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TOO EARLY OR TOO LATE?
A Visit to the Russian Federation
By Stewart Hume
 
Stewart Hume, San Francisco


Copyright© 2007 Stewart Hume. All Rights Reserved.
The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or
otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Stewart Hume.

info@protocolprofessionals.com


   
   


 

Church of the Resurrection in
St. Petersburg

 

 

Tsarkoye Selo - Catherine's Palace St. Petersburg

 
 

 

Peterhof and Fountain. St. Petersburg

 


 

Churches and Bell Tower at Kizhi

 


 

A bride at the Kremlin
Bell Tower in Moscow

 
 

 


Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed in Moscow

 
 
 
 

Kremlin Walls, Moscow

St. Petersburg:

It is a work in progress. Much has been done and much remains to be done. We were lucky on the
weather – three days of bright sunshine and only one gloomy day. Not bad for a city that claims to only
get 60 days of sunshine in a whole year.

One soon notices much congestion of people – crowds everywhere and sometimes gridlock traffic. For anyone with claustrophobia, this could present a problem. There were hordes of tourists, especially in and around the most important places to see – the Hermitage of course and Peterhof. We were warned to beware of pickpockets. They operate in both of these famous places. At least one of our fellow passengers lost her wallet with money and credit cards but not her passport. She had become momentarily distracted by the mysterious fountains in the gardens of Peterhof. This is the area where one had to speculate on when the water would spout up and sprinkle you. What a beautiful place this is! No wonder there are mobs of tourists wandering about the palace gardens snapping photographs. In midsummer the gardens are in full bloom – spectacular!

The Hermitage lived up to expectations, although some of the paintings were not well displayed and some were not well restored. Our group was allowed to enter an hour and a half early. Later came the general public and a crescendo of milling mobs maneuvering to observe the great paintings on display. One needs several days in this gallery to really see most of the great works here. There is a large collection of the impressionists. Matisse and Van Gogh have their own rooms, but they are not my favorites. The Russians are proud and pleased to have this huge collection, second only to Paris. There were some great works by Paul Gauguin (he had his own room too). Spain seemed under-represented (most of the best are in the Prado), but there were three beauties by Velasquez (always my favorite). Peter the Great had superb taste and plenty of money to indulge it. So did Empress Catherine the Great. Restoring their palaces is a forever project. So many beautiful things were destroyed by the Nazis. In 60 years, much restoration work has been done. Fortunately, Russia has a multitude of artisans able to accomplish incredible things – remolding the plaster filigree designs of the high Baroque period, slathering on pounds of gold leaf to revive Peter's lavish palaces and churches. In most other countries, this kind of work on such a massive scale could simply not be done at any price. The gold leaf work alone is beyond spectacular, sometimes too much of a good thing. No wonder the Revolution happened. The “haves” had way too much and the “have nots” had little or nothing and mostly starved or froze to death.

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World War II was also a horrible happening – way beyond what we in the west could possibly imagine. So many wonderful things were blown up or otherwise destroyed. Over a million residents of Leningrad died of starvation and the sub-zero temperatures (40 below) during that terrible winter (1943). Even after all these years, the horror stories about the Siege of Leningrad persist.

One of the “irresistible optional tours” to do in St. Petersburg was to go to the ballet at the Hermitage Theater. Giselle was given for the tourists. Comments about the dancers were modest enough. We knew we were not going to experience Pavlova or Nureyev. Most of Russia's better dancers were on tour in Europe or elsewhere. Even so, we thought we should see the jewel box theater so popular with Catherine the Great. Anyway, for me it was a big disappointment. The design is amphitheater style, but the sight lines from the sides are bad, and the acoustics so alive as to be painfully loud at times.

 

The real jewel box theater can be found in the Yusupov Palace. It is very small but so beautiful in design and decor. One longed to see a performance there. The rest of the Yusupov was also very impressive although many of the best works of art had been sent to the Hermitage. Our guide led us to believe that Prince Yusupov and his family made some efforts to compete socially with the Romanovs, and they had the means to put on a grand show. One of their greatest accomplishments was to plot the murder of the hated Rasputin in 1916. By that time, the days of the aristocracy were numbered, and the Revolution was soon to follow. A trip to the Yusupov Palace should be a must for anyone visiting St. Petersburg.

