Sunday, 31 May 2015

Moscow and Saint Petersburg

“This is not a scary country,” 
the valedictory comment of our sardonic tour guide as we ended our 10-day visit to Russia.  “And tell your friends to come.”

May I endorse those comments - I strongly recommend a visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg.   
Allow me to share some of the best parts of our recent whirlwind tour.  
Perhaps then you will decide if you’d like to go there.

Moscow highlights included the following sites:-

·         The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour  
This was the first of many reminders of the violence of Russian history.  The original nineteenth century church was destroyed in 1931 by the Soviets.   
Located close to the Kremlin, Christ the Saviour is the tallest Orthodox Catholic church in the world, completed only in 2000 and based on the original design.   
On a sunny day, its guilded copper domes and white walls gleamed triumphantly.  Inside the walls are, as expected, bedecked with magnificent icons.  The lower floor is the venue for performance of the sacraments and church services, such as baptism and mass.  
The city’s tourist board describes the cathedral as a  
“symbol of Moscow’s post-Soviet revival.”  
Symbolism writ grand and large, I’d say.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral
Christ the Saviour interior

·         The Novodevichy (New Maiden) Cemetery 
This stop was reminiscent of a Parisian equivalent, the Père Lachaise cemetery where Chopin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and Maria Callas rest in peace.   
The sculptural beauty of the tombstones in this Moscovite convent burial place is evidence of its national significance.   
Deceased politicians, dancers from the Bolshoi, musicians and scientists provide tour guides with the ideal opportunity to regale visitors with a potted history of the country.  
Here rest the playwright Anton Chekhov, the cellist Rostropovich, the composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev, the aerospace engineer Tupelev (who invented what Western commentators dubbed Concordski), Nikita Khrushchev, Boris Yeltsin and Raisa Gorbachov.


Boris Yeltsin

·         The Moscow Metro   
How many countries’ subterranean railway systems attract tourists to see the artwork?  Moscow’s underground with its artistic depiction of Russian history might well be top of any such global list.   
According to our guide, and whatever people think of Stalin, every station is a masterpiece, replete with Soviet symbolism providing an artistic depiction of a key part of the capital’s history. 

Stalinist art Moscow Metro

·         Mention Moscow and the Bolshoi Ballet will be a popular first cultural attraction.   
The event that we attended was the ballet Don Quixote.  Apart from the imposing architecture of the theatre’s exterior and the swanky interiors with voluminous chandeliers, seeing the magnificence of the ballet dancers and orchestra performing live in their own home venue is a privilege.   
This lavish production even included the appearance in two scenes of a horse and a donkey, neither of which resulted in mishaps.  Tickets are expensive.

Bolshoi Theatre exterior

Bolshoi staircase & chandeliers

·         St Basil’s Cathedral 
This building provides the image most associated with Moscow.  
I recall it from a birthday present from my mother in the early 1960’s when she presented me with a mod con of its day.  This was a Viewfinder with cassettes viewable in 3D, one of which featured the sites of Moscow.  First impressions are everything and the seed of curiosity was firmly planted in my subconscious to see it for myself.   
The official name of the building is “The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat.”  Stalin ordered it to be demolished to allow more space for parades on Red Square.  Miraculously it survived because of the architect’s refusal to obey.   
St Basil’s is now a museum.   
Because of rehearsals to mark Victory Day (more of which later), we did not see the Cathedral’s interior.  A return trip is the only reasonable thing to do now.

·         Red Square 
The colour adjective has nothing to do with communism.  Instead, as our guide told us, it derives from the Russian word for beautiful.   
Flanked by imposing architecture including St Basil’s and the Kremlin’s walls, what was used as a venue to display Soviet military pomp is now more regularly the venue for rock concerts and big classical music performances.   
Nearby sits the Russian retailing institution, GUM.  With its upscale boutiques and air of style, it shines as an example of how Moscovites are really embracing capitalism (until they drop).


·         Victory Park 
This is an extensive and pretty park in central Moscow, incorporating a memorial to the defeat of Naziism in World War 2 as well as to other campaigns.   
Our visit to Russia coincided with the rehearsals to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the War.   
According to the BBC report[1], of the 60 million people who died across the world, Russia incurred 26 million casualties in that conflict.  Their commentary on the 9 May event added that 2015 was the largest military display seen in the capital since the collapse of communism.  


