of the Kremlin, the vast, walled center of government and Lenin’s Mausoleum, which is still revered and visited. It is a grim reminder of Russia’s dark past. Within the walled Kremlin, there are numerous buildings, some of which may be visited. Highlights include the Armory Palace, now a museum, the Annunciation Cathedral, which was once the private chapel of the Royal Family, the Cathedral of the Archangel, which is the burial place for many Russian rulers from before the 1700’s, and several towers.
More fanciful and less ominous is the spectacular St Basil’s Cathedral, a fantasy of brightly colored domes. St Basil’s Cathedral also known as the Church of the Intercession, located on Red Square, in the center of Moscow, was built in the 1500’s at the direction of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, who, as the legend goes, put out the eyes of the architect so that nothing as beautiful could ever be built again. The exterior certainly dazzles and is especially beautiful at night when soft lighting augments its beauty. The interior is disappointing, probably because of the dramatic contrast with its ethereal outside.
Another icon of Moscow is the Bolshoi Theater, which is magnificently crafted and still in use as a ballet and concert venue. Try to attend a performance while in the city.
Other worthwhile sights, on the perimeter of the city, include the Donskoy Monastery which contains Khrushchev’s grave, and the New Maiden’s Convent, with its several churches.
Probably the most worthwhile excursion from Moscow is northeast to an area known as the Golden Ring, a group of villages with considerable charm which have preserved much of their old Russian architecture and history. The most significant of these villages are Vladimir and Suzdal. Others include Sergiyev Posad, Rostovm Yaroslavl, and Kostroma. The tourist attractions within each town tend to center around their churches and Kremlins (citadels). A popular way to sample at least some of these villages is via a Volga River cruise.
Be sure to check out Moscow’s Metro stations. Their architecture is interesting and unusual, and they display thoroughly enjoyable capsules of Russia.