How was the food in “Mother Russia”? Quite good most of the time and very healthy too. All but three of our meals were enjoyed on our ship, the “Litvinov”. There were salads with every lunch and dinner – more cucumbers than I wanted – and for some reason beets (which I love) were hard to come by. The legendary Russian ice cream was served but not often enough to suit me. Breakfast was a large buffet designed to satisfy the diverse international passenger assemblage.

A brief word about our fellow passengers. Compared to other cruises, usually on much larger ships, the majority were quite delightful and interesting to converse with. There was a considerable diversity of countries represented. Most had traveled rather a lot and could recount varied and interesting experiences. River cruising is very different from ocean cruising – no worries about seasickness if you have such a thing. I missed the rock and roll of the high seas, but Jane, my wife, was very happy with the calm waters of the rivers and lakes we traversed on this trip.

If I may be permitted an etiquette observation, there were a few fellow passengers, with less than Queensberry manners and decorum. They had spent years over indulging and had no idea how to dress appropriately. Did they ever look in a mirror? Or, had they just given up?

Our ship, the “Litvinov”, was pleasant enough in most ways. But the cabins were very compact and one had to be inventive in storing one's clothing and personal items. The beds were sort of cots, adequate but far from luxurious. Duvets were used instead of blankets, but the latter with real sheets were available if desired. The air conditioning seemed to be either too warm (and stuffy) or too chilly (and drafty). The window could be opened for fresh air -- a good idea unless heavy winds came up as they did a couple of times on the lakes. The weather was just about perfect most of the time, especially on the rivers. Sailing along, the scenery was really beautiful with endless groves of birch trees, lush and green and white. The bright days were quite spectacular with beautiful sunshine and dramatic clouds drifting by.

We passengers of the “Litvinov” were treated to some excellent musical entertainment. During the cruise, several concerts were provided by Galina, Sergey and Tamara. They were a family of fine musicians. In the US, I think Galina might hold her own as a concert pianist, but in Russia such artists are commonplace. And so, we enjoyed hearing Rachmaninoff, Chopin and even Liszt played incredibly well by the exuberant Galina. Her husband played joyously on the accordion and synthesizer. Their daughter played the violin and sang nicely. After arriving in Moscow, we were treated to a special concert by an orchestra of folk instruments, including several balalaikas. This large group was rather overwhelming for “Rakhmaninov Hall”, but we enjoyed hearing them. As with the many artists and artisans, Russia is extremely rich in first class musicians.

I make special mention now about Professor Inna Gritsenko. The word soon got out that her lectures (4 of them) were not to be missed. Hers was a crash course in the last 200 years or so of Russian history. Always fashionably dressed, her vocal delivery was rather low key but absolutely spellbinding in content. Her presentations were standing room only in Rakhmaninov Hall. Yes, that is the way they spelled it!

Our first stop (after four glorious days in St Petersburg) was Mandrogi – an attempt to create an authentic 18th century Russian village. This turned out to be a kind of American Williamsburg or Solvang gone wrong. There were handicraft exhibits and gift shops on a grand scale. But, how many babushka dolls do you need to see? We couldn't find the “Quail Farm” shown on the map. Lunch at Mandrogi was meant to be authentic country fare. It began with a straight shot of vodka. Then came beet soup and bread, then Shashlyk (pork kebab with vegetables and potatoes) followed by a berry pie concoction. This was not our most memorable meal in Russia.

Soon, we were back on the Neva River and eventually Lake Ladoga. The scenery continued to be spectacular, with the shoreline loaded with lush green trees and pristine fields. Dramatic cloud formations rolled by. Our next stop was Kizhi Island on Lake Onega (second largest in Europe). This port of call is not to be missed! There were endless photo ops – historic wooden structures, almost beyond description. This was old, rustic Russia as one would like to imagine it.

