Details: Parent Category: Travel Category: Europe | Published: 09 July 2013 | Hits: 53828



In June 2013 we visited Russia.  Before that we had a couple of weeks in the UK while our frequent travel companions Craig and Sonia, together with Sonia's two Russian speaking cousins and their partners and two other couples, travelled from Beijing by the trans Siberian railway.  We all met up in Moscow and a day later joined our cruise ship.  The tour provided another three guided days in Moscow before setting off for a cruise along the Volga-Baltic Waterway to St Petersburg; through some 19 locks and across some very impressive lakes.

Russia Cruise - Leaving a Lock

This river cruise was most interesting from a technical and geographical point of view.

Relatively flat countryside and many rivers and streams have allowed engineers to construct elaborate canal and lock systems across Europe and it is possible in summer to travel by boat or barge from the Baltic to the black sea and the Mediterranean; across Poland into France and Germany and connected countries; and even across the English Chanel.  In the north many of these waterways are frozen in winter but as we saw, they constitute a significant commercial asset for moving bulk materials and very large industrial components; in addition to tourist cruise ships. 


Russia Cruise - Commercial Traffic


In Russia (as in North America) the differing levels in large freshwater lakes also provides a significant hydroelectric power resource. 


Hydro Power

 The Hydroelectric Powerstation at Uglich


A brief historical context



As in much of North America the northern ice sheet withdrew from this countryside less than 20,000 years ago leaving behind large freshwater lakes many rivers and streams and fertile soils.  The whole Baltic region (including Scandinavia, most of the UK, Poland and Germany) was under this ice sheet. Surrounding the sheet were regions of permafrost. Human re-habitation of all these regions has therefore happened slowly within the past 12,000 years as mankind moved back into the region from further south. 

As agricultural opportunities were slow to develop human tribes in this area were principally stone age nomadic herders who became more warlike as agriculture with its fortified villages, towns and cities began to make incursions into their previously open range lands. 


Traditional HorsemanshipLocal fair - Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery


It is only within the last few hundred years that towns and cities no longer need to be fortified.  This has had a profound and lasting impact on the nature of central Asia - across Siberia to China. 

Religion for much of the Stone Age period was animist, and based on magic and myths, as is typical of hunter gatherers and nomads.  In Moscow there is an excellent anthropological museum with many interesting pieces from this pre-history.  The subtlety and sophistication of stone arrow heads and other tools; little stone figurers and pottery is remarkable.


Paleolithic tools and figure


By the time of the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BCE) agriculture had become important and earlier worship involving animals and belief in magic places had given way to fertility based deities (male and female).  One of these is believed to have been the precursor of Thor (remembered in our Thursday).   These beliefs developed into what scholars now call Germanic paganism; embracing, in addition, the Norse and Celtic traditions.  Like the religions of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome this religion supported  many gods and goddesses including: Tyr (Tuesday) Woden (Wednesday); Freya (Friday); and Eastre (Easter; and the compass point).

The Romans were able to find equivalences between their chief gods and the Germanic ones.  I was surprised to learn at Hexham Abbey, when we were in England, that although the Romans did not leave England until 410, 30 years after Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Romans in Britain remained staunchly pagan.

Russia itself was named after the Rus';  a group of Varangians (Vikings, predominantly from the present-day Sweden).   The Vikings had long used the Volga as a trade route down to the Black Sea. Rus in ancient Finnish means "the men who row".


The Nordic Tribes


According to the Primary Chronicle of Rus', the Rus' had relocated from the Baltic region under the leadership of Rurik; soon capturing Kiev and founding Kievan Rus'.  In the ninth century the descendants of Rurik were the ruling dynasty of Rus', and in the twelfth century their decedents created the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the foundation of the Tsardom of Russia. 

In the tenth century the Rus' became Christianised; following the Byzantine tradition.  Although the Russian Orthodox Church has its idiosyncratic view of this conversion, with churches and sculptures to celebrate the occasion, the actual circumstances and timing are a matter of scholastic debate.  

The early Tsars needed a means of uniting a vast territory and numerous Slavic tribes, divided by their many gods and residual animist beliefs.

After trying unsuccessfully to create a new religion himself, Vladimir the Great consulted philosophers and representatives of the three existing monotheistic faiths. Islam and Judaism were unsuitable due to the requirement to circumcise and taboos against pork; the Jew's loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God; and Islam was rejected because of its ban on alcoholic beverages:  "Drinking is the joy of the Rus', we can't go without it"  he is reported as saying. 

Christianity also offered the best way of establishing his God given authority to rule.  A great advantage held by orthodox Christianity, since seventh century, has been the power of its Bishops to anoint (confer divine authority on) kings. 


Early Christianity
Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery (1397) - Goritsy


From the thirteenth century onwards this divine authority justified the effective enslavement of an increasing proportion of rural working class as 'serfs'; who were bound 'by the laws of God' to their landlord for life; on pain of severe punishment in this life; and the next.  Serfs were treated like any other animal stock; worked hard; but generally kept healthy and encouraged to breed. Religious festivals, Holy Days, provided them with relief from toil and special treats.   This system was not abolished until the nineteenth century by which time almost 40% of the entire population was thus enslaved.

