June 20, 2002
Hello everyone, Greetings from St. Petersburg. I have been here for about five days now and have experienced absolute sensory overload. I keep delaying sending an e-mail because there is so much to talk about and so little time to write, but then I keep seeing more and more amazing things. It only makes it harder to summarize what I’ve done. At this point, I’m just going to send this message off the way it is since tomorrow is my last day in this incredible city. St. Petersburg is an amazing place, and, in fact, I would recommend that all of you put it high on your list to visit above many other places in the world.
From Moscow, I took an all-night train for about 7.5 hours to St. Petersburg. This time, I had to share the cabin with someone else, but everything worked out great since he was about my age, could speak English, and was a really cool guy. He had even been to Las Vegas before, of all places. We only slept a few hours and then arrived in the morning at the main rail station. I was picked up and brought to my place to stay… another home stay in the outskirts of St. Petersburg in one of those huge Soviet-style apartment buildings. My hostess is named Tonia. She is a widow (the third widow I have stayed with in Russia) with two grown kids. Her place is extremely nice and is also the best place I’ve stayed in during the entire trip. She knows English quite well and is very funny. Four nights ago, Tonia invited her son and two of her best friends (husband and wife who are both doctors and could speak some English) to her apartment. Apparently, it was some celebration in the city that pays tribute to medicine and health. You celebrate by drinking lots of alcohol. I was really tired that night and was laying around in my room as they all sat in the kitchen. Tonia came to my room and said, “Come, drink with us!” … in that very direct Russian way I have become familiar with. When I came into the kitchen, there was a huge bottle of vodka and shot glasses on the table. Tonia said to me, “Drink with us and you sleep like bear.” Well, four shots and a glass of champagne later (in about 45 minutes), I was rather enjoying myself… and yes, I did eventually “sleep like bear.”
Russians in St. Petersburg are very inclined to celebrate at this time of year, especially in June, since this is the time of the famous “White Nights.” The city is so far north, that it barely gets dark ever for about a month. I have been here five days and have not seen darkness yet. I was even up to 1:30 am the other night and it was still light out. Many stay up late, light fireworks, drink (yeah, I know, shocker), and bask in the joy of having daylight for so long, especially after a cold, dark winter that lasts over six months. At around midnight two nights ago, I walked to the waterfront very near where I am staying. I sat on a granite wall and looked out over the Gulf of Finland and watched teenagers swim in the ice cold water. It was one of the most peaceful moments of the trip.
I would say the two primary goals for St. Petersburg are now complete. I have visited the Hermitage Museum, and yesterday, Peterhof. Both are simply astounding. The Hermitage is the former Winter Palace of the tsars (along with some other connecting buildings). It is considered to be the largest or second largest museum in the world, rivaling only the Louvre in Paris. Peterhof is an amazing palace, too, located about 30 minutes away from the city and originally built by Peter the Great in the 1700’s. The gravity-powered fountains are spectacular. Both places are the essence of power, opulence, corruption, and magnificence from the days of the Russian empire. The Hermitage is two sites in one visit. It is first the former residence of the tsars, and secondly the state museum. It is very similar to the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris if you have visited that. You get to see the incredible gold-lined decor, the thrones and carriages, the grand halls, and all the pomp and circumstance any monarchy has ever displayed. You then also get one of the greatest art collections in the world. Rembrandt, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Renoir, Van Gogh, etc. are all here.. Even though there are so many amazing works of art here, I get stuck on the magnificence of the painted ceilings. I sit in a chair and just stare upwards for several minutes, admiring the beautiful colors and patterns.
The former tsars were a number of things; unfathomably wealthy, corrupt, powerful, oppressive, and in many cases, evil and crazy. But at the same time, they seemed to understand their role in history. They knew that they could create things that lasted forever. They understood the impact they were trying to make on this earth… and what a job they did. The tsars were especially interested in St. Petersburg becoming a world power, as much militarily, as culturally. They hired the best architects and artists in the world, many from Italy, Germany, and France, to help them create the vision they had in mind… to create a city that is now an international treasure. When you walk the streets and pass by the canals, you cannot help but think of Venice. The buildings look Italian and French, the canals, of course, resemble Venice, but I have to say, St. Petersburg has some advantages over Venice. It is first, newer and cleaner. It is also not as hot, and I’ll even go out on a limb here, and say that the people are much friendlier here. I rarely, if ever say these next words, but “I am truly enchanted with St. Petersburg.” It captures a unique feel of the Western world, but still loudly proclaims that it is Russian. Peter the Great, the founder of the city in the early 1700’s touted this city as the “Window on the West.” He intended it to be a mix of what is great in Europe, but would still apply a Russian flair. Peter the Great, Empress Elizabeth, and Catherine the Great held the grandest visions for the city. St. Petersburg did not “become” a great city, it was “made” to be a great city. It even has a notorious description as having been “built on bones.” These tsars undertook amazing engineering feats by building huge canals throughout the city and creating some of the most elaborate architecture you’ll ever see, but many serfs and other subjects of the empire died building this vision. I have difficulties reconciling several feelings I get when I visit a place like this. You can apply these feelings to many places… the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Versailles, the Egyptian Pyramids, and others. At the same time, you both revel in the magnificence of what man has created and then cringe at the horrifying oppression of the leaders who were able to accomplish these feats. How do you make peace with that? If our world was just, would these treasures exist? I’m not really sure, but it would be a shame if they didn’t. Do you see the dichotomy? Anyway, that is a philosophical discussion that you may not or may not be interested in.
So, what else can I say? I have visited several other sites while I’ve been here; The Russian Museum, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, the Admiralty, Peter and Paul’s Fortress, Nevsky Prospekt, and on and on. There seems to be palaces, parks, gardens, and cathedrals everywhere. It is also interesting to see the contrasts of this city. My guide book made a very insightful observation that I agree with. You enter the city of Leningrad and then make your way to the center of the city which then becomes St. Petersburg. What this means is that in the outskirts of the city, where most of the people live, there are scores of huge apartment buildings all over the place. I can’t speak any more gently, but they are simply ugly and remind you of the Communist era. Buildings that are less than 30 years old look shabby and run down. Cement and bland stone dominate the landscape. It is still the case that the actual homes inside the buildings are quite nice, but it can look pretty grim in any typical Russian neighborhood. You can take a short walk to a subway, travel to the city center, and then come up to the surface and see St. Petersburg. It’s like a different world.
Well, I think that’s about all I will report at this point. Tomorrow night, I leave St. Petersburg to fly to Copenhagen. My vacation will pretty much be over by then. I can’t believe that it is almost finished. After my trek in Nepal, I was ready to come home. I had gone through the ringer and wanted to get back to the first world. After visiting Russia, I don’t want it to end. I could actually picture myself living here, believe it or not. Maybe Intel will expand more into Russia (they are starting to already) and I could land a job here. It feels like this country is about to burst onto the economic scene like Southeast Asia did several years ago. I only hope it will. The people need opportunity. I know that it is a “typical American attitude” to say that, but when you see people stuck with their small pensions trying to make ends meet, jobs at a premium, and multi-generational families living in one small apartment, you want to see that opportunity come their way.
In closing, I want to come back to Russia soon and hope that all of you consider coming here yourself some day. I have met wonderful people here and know that I am always welcome to return. This vacation has been a wild success and I appreciate the e-mails I have gotten from many of you. Please don’t stop until I get back, though! My Inbox has been a little quiet lately, so please send me a note. I return Thursday, June 27th and look forward to talking with all of you then.