Wednesday, July 9, 2014


We sat in the lounge of the Royal Princess with two Russian couples, toasting to American and Russian friendship over bottles of wine and champagne. The middle aged Russian men from Moscow, Yuri and Yuri along with their wives were boisterous with a bawdy sense of humor. Though they spoke little English, we could understand each other. We became friends and exchanged business cards. Yuri (1) manages a Moscow baking company while his wife is a doctor at a prestigious private clinic in Moscow. Yuri (2) manages the clinic.

The waiter served Baked Alaska.  Yuri (1) said, "Baked Alaska--we used to own that!"  Fortunately, they didn't serve us Chicken Kiev.

The point here is that despite the political posturing of the respective countries, people are people, and on a personal level, we can not only get along, but we can enjoy their company.

We boarded the ship in Warnermunde, Germany, and the Russians boarded a couple days leter in St. Petersburg. We loved St. Petersburg!

St. Pete is a beautiful city with colorful onion domed churches. We had last visited ten years ago, and much has changed. For one thing, the traffic has become unbearable. They can't widen the streets, but there are twice as many cars as there were in 2004. There are no expressways.

The most popular tourist attractions, the Peterhof and the palace of Catherine the Great are in the outskirts of town, perhaps 30 miles from the pier, but it can take two hours to get there. The Hermitage is closer to the center of the city, but you still have to battle gridlocked traffic, crossing bridges over the Neva River.


The city of St. Petersburg was built on a swamp in 1703 by Peter the Great to commemorate the Russian victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. The victory gave the previously landlocked Russia a window to the Baltic Sea, and Peter was eager to take advantage. He named his city St. Petersburg, purposely giving it a German name. When the godless Bolsheviks took over in the October (1917) Revolution, they changed the name to Petrograd (City of Peter). In 1924, after Lenin's death, they changed the name again to Leningrad. Now it's St. Petersburg again. It costs a lot of money to keep changing the signs.

Peter the Great was a larger than life figure. "The Great" was a title he bestowed upon himself. He was a big guy--6'7" which, in those days was considered enormous. Feeling bold after beating Sweden, his mission was to modernize Russia by imitating Western, especially French, ways. He built his palace, the Peterhof (Peter's Court, in Dutch), overlooking the Gulf of Finland, in French Renaissance style.

Outside the palace, Peter himself designed an elaborate network of fountains and waterfalls draining down to the Gulf of Finland. Inside, he decorated the lavish interior with gold leaf molding and wallpaper. The chandeliers were adorned with gold. The French palace of Versailles strongly influenced Peter and also later palaces like Catherine's. The French were considered cultured, and the Russian nobility wanted to be like the French.

Peter the Great is credited with dragging Russia (kicking and screaming) out of medieval times and making it into a European power. Early in his reign, he traveled around Western Europe learning about scientific achievements, studying efficient goverment, shipbuilding and even learning carpentry. He returned to Russia and instituted reforms, centralizing government, modernizing the army, creating a navy, and essentially establishing a scientific, rationalist system. He even instituted compulsory education, at least for the boyars, the nobility. As for the peasants, well, they're still waiting.

Peter Westernized Russia in three ways: (1) he imposed a beard tax to encourage men to be clean shaven; (2) he encouraged Russians to drink coffee; and (3) he encouraged Russians to smoke tobacco. In effect, he was Russia's answer to Sir Walter Raleigh. In those days, people didn't live long enough to get emphezyma or lung cancer. Most Russians enthusiastically accepted his reforms and took smoking over non-smoking.

Peter had some rather unusual interests. For example, he established in 1727 a museum of curiosities called the Kunstkamera which included malformed, stillborn infants and other animal anomalies to demonstrate "accidents of nature". It was the first museum in Russia. Peter encouraged research along those lines, apparently to debunk the public's superstitious fear of monsters. We didn't visit. ___


Peter the Great died in 1727, and Catherine the Great came along about 25 years later. They were both "Great" but not related. In terms of opulence, they had much in common.

Catherine built her palace, like Peterhof, in the French Renaissance style. We were invited to an exclusive "Evening with Catherine the Great", a tea (cocktail?) party at Catherine's palace with about 40 others.

On the long drive there we could observe how ordinary Russians live. We passed several McDonalds, Burger Kings and Subways, all written in Cyrillic letters. Most Russians in St. Pete live in gray, dreary and enormous apartment complexes built during Stalinist times. Today these apartments cost more than modern ones because of high ceilings and larger living space.

