Sunday, July 29, 2012

Exploring St. Petersburg's History, People and Culture


It has been an exciting week in St. Petersburg! Founded by Peter the Great and developed by Catherine II, St. Petersburg is a European-style city unlike Vladimir, Syzdal, Bogolyobovo or Moscow. The city's various canals, old-winding streets and French architecture render the city a charming and cosmopolitan metropolis, while its Soviet-era buildings, Georgian and Uzbek restaurants and diverse population give the city a Russian charm. While it was an exciting few days in the city, all I can say is that I hope to return in the future.

The journey began at 9:30 on Tuesday evening, when the group met at the Vladimir train station to take an overnight train to St. Petersburg. Now, I LOVE Soviet-trains. The train is a great opportunity to interact with Russians, engage in cultural diplomacy and gain insights into Russian (and Kazakh) culture.  It is also great fun.

In Kazakhstan, I rode in a "coupe"-style train in which there are sealable compartments each containing four beds (2 bunk beds). To Petersburg, we took the Platzkart cabin, which is basically an open space of bunk beds and therefore ideal for practicing Russian 24/7 and making new friends.

I was in a bottom bunk perpendicular to a Grandma and Grandpa who were from Murmansk and traveling with their 12-year old grandson. They had spent several weeks in the countryside and were returning home. When they saw 28 young and energetic Americans board the train, they were beyond excited. The grandson was so excited to practice English. I spent the first few hours on the train engaged in conversation with the grandparents and the grandson, during which they shared photos of their summer vacation and the grandson showed me his coin collection. He gave me some old Soviet coins minted in 1992 and 1989 as a gift. I of course gave him a quarter and some other American coins to add to his international collection. As hospitable Russians, the grandparents offered us caramels and I gave them two peaches I purchased earlier in the day for the purpose of sharing. This, my friends, is "people to people" interactions -- the highest form of public diplomacy.

Fellow CLS participants and I with our new Russian friend on the train.

The symbol of St. Petersburg.

Image from Central Asia exhibition in the Hermitage.

The three images pictured above are from the Central Asian gallery at the Hermitage. They include a wall mural from the Penjikent archaeological site in the highlands of modern-day Tajikistan and hand-sculpted figurines.

The "Apraksin Dvor" Market in St. Petersburg.

The front lawn of the Artillery Museum.

Image from the Artillery Museum of Bukharans holding weapons.

Weapons from Bukhara and Central Asia in the Artillery Museum.

Swords from Afghanistan in the Artillery Museum.

Image of a Bukharan Emir holding a sword featured in the Artillery Museum.

Swords from Central Asia (mostly Bukhara).

Statue to a Soviet woman who contributed to the Great Patriotic War in the Artillery Museum. You go girl!

Timurid-style mosque in St. Petersburg.

I also shared a bunk with my Russian grammar professor, which meant that I had to be on my Russian-game twenty-four seven. When I woke up in the morning around 7 am, my Russian professor was sitting at my feet, drinking a cup of coffee, and just chilling. Now I'm used to Olga at 8 am yelling, "Dena, zavtrak" (Dena, breakfast), but engaging in conversation with my Russian grammar professor at 7 am, pre-coffee -- that was a first.

"Go back to sleep, Denoshka, it is still early," she gingerly said.

I, of course, could not sleep at that point so I washed up and ordered a cup of coffee from the stewardess.  I chatted with my Professor, who turns out was born in Belarus and moved to Russia when she was still a child. She still has siblings in the country and regularly visits. I really appreciated her insights on the political and social situation in Belarus, which she considered to be not bad and in some respects better than in Russia. This is particularly interesting as the U.S. and Belarus, which is lead by President Aleksander Lukashenko (jokingly called "Luke the Duke"), have less than amiable relations.

After sharing contact information with my new Murmansk friends (at this point, the grandson had engaged in conversation with almost every program participant), we arrived in St. Petersburg around 10 am and headed out for a bus tour!

After the tour, we had lunch and I spent the afternoon exploring the city with three other program participants. First, we ventured to the top of St. Isaac's Cathedral and admired the city's skyline. We then went to the museum of Vladimir Nobokov, which is a small but insightful museum housed in an old residence. From there, we walked around the city and met up with the group for dinner and a performance of "Swan Lake" the ballet. Interestingly, at the ballet, I sat next to a husband and wife from Philadelphia, who were spending two days in St. Petersburg as one stop on their Royal Caribbean cruise tour.

Thursday morning I woke up early and headed out for the Hermitage museum. They have a fantastic collection of arts and artifacts from Central Asia (including the Golden Horde), the Caucuses and South Asia. Unfortunately, the exhibition on Iran and the Near East was closed for renovation. I visited the European and Russian galleries, but devoted most of my time immersed in the Central Asian and Golden Horde galleries. Wow.

Of course, a trip to St. Petersburg cannot be complete without a trip to the bazaar! After several hours in the Hermitage, Sayrula and I went to the city's market. I previously heard that the local authorities were contemplating closing down the bazaar due to safety concerns, but when I went it was alive and well. There were virtually no artisan goods, as the stores were stacked with the typical goods: clothing, shoes and accessories from China, faux designer handbags, umbrellas, dishes and other odds and ends. There were a significant amount of men working in the market -- more than usual in my opinion. The market clearly catered to the city's lower-income individuals, many of which are from Central Asia, as I recognized their facial features, the sounds and patterns of Turkic languages, and observed many signs for Uzbek plof and shashlik.

We spent hours in the bazaar and then went to a more formal market. Given the intensity of our studies, it was so nice to just chill. I also bought a book for 50 rubles (less than two dollars) on Central Asia in Russian. Awesome.