·         The Monastery of the Trinity Lavra of St Sergius at Sergiyev-Posad is a major pilgrimage site about an hour’s drive from Moscow.  Our guide referred to it as “the Russian Jerusalem” adding that it attracts some 2 million visitors every year.   
A visit to this architectural ensemble reminds me of liturgical similarities of Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths.  I recall being instructed at school that the Roman Catholic Church describes itself the “one holy catholic and apostolic” church.[2]  The only other denomination which it recognises as having the same right to perform the sacraments is Orthodox Catholicism.   
This Russian visit reminds me that both do pilgrimages, both believe in holy water, both promote fasting, saints are canonised, people light candles in church when seeking an intention to be heeded, both perform religious ceremonies in places of worship glittering in fine art and sculptural forms seen as the sincerest tribute to the almighty, and both believe in presenting sacraments (such as confession, communion, mass, and baptism) to a similar liturgical rite.  The Orthodox ceremonial, however, appears to be more involved, lasting longer and (to the outsider) arcane, byzantine definitely.   
The architecture and choral chanting by priests are a class apart.

·         Zlatoust 
This is the Russian word for Golden Voice.  It is a choral ensemble of operatic singers who perform a repertoire of Russian Orthodox music interspersed with operatic versions of Russian folk songs.   
This professional group of 5 men and 5 women dazzled an audience with the visceral power of their voices on our final evening in Moscow.  The deeply sonorous basso profundo is an art form par excellence which has been developed to what I consider to be like a national vocal signature in Russia.   
I have an indelible memory of the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre performing in the Sacred Heart Church in Omagh a year after the 1998 bomb.  Conducted by maestro Valery Gergiev, the large choral ensemble sang Rachmaninov’s Vespers with powerful solemnity.[3]   
After the Zlatoust concert, I spoke to the conductor Mikhail Borodyanski.  He explained that his choir tours, that they are planning more foreign concerts, and that they have recently returned from a series of recitals in the Netherlands.

·         The Kremlin had been closed to visitors because of the rehearsals and Victory Day parades.  Our visit had been postponed to our last day in Moscow.   
Militaristic themes abound, fitting with the meaning of the word Kremlin (fortress), and nowhere more so in the Armory.   Our guide described the Armory as one of the world’s best museums.  We were shown elaborate body armour that looked straight out of a Robin Hood film, elaborately engineered horse-drawn carriages, priceless royal jewels and clothing, highly intricate Faberge eggs, and gifts presented down the ages from foreign heads of state.   
Vladimir Putin’s office sits nearby, the Kremlin being the seat of Government for the country. On 10 May, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to town.  While this caused some traffic disruption to our schedule, we had the pleasure of hearing the brassy Kremlin band rehearsing the German national anthem three times in Victory Park before they marched off to meet the visitor. 


Side by side with political power, the Kremlin also accommodates a few churches such as the 5-domed Church of the 12 Apostles, the Assumption Cathedral, the Church of the Deposition of the Robe, and Archangel Cathedral.  
Given the prevalent attitude of most of the country’s rulers to religious practice during the twentieth century, this survival and juxtaposition of politics and religion is remarkable.

Mr Putin's office
The Armory

Three miscellaneous topics merit space before moving on.

1. One of many snippets learned from our Moscow tour guide is that the Russian Government is promoting expansion of the population[4].  Parents who give birth to a second child are rewarded with a substantial grant (RUB ¼m) and the same again if they produce a third child.

2. Speaking of money, I had expected Moscow to have been affordable given the fall in value of the rouble.  According to an article about the city[5], 28 roubles was worth 60p in September 2012; the current equivalent exchange would cost only 36p.  Despite the large fall in value, Moscow is still expensive. (Warning: beware of professional pick-pockets in St Petersburg).