We drove by the aristocratic Stroganov Palace, on Nevsky Prospekt, overlooking the canal. It was built by Count Stroganov, also in the French Renaissance style. The Stroganov (or Stroganoff) family were prominent merchants in town who helped finance the Great Northern War against Sweden and ingratiated themselves to Peter the Great and his successors. Stroganov lost his teeth and had difficulty eating steak. The solution: his cook cut the meat into small pieces and covered them with sour cream sauce. The result--Beef Stroganoff. So there you have it! Actually, historians are not sure which Stroganoff the beef dish was named after. The Stroganov Steak House is a fashionable restaurant in town.

When our tour bus finally arrived at Catherine's Palace, we were suitably impressed when we were greeted at the front gates by uniformed servants carrying trays of canapes, caviar and vodka. Everybody drinks vodka in Russia, in most cases, instead of water. In fact, the word vodka in Russia means "little water".

Catherine and her court were, of course, actors adorned in 18th Century period dress. The women wore wide, low cut, flowing dressed with petticoats. the men dressed like George Washington with wigs. The Royal Guardsmen marching band played martial music.

We entered the palace into the ballroom where we were greeted by a chamber music ensemble playing Mozart. Eighteenth Century actors danced the minuet on the wood parquet floor. We took a tour of the palace and were especially impressed with the brownish color Amber Room which is something to behold. It was recently restored. The Baltic area is known for amber which was formed by tree sap millions of years ago.

We went out to the gardens and the coach house to see the horse drawn coaches. Another marching band and dancers entertained us.


As we toured the palace, the guide briefed us on the history of Catherine the Great (1729-1796). It is ironic that she wasn't even Russian; she was German, and her real name was Sophie. Her father was the prince of the small principality of Anhalt-Zeber in Pomerania (now Poland). He was also a general in the Prussian army. Her family had a title but not much money. They were staunch Lutherans. Her mother, Princess Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp was a social climber with relatives in the other royal courts of Northen Europe.   The German state of Holstein, if you couldn't guess,  is famous today for its cows.

Sophie was educated by a tutor and learned three languages--none of them English. She learned German, French and Russian. Mom repeatedly attempted to fix up young Sophie with someone who would go far.

Johanna was close with the Russian Empress Elizabeth who had once been engaged to Johanna's brother who died of smallpox. Elizabeth had a son, about the same age, the Grand Duke Peter, who wasn't Russian either. Elizabeth had married the Duke of Holstein-Gotthorp, and Peter (real name Karl Peter Ulrich) was born in Kiel, Germany. Young Peter could barely speak Russian, and his language skills didn't improve as he got older.

In any event, Sophie and Peter met when she was 10 years old (Peter was 11), and they didn't much like each other. He showed up drunk, which probably didn't endear him to young Sophie, and she didn't mince words. Remember, Peter was only 11 years old at the time. In the next few years, her opinion of him didn't change, but they got engaged anyway. Her Russian lessons came in handy when Sophie converted to the Russian Orthodox faith and gota new name, Yekaterina (Catherine). Her unOrthodox father objected to the religious conversion, but mother Johanna, with her Machievellian schemes, held her ground.

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica described Peter in the following way: "Nature made him mean, the smallpox made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathesome. And Peter had all the sentiments of the worst kind of small German prince of the time. He had the conviction that his princeship entitled him to disregard decency and the feelings of others...." Those were the nicer things they said about him. Historians got much of this information from Catherine's memoirs which described him as an "idiot", "drunkard from Holstein", "good-for-nothing", etc. Modern historians believe he couldn't be that bad and they are searching the records to see if anybody (other than his mother) really did say anything nice about him. There is a movement today to built a memorial for Peter III in Kiel, Germany, the city of his birth. If they expect tourists to descend on the city for that, they're probably mistaken.

Catherine married Peter in 1745 when she was 16, and she became Grand Duchess of Russia. Her husband played with toys and mistresses. Nine years later, after several miscarriages, Catherine produced an heir, Paul. He may have turned out even worse than Peter, but more on that later.

Catherine was close with several members of the Russian court, and it was speculated that the child wasn't Peter's, but others claimed that young Paul actually did look like Peter. There were no DNA tests in those days, and the legal presumption is that the child was Peter's.

When Empress Elizabeth died in 1751, the fun started. Peter became Peter III, and Catherine's title was "Empress Consort." Thereupon Peter made some bad choices in life. He tried to push Catherine aside and allow his mistresses to rule with him. then he angered the Orthodox Church by taking away church lands. He alienated nobles and the military by backing Prussia--well he WAS German. In his court, he surrounded himself with Holsteiners from the old neighborhood rather than Russians. He was known to detest the Russians.

Not surprisingly, Peter's days were numbered. Catherine turned out to be a lot smarter than he was. She entered into relationships, sexual and otherwise, that brought her political support in the Russian court. With the help of her then lover, Russian lieutenant Gregory Orlov and other members of the court, they conspired o overthrow Peter after only six months on the throne. They forced him to abdicate, and a few days later, her co-conspirators strangled him to death, although it is unclear whether it was on Catherine's orders. Whatever the case, she rewarded her supporters, lovers and ex-lovers, and kept their support to consolidate her power.

