Published: Verve Magazine, Scapes, April 2010
Exploring the many treasures of Moscow and St. Petersburg is like balancing 17 Faberge eggs on your head, breathing fire and inhaling ice, sharing breadcrumbs with a hungry tigress and walking a tight-rope while knocking down a few vodka shots, discovers Sitanshi Talati-Parikh
Standing at the unventilated Domodevodo airport in Moscow, bleary-eyed and tired after a long flight, all I want is the safe haven of my hotel room. Unfortunately, that is not destined in my near future. The arrival lounge at the airport, I am surprised to discover, is much worse than our own Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The lines are snake-like (think anacondas) and as thick as an Amazonian rainforest. You pick a spot and hope for the best. As you get to the head of the line, you reach a sour-faced (albeit good-looking) official who has immediately made the judgement call based on your skin tone. White people move along rapidly, the tanner-skins are examined with the efficiency and distaste one reserves for a life-threatening disease. The non-English-speaking officer looks down at our passport, refers to an alarming scroll filled with digits and codes, growls out a few words in an incomprehensible manner and then points to the side, immediately dismisses us and moves onto the next lot of people. In much the same manner, there is a growing crowd of people collected next to each aisle, ‘waiting’ for whoever or whatever is to befall them. Godot, maybe? One hour in the line, half-hour at the immigration check counter, half-hour next to the immigration check counter. Doesn’t matter which time zone you’re checking.
We feel like reprimanded school children. Eventually, another gruff-looking (this one is larger and shorter, but equally sour-faced) official arrives and begins to ‘collect’ us from the aisles. ‘Come!’ is the genial order. We follow him obediently – what’s a person to do? He’s got our passports, after all; a volte face is not an option any more unless we try tackling him to the ground and running for our lives. We enter an all-metal grilled elevator – the kind that would be perfect to transport cattle or prisoners-of-war in and start a downward movement. I may have watched too many Hollywood Cold War movies, but truly, metal-heading-towards-basement has a distinct sense of foreboding. My mother, definitely the braver of the lot, finally speaks up, ‘What’s the problem, sir?’ He appears shocked by the sound of any voice not his own. ‘No problem,’ is the answering growl – as if that explains everything. Our elite hand-picked group comprises a smattering from China, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Africa. Think students, tourists and business-people. We’re led to a ‘holding room’ clutching nothing but the shreds of our own dignity, about to be crunched on the gravel that has probably seen much worse than late-night international tourists. This area is a hallway in front of an administrative office, as militia come and go. There’s a cracked window next to us, and no seats as we await the verdict.
An hour-and-a-half later, when we are about to simply plonk ourselves on the dusty floor, our good man officer emerges with our passports in hand and orders us with his favourite word: ‘Come!’ And we go. Follow him into the metal elevator and up the building, into the immigration hall and back to our sour-puss counter. Again, the man scrutinises our passports, murmurs something unintelligible, cross-references a set of codes as we fume inwardly, contemplating returning home right away. It would be impossible to explain that desire to the gentleman before us, though. Before our disbelieving eyes, he looks piercingly at us and then stomps (not stamps) our passport with an entry visa. We’re in. We’re in?
The relief at getting to the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski (where everyone from country premiers, pop icons and royalty find themselves when visiting the city) is unimaginable. Overlooking the city’s historic district (The Red Square, The Kremlin, State Historical Museum and St. Basil’s Cathedral) leaves you with a different high – imagine a room across from the biggest symbols of Communist Russia. The President of India is also staying there, at the time of our visit, with Indian men in safari suits prowling the hallways with blueprints and security briefs. Fortunately, besides the enviable location, the hotel also teems with helpful staff that possesses a refreshingly good command over the language. Peek outside the windows and you can see the domed, gilded, lit and turreted city stretch out before you – like a snake that has convinced you that his lair is mighty cool.
The day had begun overcast, and smiling grimly after our dark experience the previous night, we were certain that the weather gods would also be in cahoots with the government officials that prey on the visitors to this city. We choose to walk across to the Red Square – considered the central point – and see what the fuss is all about. The square is buzzing with tourists from all over, and looks like Disneyland. From the moment you enter the colourful arched entrance (stopping at the central point of the city engraved into the ground), you feel like you’ve entered another world. And it’s not grim and dark and blackened stone as you would imagine – it is a riot of colours, as if fairy-tale Alice has picked her favourite colours and created a gingerbread house or a candy wonderland. We walked with the throng, and it began to thin out as people chose their favourite stop to stand and stare.