On occasion our trip seemed like an endless succession of churches, saints and Tsars.  But this is understandable given the importance of religion in the history of the region at every turn and its importance in establishing; and often in deposing; its rulers; in addition to repressing the working class. 


Wooden Cathedral
Wooden Church of Transfiguration - Kizhi Island in Onega Lake


Serfs could gain freedom by joining the army and made excellent 'cannon fodder' on the principle that he who still has troops alive after a battle wins.  It is notable that in almost every military campaign Russian has engaged in their losses far exceeded those of the other side.

Outstanding among the Tsars were Peter the Great and Catherine the Great both for their successful military campaigns to secure access to harbours and new trade routes by sea. Others include Alexander II who emancipated the serfs in 1861 and was assassinated for his trouble; and of course the inglorious last Tsar, Nicholas II, who's extreme incompetence led to a series of revolutions.  He was forced to abdicate by constitutional monarchists in the revolution of February 1917.

The February Revolution of 1917 was followed in the same year by the October Revolution, bringing Bolshevik rule and plunging Russia into years of civil war.  Unfortunately for him, the Tsar remained a rallying figure for royalists and was strategically eliminated by Leninist forces, along with any of his family who might have succeeded him, in 1918.

The October revolution led to the eventual formation of the USSR in the 1920's; during my Grandparent's adult lifetime. 

My Danish Great uncle worked for Erickson; installing the telephone system in Russia at this time. The USSR became an ally of Britain and the US against the Germans when Hitler tore up his 1939 Non-Aggression Pact and attacked Russia in 1941.   Soviet military and civilian deaths were 10.6 million and 15.9 million respectively,  accounting for about a third of all World War II casualties; equal to about five times the total German military and civilian losses during the entire war.  Needless to say the Russians believe that they made the greatest sacrifice of all the Allies towards the winning of WW2.


Memorial to WW2
WW2 Memorial - 26.5 million Soviet dead


The Allied war with Japan ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs and this technology instantly made the US the World's foremost super-power.  But the Soviet Union was quick to develop atomic and hydrogen bombs of its own and the Russians were then first to put a man in space; effectively demonstrating, without needing to annihilate a city, that they could deliver an atom bomb to anywhere on the planet.

The consequent Cold War between the West and the USSR peaked in October 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Soon there were enough missiles and warheads on each side to annihilate every city on the planet several times over, and the powers achieved the stalemate affectionately known as MAD - mutually assured destruction.  Although a dozen treaties have reduced the number of weapons; both sides still retain an agreed 1,550 warheads; and each of these may be multiply targeted. Both countries have ongoing upgrade programs to renew and improve the effectiveness of their technology within this limit. Thus each country is constantly improving its ability to annihilate the other.

As Bob Dylan sang in God on My Side:

I've learned to hate Russians 
All through my whole life. 
If another war comes, 
It's them we must fight. 
To hate them and fear them, 
To run and to hide, 
You never ask questions 
When God's on your side.


I wondered if the Americans on board continued to harbour something of this sentiment; or is it conditioning?

History has demonstrated that the Marxist economic model is deeply flawed and has little chance of prevailing for long.  The most egregious example was that of Pol Pot in Cambodia.  Countries like China Vietnam and Cuba have increasingly embraced market based economics and the restoration of privately owned capital. 

Despite leading the world in some areas of engineering and science, the Russian command economy was under constant repair from the outset; resulting in periodic famines and wasteful oversupply.  During its last years it was again afflicted by shortages of goods in grocery stores, huge budget deficits, and explosive growth in the money supply leading to inflation. 

A joke from a Russian on the boat:

Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev and Brezhnev are on a train that has ground to a halt.
Lenin says 'I can fix this' and leans out the window: ‘comrade workers’, he says to the peasants: ‘give us your free time and collectively we can get this train moving’; but the train remains stationary.
So Stalin leans out the window and says: ‘anyone not helping to get this train moving will be shot’; but still there is no movement.
Kruschev leans out and says: 'the problem lies in the track so pull up the track from behind and lay it in front'. Still nothing.
So they turn to Brezhnev who smiles and says: ‘comrades let’s just close the curtains and imagine the train is moving’.

In 1991 the USSR spontaneously fell apart as market economics reasserted itself. 

In many cases assets and resources were simply annexed by those with the greatest power or influence. As a result some individuals have been able to acquire vast fortunes. 

Overseeing this for the past fourteen years has been President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. 

Putin has been both Prime Minister and President, in effective control of the country in both roles. He has been popularly elected on several occasions. During Putin's first premiership and presidency (1999–2008), real incomes increased by a factor of 2.5, real wages more than tripled; unemployment and poverty more than halved.  During his first presidency the Russian GDP increased by 72%. 

These achievements have been supported by good economic management but also by a five-fold increase in the price of oil and gas; comprising the majority of Russian exports. 

Putin is accused by critics of being authoritarian and corrupt; and some wealthy individuals are said to be above the law (Russian Mafia).  The country is said to be struggling to retain a viable democracy with an apparently ineffective political opposition and recent crack-downs on dissent.  Remember Pussy Riot.

