The Russian Revelation

Posted: 28 May 2014

The Russian Revelation

Russia is a country that has always fascinated me. Growing up in the latter stages of the Cold War era, Russia (then known as the USSR) was so secretive that you never knew what to believe about it; even the Olympic Games in 1980 struggled to open up the country to a wider audience. From the beginning of the 1990’s things started to change and Russia began to emerge from behind the “Iron Curtain”.

I studied Russian History: from the Revolution; through the Stalinist years and the brutal events of WWII; right up to the Cold War, with the constant threat of a world on the brink of its own destruction. The opportunity to visit Moscow and St Petersburg, places so synonymous with these periods, was one not to be missed. I combined my trip with that of one of our school groups who were booked to travel at the beginning of April.

I left Heathrow on the late evening flight, arriving into Moscow just after 04.30. I made my way through passport control, which was a straightforward and easy process, possibly aided by the early hour. I was met by my driver in the arrivals hall, who spoke barely any English.

In the early morning, it took about 45 minutes to get into the city and to the hotel, thanks to the unseasonal snow meaning the roads were already busy at 05.30 am. My first observation was the notable lack of English signage on the roads. It was refreshing to visit a country that has not yet succumbed to the insatiable demands of the tourist to have all signs in several languages.

I had an hour or so to take in the hotel before departing again to meet the group at the station, or so I had planned. It took over 2 hours to get anywhere near the city centre; the Moscow traffic was a nightmare due to bad accidents caused by the terrible weather conditions. Eventually, after clearing the queues, I was dropped near to the centre where I met the guide and the group. Introductions over, we headed for our first visit of the day.

The heart of Moscow and, indeed, of Russia itself, the Kremlin (literally meaning ‘fortified town') is a walled fortress dating back to the city's founding in 1147 (although the oldest surviving walls and churches date from the 15th and 16th centuries). From 1276 to 1712, it was the seat of government for the grand princes and tsars, and from 1918 it was the central focus of the Communist’s power. It is, therefore, inextricably linked to most of Russia's monumental events - an importance reflected in its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. We visited the churches and viewed the 200 tonne Tsar Bell, as well as the Armoury. The Armoury Museum was the highlight of the Kremlin visit, with its amazing collection of relics and artefacts from the Russian monarchy, including Fabergé Eggs, priceless gold and silver pieces, and a collection of state coaches. Definitely worth the entrance fee if you are visiting the Kremlin!

From the Kremlin, we boarded the coach and travelled the short distance to Red Square for the visit to St Basil’s Cathedral, which is on the corner of the square. Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible and built between 1555 and 1561, the cathedral was built to commemorate his successful military campaign against the Tatar Mongols in 1552. After a brief look round inside we had the chance to take some photos overlooking Red Square, before walking back to the coach for the next visit.

The next stop was the Museum of Contemporary History. This is a fairly small museum, predominantly focusing on 20th Century history. It is useful to have a museum guide, as well as the main guide, as there is very little information in English. Groups can tailor their visits to specific topics with the guides rather than look at the whole museum which is huge and offers fascinating exhibits from all decades of the 20th Century.

After breakfast the next day, we left to battle through the manic Moscow traffic once more, taking over an hour to get to the centre of the city. This morning our first visit was to Lenin’s Mausoleum. Today, the queues to see the preserved remains of one of Russia’s most famous leaders are not as long as they once were. The mausoleum, constructed between 1929 and 1930, is a step-pyramid of cubes faced with red granite and black labradorite, and is regarded as one of Russia’s best examples of Soviet architecture. It bears the simple inscription "Lenin" over its bronze doors and, as it is only open in the mornings, it is important to get there in good time. Walking past the embalmed body is definitely an experience. Everyone will have their own thoughts on the visit but, personally, I found it rather surreal.

From the mausoleum, we exited onto Red Square. Flanked by the walls of the Kremlin on one side and GUM department store on the other, Red Square is synonymous with Russia displays of military muscle in the annual parades which celebrate the great victory in WWII. To this day, the square is filled with thousands of military personnel and vehicles during the parade. Standing there in the cold of an April morning, it is easy to drift away and imagine the Square bustling with activity; tanks rolling past the assembled ranks of spectators. I certainly recommend that you take a moment to stand in the centre and look around to really get a feel for the place.

After walking around the square, we headed into GUM, the most famous department store in Moscow, if not Russia. More a mall than one store, it is filled with designer outlets and up-market food shops. The architecture is world-renowned and a visit just to view the building is recommended. Following the theme of architecture we headed off for a brief tour of the metro, to see the different architectural styles at different stations. Beautiful mosaics, statues and paintings all feature at different stops; each one unique in its style. An hour travelling between stations goes all too quickly.

