St. Petersburg: museums and culture so far

Hard to believe it’s already three days in. But then again, oh, what I’ve seen!

After taking it relatively easy on Thursday, our first day, dad and I went to the Hermitage on Friday and Saturday. We had bought a two-day, all-access pass over the internet. And even after two full days, angry legs and feet, and hours and hours of gawking, two days didn’t even come close to being enough.

The main Hermitage museum is really a complex of three interconnected buildings: The Large Hermitage, the Small Hermitage, and the ridiculously ornate, mint-colored Winter Palace. It’s definitely bigger than both the British Museum and the Met. I’ve never been inside the Louvre, but I’m told it compares, quantity- and quality-wise. The thing is, the State Hermitage Museum *also* includes a few other buildings: The Menshikov Palace (home of the first governor of St. Pete), Peter I’s Winter Palace (now a theater), and the gargantuan General Staff Building. Oh yeah – and then there’s the storage facility, and a porcelain museum somewhere.

Anyway, we went to the main Hermitage the first day and the Menchikov and Peter’s Winter Palace the second day. (I also went back to the main Hermitage the second day to see…well…I’m not kidding when I say there is one  enormous room each of Picasso, Cezanne, Gaugin, and Matisse. And at least half a room each for Van Gogh and Monet. And of course the first day was the Rembrandt *wing*. Over the top.) I don’t normally go insane and take tons of photos in museums, but I lost it at the Hermitage. I guess by the end I didn’t really believe it was *true*, so I had to take pictures.

Let’s see: I’m trying to figure out how to explain this. You know how in most museums there are throw-away rooms? The ones you walk through rather quickly, and throw a half-assed glance at the walls? Well, there are no such rooms that I saw here. (OK, maybe one or two. Our of hundreds. I mean, who needs to see another goddamned ancient Greek vase?)

So that’s the main Hermitage. In comparison, the Menshikov Palace and Peter’s Winter Palace lacked the scale and grandeur, and therefore were kind of a disappointment.

These lesser two, however, are interesting to compare. Peter was the tsar, the guy who founded the city. Menshikov was his good friend, a victorious general in the Great Northern War (during which the Russians won the land for St. Pete from the Swedes). To thank him for his service, Peter named Menchikov the first governor of St. Petersburg. In other words, Peter was the head dude and Menchikov was his ass-kisser.

While Peter wanted his city to reflect the grandeur and culture of major European cities, personally he seems to have preferred (relatively) more simple things. His palace consisted of simple, small rooms full of lathes and other mechnisms that he liked to tinker with. He didn’t (seem to) care much for gold and other material trappings of royalty. He did, however, *love* his tsarist power. I guess he was an early hacker.

Menshikov, meanwhile, grew up on the streets of Moscow, selling pies to earn money for his family. He used political prowess to rise quickly through the ranks of the army, acquitted himself quite well during the Great Northern War, and used his connections to become a powerful man. His palace, I think, reflects a nouveau-riche obsession with showing off power and wealth. The palace is by far more opulent than Peter’s, and the walls are hung with dozens of paintings depicting decisive battles in the war, and portraits of himself (and his cascading wigs), his family, and (most telling) of Peter and *his* family.

Egads I’m running out of power (my computer’s and my own) so I’m gunna run. More on St. Petersburg the city – mullets, miniskirts and all! – l8r.

Privyet from St. Petersburg

My dad and I arrived in St. Petersburg, safe sound and sleepy, yesterday afternoon.  There was a bit of excitement at the border, of course: There was an *error* on my visa – the date of entry was for April 23 instead of April 22. Can you believe it? After all the bad craziness around getting the visa, someone along the way effed up.

Anyway, I went to the consul’s office in the airport, wrote a letter explaining the “clerical error,” paid a $25 fee, and received an amended visa. Dad was nervous, to say the least, but it all worked out in the end. In case you’re wondering about the final cost of the visa: $505. I’d cry if I wasn’t laughing so hard.

But that’s over now. Dad and I are all settled in at the Petro Palace Hotel, a reasonably friendly hotel just a 2-minute walk from the Hermitage museum. The weather is perfect – sunny and around 50 degrees – and there’s no rain forecast for the week.

This morning we took a walk up to the Hermitage buildings (there are three) along the Neva River, to get our bearings. The Neva is dotted with ice floes, which I hear are the seasonal attraction in the early spring. The buildings, boulevards and cars here in the so-called “historic heart” remind me of Budapest – mostly 18th and early 19th-century European architecture, Ladas and Mercedes triple-parked on the sidewalk, etc.

St. Petersburg is a relatively new city, founded by tsar Peter the Great in 1703. The story (briefly) goes like this: While Peter was traveling in Europe, trouble-making Muscovites tried to instigate a coup by questioning his claim to the throne. He cut short his trip, sent about a thousand of the plotters into exile, and decided that he would turn Russia westward, embracing European values.

Evidently he was in love with Dutch culture, so he decided Russia needed a great city by the sea – in this case, the Baltic. So he went to war with Sweden to kick them out of the region, started building the city, and moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The nobility was pissed, but what could they do? They picked up and moved north to St. Pete, a city built on what was once a swamp. St. Pete remained the Russian capital until Lenin moved it back to Moscow in 1918.

Tomorrow (probably) dad and I head to the Hermitage. We’ve got a two-day ticket, but that probably won’t be enough. There are 120 rooms in three enormous buildings. There’s European art the Middle Ages to the present. There are rooms and rooms of prehistoric, ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artifacts. There’s the Oriental collection from the Middle East to Japan. And possibly more – it’s too overwhelming for me to even consider.

Stay tuned.