Some Russians look back with fondness to the past; as do others who lived under communism.

My daughter Emily lives in the old eastern sector of Berlin and prefers it to the previous western sector; not the least for her wonderful apartment in a pretty street; convenient to the centre; with its 15 foot ceilings large rooms and wide, solid floorboards. Not quite what we have been led to believe about the eastern sector.

A friend of hers grew up in East Berlin. He has considerable misgivings about some of the changes he has seen in Berlin; and in Germany generally.  He felt that once people were more civically minded; more caring and more equal. He is very bright, an electronics engineer, and quite intellectual. As Emily says, like an immigrant he is nostalgic about aspects of the land left behind; but it is one he can never return to; perhaps, like many who do return to past lands, to be disillusioned.






I often find, when visiting for the first time, countries to be totally different to my expectations.  Russia was no exception.

Like Australia, Russia is rich in minerals and energy and there is growing general prosperity, thanks to this found, rather than made, wealth.

At times in Moscow I thought we could have been somewhere in the US (Chicago?) particularly sitting in the McCafe near Tverskaya St, sipping a latte, watching the similarly dressed populous pass by. Moscow has many similar buildings; including some very modern skyscrapers (but not as tall).


Moscow skyscrapers
Part of Moscow's commercial district

Thanks to Google you can go to much of Russia in Street View.


Moscow in Google Earth
Tverskaya St Moscow


Many streets in every major Russian city are jammed (serious traffic problems) with late model expensive European cars (Audi, BMW, Porsche and of course Mercedes; in addition to Skoda; ever-present Japanese and even some US brands). People on public transport are well dressed and many girls are, famously, very attractive.


A weekend in Moscow
ul Arbat -  walking street - at the weekend

Some streets are eight or more lanes wide and are some are so busy that they can only be crossed using the frequent underpasses – often connected to the spectacularly ornate and grand metro system (go anywhere – right out to the suburbs - for under a dollar).

 Another joke from a Russian: 

An Australian has attempted to cross the road in Moscow and is on the central lane marking, stranded.
After some time a police car pulls up and the cop says: ‘are you mad – have you come here to die’.
The Australian says: ‘No mate, I’ve been here since yesterdye’.


Directly across from Lenin's tomb in Red Square there is a huge department store complex, previously the GUM State Department Store, now crammed with up-market European outlets from relatively down market Zara to Gucci and Prada.





The square is mainly used as the venue for rock concerts.


Rock concerts in Red Square
Red Square - Lenin's Tomb is the structure beyond the tents


Capitalism triumphs. That thumping sound is Lenin turning in his grave.

Elsewhere in the city it’s the same story: up-market stores everywhere; grand hotels back in full swing. St Petersburg is the same and our friends, mentioned above, who travelled to Moscow by train from Beijing, report that major cities en route had similar stories.

My preparation for Russia came to a considerable degree from my reading of spy novels.  The apparent complexities in getting a visa somewhat enforced this perception. 

In reality it's not really difficult.  The consulate in Sydney is pleasant and fast by comparison to say India, but you do need to be invited by a Russian tour company; and to submit an itinerary.  There is a long on-line application that asks amongst other things how many countries you have visited in the past ten years and when - ridiculous.  So I was surprised to discover that no one really cared about our itinerary; or where we went; or when. Each hotel is supposed to record where you were last but even then they seem to be happy with any kind of evidence. 

During our tour of the Kremlin, with the second English speaking tour group from our cruise, that included Americans, Putin arrived.  Five black cars were followed at a distance by two chase cars that did a general security circuit.

They passed directly in front of us; members of our group stepping back onto the curb to avoid them. We were not surrounded or 'covered' by gunmen.


Kremlin1 Kremlin2
Kremlin3 Kremlin4

 Inside the Kremlin walls



It was not unlike the Australian PM arriving. It was a huge contrast to Obama arriving in Berlin when I was there a few weeks later; with rooftop snipers and traffic closures in half the city.  Of course this was Putin's home territory and we had all been through security.

At other times we had interactions with the troops guarding the Kremlin - when we wanted to cross areas they had closed.  They were perfectly polite but firm in their refusal - typically holding their forearms crossed in a clear message that the way was blocked but generally smiling at the same time. 


Kremlin Guards


Craig in particular was a naughty boy in this regard; but there were no repercussions.

There was certainly no sense of being under surveillance (a la Syria) in the street in Moscow.  Actually you get a much stronger sense of this in London; with all those cameras; particularly if you watch Spooks on TV. 

Independently we travelled by metro; walked freely past a high security government building in the back blocks; and visited the things that interested us; like the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art. 

This holds classical European paintings including: Canaletto's, Rembrandts and other Dutch masters; a collection of Greek and Roman ceramic, bronze, and iron objects; Egyptian sarcophagi; a full sized reproduction of Michelangelo's David, as well as a great number of casts of ancient Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian sculptures.


Rembrandt - Ahasuerus (Xerxes), Haman and Esther - Pushkin Museum


In a closed of section I could see several familiar paintings that I thought were in London; but I discovered that the museum was about to play host to an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art from the Tate.