Of course, the moment we chose to park ourselves right in the middle of the square, where a full 360-degree turn would give us a multi-hued view of all the various structures, it began to pour. We had with us navy blue grandfather umbrellas, courtesy the hotel, which popped open as soon as the clouds overturned their misery onto us. We made a beeline for the first available entrance – it turned out to be GUM (pronounced ‘goom’ to rhyme with ‘doom’) mall – the official state department shopping centre of Communist times, which is now home to the top designer brands of the world. Irony hasn’t even begun to rein her wicked head; as we walked past the rather empty chi-chi stores and marvelled at the architectural wonder that is GUM, with its wired sky-lights and fountains, we found ourselves at a nice (dry-looking) café. We settled at a table on the sidewalk, well-covered and protected, and upon emerging hungrily from the rather American menu, we found ourselves staring at the simplistically designed Lenin’s mausoleum (Communist leaders were mummified), across the square. Lenin (or the alleged wax copy of his body) lies in a crystal casket and the mausoleum is faced with red granite (for Communism) and black labradorite (for mourning), essentially a pyramid composed of cubes.
On the one end is the colourful St. Basil’s Cathedral (originally named Cathedral of the Intercession) built to commemorate Ivan the Terrible’s capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan. Ivan is known to have ordered architects to be blinded when a beautiful job was done, so that it could not be replicated elsewhere. The bright colour (obviously touched up and repainted recently) stands as a testimony to the tears of blood that must have run to create this lovely structure of domes, cupolas, arches, towers, and spires. We sat in silence, consuming our burgers, and tried not to think about the extremely long line that snaked across the other side of the Kremlin wall, extending a mile or more out, people milling about, waiting to get a chance to see – or pay their respects to – Lenin. I found it disconcerting to be observing this from a capitalist mall with all its trimmings housed in what was previously a communist-state driven shop: an irrational depiction (possibly unintentional) of the clashing ideologies and conflicting vision or state of the country. Were we sitting at the confluence of a truly open economy, has tourism changed all aspects of Communist philosophy, or were we a part of a bizarre Absurdist drama?
As we entered the haloed precincts of the Kremlin, there was a sense of awe that engulfed me. Unlike the Red Square that feels like a candy land, the Kremlin is more sophisticated and sprawling, with a variety of architectural forms visible. What you see from the Sophia Embankment leaves you with no clue of the self-contained city inside – palaces, armories, churches and a medieval fortress. The world-famous Kremlin is the fortress and residence of the Russian rulers. With Ivan the Great (1462-1505) at its helm, Muscovite rule extended over all of Russia, and the Kremlin became the seat of Russian power. Its stone walls were graced by the magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption, where Ivan defiantly tore up the charter binding Moscow to Mongol rule. Over the next two centuries, until Peter the Great transferred the capital of Russia to St. Petersburg, the Kremlin served as the central stage for the magnificent and occasionally horrific history of the Tsars. Secret tunnels exist below the Kremlin, whispering tales of a different time, of a time that is best left to history, conspiracy-cinema and careless whispers. The Cathedral Square however, is one of the most exquisite parts of Moscow: dotting the Square are cathedrals, towers, and palaces that together constitute almost the entire history of that period.
You can study Russian history while walking through Moscow: the buildings are deserving of adjectives like beautiful, ugly, ridiculous and gorgeous. Moscow has grown over the years and therefore reads likes pages of a history book and marks time, unlike St. Petersburg, which is of a particular era and is elegant and poised. Our tour guide didn’t fail to point out memorials for Indira Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru that exist to remind one of the close relations between the two countries. Besides the Kremlin and the Red Square area, the war memorials, and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the most iconic architectural elements that appear as you pass through various parts of the city are the ‘Seven Sisters’ or ‘Stalin’s seven wedding cakes’: the seven towers of Moscow (including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Moscow State University), designed in Stalinist style. Some apartment buildings are like those in Germany: self-contained buildings furnished for Kremlin employees, observed by the KGB. It is not a glass-and-towers city like Shanghai or Hong Kong. It is a city where the architecture and the walls speak of history, a history that is also reflected in the eyes of the people.