 

The next stop was Goritsy – to see the village and the Monastery of St. Cyrill (founded in 1397). Again we were blessed with fabulous weather and smooth sailing to and from. This was an interesting place and of course about 200 of our fellow passengers accompanied us. We went through in groups of 18 people, each having an English speaking guide. Most of these guides were quite knowledgeable and articulate.

The next day, we stopped at Yaroslavl, one of the few disappointments of the cruise. This was quite an important city of about 600,000 people, founded 997 years ago. It was briefly the capital of Russia (1598 to 1613), during a “time of troubles”. When wasn't there a time of troubles for this beautiful country? It seemed that many of the buildings needed to be restored but had not been. This city may have had an interesting history, but must have suffered a lot under the communists. Much heavy industry had been established here and then allowed to decline. Our over-all impression was one of a drab and rather depressing place. One of our guides expressed the view that her country is always going through changes, during which time certain things are forbidden or out of fashion. Many churches were torched or otherwise destroyed during the communist era. Now, some of these are being restored at great expense. “If Russia were Egypt it would have destroyed the pyramids and then had to rebuild them later”. Our guide urged us to return to Yaroslavl in three years when it will be celebrating its 1,000-year anniversary.

Our next stop was Kostroma, the “cradle of the Romanovs". This was a very interesting place. Some of the buildings were being restored; others were in terrible disrepair. Perhaps some day they will be brought back to their original condition. But, it will take a lot of time and money. They have the artisans, but lack some of the necessary funds. In the museum, we heard all about the Romanovs and big, bad Boris Godounov and Dimitri the Pretender (numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4). Then they got back to the legitimate czars. There were so many plots, murders and deceptions, it was impossible to keep track. In a special room we saw all the surviving photos and relics of Czar Nicholas II and his family. A touching surprise was seeing the drawings done by Nicholas' children.

We especially enjoyed our time in Uglich – a charming place now, but in the past a quagmire of intrigue, deceptions, murders, etc. The wicked Boris Godounov had the young prince bumped off, along with several other heirs to the throne, all so he could become Czar. We saw a beautiful church here with its walls covered with historic frescos depicting some of the bloody history. Within the church, we were treated to another mini concert by five excellent singers (one religious song and one folk song). As on previous occasions, this group was marketing its CDs to the tourists. They were also demonstrating the fine acoustics of the church. On the way back to the ship, we were pleased to find an incredible array of shops selling all manner of Russian things you most wanted to have! The prices were better than we encountered anywhere else in Russia, and you could bargain for even better deals. I regret we didn't buy more. Two hours rushed by, but we needed more time. Just before boarding the Litvinov, I bought a small oil painting of lush green birch trees along a river bank. The artist wanted $30 for this; I offered him $20, and we settled on $25. When my wife, Jane, saw what was happening, she muttered something about not letting me out of her sight for a minute! In the end, she thought I made a good buy.

 

Moscow:

Finally we reached Moscow, and what a fabulous city it is -- a sprawling metropolis of some 15 million people, not counting the many thousands of tourists. Our tour of the city started at Red Square. We formed in groups of 16 to 18 people. Our guide (an old Bolshevik we thought) told us about what we were seeing, where and when we were to meet up again, at 5 pm. Again we were warned about pickpockets so we kept everything close to the vest you might say. A few yards from the famous Gum shopping complex, I found a store where I could buy more film. Several times we saw wedding parties with bride and groom posing for photographs in front of famous landmarks. Such beautiful young people you could hardly imagine, the girls wearing gorgeous white gowns and carrying flowers. Sometimes stretch limos could be seen nearby with flowers for hood ornaments. Our guide said that in spite of all the promise and ceremony, the divorce rate in Russia hovers around 60%.