Pre-Raphaelites - from Tate Modern



The Moscow Metro

As in other cities with a metro this is by far the easiest way to travel around the city.  The Moscow metro was one of the great achievements of the soviet period there are 12 lines dating from 1935 to the present. The core of the system was completed during the Soviet period but new lines and extensions are added regularly as a means of relieving the traffic gridlock on the surface.  The system is a conventional third track, broad gauge (5'), system.  It carries around 9 million passengers each working day; rivalled in size only by those in Tokyo and Seoul. 

From a tourist perspective it is worth seeing as an end in itself.  During the Stalinist period the Metro symbolised Soviet achievements and many these stations are extraordinary; with very wide tunnels elaborately tiled with marble and bronze statues and decorations; chandeliers light the central halls and works of art are reproduced in the mosaic panels. 


Metro1 Metro2
mero3 Metro4


Although there are only a dozen or so really elaborate stations, the remaining stations (188 in total) are built on a grander scale than most other metros we have travelled on. 

Once we moved out to the cruise ship the metro became the only practical way back into town. 


in townSaint Basil's Cathedral Red Square


This was initially a challenge as it requires the purchase of tickets and then negotiation of the various interchanges.  And unlike St Petersburg there are no names in European script - it provides a very quick lesson in Cyrillic - or matching up the words on a bilingual map.  But we quickly got the hang of it; the main challenge being keeping our party, that sometimes grew to a dozen, together on the crowded trains without leaving a straggler on the platform; or a train. 

Trains come about every two minutes so the trick was to wait for the next one if everyone wasn't ready or we had doubts about the direction; or line we were on.

While the ticket sales staff could be as brusque as they are anywhere, people on the trains were polite, often standing for the women in our group or moving over spontaneously to let us sit together.  Uniformed officers were as helpful as they could be given the language barrier - point at where we want to go on the map.

On our side we were conscious that initially we were uncertain as to how to buy tickets and were often gazing about in the stations, getting our bearings or taking photos, while hundreds of regular commuters were moving around us in a hurry to go somewhere.  



The Circus

I would not usually think of going to a circus.  I remember them as a child when they would set-up on the open ground adjacent to the council yard in Pennant Hills, now covered by car sales yards, with their elephants and lions and trained horses. The trapeze artists and lion tamers were the highlights; but there was something sinister about the clowns.  I always find it difficult to sympathise with Pagliacci and my daughter Julia seems to have inherited this prejudice. 

There are still two great Circuses in Moscow that alternate being on tour. A visit to one was offered as an additional excursion by the tour company.  We chose to organise our own visit with better seats for a fraction of the cost.  To be fair the company would need to pay a guide and hire a bus for the night whereas we just needed to pay $2 for return Metro tickets.

I know that there are well regarded acrobatic circuses in Australia but don't think a circus is a real circus without trained animals. Watching humans in athletic feats can be interesting, particularly if they are cute (see the Ballet later) but there is nothing like a well trained animal arouse one's admiration.  They had chimps, goats, horses and dogs but have you ever seen trained hippos? 

As in ancient Greece acrobats leapt to and from the backs of galloping horses;  one, two, three... six, seven abreast.  Needless to say the sixteen or so young men on the flying trapeze were brilliant; as were the equally talented young women.


Circus interval


Twenty or so very stinky goats scaled boxes and scaffolds and were suitably rewarded.  And so it went; with the chimps and dogs doing what they do best; apparently enjoying the applause; and their little rewards.  I was reminded of the white mice in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy that had trained the scientists to feed them every time they did the slightest thing amusing.

But most intriguing were the hippopotamuses - said to be one of the most dangerous animals in the world.  They behaved as elephants traditionally do on little stands and feet on another's back in line but they also played a game in which one climbed over the recumbent bodies of the others; and where one opened its huge mouth to fend off a beach-ball with its tusklike teeth.  We took comfort  that the two rows of small children in front of us would distract or at least slow-down any animal going berserk.

The clowns were non-traditional.  One bore a striking resemblance to Queen Elizabeth II - staggering about with, possibly brandy laced, cups of tea.  Another female, with red hair, might have been based on the immediate past Prime Minister of Australia but was rather too lanky, with advanced juggling skills, to be confused with Julia. I was most impressed by the Russian children who were delighted and engaged but also well behaved and self contained; their parents allowing them to move about quite independently - small adults out on a special occasion. 

Overall we gave it a nine out of ten. 



The Cruise



On board, our cabins were small but comfortable and the meals were ample and very good quality.  Reasonable quality wine was available with the meal for less than $30 a bottle.  Nevertheless we chose to eat in the city on a number of occasions when we were out and about or departing from the organised tours. In this way we sampled a good range of Russian food and found it very enjoyable. We were also able to bring bottles and other supermarket goods back to the ship provided we drank and ate outside on deck or in our cabin.


meals on board


After three more days moored in Moscow we set sail for St Petersburg. The tour company had organised a number of stops along the way.  We were typically met by a guide and fed into the tourist sausage machine - wireless earpieces in - follow me group 2. 


Guides were usually very informative
Former Governor’s House Yaroslavl


At most of these stops we waited for the group ahead to move on and were then fed into a church; or palace; or local hall to hear a local group sing. Buy your CD here. 