En-route back to the hotel, the last stop of the day was at the Cosmonaut Museum. Celebrating the space race of the 60’s, as well as the present-day use of communication and information satellites and all things in between, one thing to look out for here is, once again, a lack of English signage, although this is starting to appear on the most recent exhibits. Personally, an hour in here was not really long enough for me but, with the current debate over lunar and space exploration, it is a must-see for all those interested in the distractions of the Cold War era.

The following day, my schedule included visits to some of the other hotels that we work with, as well as the chance to visit a few more museums.

Having visited the Hotel Cosmos, we took the metro to the centre, to visit the Red Army Museum. Detailing the history of the Russian army, this is a very interesting museum but, again, there was no information in English, so a guide is recommended. The focus is currently on WWII and beyond, with a new exhibit on pre-1941 currently in progress. After a second hotel visit and lunch, I was met again by the guide who would accompany me for the rest of the day. It was a chance to do a bit more travelling by metro, to really get a feel for the city, as well as the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Moscow. We travelled to Poklonnaya Hill (Hill of Glory), a memorial complex dedicated to the 50th anniversary of victory in the Second World War. It is a flat hill in the western part of Moscow. “Poklonnaya” derives from “poklon”, a Russian gesture, similar to a bow, which is employed to pay respect to a person or object of high reverence. It was on Poklonnaya Mountain that Napoleon vainly waited for the keys to Moscow. During World War II, solders passed by Poklonnaya Mountain on their way to the Front.

The museum itself is one of the most poignant I have ever visited. The Hall of Remembrance and Sorrow honours Soviet citizens who died in the war. The room is dimly lit and strings of glass beads hang from the ceiling, symbolising the tears shed for the dead. Memorial books from each of the regions are part of the ongoing process to discover the fate of every Russian who died in the conflict. In the centre of the museum is the Hall of Glory; a white marble room which features the names of over 11,800 of the recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union distinction; a list still growing as the summer search for victims continues in the northern and western forests. Halls of exhibits featuring dioramas, photographs, personal items, weapons and munitions make up the rest of the museum. I spent over 2 hours in here and could easily have stayed for longer as the details of what I learned at school slowly changed. Truly a moving experience and also a reminder of the cost of the Second World War.

As evening fell, we headed back to the Red Square for views of the city at night before returning back to the hotel to collect my luggage and set off to the station for the overnight train to St Petersburg. Waiting at the station gave me time to reflect on my short time in Moscow. What had I learned? What benefit is such a trip to students? What are the highlights?

I have to admit that I learned a lot; my generation knew little about Russia, due to the sensitive political climate whilst we were growing up. Even the Olympic games in 1980 were carefully stage-managed; a far cry from the spectacle of Sochi in 2014. Moscow has some of the most beautiful buildings in the world, but it also has many from the Soviet era that are incredibly stark and gloomy. It is true that the metro is hectic, but the stations are individual works of art themselves. The museums, the Kremlin, Red Square and the beautiful Cathedrals make Moscow a fascinating place to visit, allowing one to experience the history and political turmoil of the country. This capital city has survived both Napoleon and Hitler’s attempts to conquer it and, as such, retains many older buildings and historical sites. Quite different to the former imperial capital where I was now heading.

The Megapolis train is a popular way to travel between Moscow and St Petersburg. Travelling overnight takes about 8 hours in comfortable berths. After a reasonable night’s sleep, I arrived in St Petersburg to be met on the platform by my driver.

Driving through the city to the hotel, I could immediately see the difference in comparison to Moscow; St Petersburg had low-rise buildings, more modern architecture and less traffic! The city is located on the Neva River and is the westernmost city in Russia. Established by Peter the Great, it has changed names several times to reflect historical events, revolution and war. The traditional home to the Russian monarchy, it is a city of colour and splendour, with palaces, churches and museums to appeal to everyone.

After dropping my bags at the hotel, I met with the ground operators to discuss possible future ideas for trips encompassing Russian language, geography and business studies trips. We discussed possible cultural exchanges, with groups going into local schools during their trips. All in all, the outcome was positive and we are looking forward to putting together some exciting trips in the future. The rest of the day was spent visiting hotels and relaxing.

The next day I met with Maria, my guide for the next 2 days.

