Tsar Nicholas II. The October Revolution. Lenin. Stalin. Five-year plans. The KGB. Glasnost. My Year 12 history class clearly prepared me well for my trip to Russia. Or not. Most of what I thought I knew about Russia was turned on its head during our two weeks here.
For a start the cities are simply magnificent. The streets of both St Petersburg and Moscow lined with astonishingly beautiful cathedrals, palaces and manor houses and dotted with the wonderfully landscaped parks and gardens. In fact most of the buildings there have some sort of grand design or flourish which makes them worthy of their own postcard. You can – and we did – spend hours just roaming the streets admiring one building after another.
A highlight is hard to pick but for me in St Petersburg it was the Hermitage. This string of palacial homes were the former residences of the Russian Tsars and Tsarinas – until they were rudely executed – but are now home to a very impressive collection of art. Six hours we spent wandering these rooms, and still I felt rushed through it.
In Moscow it had to be Red Square. With the cartoonish St Basil’s Cathedral on one side, the Kremlin on another, and Vladimir Lenin’s tomb thrown in for good measure, this square buzzes with Russian history. It is obviously a tourist trap during the day, you can’t move without unwittingly photo-bombing someone. But late at night the place is just as beautiful – perhaps even more so – with the building lit up and the square close to empty.
One of my favourite places that we found on our last night there was Bar Strelka in Moscow. It has a rooftop bar from which you can look out on to the canals and to the very grand Cathedral of Christ the Saviour; on a quiet Wednesday night it was the perfect place to be.
There was one other attraction that made an impression on me. The National Museum of the History of the Gulag was as interesting as it was disturbing. There were close to 500 of these labor camps during Stalin’s rule, and they were used to “re-educate” around 14 million Russian citizens, most of which died. But what really shocked me was the museum itself. It was about the size of a one-bedroom flat – three tiny rooms cramped with dusty exhibits and some maps. I was truly surprised – and disheartened – at the obvious disinterest to preserve and chronicle one of USSR’s darkest chapters.
Of course I couldn’t go to Russia without at least seeing one ballet performance. I was keen – I mean they did invent the dance – but it took quite a bit of persuading and, in the end, blatant whinging to get A to come along with me. We saw Swan Lake and I of course was transfixed by the dancers whose grace and skill left me fighting off childhood urges to rush out and buy a tutu. A was more transfixed by the orchestra, in particular the cymbals man, who was steadily taking swigs from his beer in between required clashes. I loved it but then I was very surprised when they gave the story a happy ending. No swans nor princes tragically flung themselves into a lake and died…I felt a bit cheated at that…
And then there are the Russians. Both A and I reckon they are the most miserable people we have ever come across. They are cold, and highly rude, and they don’t smile. At all. It kind of became a challenge for A and I to try to make them smile, so we grinned at all the bar tenders, ticket sellers and waitresses that we could. And they stubbornly refuse to smile.
But then they don’t necessarily have much to smile about. They live in a country where AU$1200 is a very good wage, and where there is a vast vast gap between the haves and the have nots. (The haves being those who are escorted everywhere by bodyguards in blacked out SUVs…even to the hairdressers.) My friend Fiona told the story of the high speed trains – the Sapsan – that run between Moscow and St Petersburg (which we caught). That train, which pulls into a city with the highest number of billionaires Europe, runs past a small town where there is no running water and people are still using horse & carts as transport, because the government hasn’t built them any roads. I can’t imagine what they must think seeing that train whizz past them twice a day.
So we’re out of Russia now, and in Berlin, where people actually smile. I’m really glad I was able to see all the beauty that Russia has to offer, but I can’t say I’ll be headed back there in a hurry.