Catherine assumed the throne and immediately went to work repairing relationships with the Church and the military which was prepared for imminent war with Denmark to expand Holstein's borders.  She called off the war and restored lands to the Church.  She assumed the mantle of the revered Peter the Great, claiming that she was following in his footsteps. 

During her reign, she added Russian territory at the expense of Poland and the Ottoman empire.  She installed a former lover, Count Stanislaus Poniatowski on the Polish throne, essentially as a Russian puppet state.  She later had him deposed.  (They did have a son together.)  The partition of Poland in 1772 triggered a war with Turkey, the decaying Ottoman Empire.  The Russians meant business, and after numerous victories over the Turks, Russia acquired the Crimea and ports on the Black Sea.  One of the heroes of that war was Gregory Potemkin became her trusted adviser and, of course, her lover. 

Potemkin is famous today for the fake villages he created to deceive the boss.  He erected fake villages with false fronts along the Dnieper River in anticipation of Catherine's visit to Crimea.  He even had his men dress as peasants to walk around the village.  The purpose, obviously, was to impress Catherine with how prosperous they looked.  After she passed by, Potemkin had his people fold up the props and move them further down the river for another pass. 

Catherine loved luxury.  She was reported to have 15,000 dresses--all size 16.  She built the Hermitage so she could enjoy the fine art by herself. 

As for her son Paul, he was considered a madman.  After Catherine's death, he became Tsar Paul.  He didn't make a lot of friends.  Even his mother didn't like him.  She had groomed his younger half-brother Alexander (by Poniatowski) to succeed her, but Paul found the Last Will and Testament first and destroyed it. 

Paul idolized the Prussian military.  He insisted on daily parades and loved to give commands and watch the troops march around.  If a soldier made a mistake, Paul would have him flogged.  One time, the regiment missed a command and became disordered during maneuvers.  Paul ordered them to march to Siberia.  When they were about 10 miles out of town, one of his deputies chased them down and rescued them. 

Paul tossed out the Russian style uniforms introduced by his mother and decreed that his soldiers wear Prussian style uniforms, uncomfortable and impractical for battle.  He tried to reorganize the army based on show and glamour, but his top General Suvorov completely ignored him, declaring the new guidelines to be worthless.  Paul's reign lasted 5 years until he was mercifully assassinated by conspirators in his court.


Catherine the Great left her legacy in the form of the magnificent Hermitage Museum which she founded in 1764 with the intention to create a world class art collection to outdo the other crowned heads of Europe.  She also lived there in the winter months.  She called it the Hermitage because she considered the palace to be a place of retreat and seclusion.  She famously declared, "Only the mice and I can admire all this!"

The Hermitage consists of 6 buildings along the Palace Embankment (the canal) which includes the Winter Palace, the Hermitage Theatre, and 3 other museums.  The collections today comprise more than 3 million items including the largest art collection in the world.  Everywhere you turn is a famous painting.

First we saw Italian renaissance artists like Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Veronese.  Hey, I forgot Michelangelo's Crouching Boy.  They've got Spanish art--Velasquez, Goya, El Greco.  How about the Dutch and Flemish:  Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt and Brueghel.  Then there is German, British (Gainsborough), Swiss and French from the 15th to the 18th Centuries. 

Catherine's successors brought in the more modern French--Neoclassical and Impressionist.  They have Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh and Gaughin, not to mention Pissarro, Cezanne and Degas.  the modern art wing has Matisse, Picasso and Kandinsky. 

I've just mentioned the artists that I'm most familiar with.  There are many more that a student of art can identify.

In the corner of each room/gallery is an elderly woman who will come over and slap your hand if you touch something.  In 1985, a deranged man vandalized Rembrandt's Danae, slashing it with a knife and throwing acid on it.   The painting has been meticulously restored and is now exhibited behind armored glass.

Catherine assembled these works by purchasing collections from art dealers.  In 1764, she began by acquiring about 300 works--mostly Flemish and Dutch--from Berlin merchant Johann Gutzkowsky who had assembled the collection for Frederick II of Prussia.  Frederick had second thoughts about paying for them, his check bounced, and Catherine jumped at the chance to snap them up.   She went on to purchase more whole collections in th ensuing years.  She especially enjoyed collecting engraved gems and cameos. 

The Hermitage physical plant had to be expanded several times to accommodate all the purchases.  The bottom line for Catherine was to give her and Russia renewed respect in Europe as an "enlightened" society.  Now, about the serfs....  The Hermitage was opened to the public in 1852. 