We set off on the city tour, starting at Nevsky Prospekt; the famous street which runs from the Admiralty Building all the way to Alexander Nevsky Lavra, with a brief photo stop at St Isaacs Cathedral, which I would visit properly later. We carried on along the English embankment, renamed after a visit of the Queen in 1994, before our first stop at the St Nicholas Naval Cathedral, a beautiful baroque building in vibrant blue. As with many of the churches in Russia, the architecture and ornate interiors are amazing to look at.

We then travelled over the oldest bridge in St Petersburg to Basil Island. We stop in front of the Fine Arts Museum, where there are 2 sphinx carvings, which had lost their beards in transit from Egypt. Also here are 4 griffins, which are considered lucky to touch and, as a popular stop on the tourist trail, they are worn smooth by the multitude of tourists seeking some good fortune. There are great views over the river from here.

The next stop is the Hermitage Museum, the largest museum in St Petersburg. This museum, founded by Catherine the Great, contains many works of art by famous artists in a collection of over 3 million pieces. Spread over 6 buildings, which could themselves be considered works of art, a group can tailor their tour to different topics as necessary. A standard tour takes about 2 hours. The overwhelming opulence and grandeur is breathtaking and, as it is still under renovation, it can only get better. We looked primarily at the art, but even for someone with a background in the sciences, this was a rewarding experience and I could easily have spent much more time there.

We travel back, past the cabin in which Peter the Great himself lived; a small, wooden building now encased within a red brick pavilion to preserve it. Just around the corner is the cruiser Aurora, which is a relic and symbol of the 1917 Revolution, as it was from her bows that the fateful shot was fired that signalled the start of the storming of the Palace. Although open to everyone, it is really only practical to visit as part of a group, as the queues can get very long. The cruiser lies opposite the Saint Petersburg Hotel and near the Naval Academy.

On our way to our next stop, we pass the Field of Mars, where 184 citizens killed in the Revolution are buried in a common grave. Close to this is the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, built on the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination. Close to the Hermitage, this is also a popular museum with some amazing mosaics. The spot where Alexander was fatally wounded lies under the central dome. The original canal flowing outside was moved and narrowed to accommodate the church.

Next we travelled to Hare island where the Peter and Paul Fortress is. A hexagonal building built to protect the city from a feared Swedish attack that never materialised. Inside the fortress are several different buildings. The church is where most of the emperors were buried, including Tsar Nicholas II and his family after their execution by Bolsheviks in 1918.

The fortress was also used as a political prison, where people such as Dostoevsky, Trotsky and Tito were imprisoned. Now a museum, it has several cells set up as they would have been when it was an active prison. I found it very interesting to read about the prisoners and to see the famous names who spent time here for their beliefs and protestations.

The final stop for the day was the Museum of Political History. This covers the period of the Romanov dynasty to the Soviet period, which only ended in the early 1990’s. Although I found it of some interest, the concept and layout may be difficult for younger students.

The last thing to do that day was to see the folk show in the evening. Popular with school groups, I shared the auditorium with two from the UK. It certainly is good entertainment and, with some audience participation involved, it is a good way to wind down after a day looking round the museums and sites of the city.

My final day started with the view of the Peter the Great Bridge or Bolsheokhtinsky Bridge. The rumour is that one of the rivets in the bridge is made from pure gold, and coloured to be the same as the rest of the rivets. Unfortunately it is virtually impossible to verify, since the bridge has more than one million rivets and people have been trying for many years to try and find this mysterious artifact!

On to the river Fontanka, whose water was used to supply the fountains in the Summer Palace. This river was a city boundary in the 19th century. Nearby is the main post office which was used as the central point from where all the mile posts into the city were measured.

The main stop of the morning was the Yusupov Palace, home of the Yusupov family and the site of Grigori Rasputin’s murder in 1916. We started by looking through the beautifully recreated rooms of the palace and continued down to the basement room where Rasputin was killed. The story still fascinates and divides scholars.

Next we went into the magnificent St Isaac’s Cathedral. Inside is a museum and it is also an active church. As with all Russian churches, it is very ornate and is one of the largest in Saint Petersburg.

As we had covered all that we had planned, we took the decision to travel out to Pushkin Town (formerly Tsarskoye Selo) to see the spectacular Catherine Palace. Most parts of the palace are closed in winter, with the main parts open only in summer. However, you can walk through the gardens at any time.

As I sat at the airport waiting to fly home, I reflected on what had been a very interesting week; one that had opened my eyes and changed some of my perceptions of Russia. I feel that students can gain so much from a visit here and, with the changes likely to occur in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, we can expect Russia to open up further to foreign visitors. Hopefully, this will allow us more opportunities to discover more about the fascinating history of this wonderful country.

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