I arrived in Saint Petersburg on February 2, 2015. Why Russia? Well, I am a history and international studies major, and I have always found Russian history to be beautiful and dramatic. Before I left I remember all the warnings from family and friends:
- “But don’t they hate Americans?”
- “That place is just so cold and mean.”
- “Just go somewhere nice, like London!”
No, Russians do not hate Americans. I’m sure there are some that do, but my experience has been almost entirely friendly and positive. And yes, it is somewhat cold. However, I live in Alaska and this is nothing new to me. There is also an idea that Russian people are mean, which is an easy thing to assume. People do not smile at each other on the street. However, I have come to realize that it is not so much mean as it is busy. People are focused on their own lives, so in public most people do not pay you any mind. In private, Russian people are just like any other: goofy, funny, friendly, and kind. While the language barrier is harder than it would be if I were in London, or another English speaking country, I have already learned many tips and tricks to surviving here. Here’s an example of what an experience on the metro could be like:
Peter and Paul’s Fortress
The first of our major excursions was to Peter and Paul’s Fortress. The fortress was the first structure to be built upon Saint Petersburg, ordered by Peter the Great himself. Here’s a fact about Saint Petersburg: it was not named after Peter Romanov I. It was named after his patron saint, Saint Peter. The fortress is six sided, and dominates the embankment to the north of the Neva River. Every day at 12:00pm an artillery cannon stationed on the garrison of the fortress is ignited and fires. The sound can be heard throughout Saint Petersburg. The Saint Petersburg mint is also inside this fortress, and it was only in 2008 that the USSR insignia was removed and replaced with the Russian Federation double-headed eagle.
The Hermitage, or Winter Palace, is a huge multi-wing museum that served as the palace to the tsars. If you remember the beginning of Anastasia (the 21st century animated movie), Nicholas II and his family are taken from the Winter Palace into Siberia. We were told that the museum is so large, it would take 9 years to see the entirety of it; still, we tried. Outside the Hermitage, on the square, is a large monument to Alexander I. On the inside, you can see the throne rooms and dining halls of the tsars.
The Pushkin Palace
The beautiful Puskin Palace is about an hour from where we are staying. It was used as a military academy, but now serves as a museum with emphasis on Catherine II. It stands next to the Summer Garden which was covered entirely in snow. While our group was there, a couple was getting married in front of a chapel next to the lake, which was a very fun thing to see. It is also in front of this museum that one can pay to hold a small monkey. That does not have much to do with Russia, but it’s still pretty neat.
On my own, I visited the Kazan Cathedral and Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Both of these churches are exquisite and stand on Nevsky Prospect, Saint Petersburg’s main street. One thing I learned is that it is customary for men to remove hats while inside church, even if there is no service going on. Likewise, women should cover their heads with a scarf or hat. Inside is an intricate devotion to the religious beliefs of many Russians here. Huge columns decorate either side of the church, and people come in to pay their respects to loved ones and to their religion.
For my Culture and History of Saint Petersburg class we visited the mansion of the first Governor General of Saint Petersburg. It is important to note that Peter the Great wanted to create Saint Petersburg as two things: a strong naval port and a European capital. He moved the capital of Russia to this city from Moscow, and brought in foreign advisors and architects. If anything shows this trend, it is the Menshikov Palace. There are items and decorations in this palace from all over the world: the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Belgium, China, Japan, and Italy. The mansion housed Alexander Menshikov and his family, who played a key role as an advisor, confidant, and personal friend to Peter the Great.
State Political Museum
The next excursion was to the State Political Museum in Saint Petersburg. It was originally a building of revolutionary activity during the 1900’s, and became a museum in the 1980’s. The museum houses Russian and Soviet artifacts, including information on gulags, Stalin, Kruschev, Brezhnev, and of course, Lenin. The museum is where Bolshevik revolutionaries conducted business, held meetings, generated propaganda, like the newspaper Pravda, which means “truth” in Russian, and pushed the nation into the Soviet style of government in 1917. I was able to stand on the very balcony from which Lenin gave his speeches and changed the course of Russia forever. It is a truly humbling feeling standing in a location where the world changed.