The Russians like to give graphic names to their churches.  The official name of this iconic church in St. Petersburg is Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.  The spilled blood part is what gets everyone's attention.  The church was built as a memorial to Tsar Alexander II who was assassinated on the site in 1881 by a bomb throwing anarchist.  The blood in question, of course, was Alexander's.  The sad thing about it is Alexander II wasn't a bad guy.  He freed the serfs and instituted many reforms in the military and civil service.  No good deed goes unpunished, and for his efforts, he made many enemies.  There were quite a few attempts on his life prior to 1881. 

This church is not to be confused with Church on Blood in Honour of all Saints Resplendant in the Russian Land located in Yekaterinburg at the site where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Today it is not functioning as a church but is a museum celebrating its colorful mosaics.  It claims to have the largest collection of mosaics in the world.  The church was never actually used for public worship except for memorial services.  It suffered considerable damage in World War II, and was restored in the 1990's. 


Speaking of Nicholas II, we all know as I stated above, that after the 1917 Revolution, the entire royal family was killed by the Bolsheviks.  The Tsar and his wife had 4 daughters and one son.  Years later, a woman claiming to be the youngest daughter Anastasia came forward, declaring that she had survived the massacre.  Hollywood even made a 1956 movie about it starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner in which an opportunistic Russian businesswoman is able to fool even hardcore skeptics in an effort to claim a fortune. 

Eventually the truth comes out, and in 1991, the remains of the royal family were found by amateur archaeologists, and their DNA was analyzed by Russian and also British and American laboratories.  Two of the children were not found at that time, so people accepted that there may have been a kernel of truth to the Anastasia story.  A state funeral was held with President Boris Yeltsin attending.  In 2000, the Orthodox Church canonized the entire family for their "humbleness, patience and meekness". 

The rest of the puzzle was solved in 2007 when the bodies of the other two children were found, and neither was Anastasia.  The DNA evidence showed that one was Maria and the other, the son Alexei.


Russia has gotten a lot of bad press in the West over the past 200 years or so, but one of the good things Russian  (along with vodke, caviar and fur hats) is the Matryoshka doll, also known as the Russian nesting doll.  This refers to a set of wooden (or papier mache) dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other.  The high quality dolls are hand painted with elaborate designs.  All the dolls in a set have a common theme, but each one is slightly different.  There can be as many as 30 dolls of decreasing size inside the big one.  They can be very expensive--thousands of dollars for elaborate handmade dolls of papier mache.  The cheaper ones are sold by street vendors in a plastic bag with 3 dolls for 10 bucks (American). 

The most common themes are peasant girls in traditional dress or fairy tale themes.  Nowadays artists create every theme imaginable.  A popular theme is Russian leaders--Putin is on the largest doll, followed by Medvedev, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev,  Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Stalin and Lenin, and even Tsar Nicholas II.  , .   The same guys are also available in different configurations.  Other themes include flowers, Christmas, religious, astronauts and movie stars.  On the Internet, you can even get a Matryoshka doll with the 2005 Chicago White Sox--Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, etc.  It is marked down for clearance. 

The dolls are so popular that St. Petersburg has 4 schools teaching art students how to make them.  They are constructed from a block of wood to create a proper fit.  They use a turning lathe along with woodcarving knives and chisels of various sizes.  Each doll except for the smallest has a top and bottom which fit together securely. 

The first set was created in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin from a design by Sergey Malyutin, a folk crafts painter who was inspired by dolls from Japan.  Their mentor was Savva Memontov, a Russian industrialist.  His wife presented the dolls at the Paris Exposition of 1900 where they won a medal and took off from there.  The word "Matryoshka" comes from the Russian female name Matriona which was a popular name among peasant women who were often portly and healthy.  It comes from the Latin word meaning "mother".


Sad to say, but corruption is deeply imbedded in the Russian culture.  In Communist times, Western goods were in great demand, but scarce.  A tourist with cartons of Marlboro cigarettes in his luggage could get anything he wanted.  Bolshoi Ballet?  Normally you needed reservations 3 months in advance.  "Reservations, schmervations, come on in!".  Lenin's Tomb"  3 hour wait.  "Forgeddaboudit--we'll bring Lenin to you!"   Today, however, in Russia, it's big money that talks. 

We ended our two day tour of St. Pete with a boat ride on the Neva River and the canals where an enterprising kid ran from bridge to bridge waving at our group about 10 different times.  When we reached the dock at the end of the boat ride, the kid was there, and we tipped him with our excess rubles. 

NEXT:  The Best of Finland--Angry Birds and Saunas, also
               The Best of Stockholm--ABBA Museum and the Swedish Rock & Roll Hall of Fame