The next day we were on our own. The shuttle bus from the ship let us off at the Pushkin Museum. Then we walked to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a truly spectacular structure, absolutely inspiring inside. It was built in commemoration of the great victory of 1812 over Napoleon's army. In 1931 this cathedral was destroyed by Stalin and later turned into a swimming pool! In the 1990s, donations were made by thousands of people, and the church was reconstructed in all its perfection. The cost was said to be $220 million. And you thought religion had not returned to Russia? The Russian Orthodox Church is reviving and growing (some say). Many of the older people have returned and again practice their religion. Many young people attend services but seem less inclined to abide by ancient rituals such as bowing to the floor. Many of the old churches are being restored, sometimes with private funding and with government help as well.

By 11 am, we had reached the Tretyakov Art Gallery. It is huge and one needs a whole day there to see most of the magnificent paintings – mostly by Russian artists. Entry costs $10 and the audio guide is $12. The latter works well and can be shared by two. The crowds were large and grew as the day progressed. This museum has a nice café – not expensive but quite time consuming, as we seemed to hit the rush hour and only one babushka was at the cash register. I think we spent close to half an hour in line, but the food was good – especially the rich mocha cake! We felt sorry for some of the large groups that were herded through this marvelous gallery as we had been at the Hermitage. The best plan would be to go early (10 am) on your own and leave after lunch.

Some of our shipmates took an optional tour to the St. Surgius Monastery in Zagorsk. The sad story there was that their guide (the old Bolshevik again) had forgotten to count heads for the return to the ship, so two passengers were left behind. They didn't have the phone number of the Litvinov and had to arrange a taxi back to the ship at a cost of $100!

After our visit to the Tretyakov we crossed the Moscow River taking photos as we went. Soon we reached Red Square and popped into Gum to see the world famous shopping mall. It is monstrous and is filled with quite impressive high-end shops containing expensive fashions from Italy, France and sporting goods from the USA (probably made in the Far East). An ice cream vendor suddenly appeared, selling small cones for 30 rubles ($1.20) – flavor of the moment was cherry-vanilla and it was delicious.

That evening, some of our fellow passengers took an optional tour to the Moscow Circus. Those who went said it was good, especially the acrobats, but there were no elephants – only a few tigers and one bear. Jane and I were happy to have the night off.

 

The next morning (our final day in Moscow), we went on the not to be missed tour of the Kremlin. And what a tour it was! The fabulous Armory Museum took our breath away with its collection of historic costumes, royal gowns, military armor, weapons, jewels (including the Faberge eggs), and a staggering collection of royal coaches. How did all this opulence survive the communists and their hatred of the aristocracy? Well, it seems that many of the revolutionaries were educated enough to realize the importance of these historic items belonging to “Mother Russia”, so their preservation was assured. Much the same could be said about many of the churches and cathedrals. Of course they fell into disrepair and were much neglected for 70 years. But now they are being revived and are appreciated for their beauty and historic importance.

After a delicious Russian lunch at a large local restaurant, some of us reassembled for a guided tour of the famous Moscow Metro. This excursion was well planned at an off-hour in mid-afternoon, when the crowds were minimal. Again, we had been cautioned about pickpockets so we carried our money in safe pouches under our shirts! We saw four or five of the spectacular Metro stations, with their beautiful mosaic murals and chandeliers. More than pabulum for the masses! There were no big crowds for this tour and our pockets were not picked. The incredible masses of people visiting the Kremlin, were more of a concern– mobs and mobs of people milling through this fabulous complex. Inside the museum and the cathedral, photos were not allowed, but outside there were many good shots to take if we could dodge the masses of fellow tourists.

And so, was it too early or too late to enjoy Russia? Too late to avoid huge crowds visiting all the most important sights – especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Too early, in that some of the historic buildings have not yet been restored. But there is plenty to see and enjoy now. Thanks to oil money and a surge of investments and private funding, there are many signs of growing prosperity. The transition to democracy and limited capitalism has been difficult. Not all have prospered, but most Russians seem bright and energetic. They seem to be gradually moving ahead to a better life. At least I would like to think so.

 

 

Copyright© 2007 Stewart Hume. All Rights Reserved.
The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or
otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Stewart Hume.

info@protocolprofessionals.com

   
 

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