Moving in the group


One island is so entirely given over to local crafts that there are no tours; just dump the tourists on-shore and leave them to buy the goods until lunch time.


Craft Island
Mandrogi tourism village


Nevertheless, most of the guides were very interesting and well-informed. It is also very helpful to be in a tour group to by-pass the crowds waiting to enter some locations like the Kremlin in Moscow and the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

There was often free time to roam about and the guides sometimes welcomed the opportunity to simply chat.  'What's your idea of democracy?' one asked me; and genuinely wanted to discuss my view of representative government; including the the necessity of compulsory voting and the importance of an apolitical head of state with the authority to dismiss Parliament but who is normally just a figurehead and politically powerless.

Russians do seem to be very politically aware despite a long history of political abuse. Our guides quite often slipped in little jibes at the state of Russian politics.  Putin announced that he was divorcing his wife while we were there and this provided material for some sly jokes.  Much of the historical material concentrated on the Tsarist times.  This was not surprising when visiting palaces and churches.

Guides refer to the 'Soviet Period'; as if it was a brief historical aberration; like that under some tyrannical Tsar.   But apart from references to the War, Communism seemed to be a taboo subject and comments related mainly to the Communist fetish for complete restoration of buildings damaged or completely destroyed during WW2, including the meticulous reinstallation of gold; amber; silk; and marble.  


Elizabeth1 palace2
palace3 palace4

 This palace was a burnt-out shell - the gold and silk and inlayed floors are real - all restored since 1945



While the cities are clearly prosperous, it's not as wonderful in the countryside. There, the few people we saw seem to be clothed and fed, but were obviously quite poor.   Again you can make a virtual visit to many towns Russia in Google Maps - Street View.

The most striking thing is how sparsely the countryside is populated and the vast tracts of forest that from the air seem to cover at least a third of the terrain.


country scene

As a result wood is obviously inexpensive and is very widely used for construction (log huts and even houses) and for fuel - huge wood heaps in preparation for winter.



But now it was summer with clear bright days generally 15 to 25 and sunny; til close to midnight (it did get cooler in the evenings).

In small city of Yaroslavl there are still factories and businesses producing unwanted goods (mechanical watches and unremarkable cheese), presumably under some kind of subsidy, but tourism and education are the actual economic mainstays. Major Tourist attractions include the churches and points of historical significance; mainly from the pre-soviet times. 


another church
Cathedral of the Dormition - Yaroslavl 


Tourism is becoming more important and we were often invited to come back or to encourage friends to visit.

During the cruise we reached the furthest north of the trip on Lake Onga, As it was close to the solstice we watched a spectacular sunset and the sun just dipped below the northern horizon for a couple of hours.  





The Churches



With the demise of Communism, religion seems to have reasserted itself on a grand scale; aided and abetted by Putin who uses it to consolidate his power base.

After various tours of churches; in which we were invited to think that the restoration of services was a good thing and/or that there really were such people as saints; I asked a couple of guides what their personal beliefs were, to be told that they were sceptics.  So I conclude that in part this renewed religiosity is partly a front that the 'New Russia' wants to present to tourists - particularly Americans. 

But it is not all 'front'.  The last Tsar and his murdered family have all been sanctified (individually) and now have churches built in their names. Churches previously made into museums or social centres are restored to their previous use and hundreds of (mainly) women, many bizarrely, in mini-skirts or jeans (scarfs on heads), queue to kiss an icon, Our Lady of Kazan, in Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg. 


kissing the icon
Kissing the icon


The Russian Orthodox church is in the Eastern Tradition and differs from the Roman Church and its descendents in its view of the Trinity.  This can be seen in the repeated representation of the 'Old Testament Trinity' in and around its churches.  God can't be represented directly, so three angels who visited Abraham (Genesis 18:1-15) appear in proxy.  


Old testament trinity
The top centre frame of an Iconostasis (partly obscured by the chandelier)


In this tradition Jesus was that part of God who became a man, briefly, before returning to rejoin the Trinity.  This gets around the problem of why God waited 13.7 billion years after the initial creation, and around 100,000 years after creating Man, before deciding to have a human son; and only then splitting himself into three attributes.

As a consequence the Russian Orthodox Church has a different view of apotheosis.  In the Roman tradition apotheosis is the goal of all believers (to be one with God); also described as divinization or deification. 

Latin Christianity clearly has its roots in the earlier pagan beliefs that a dead (or sometimes living) person, for example an emperor or other prominent person, could be recognised as divine by election of the Roman Senate and popular acclaim; this in turn from earlier Hellenistic traditions; where heroes were often, retrospectively, found to be the children of gods. Similar traditions can be found in Egypt and in Hindu and Chinese cultures.  In my earlier notes on out trip to India I noted how many of the Hindu Princes are typically the decedents of gods; the avatars of gods; or the representatives of gods.

In the Latin tradition Saints still need to be endorsed / recognised / canonised by Rome (the Vatican - not the Senate).  Supporters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta are still waiting; but Rome was once less abstemious. 