The Sparrow Hills are possibly one of the loveliest parts of Moscow: working as an observatory or viewpoint, with the entire city laid out before you – from where you can see the stadium, university, all the towers – looking lush and green, and not really a relic of the past. The view describes a city that is eminently like any other Eastern European one, well-maintained and advanced. But the most beautiful place, by far, is Moscow’s best-known cloister, the virtually intact New Maiden’s Convent (Novodevichy Convent, also known as Bogoroditse-Smolensky Monastery), proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a dreamy, magical place that is lit up by night, with swans gliding along on the lake. Legend has it that here Tchaikovsky was inspired to write Swan Lake. Though, unfortunately, today, there are no swans here in sight – only ducks. Is that significant?
The metro is akin to being the underground kingdom of the Soviet. The metro runs every 90 seconds during rush hour, with nine million people using it daily. Built in the ’30s and ’40s by world-class architects, as a part of Stalin’s five-year plan, some of the beautifully designed metro stations are protected by UNESCO. It is actually quite a pleasing exercise – much in the manner of visiting and spending a day at an art gallery – to hop from one metro station to another.
Running deep into the ground – the escalators down can be intensely steep and extraordinarily long – there is an artistic treasure-trove hidden in its subterranean depths. You can find baroque-style and Kiev-inspired stations, some outstanding examples of socialist realist art and those with mosaics, framed art, sculpture, spectacular chandeliers and war memorials. During the war, some were used as bomb shelters. There is actually an entire ‘art train’ – painted from the outside with works of art hanging inside. Each station is very different from the other. The station near Revolution Square, for instance, has sculptures of dogs, where the snouts are polished regularly because students keep touching the snouts for good luck before exams. The metros form a particularly interesting rendezvous spot for couples: I noticed a tall, well-dressed woman meeting her beau who was waiting for her with a single, long-stemmed flower.
All along, as with other parts of the city, you need to watch out for thugs and pickpockets. I do indeed speak from mild experience, as we stepped out from the metro and found ourselves jostled, with a loud scream and a girl falling roughly against my husband, who looked positively startled. Turns out, the girl was in the process of getting her purse picked by a group of enterprising gypsies, and luckily for her, she felt the pick. Raising a hue and cry, a genial fist-fight ensued, accompanied by shrieks and growls, with policemen arriving on the scene double quick. The gypsies decided to show the policemen who’s the boss, and got whacked right back in return, with an ensuing chase up the metro steps. Just another day on the metro. Yawn.
It is peaceful and quiet on the weekends and overcrowded on the weekdays. Muscovites prefer to stay in summer cottages outside the city on the weekends, in the countryside. Moscow is an exorbitantly expensive city, even for the locals, and there is a huge disparity with respect to money, leading to crime and violence, even racist attacks. There are expensive malls housing top-brand shops, an exclusive high-life that glitters by night. It is a city that seems to be trying to fit into the new European capitalist scene, but it is not yet there. The women are some of the most beautiful in Europe, nay the world. Young women are overtly sexy riding on sky-high heels, skinny jeans/attention-grabbing leggings/ miniskirts, long hair and sheer shirts that scream for attention. Really, the heels and the legs are longer than the buildings. I noticed my man couldn’t take his eyes off them. Note to self: No point bothering. These women are beyond compare.
It’s not the best idea to explore town alone, unless it is a well-known bar or linked to a respectable establishment like a big hotel, particularly since no one really gets grooving until post-midnight. You will find nightclubs and dining halls made out of old bomb-shelters. When we visited, there was a happening spot called the ‘Garage’. Irony, irony everywhere, not a drop to drink. There are constant reminders of the old world in Moscow: they are either embracing change or mocking the old guard with the new life. I have yet to discover which one it is. Even a Starbucks (right around the corner from our hotel), which is generally buzzing with capitalist hope, wherever it is located, appears dark and dismal…or maybe it is just that time of the night and my imagination is playing cultural tricks on me.
IN THE CHERRY ORCHARD
The Russian circus: it’s like any other, but fun because of the acrobatic feats. Animals, humans and talent blend in a colourful mix of bright music, costumes and showmanship.
Spend a leisurely day checking out the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.
Don’t miss one the world’s finest private collections of art at the Tretyakov Art Gallery (19th and 20th century collection of Russian avant-garde).
Alexander Pushkin is a really big deal. Check out the Pushkin café, over-rated but definitely worth a cuppa in its dark, green interiors lit by red lamps.