3. My wife had received the Pulitzer prize-winning author Robert K Massie's book "Nicholas and Alexandra," a kind gift from our travelling companions (Bobby and Margaret Graham).  It is a historical narrative about the last Tsar and his wife, the Romanovs.
In turn she recommended a book which occupied my journey to and from Russia.  “The Siege” by Helen Dunmore was an inspired choice of novel, a fictional story of a family trying to survive the 900 day siege of St Petersburg by the Nazis.  
It offered a similar perspective to Sarah Quigley’s “The Conductor” which tells the story from the viewpoint of one of the city's Orchestras, with Shostakovich and his seventh symphony added to a riveting mix. Both are superb page-turning novels.
Which takes us to the city formerly known as Leningrad.  As a prelude, following Hitler's command that "St Petersburg must be erased from the face of the earth," 1.4 million people left the city over the next three years while up to 1.5 million starved or died from other causes.  At the end of the siege, only 700,000 people were left alive.

Saint Petersburg highlights included the following sites:-

·        St Isaac’s Cathedral 
This is the largest Orthodox cathedral in St Petersburg dominating its skyline.  
It holds 14,000 worshippers with services limited to special ecclesiastical occasions and otherwise functioning as a museum.  To describe the decoration as elaborate is an understatement.  This church has to be seen.  The icon wall separating the altar from the rest of the church and its decoration with 8 malachite and 2 lapis lazuli columns is particularly impressive.

St Isaacs Cathedral (Source: St Petersburg tourism)

·         The 200 year old Admiralty building sits at the junction of St Petersburg’s best known street Nevsky Prospekt with two other streets which have much longer (and difficult-to-pronounce) names.  Originally the headquarters of the Russian Navy, the building now operates as a naval college.  It is its tower topped with a slender golden spire which catches the eye.

·         The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood commands the visitor’s attention not just because of its intriguing name, but for architectural reasons.  Named after and built on the spot where the Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, this Church of the Resurrection of Christ has itself had a tumultuous existence in the twentieth century resulting from the Bolsheviks suppression of religion.  
In common with churches which have survived, this building has been restored – I would say resurrected - to its former magnificence.

·       The Peter and Paul Fortress 
This was the city’s founding point, the founder being the Tsar Peter the Great.  As one journalist expresses it[6] 
“several museums lie within its walls, but the siren call comes from the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral where Peter the Great is entombed alongside the murdered family of the last Tsar.”  

It sits on one of the city’s 42 islands in the delta of the Neva River.  Yet another example of dazzling church interior design.   
On a less pious note and in a visitor reception area of the fortress, a friend and I toasted the city with the first vodka we had drunk since student days. 

Before leaving, our group was treated to a live recital of Orthodox hymns sung by a group of four priests, demonstrating once more the power and beauty of the basso profundo voice.

·         The State Hermitage 
The Hermitage and its main building the Winter Palace is, arguably, the most fabulous museum in the world.   
Following the first Imperial residence on site for Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century and the subsequent building of a new palace, Catherine the Great succeeded to the throne in 1762 overseeing completion of designs which have remained largely unaltered.  The building was ransacked in October 1917 by the Bolsheviks and gutted by the Nazis during the siege of Leningrad.   
The scale, quality and impact on the senses of subsequent and continuing restoration of the property by the city is (almost literally) staggering.  
 “The Russian Empire at its most grandiose extravagant” is the apt description by the St Petersburg tourist board.  
Apart from the ethereal and transcendent splendour of the State Rooms and gorgeous artefacts, the art collection really stands out.  We saw masterpieces by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Goya, El Greco, Titian, Murillo, Veronese among others – not to mention a 
Michelangelo sculpture.

A Da Vinci

A collection of paintings by the Impressionists (Monet, Matisse, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin as well as Picasso and Van Gogh and others) have been relocated to another building.  Because it was not part of our tour and as I did not make time to visit them, this omission is my only regret from the holiday.  On the positive side, however, it provides another excuse to make a return trip.   
A friend of mine after visiting reflected on the adage about "all that glitters is not gold;" in the Hermitage, she opined that the adage does not apply since everything in the glittering palace is solid gold.

At the end of 2014 and marking the Hermitage's 250th anniversary, what the Times (6 Dec 2014 Rachel Campbell-Johnston) describes in its review of the year's best books as “the definitive guide” to the Hermitage was published.[7]

State Hermitage, grandiose extravagance. (Source: St Petersburg tourism)

·         Trinity Cathedral 
This is an eighteenth century church, once famed for its exemplary collection of icons.  It was looted in the 1920’s.  Soviet plans for its demolition were changed to use it as a warehouse.  
In 1990 it was returned to the Orthodox Church and restoration continues apace.  Its magnificent blue domes with golden stars dominate the local skyline.  
When we visited, what seemed like an ordinary daily mid-morning mass was in progress.  Even here, the small congregation witnessed one of the three priests chanting in impressive basso profundo.   
Nothing is ever done in small measures.