In Hexham Abbey (in Northern England) from 647 to 789AD nine of the ten 'early rulers', were canonised.   Today bishops have only a one in thirty chance to make it to Cardinal; let alone to Saint.  And what did poor Trumbrith do to miss out?   It's like not getting the Public Service Medal.


Hexham Abbey -  Early Rulers


In contrast the Eastern Church talks of 'theosis'.  Humans can't become 'one with God' or divine but can only achieve 'likeness to God'.  Many saints and mystics have achieved this; usually by the purification of mind and body (katharsis).  Through their spiritual insights the faithful may follow.  Thus Eastern churches are festooned with images of saints; each of whom may assist the faithful to attain theosis.


The Iconostasis in an historic church


We were told that during the Soviet period Kazan Cathedral was used as a 'museums of atheism'; although I'm not sure how one does that - it's difficult to depict nothing.   But it's obviously a trivial thing to catalogue mankind's many bizarre religious beliefs, be they polytheistic or monotheistic; so I suppose that this is what was done. 


Our Lady of Kazan
Another icon of Our Lady of Kazan - this one in a museum

It seems the Russians may have thrown out at least one baby with the Marxist bathwater.


St Petersburg



St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great after his military success against Charles 12 of Sweden; the aim of which was to secure a port on the Baltic and give previously land-locked Russia access to the sea and new trade routes.  Peter was a product of the Enlightenment; very well educated and well travelled; including to England where he studied ship design.

As the site for the new city was swamp at the head of the gulf of Finland  and would require canals for drainage he decided on a city modelled on Amsterdam; and imported European architects engineers and builders to construct this planned city.  The result is one of the most beautiful of European cities; particularly when it is bright and sunny as it was for us. 


St Petersburg is a city of canals


The city was further developed by his daughter Elizabeth and by Catherine the Great.




The city has been home to some of Russia's greatest writers; composers; and artists.  In many cases the building in which they lived is now preserved and can some can be visited - list...

During the Soviet Period the City was known as Leningrad and was famously unsuccessfully besieged by the Germans in World War 2 (WW2). 

Modern additions to the city include a metro that is, on average, the deepest in the World.  We found it amazing. The escalators disappear into the distance below you and then, quite often, there is yet another flight before you reach your platform.  It is a lot smaller than Moscow (5 lines and 67 stations) but again some of the stations are elaborately decorated. 


SP metro


Other stations are not as 'user friendly' because platform doors, that open to correspond to those on the train, are interspersed with solid concrete. So catching a train is like waiting for a row of lifts in a bunker; and when you are on the train there is little indication of which station you have arrived at except an announcement in Russian.  This usually fails to correspond to the expected pronunciation of the English station name as displayed on the map.  Think of the poor foreigners arriving at Marylebone or Streatham tube stations in London.

Again we used the Metro to get about the city; particularly once we had left the cruise and moved to a hotel for a few days.

Among the sites popular with Tourists are some unique churches.  One of these popularly known as the Church of Spilled Blood (Church of the Saviour on Blood) built on the site of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, he who emancipated the serfs. 


spilled blood
Church of Spilled Blood



This church was almost destroyed by German shellfire during the Siege of Leningrad but it has been completely restored except for just one external panel, deliberately left damaged in remembrance.  This work was commenced during the Communist period and has involved the intricate remaking of many hundreds of heavily gilded mosaic panels depicting saints and scenes from the bible; involving millions of tiles. The result is spectacular.


blood1 Blood2
Blood3 Blood4

 All the images are in mosaic - millions of tiles - all restored since 1945



The same effort has been put into other buildings damaged by the Germans.  The palaces of the former aristocracy have been lovingly restored and refurnished within and around St Petersburg largely during the Communist period.  What were they thinking?  Was this proof that the Germans had left no scar; or was it an elaborate demonstration of the, often crass and tasteless, excesses of the Tsarist period; or was it done with an eye to future tourism?

Anyway out tour guides made sure that we visited the most extreme examples and we used some of our time, after the cruise, to visit several others.


The Hermitage

St Petersburg has a considerable array of cultural attractions including galleries; museums and opera houses.  Principal among these is the Hermitage, a series of linked palaces along the waterfront that holds the Tsarist collection of artworks that include Renaissance works by Leonardo da Vinci; Titian and Raphael; Flemish works including Rembrandt and Hals; and later Russian and European works; including a large collection of impressionists including Van Gogh; Matisse; Monet and Gauguin  and a number of cubists, including Picasso. 


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The Hermitage - bottom right is not a painting - it's the view out a window 


Although entering with a guide by-passed the entry queue there seemed to be a strict limit to the galleries that guides were permitted to take groups to.  Fortunately there was free time.  But in our group only two of us were able to find our way the the impressionists; so I took extensive photographs in that section.  You can see a sample of the rest of the collection online.  

Worldwide some large collections like: the Hermitage; both Tate collections in London; those in Edinburgh; and most major US galleries; allow photography without flash. But several in Russia like the National Portrait Gallery in London, do not.  

As I'm interested in technique I'm disappointed if I can't take a few close-up shots of brush strokes.  It's seems a bit ridiculous now that mobile phones have quite good cameras and, in any case, paintings that have been varnished or are behind glass are often quite reflective and can't easily be photographed, in toto, in sufficiently good quality to compete with already published reproductions.  

