Colleagues, friends, lovers of dynamism and rusty cogs. I have struck winter in St Petersburg, having been caught out in the first winter snows of the season, somewhat of an about turn from the tequila sunrises on the beach in Thailand. Fewer lady boys too. In any case, I have ventured from here after my Russian visa expired onto the bucolic seaside capital of Tallinn, Estonia. At least I wish it were bucolic, latest weather reports have the high at 6 deg C and a low of -2 deg C. Positively tropical…

Moscow. The capital and a massive conglomeration of wealth, power and Soviet-era apartment blocks radiating outwards from the historic, and current, heart of the city, the Kremlin, I couchsurfed with Katja and Nastia, and the traditionally Russian male Yevgeniy in the 17th floor apartment which overlooked a park set aflame by the morning sun and glowing sunset. My days in Moscow were spent riding the comprehensive, gloriously mosaiced and resolutely symbolic Metro. They say (I always wondered who this ‘they’ were) the Metro is one of this highlights of a trip to Moscow and they aren’t wrong. Fearsome war-era Soviet women scything wheat with a proletariatian determination, ecstatic factory workers polishing the latest impractical tractor design and Lenin with his jutting chin and broad forehead leading the country ever onward into a utopian future. Merely by swimming in the sea of commuters in this triumph of Soviet wartime engineering I felt uplifted and ready to throw off my capitalist shackles.

Kremlin. The red brick walled fortress dominates the centre of the city, surrounded by appropriately massive buildings on all sides. It contains the residence of the President of Russia and previous Soviet leaders. Outside it n a small marble block-like bunker, the waxy marionette of Lenin lies, inspiring few and fascinating many. Inside, the government buildings lying tantalisingly close, barring only the serious looking policemen. Stepping lively to avoid frequent cavalcades of black tinted government Audis zooming in and out no doubt bearing hookers, drug couriers and members on the FTA negotiating subcommittee on Zambian cross border trade. There are a clutch of cathedrals with spectacular frescos and imposing walls of icons as well as the Patriarchs residence (head of the Russian Orthodox Church). Talk about separation of State and Church…

I visited the Armoury – the storehouse of Tsar crowns, gold, emerald, ruby, pearl, sapphire, diamond et al encrusted illuminated Bibles, chalices, silver platters, Fabergé eggs and imperial bric-a-brac. Getting blase about treasure is tough but I managed it. The artifacts which most impressed me most were the Imperial carriages. Enchanting concoctions of lacy gilded wood, improbably arched with rich scenes painted on the doors – something straight out of some fairytale with bewigged footmen and haughty Empresses. Glorious.

Art. Being a self-confessed avoider of shopping, the boutiques and shopping malls filled full of leggy, stiletto wearing society ladies with heavyset bodyguards appealed not. This, in addition to the fact that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world, directed me instead to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. A world class collection, especially of impressionist and post-impressionist works. I also made it to a sculpture park described by Lonely Planet as moody. I made the most of the opportunity to take obscene and inappropriate photos of me and the statues. Also made it to the New Tretyakov, Russias’ premiere contemporary art gallery which introduced me to paper architecture, one of the coolest styles I’ve ever come across. I visited Sparrow Hill at dusk and saw the night skyline of Moscow. An interesting city awash with wealth as well as those struggling to get by on salaries insufficient for the cost of living. I departed my hosts after cooking them a meal and passing through three (3!) steel doors to get to the elevator to embark via train to St Petersburg.

Saint Petersburg. The history of imperial Russia is more alive here than anywhere else in Russia. This was the seat of the royal court and is described as Russia’s window to Europe and the west (that being a perennially popular topic of travel writing, together with the duality of Russia’s character between East and West) and it really is. It was designed to Tsar Peter the Great’s orders to move the capital away from the sneaky Muscovite nobility, to encourage Russia to embrace new European ways of thinking and provide Russia with its first port after chucking out those dastardly Swedes who had dominated the area for ages. It was designed to resemble Amsterdam’s canals so is riddled with them. St Pete’s is a truly beautiful city and has retained its role as Russia’s leading centre of the arts and social development. Lenin started the Bolshevik revolution in then Petrograd in 1917, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Putin all grew up here. It is built at the mouth of the Neva river and is laced with canals which gracefully flow past the houses of aristocracy and the monumental facades of palaces. The wealth of the largest country in the world was concentrated here for over 200 years and it shows.

The Hermitage. This is the mother of all art galleries, being the largest in the world. It is housed in the clutch of former palaces of the Tsars and Tsarinas along the Neva and to me the building was as interesting as its contents with spectacularly lavish chambers, halls and galleries dripping in rococo gilt, gaudy eclecticism and classy neoclassicist style. Highlights for me were the Flemish masters including Rembrandt, the impressionist collection including Cezanne and Monet and the Italian masters including one of Michelangelo’s only 14 paintings and the only one of his statues outside Italy. The place is truly massive and after six hours I had only seen about half of it. Go there if you have the chance.

Russian Museum. This wonderful place absorbed me for four hours, housing only Russian art and also outrageously huge. The obvious point to make is that both museums had decent head starts when the Soviet state confiscated the vast art collections of the nobility and wealthy when they came to power. It’s not stealing if we say it isn’t. Other highlights including getting stuck on the island after 2am as the bridges all raised to allow ships up the Neva, the incredible inside of the royal cathedral, St Isaac’s, the Peter and Paul Fortress and of course the State Political History Museum (hmmm). I moved couches halfway through from the hospitable Dasha to the bohemian self-proclaimed squat of Yulia and her merry band in the center of the city which was fun. St Petersburg is the coolest city I’ve been to yet. It has a vibrant beat, European sensibilities, and a fondness for history. Pity about the weather!

Advertisements