After dinner, the group ventured on a night tour of the city and we saw the Demidov bridges open.

Friday morning, I jetted out with Kyle, an anthropology major who shares my affection for Central Asia, to the Anthropology and Ethnography Museum of Peter the Great. The museum had a nice collection of artifacts from Inner Asia. I found the Russian commentary and written information on display to be more informative, as many of the artifacts in the museum were similar to exhibitions I have observed in Kazakhstan and New York.

Kyle and I also stumbled into an Academic Bookstore. Win! I unfortunately did not find anything, but Kyle lucked out with some great Russian-language books on archaeological excavations in Turkmenistan and terra cotta figures from Inner Eurasia.

After a Central Asian-tastic morning, I went to the summer gardens with Sayrula and Dan, which was a nice place to walk around for a bit. As an International Security major, however, I was eager to get to the Artillery museum! So after an hour of marble statues and finely-manicured gardens, we jetted off.

The Artillery museum was awesome. The lawn is filled with tanks and rocket launchers from the 16th century all the way through the Afghan war. There was a special exhibit on the Japanese samurai, but we opted for the permanent collection.

The first floor was filled with artillery from the 18th and 19th centuries, during the periods of expansion and conquest in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. There was a grandiose gold chariot, tons of oil paintings, armaments and old firearms, as well as original documents and letters. Subsequent halls were filled with coats of armor from Western Europe as well as a special gallery devoted to fire arms and swords from Iran, Central Asia, India and South Asia. I have seen a lot of art from the region, but this was the first time I saw a collection of aesthetically pleasing, yet deadly, weaponry. I really loved this museum as I have studied "The Great Game," but never saw in person the weapons. The swords from Afghanistan were particularly impressive, and speak to the strong historically-developed culture of defending the tribe from penetration by outsiders and surviving in a geographically and politically difficult terrain.

The second floor was devoted to the war of 1812, the Soviet effort in World War II (the Great Patriotic War) as well as a special wall exhibit on Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the rifle that bears his namesake.

I was beyond impressed with the galleries from World War II, which were meticulously organized according to the technologies employed, regional brigade divisions, and periods of war mobilization. Unfortunately, I did not make it to the Museum of the Leningrad blockade, but the Artillery Museum included insightful original documents from the siege. The museum included tons of war-time propaganda posters, pictures from the battle field and biographies as well as tanks and weapons. Given that all of the material was used in war, the fact that the Soviet administrative apparatus managed to collect all of these artifacts, catalogue and preserve them and then curate a museum, is quite admirable.

On a more serious note, as Dan, Sayrula and I explored the museum, Dan commented to me in front of the exhibition of the Soviet liberation of the Nazi camps, "We (the human race) are really good at killing each other." Sadly, this is true, and his comment was spot on. While I study International Security and am overly enthusiastic about touring a museum of artillery, the truth is that this enthusiasm stems from a deeper desire to do good. In fact, most people I know in the army and in International Security share this feeling. War is not about producing lethal machines and destroying civilizations. At its core, war is about two (or more) factions fighting because one group believes they are more right -- their beliefs, pattern of life, version of interpretation of universal truth -- to the point that they are willing to sacrifice human life in pursuit of such a cause.

After the artillery museum, we walked around for a bit, before dinner with the group and a free Friday night.

I ventured with Ben, my friend from sleep away camp, to the Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg for Shabbat services.  The Synagogue is absolutely gorgeous. I ended up befriending one woman in the balcony who is 25 and was born and raised in Bulgaria. She helped me navigate through the service, as every synagogue has its own unique traditions and rituals. Interestingly, she married a Russian and moved to St. Petersburg and now works in St. Petersburg. She was also raised as a Christian and their wedding was in a Church, but she was learning the new faith. I really enjoyed her company and found her story fascinating.

Finally, Saturday! We checked out of the hotel in the morning and went to Peterhof castle for a garden tour. We unfortunately were unable to tour the main palace as tours for foreigners are only offered in English. Instead, we toured the gardens with a Russian tour guide. While the Peterhof gardens are expansive, I hope to return in the future to tour the palace, which was constructed in the Baroque tradition but also contains an expansive collection of Russian art.

We boarded the train at 5 in the afternoon and I was exhausted, but managed to get some homework done. Again, I shared a bunk with my Russian grammar professor. "Denoshka, we are together yet again," she exclaimed.

We arrived in Vladimir a little before 5 in the morning and the coalition of American Russian-speaking zombies dissipated into cabs. My Russian professor lives in my neighborhood, and offered to take me, Sayrula and Vika, one of the program staff members, home in her car. I was the last one to be dropped off. As the car pulled up to my podedz (drive way), she jokingly commented "we really are together until the end." Laughingly, "of course, thanks so much!" I responded (in Russian).

After a shower, long nap and lunch, I sat down to some Russian television and wrote this blog post. I certainly enjoyed my adventure to St. Petersburg --- the city and all the people I encountered along the way -- and I hope you, dear readers, enjoyed it too. I'm off to do some grammar homework, but as always, please share your comments. Thanks!

1 comment:

  1. Dena,

    As always you do not fail in dutifully covering the highlights of our adventures as a group and yours alone.

    I love your positive outlook on Russian Trains, however I was not entirely satisfied with our ride home (sleep-wise). That being said, our comedy hour was prime time, partly due to the lack of sleep I assume.

    I love reading your insightful retelling of stories as well as your inserted intellectual sidebars. I am faithfully waiting by for the next installment of The Sholk Road Adventures from Russia.