The net outcome is that you have been spared from pictorial commentary on several other collections that I enjoyed on this trip.


The Opera

We also went with Craig and Sonia to the Opera at the Mikhaleovsky; to see Peter Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.  Again, we did this independently of the tour operator. 




While the music was fine and the singing excellent the staging was surreal. 

It's based on a novel by Pushkin.  As Tchaikovsky apparently admitted, it has a rather weak plot - a dandy rejects a young country girl, she successfully grows into a worldly woman, he tries to seduce her but it is too late.  So its strength is said to lie in character development and social commentary, as well as in the beauty of its delivery and Pushkin's poetry. 

Unfortunately most of this beauty and biting satire at the expense of the upper classes was lost on us as it was, obviously, sung in Russian.

Worse, from Wendy's point of view, there were no sumptuous ball gowns or fine clothes and not even any visible dancing; despite several waltzes.  Instead the production was bizarrely modern and monochromatic.  Initially white on white it later became black on white then black on black.  There were no dancing peasants and the chorus was kept behind a screen at the back of the stage. From time to time they could be seen through the windows, when these weren't being whipped by stormy tree branches; that latterly turned to autumn leaves blown onto the stage.

In place of the usual sumptuously dressed chorus, modern domestic appliances occupied the stage: washers, fridge and microwave oven.  These were tended by mute domestic staff in black and white; including an apparently mad butler. 

Quite early, a dwarf silently emerged from the fridge and thereafter kept reappearing from various appliances, cupboards and a grandfather clock, sporting and increasingly long beard (father time). 

At different times Tatyana, the lead soprano, dressed all in white, was showered in black beads from a bucket or pricked by giant rose thorns that emerged, stem first, from the fireplace; the mantel of which was used as a very high love seat during one duet.

At different times dark glass bottles were thrown about the white stage by the principals and domestic staff; on one occasion, apparently accidently, hitting a string of bare light bulbs that had been strewn across the stage; spectacularly bursting one bulb.  At another Eugene repeatedly used an air rifle to burst a string of balloons. On yet another the principals, assisted by staff, spun white plates for some minutes, during the orchestral introduction to Act three.

After the duel, in which Eugene kills his friend Lensky, the dead tenor was laid in the, now fallen, grandfather clock, as a coffin, and about 20 litres, of what appeared to be milk, were poured over his head.

Towards the end numerous clocks were brought onto the set by staff only to be removed, rather more violently; being pulled down and thrown out of a window by Eugene.  The Dwarf too was then picked up and thrown out the window.  Hopefully someone was waiting to catch him.  Later in the scene, the apparently distracted, Eugene took up a set of throwing knives and proceeded to throw them in a circle into, the now carpeted, floor.  I wondered for how many performances the carpet might last.

All the while the principals were singing their hearts out. 

Wendy has posted her reaction on Facebook - not a good review!

Annoyingly I failed to notice that Carmen was on two nights later at the Mariinsky opera house.  Those who went loved it.  It was, of course, sung in French and quite conventional.  I'm sure it would have suited Wendy better.  Not even the most way-out re-interpretation of Carmen (and there have been a few) could have matched the production at the Mikhaleovsky for surreal symbolism, and daring innovation; gone completely berserk.


The Ballet

Instead of another opera, Sonia and her cousin Tanya (from the trans-Siberian) wanted to go to the ballet.  Wendy had by this time returned to Australia to be present for her daughter Jordan giving birth.  So five of us (two couples and I) went to a matinee performance by the Mariinsky Ballet school (known during the Soviet Period as the Kirov). 

As these were students, the audience was heavily stacked with parents, friends and admirers; and the quality of the performances was not necessarily reflected in the enthusiasm of the applause. 




Performances by the advanced students and members of the corps were predictably athletic and technically brilliant; and the youngest class, cute little children, were truly magnificent in their precision; bringing the house down.  I have to admit that it was much better than those mounted by my children's ballet schools.

But I'm not the most reliable of ballet critics.  The combination of subdued lighting; pleasant music; and boring athletics, particularly when there are just boys leaping about, is prone to put me to sleep.  A skilled ballerina; an attractively clad corps de ballet and/or erotic pas de deux usually hold my interest but otherwise I may need to be dug in the ribs to stop me snoring. 


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Before leaving Sydney, Wendy and I went to an Australian Ballet performance Swan Lake and I was able to stay awake throughout; which I counted as an excellent review from me.  But accompanying my children, my mother and others to past ballets has often resulted in a very expensive nap. 

I'm pleased to report that I stayed awake for at least two thirds of this programme; which again, I count as a good review; on average.


The Tsars and their Palaces



As indicated above Peter the Great (ruled 1682 - 1725)  founded St Petersburg and built the first of its palaces he also provided material and other incentives to aristocratic families to build in the new city.  

To encourage country houses to be built along the bay, he built Peterhof where he indulged his enthusiasm for fountains.  Later Tsars extended the fountains and as at other palaces these have been repaired and renovated since WW2.  They are now a major tourist attraction.


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Peterhof  - some of the fountains


Initially with his brother, Peter expanded the Tsardom of Russia into the Russian Empire and replaced the traditionalist and medieval social and political system with a modern, scientific, Europe-oriented, and rationalist system; albeit one that still depended on serfs.  He was succeeded by his wife Catherine I as Tsarina who built the first Catherine Palace in Pushkin 25 km due south of St Petersburg. 


Catherine Palace


Catherine I was succeeded by Peter II and Anna under who's rule the country went into decline until Catherine's daughter Elizabeth (by Peter the Great) sized power in a coup in 1741.  

Russia recovered and grew under her intelligent rule, but like her namesake Elizabeth I of England she remained unmarried.  Elizabeth was a woman of extravagant tastes who demolished and then rebuilt Catherine Palace on the grand scale we see today; with 100 kg of gold decorating the façade alone.  


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She liked to party and variously posed naked or dressed as a man for portraits.  She produced no heir and so nominated one of her nephews, a grandson of Peter the Great, as her successor.  This young man became Peter III.  She also arranged his marriage to a young German princess who took the name Catherine when she was received into the Orthodox Church.  The young couple did not get on, Catherine despising him as an 'idiot drunkard from Holstein and good-for-nothing'.  They lived apart and both took lovers.  Elizabeth initially brought up their son Paul.

When Elizabeth died in 1761 Peter III, who disliked Russians and admired the Prussians, succeeded but was immediately at odds with the aristocracy and the army.  He lasted six months before being toppled then killed in a coup. Paul was still a child and so Catherine became Empress Catherine II.  Under her reign Russia became one of the great powers of Europe with a series of military victories and conquests spreading her influence from the black sea and across Asia; all the way to Alaska.  The Empress became known as Catherine the Great.


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Catherine II - Catherine the Great


While Catherine was notorious for her numerous influential and/or capable lovers, she lacked Elizabeth's garish taste, or love of dancing, and built palaces that were plain and more tasteful as venues for State occasions.  Like Peter the Great she was happy to live in quite modest dwellings when not entertaining.  She is regarded as a true enlightenment ruler who founded the Hermitage Museum; numerous schools and cultural institutions; and commissioned the beautiful and restrained Marble Place that now forms part of the Hermitage; along with Winter Palace and the Vladimir Palace. 

Upon Catherine's death Paul succeeded but he wanted to vindicate his father's memory.  With some justification, he believed his mother to have been complicit in his father's murder.  He immediately reversed a number of military strategies Catherine and her generals had initiated. He had inherited his father's fetish for uniforms and military trivia and was said to dismiss even generals for minor infringements of the uniform like leaving buttons undone.  He was widely disliked but lasted five years before being assassinated; compared to his father's six months. 

From there it was pretty well a down-hill ride.  His sons Alexander I (no heir) then Nicholas I succeeded, followed by Alexander II (assassinated see - Church of Spilled Blood - above) followed by Alexander III and finally by Nicholas II; the last Tsar.  Almost all built or modified palaces and most have churches built in their name.




It is alarming that Russia seems to have a culture that traditionally craves an autocratic leader; perhaps endowed with divine authority. 

It's said that the last Tsar, Nicholas II, refused to endorse the constitution that would hand effective power to the Assembly/Parliament, and chose to abdicate instead, because he genuinely believed that he was God's appointed ruler and that to do so would be a mortal sin; better to die in a coup than to risk his immortal soul.

How could any sane person, particularly with his family history of numerous coup d'état, think they were really appointed by God; as opposed to seizing by force or acquiring by accident of birth, a position that carries that epithet? 




From: The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker


Did he, like Abraham, get a personal visit?  Even the Pope knows perfectly well that he is appointed by a political process; election by his peers.  The faithful are simply encouraged to believe that the Holy Spirit directs the motives of the Cardinals. 

Nicholas apparently genuinely believed in 'higher powers'; 'auras' and other such magic so that he and his wife Alexandra were easily duped by the con-man, mystic Grigori Rasputin who for a period seemed to be ruling Russia through his hold over them; because of their haemophiliac son.  Rasputin was a truly bizarre footnote to their history  -  read more.

Nicholas was appropriately nicknamed Bloody Nicholas. Right at the beginning of his reign an ill planned 'banquet for the people' to celebrate his coronation resulted in 1,389 being trampled to death in the rush for food.  But he later earned this sobriquet rather more deliberately through his anti-Semitic pogroms, during which as many as a quarter of a million Jews are estimated to have been killed; and on 'Bloody Sunday' when in January 1905 his guards shot down hundreds of peaceful petitioners carrying thousands of signatures in favour of his signing a constitution; followed by the violent suppression of an attempted revolution in the same year. Then he then lived up to it through his ill planned military campaign that lost almost the entire Russian fleet in 1904-05 in the disastrous war with Japan, with an estimated  130 thousand casualties, and his later military meddling in the early years WW1 that resulted in a further 3.3 million Russian soldiers killed; helping to precipitate the successful 1917 revolutions. 

So Nicholas probably got what he deserved. It was a pity about his complicit but otherwise innocent family; but so it was for the several hundred killed on Bloody Sunday; the millions killed through his military posturing and incompetence; and his religious/racial intolerance that was a pre-cursor to Hitler's. 


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