Say what you like but a train often beats taking a flight hands down. And in Russia, like most of Europe, it is particularly charming to take the super fast trains between cities, because you get a chance to check out the countryside as well. And if you have time, there are cruise ships that travel between Moscow and St. Petersburg (or St. Petes as it is casually known), where you can visit small towns along the way. Formerly known as Leningrad, the city is just plain delightful with its canals and European-style buildings. And the people are super friendly. (Tell them that, and they bask in the glory – there’s a competitive streak that runs between Muscovites and Petersburgians.)
Looking at St. Petes, you immediately feel a sense of satisfaction – there is an aesthetic appeal and more often than not a sense of proportion in every street, line, building and structure. It is as if the best European minds took a policy decision to make this a city of artistic reckoning, and proceeded to do just that. The Italian designers, hailing from sunnier lands and finding themselves in duller space with the grey weather of St. Petes, took up the brush with determination, running paint in colourful hues across the buildings. In fact here, there is a sense of rightness in seeing the joy of a local wedding on the beautifully serene embankment facing the stunning, sea-green coloured, very large and very old museum of art and culture, the State Hermitage (think over 3 million works of local and international artists), as the wedding party makes merry with inebriated song. Or on the grounds of the spectacular Peterhof Palace and Park with costumed guests, amid the fountains that intentionally rival that of Versailles, with what the locals claim to be better natural water pumping and drainage technology invented in the 18th century. Or following tradition, with the groom carrying his new bride around the Bronze Horseman Statue….
It’s no wonder that after their forefathers’ experience during invasion attempts, the French and the German tourists are the ones who are particularly at ease visiting St. Petes when it is at its most beautiful in the winter, under snow with the River Neva frozen to one metre of ice that you can walk or skate on, with temperatures dipping from -10 to -30 degrees. Rivalling the winter, for people like me who prefer warm sunshine and skid-less walks, is the spectacular and tourist-happy time of ‘white nights’, when by virtue of its proximity to the North Pole, St. Petes experiences a span of continuous daylight (variably around early June through early July). Having the chance of revelling in the city’s beauty, continuously day-lit, fired many a poetic imagination: think Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s White Nights for one, which in turn, influenced international and Indian cinema (from Manmohan Desai’s Chhalia to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya).
The river canals really make all the difference. Slipping under low-hanging mini-bridges (and nearly getting my head slapped into one while taking a bottom-angle photo of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood), moss-covered stone, large sculptural delights and past occasional official-looking Communist-style buildings (with the double-headed eagle coat of arms) holding fort with beautiful European ones, you need an English-speaking tour guide along, as hopping onto a canal tour from the Nevsky Prospect will land you with a Russian-language one (we discovered to our dismay). And at night, when there is night, the ‘Venice of the North’, which comprises 42 islands and is connected by eight waterways, opens up its drawbridges to let cruise ships and boats pass through. Lit up, it’s quite a spectacular sight.
St. Petes, while magical by itself, is known worldwide for its exquisite palaces, built in baroque or neo-classical style. What I find quite amazing is that while the Communists introduced atheism (anyone going to church would have to report to the KGB office) and were severely against symbols of royal power and the excesses of the royal courts, the Communist government spent millions of dollars in restoring these royal palaces and the works of art within, which were burnt to the ground, destroyed or looted during the Revolution, world wars and invasions. The city has its fair share of synagogues, mosques, cathedrals and Buddhist temples. Two lovely examples of cathedrals are that of St. Isaac’s, the largest in the city; and that of Peter and Paul, built inside Peter and Paul Fortress, considered the first and oldest landmark in St. Petersburg.
Talking about works of art, you can spend three years in the Hermitage and not end up seeing all that it has to offer. What is particularly striking is the Raphael Loggia, rebuilt exactly (by Russian masters among others) according to the original Italian model in the Apostolic Palace in Rome frescoed by Raphael. As chambers roll into each other, each one more striking than the other, you feel lost in a space and time that is of another world or era. Ceilings that are replica of floors, floors with 16 kinds of wood…and we haven’t even got to the sheer magnificence of the royal palaces yet. While there are many to check out (each requiring half day or a full day) located in the ‘Imperial suburbs’ (not including Tsarskoye Selo) three good examples are the classical Pavlovsk Palace, baroque Catherine Palace and Park and the famous Versailles-like Peterhof.