Trinity Cathedral (Source: St Petersburg tourism)

·         The Catherine Palace 
This complex of buildings in Pushkin was the summer retreat of Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great.   
Like the Hermitage and other palaces, the main building exhibits the same sense of magnificence through imposing and colourful external appearance as well as sumptuous interiors.  As a result of Nazi occupation and the disappearance of lavish panels, the Palace’s Amber Room was recreated at huge expense.  The work took some 20 years to complete.   
A montage of black and white photographs near the exit tells a sad and graphic story of the impact of World War 2 on this property.  

In general, the commitment of the Russian authorities to the restoration and conservation of its architectural heritage does impress.  
It makes an emphatic statement - this is our beautiful Russia, proudly exuberant, daringly colourful and loud in its celebration of joy.  
My home and garden will seem drab and mundane when I return from this voyage of discovery.

Catherine Palace exterior (Source: St Petersburg tourism)

Catherine Palace, one interior

·         The Mariinsky Theatre 
It was a personal priority to visit and go to an event in this theatre.  
Known during the Soviet period as the Kirov Opera and Ballet Theatre, this mid-nineteenth century building was severely damaged in the Nazi siege of Leningrad.
Accompanied by our two travelling companions, we went to see the ballet Giselle.  Like the architecture and furnishings we saw earlier in the day, this was an artistically beautiful and lavish production both musically and dance-wise.   
When my wife told me she had booked this trip, attending live productions in the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theatres seemed obligatory.  Buying the tickets in advance on-line some weeks before leaving was a good tactic in terms of seat availability and price range, and possibly also getting a slightly better deal.  Prices, however, are high.  Quality costs in capitalist Russia.

Mariinsky Theatre (Source: St Petersburg tourism)

·         The Peterhof Palace 
This palace, also referred to as Petrodvorets, was the elaborate suburban palace of Peter the Great.  It was inspired by Versailles.   
Just when you think that all of the sights and wonders of these two Russian cities have been shown to us, a final glittering example is presented.  
Before leaving for the airport and the end of the trip, the sun shone and clouds cleared to reveal the golden statues, fountains and cascades of this fabulous estate lying about 15 miles outside the city.   
The palace and its sensuously glistening golden sculptures look straight down at the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic, a reminder of our northerly latitude.

·         Restaurants that I would recommend are two we visited in St Petersburg.  
The first was a discovery completely by chance in a street which looked unpromising.  This was because of the derelict state of neighbouring properties.  Despite that, Make (which means poppy in Russian)[8] was where we had the best service, the tastiest version of St Petersburg’s signature dish (beef stroganoff), and the finest after-dinner vodka.  All of this regardless of the fact that the menu was only available in Cyrillic script.   

The other restaurant was a business and tourist-oriented high-end establishment recommended by our tour operator close to the Mariinsky Theatre (ipso facto more expensive).   
It is called Садко.  Sadko is a renowned character in Russian folk tales, a merchant who played the harp.[9] 

Our group of seven people sat in the middle table shown on the website’s home page underneath one of its scarlet Murano glass chandeliers.  
Borscht soup, fresh carp from the Baltic, and blini with fresh berries and yoghurt, followed by a glass of 7-times distilled Imperial Russian vodka - будем здоровы.    
A good place for a final night out.

©Michael McSorley 2015

[2] The 4 Marks of the Christian Church - deriving from the First Council of Constantinople in the year 381 AD.
[3] Rachmaninov's Vespers recording, an example (not by the Mariinsky Chorus):-

[5] “48 Hours in Moscow” Shaun Walker Belfast Telegraph 8 September 2012
[6] “48 Hours in St Petersburg” Chris Leadbeater Belfast Telegraph 28 Aug 2012
[7] “The State Hermitage: Treasures from the Museum’s Collections.” Booth Clibborn £175
Note: all photos are copyright of the blog author, except for five as marked sourced from St