Former USSR | Russian Federation | St Petersburg – Notes
The all day and all night train to St. Petersburg was hot and cramped. I hadnt much room to manoever in the couple of feet between my bunk and the ceiling, but I had the latest Nick Cave and Radiohead for company, so time fairly hurtled along. There were no customs checks between Belarus and Russia, which was nice.
We arrived at the station at 6AM, but I didnt know which station. The place was curiously lacking in signs, or maybe my Cyrillic script decoding wasnt up to scratch yet. Having unwisely neglected to furnish myself with Russian roubles in advance, I couldnt get down into the metro. So I wandered around huge barren streets in the halflight until I nearly walked into a 14 tall Dostoevsky. I found him on my map. It was only a short stroll to the ATM and the Nevsky Prospekt. Soon I had a gooey burger and some grainy coffee down me, and I was feeling much more awake. The hostel was only round the corner. I was in Petersburg and all was good.
For the first few days I just kept on walking. There was plenty to see without paying in anywhere. Even fighting my way down the Nevsky was an experience. Baroque buildings, pirated CD-roms, thousands of rushing Russians, glossy hotels, dirty Roma kids, intricate bridges, snarling traffic, neon kebab joints, classical cathedrals, Japanese tourists, its got it all. And more. I had to check myself from spinning around. Sometimes I just sat and watched.
Within strolling distance was the stately Winter Palace on the Neva, the fantastic colouredy many domed Church of the Resurrection of Christ, a huge bronze Peter the Great, the golden roofed St. Isaacs Cathedral and loads of curious little nooks and crannies, ripe for exploring. I wasnt bored.
Then I made up my own Commie tour. Im not sure why, but Im fascinated by the Bolsheviks. I brought a book about Russian history with me to read while I was there. Lenin and friends were so sure they were doing the right thing, even though they were clearly power-crazed madmen with so little public support they immediately had to start killing everyone who was agin ’em. They werent far from a disorganised rabble. But they got control of the biggest country in the world. Its strange how easy things are sometimes.
I started with Kirovs house. Kirov was a prominent contemporary of Stalin, who came to a mysterious and sticky end. You can see for yourself just how sticky; the clothes he was wearing when he was shot are on display, complete with bullet hole in cap and bloody jacket. You can also see his library and the bed where Stalin used to stay in the old days. It was all in Russian so I wouldnt have known what I was looking at, only a friendly lady noticed my puzzlement and showed me around in English.
Just down the road is the Museum of Political History. With a name like that its gotta be exciting. And it is. Theres loads of propoganda posters exhorting good comrades to bigger and better things, and a re-make of Lenins office. I also strolled by the old KGB and Communist Party HQs, but they wouldnt let me in. Moored by the Neva is the Cruiser Aurora, who fired in the air and scared Kerensky into giving up in October 1917, letting the Bolsheviks in the back door. Popular revolution my arse.
Then I did a Dostoevsky tour. Im a big fan, so this was a great thrill for me. I started at his old house. There were two small exhibitions; one explaining his books, tother his life. They give you a walkman in English for a guide, which is what you want. I saw the chair he died in, and learnt a lot. He was a strange guy. Maybe one day.
Then I followed in the footsteps of Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. I didnt have an axe under my coat [unfortunately], as I walked purposefully by the Yusopov Gardens, across what used to be the Haymarket, past the MacDonalds, along the Griboedova Canal, and up the stairs to the door of the flat where the curious student cleaved the old ladys head open to see what would happen. Its strange the things people do. Sometimes I think Im a Napoleon.
All the people who know say the Hermitage is the must see in Petersburg. Which made me wary, but I had to go. Theres over an hours queue, so I had time to finish the history book. Inside the Hermitage is an overwhelming variety of treasure spread over five buildings and thousands of rooms. They let the public into about four hundred. In one theres a mummified two thousand year-old horse. In another a carriage made of gold for a tsar. Theres a very important collection of Western European classic art, with the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Degas, Picasso et al present. All the best names.
Even the rooms the stuff is kept in are fabulous. I thought it was all too much. Id have much rather cleared the ballroom out and got a game of indoor football going. Youd have to be careful about the chandeliers, but it could be done. Itd be better than walking round for hours in a daze, looking at treasure after treasure, and feeling it all flow right over my head.
It seemed like people were just looking at the things they were supposed to, and assuming the position of respectful awe, without knowing why. I met an Aussie guy at the hostel who spent two whole days there standing and looking at stuff, and was going back for more. But it wasnt for me.
There were plenty more museums I could have visited [you cant swing a cat in Petersburg without hitting a museum], but most I just walked on by. There were a couple more that interested me though. I wanted to see Peter the Greats freak collection [18th century two headed foetuses etc.], but the ethnography museum was always either closed or hidden behind a massive queue. It seems people like freaks. I did see a woolly mammoth in the zoological museum, which was pretty cool, but not as big as Id hoped. But that was it.
I went on a couple of day trips out of the city, to Petrodvorets and Kronstadt. There are loads of organised tours, but taking public transport in Russia is all part of the experience. Theres no timetable; the bus goes when its full. But it’s much less rouble intensive.
Petrodvorets is a plethora of ornate palaces and manicured gardens and bubbling fountains built for Peter the Great. Its a pity it was raining. I did get to dip my foot in the Gulf of Finland though. Its a long way from Dubrovnik to there. Kronstadt is Peters old naval base, which is now home to newer warships. Its on an island 29km from the coast, and visitors have only been allowed in since 1996. Maybe thats because what was on show of the Russian fleet didnt look over impressive. Or maybe not.
I ate well in Petersburg, but before I deciphered the menus, ordering was an adventure. Id just point at the most likely looking group of Cyrillic letters. Generally what arrived was edible. But soon I was choosing shashliks and zharkoe and bliny like there was no tomorrow. I was a big fan of Cafe Idiot, which as well as having Dostoevskian associations, has complimentary vodka with every order.
Old Petersburgs glory is well faded. Half the buildings are falling apart, the other half covered in scaffolding [except the glossy hotels]. The city will be 300 years old in 2003, so theyre giving it a bit of a spruce up. Theres plenty of work to keep them busy.
The cracked footpaths are jammers with young and old, rich and poor, healthy and rotting. Petersburg has its fair share of drunks and neer do wells. The traffic is mental and on every corner theres a car with its bonnet up and a few guys standing around scratching their heads and adding to the general mayhem. The metro is a handy way of escaping, the best place to shop for toothpaste, beer, CDs and other necessities and home to gangs of Roma kids. I found one little scamp with her hand in my pocket. I couldnt give her my wallet or my passport. I needed them. She ran away.
My time in Petersburg was a bit of a whirlwind. Its noisy and overfull. But thats what I wanted. It was an exciting and tiring week on the streets, but it was fun.