Welcome to Petersburg… Land of the Tourist

October 25th, 2009

One of the entrances to the Hermitage

The trip to Petersburg was, overall, surprisingly painless (considering we once again had an overnight train ride). We were lucky enough to stay in the historic center of Petersburg, meaning we walked everywhere (rain, colder rain, or snow). Petersburg is an enchanting city, especially at night, and I hope you all get an opportunity to go. That being said, Petersburg is a very European city; very unlike Russia.
I have never heard quite as much English (or other foreign languages) as I did while I was in Piter (as the Russians fondly call it). There were many foreigners, even though it wasn’t tourist season, and I had my first opportunity to use my Russian to “rescue” someone (small moment, big triumph).
We of course spent a day wandering around the Hermitage, a museum I recommend you all go to if for no other reason than it is an absolutely gorgeous building (the impressive collection of European art not withstanding). The Hermitage is easily a close second to the Louve in Paris, but ten times more overwhelming. The amount of art I saw in just under 6 hours is ridiculous, so much so that I’m having a little trouble categorizing it.
What is sad though is that is painfully obvious that this jewel of a Russian building, holding one of the most impressive art collections in the world, is entering into disrepair. This being said, there is no water dripping on the da Vincis or anything of that matter. It’s more that occasionally you come across a window that you wish they had replaced when it cracked in the Raphael Loggias (in the New Hermitage, the Raphael Loggias is a beautiful copy of the Papal Palace in the Vatican). All things equal in Russia, I have seen museums in worse disrepair than the Hermitage, and I think to most people these things would not be noticeable (I, for whatever reason, was looking). It’s just that it’s such a stunning building with such a magnificent collection that it feels like it deserves only the very best, that nothing should ever be out of place.
We also went on a tour to see the Royal Jewels; however, when we arrived at the Hermitage we were told there are only tours in Russian available. The clerk gave me the up-down, thought for a moment, and said, “You speak good Russian. You will go on the Russian tour.” And I went on the Russian tour (another point of pride in the trip). This turned out to be the best thing I could have down, because the Russians on the tour weren’t very interested in what our tour guide was saying, and in many instances it ended up being a one on one discussion with a woman who had an extraordinary wealth of knowledge about the collection we were viewing.
The Hermitage houses two collections, the Diamond Collection and the Diamond and Gold Collection. We went to see the Diamond Collection, and you would think this would be housed behind some high-tech door, nope, pretty sure it’s the same one they put in when the built the Hermitage in the 18th century. Let me tell you: no one can do sparkle like the Russian royalty. There were saddle pads (what you put on the horse’s back underneath the saddle) in this collection with enough diamonds they looked like they were straight out of a rap video. A lot of instances if you positioned yourself just right the light would reflect of the pieces and hit you in the eye in such a way that you’d be seeing spots for a few seconds. All joking aside the collection is extremely impressive, it has some amazing samples of art from the Caucasus dating back almost to
Better than the Hermitage, in my humble opinion, was the Russian museum (I’ve been lucky enough to travel through a lot of Europe and see a lot of European art…. Madonna and Bambino gets old, for this reason Russian art was refreshing). The Russian museum houses an impressive collection of Russian art spanning a few centuries. While the art was stunning, and moving in a very Russian way, I found the materials the artists were commonly using very interesting. Our friend the Art major explained that while cardboard is the cheapest canvas, you are only supposed to use it with certain types of paint. But these Russian artists used cardboard for anything simply because they couldn’t afford anything else, and these pieces are no less stunning than the da Vincis in the Hermitage. If you only have time for one, go to the Russian Museum. This being said you’ll appreciate the cozy atmosphere of the Russian Museum more after the simply overwhelming Hermitage.
The other wonderful thing about Piter is that students get in free to almost all museums and historical monuments. This being said, this means you meet a lot of skeptical clerks who look at your student id for a long time and then announce that you can’t possibly studying in Russia and the Russian student id isn’t actually a Russian student id. And they say none of this kindly. Please don’t think less of me, but there is no polite way to effectively react to this in Russia. You simply have to be rude right back. This happened at Peter and Paul Cathedral (as usual, I was the first in line, and the clerk was in a particularly sour mood). She spent a minute or two longer than she needed to staring at my student id (or as it is called here a student ticket, or студентческий билет) and then announced that it was not a real student id and I was just a tourist. At this point in the day I had quite enough of this routine and asked her if she wanted to see my Visa and city registration. She mumbled something about how I probably did not read Russian and ergo did not know my Visa was a tourist Visa. So what did I do? Pulled out my Visa. This lovely Russian women screwed up her face in the most delightful show of Russian frustration and begrudgingly printed me a ticket. American-1, Russia-0 (really it’s more along the lines of Russia-45738, I’m just happy to have chalked up a point).
While I enjoyed my trip to St. Petersburg I am certainly glad to be back in Vladimir. I am not quite sure how my peers in Petersburg learn any Russian, I am quite happy to be back in good ol’ Vlad where everyone thinks I’m German (sorry to the Germans if I do anything stupid that will reflect on your country instead of mine). But being in St. Petersburg also helped me realize the extent of the economic crisis in Vladimir. I cannot say how much, but a startling amount of the city is out of work. And the men, for the most part, turn to alcohol. The region around Vladimir has one of the highest rates of alcoholism in Russia. This finally helped me realize why I have such trouble understanding men in Russia: because most of them are drunk. It’s not my Russian, it’s their Russian (another point for me).
As I am writing Vladimir is getting its first snow (I only know this because Babushka came in and threw a blanket over me as I type…. Not helping since my room is like a sauna) and I am finally in store for a Russian winter. Next entry I am sure I will be able to write about how Babushka and I are having a small war over exactly how many layers I need when I leave the house. I also eagerly look forward to what will happen to the Russian babies, who have already been dressed to the extend they look like stunned starfishes.

This week’s song: «Прощание славянки» (cut, paste and youtube): or “Farewell Slavinka” It’s an orchestral piece, it was written in honor of the Bulgarian women saying goodbye to their husbands going to the first Balkan War by a composer named Vasily Agapkin. It’s most well known to Americans for its place in the Russian film «Кафказий Пленник», or “Prisoner of the Caucasus” by Sergei Bordov (got an Oscar), if you can manage I highly recommend you see it. It’s a pretty insightful look into Russia’s interactions with the Caucasus.

Pictures will come later….. Vlad is having a bad internet day.

2 Responses to “Welcome to Petersburg… Land of the Tourist”

  1. Jim Clough Джим Клафon 03 Nov 2009 at 1:23 am

    Nice write-up, I think you’ve captured the essence of Питер quite well! ( hope you don’t mind my posts). Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Владимир yet, though I have a few friends there. “Кафказий пленник” IS a great movie. Бодров is a genious. If you have the opportunity, see the film “Русский ковчег” (Russian Ark) which was filmed in the Hermitage in one continuous take in 2002. Also, “Кукушка” is a fascinating film. … I accidently got on a Russian only tour to the Kitaiskij palace by accident when I asked for my ticket in Russian. The tour guide was upset once we got there and found out I was American. Anyways, enjoy your experience there!

  2. kball11on 06 Nov 2009 at 6:52 am

    I don’t mind your posts at all! I think it’s fantastic, thank you!

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply