Canals and Palaces

IMG_2521July 19, 2014

Last full day in Russia started promptly at 6AM as we breakfasted and boarded the bus. We ventured to the west around 25 miles to the Peterhof. The original design began in Peter the Great’s reign as a “personal retreat” for Peter on the gulf of Finland. From somewhat modest beginnings, the place grew.

During the time of Peter the core of the palace was completed. About the only original room is Peter’s Study with its Oak paneling, globe and desk. It was not difficult to see Peter at work. Elizabeth added her Baroque touches to the expansion as did Catherine the Great who sought to make her imprint. I was most affected by Catherine’s study with its portrait of her correspondent friend, Voltaire.

Unlike Catherine’s Palace, it was forbidden to take any pictures inside the palace. That was OK since most of the interiors were of the same design and feel. Instead the real reason for visiting this palace is to enjoy the gardens. Peter had visited Versailles and wanted to out do its gardens. I am not sure that he accomplished his goal but results were spectacular.

All of the fountains and canals that end up in the Gulf of Finland are operated by gravity. Springs and lakes provide sufficient flow and velocity to power the fountains. The Grand Cascade with its 37 gilded statues, 64 fountains and 142 water jets are at the core of the lower garden where we spent most of our time. After the musical starting of the display, we were on our own to explore. We managed to touch the Gulf of Finland before exploring the original sea front palace that Peter had built. There were plenty of tourists but the place was so big that we easily dispersed and it was quite comfortable hiking in the many trees that lined the paths. This would be our 10th day of consecutive sunshine, a rarity in northern Russia.

We returned to the boat and prepared for a canal-river tour of downtown St. Petersburg. While we had seen many parts and great sights of St. Petersburg, it was not until we took this last tour that the layout of the city finally sunk in. Previously, my impressions of the city were disjointed. While I was impressed with the overall cleanliness and orderliness of the place, I could not quite understand the logic of this city created to be Peter’s Window on the West.

We boarded the canal boat near the Church of the Spilled Blood and cruised along the Nevskiy Prospekt named after the hero of Novgorod who defeated the Teutonic Knights back in the 13th Century. The street is the Russian Champs Élysées and boasts the high rent district with plenty of Western luxury goods. Also located in this region are the former homes of nobility and pre-Revolutionary plutocrats. Our guide finally made sense of the phrase, the Divine Line. It describes the result of the policy of not allowing any construction to exceed the height of the Winter Palace. The buildings reflect many architectural styles but the similarity of height is pleasing to the eye in a divinely Russian way.

From the canal, we also got a closer look at Peter’s original modest two story Summer Palace in the summer garden. It was easy to see that Peter was more interested in building his planned metropolis than building the extravagant palaces that his descendants would construct. We did not tour the palace where Peter and his beloved wife Catherine lived. This Catherine is not to be confused with Catherine II AKA as the Great. The palace was one of the first in Russia to have niceties like plumbing and was far more refined than the log cabin that Peter lived in during the initial building of the city. The log cabin home is preserved inside a brick building built by Catherine the Great. It reminds me of the Lincoln Cabin. The fine iron fence which surrounds the Summer Palace has plenty of gilding and encloses the well used public park. The tour continued under interesting 19th Century iron bridges and past magnificent residences.

The Stroganov mansion built with the riches garnered from the salt monopoly the family enjoyed was easily the most extravagant of the private residences. The rich Stroganov dish was named after them despite being the creation of their chef. That is another reason it is good to be rich. Although their vast holdings were seized by the Boslsheviks, I am not sure what happened to the family. Another great home was that of Grigori Orlov. It was a gift from his lover, Catherine the Great and is referred to as the the Marble Palace.

Needless to say, the city can be a bit overwhelming. We would easily have spent another week but we had had enough and are ready to go home. I think some of our feelings could be explained by our slow drive by the prison complex referred to as “the Crosses” were many a Russian met their end. The barbed wire and bars are still in place despite its non-use for quite a few years. You could easily visualize souls peering out the windows. The prison is symbolic of the real Russia.

The Russian people have lived under one form of autocratic rule or another for a thousand years. While the current regime is not Stalinist, it still reflects the basic animosity of the Russian soul towards unfettered freedom. Stability and food seems to be their goal. Nice things like a free press and freedom of expression are secondary. Now this is not to say that Russians lack creativity. That would be ignorant. But their greatest writers and artists have essentially supported the existing order and were conservative in their outlook. Even a “Liberal” like Tolstoy saw the improvement in society by a great leap backwards. The Bolshevik and Soviet eras used Tsarist models of control and kept the same oligarchic social order. In a slightly different guise, it continues today. It is good to an American.
Sorry about the lack of pictures. We struggled in Russia to upload graphics. The intention is to place our favorite 600 or so pictures in a book with most of this text. The publication will be available for a free PDF download for those interested. Just send me an email.

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