It feels distinctly incongruous leaving the old-world charm of St. Petes by the industrial road (which has a famous porcelain factory) and taking the highway, which has plain cement buildings marring it to make our way to Catherine Palace and Park. Catherine’s Palace is a brilliant example of 18th century baroque. Built earlier than Pavlovsk, it was also restored to its current finery, with immaculate French landscaping in the gardens. We walk into the Amber room and we discover that the amber was looted from this room during the war, and later restored – so cleverly that we can barely tell where they ran short and painted stone just like it!
Peterhof is sheer magnificence. You feel that you can’t feel more wonder after having seen so many palaces and taken a long turn around the Hermitage, and then you realise that the best is always saved for the last, cutting across to a part of the grounds from where you can see the Gulf of Finland. Lying south-west of St. Petes, arriving there means being greeted by enormous, beautifully-landscaped gardens, memorials, and numerous fountains. After so many years, it is still being restored (the process that began after the Second World War) from original sketches, paintings and plans.
As we drive on the beautiful Moskovsky Prospect (‘the road which leads to Moscow’), a 10-kilometre road that ends in St. Petes’ historical centre, we pass striking examples of Stalinesque and Kruschev-style architecture. As exemplified by the Victory Park bordering the street – where 75,000 people were buried during the Second World War – scarred by many wars and many attempts at invasions (the Russians are proud of the fact that these attempts have been largely unsuccessful), you can’t miss the war memorials that stand out across the city: the old metro station built in 1957 after the Second World War, decorated with Soviet symbols; the Aurora World War II vessel which you can explore; and the Field of Mars, a graveyard for World War victims.
You return to the city having exhausted your eyes, nursed your emotions and wearied your legs taking in the finest art and learning about the ravaged history and have yet to experience a world-famous Russian ballet performance. Summer performances are reserved for the tourists, October being the best time for ballet when the more experienced troupes are back in town from summer break. The Fine Arts Square in the city is replete with theatres and museums (particularly the famous Russian Museum), and many a quaint shop in which to buy curios while you wait for the theatre doors to open.
A little girl stands on her toes and pirouettes, spinning faster and faster, until she appears like a blur, a speck on the stage. She stops, leans backward until her back is a perfect arch and if she moves even a fraction it will snap like an elastic band. And that, is the best way to describe the experience that is St. Petersburg – a fabulous cultural experience, breathtaking in parts, dizzying with its extraordinary beauty and somehow, always young and receptive. Words can’t do justice; you need to live the experience.
FAR & AWAY
Getting There Aeroflot flies direct from Delhi. You can also connect via airlines like Finnair and Emirates.
Stay While there are many good hotels, including excellent local ones, the Kempinski chain is highly reliable and perfectly catered to tourists in terms of location, cuisine, service and language; with most European tourists staying here. The Baltschug in Moscow is one of the best hotels in the city, while the Moika 22 in St. Petersburg, housed in a Petersburg Mansion on the Moika river embankment offers a spectacular view of the historic part of the city from its rooftop restaurant. Choosing a common chain for the two cities is also advisable because the consular paperwork required can be handled simultaneously.
Eat A traditional meal is vodka with the meal including salad, soup, meat-and-potatoes style mains and dessert. Because of the weather, people prefer strong alcohol. Try the Tsar’s breakfast: orange juice, Russian champagne, red and black caviar, smoked sturgeon, marinated salmon with extras; and a version of the Russian sandwich: Bachmann salmon tartar with caviar, lettuce and chives on bread. When in St. Petersburg, check out The Other Side, a lively watering hole for expats run by a New Yorker; Podvorye (near the Pavlovsk Palace) which is designed like a traditional Russian village and has a menu offering Putin’s favourite meal; the Palkin which is considered to be the city’s best and most splurge-worthy restaurant; and Flying Dutchman which is a ship-restaurant (including a dance club and gym to burn calories) on the Neva river.
Don’t even consider backpacking in Russia. If you are not going as a part of a convention or an organised tour, it is recommended that you stay at a well-recognised hotel and link yourself with an accredited English-speaking tour guide. The foreign police/militia can approach anyone (particularly a tourist) and ask to see their papers. Your passport must be with you at all times.
Matryoschka dolls, vodka, Russian chocolate (Krubskya which is a St. Petersburg brand), caviar (Osetra, Beluga or Sevruga), a woolly Russian hat, artistic keepsakes of the Russian masters, quirky postcards that raise an eyebrow at Communism.