Staraya Russa

ed note: I wrote this a day ago, in SR. I’m actually in Moscow now – just arrived by overnight train. I couldn’t post this from SR because the internet cafe there was disgusting and I didn’t want to spend any time there. and no wifi. anyway…here it is. more about Moscow when I’ve got it.

Staraya Russa, the little town south of Novgorod where I’ve spent the past few days, is a Russian reinterpretation of the Three Little Pigs. The oldest part of town, where the Dostoevsky family lived until Fyodor died, is filled with lovely wooden houses. Some are kept up beautifully, while others tilt and sag at odd angles for lack of a foundation. Each house sits on a small plot of land, most with a neat garden for tomatoes, potatoes, or what-have-you.

The other end of town, towards the bus and railway stations, is slightly more urban. The buildings are larger and closer together, built of brick beneath painted stucco facades. Between these two, unfortunately at the center of town, sits a decaying, colorless ghetto of unmistakable Soviet blocks, their cheap concrete crumbling into trash-strewn paths.

Originally I wanted to come here to seek some quiet, to try to read and write and clear my head. “A 19th-century village along the river” seemed like the right sort of place. As it turns out, I also needed to clear my sinuses (see previous post). So after a day in my Novgorod sick bed, I took the 2-hour bus ride here to finish getting better. I’m glad I did. Novgorod was too small to be exciting and too big to be peaceful. Like the American suburbs.

I’m staying at the Hotel Polist, a friendly place in the center of town. It also happens to be the only decent place to eat. It seems my arrival – a foreigner! who doesn’t speak Russian! – spread quickly through the staff. During my first trip to the restaurant I was immediately handed an English-language menu (thank god – I was still too sick-headed to try to decipher the menu in Russian). Word of my tea-needs also spread: When I show up with my travel mug and tea bag, the waitress on duty nods and takes it from me, knowing to fill it with hot water and return it to me before I finish my meal. After a day of consomme, sleep, and gallons of tea, I feel like myself again.

Yesterday (May 6) I visited the Dostoevsky Museum. It’s just his old house furnished with his things – his writing desk, photos of his children and wife. But it was peaceful and comforting, somehow, to see how he lived and where he wrote, looking out large windows at weeping willows sagging into the molassas Porusya River.

All around me, since I arrived, spring is doing its thing. When dad and I were in St. Petersburg, the trees were bare, the landscape a thousand shades of nothing. A week later, on my first walk through Staraya Russa, I noticed some early buds, still bashful, at the tips of each tree branch. Overnight the buds became leaves, and from then on, seemingly with each passing hour, the leaves grow larger, changing color from lemon to summer green. I keep doing double-takes: “Is that the tree that had such delicate, tiny leaves this morning?” Perhaps it’s my years in the city, but I’m taken aback by what I’m witnessing here. It’s like watching grass grow, but actually seeing it grow.

As wander the town, my eyes stinging from exhaust fumes and pollution despite the new greenery, I’m transported back to my first year in Hungary. I keep wanting to greet babushkas with “keszi csokolom” (“I kiss your hand” in Hungarian). When I enter a cafe or restaurant, it takes all my control to not ask for the “etlapot” (menu). I can’t shake the feeling that I’m simply traveling in a part of Hungary I’m not familiar with. But then I’m confronted with Russian cold stares, grudging service, and bursts of language I don’t understand, and I know I’m a bit too far east for that. I’ll just have to crack the Russian code.

St. Petersburg seems like a dream, a blur. It was all too much to absorb – the new culture and language, the almost excessive art and architecture – given my frayed state of mind. I will have to go back, with perspective.

Indeed, over the past few days I’ve come to terms with the too-muchness of Russia itself. There is so much history and complexity here, impossible to unravel. What’s the phrase? A riddle wrapped in a mystery in an enigma? Reading my guidebook and other travelogues (Through Siberia By Accident, by Dervla Murphy, and, at the moment, In Siberia by Colin Thubron) I feel like an overexcited puppy yapping at nothing and everything: I’ll go to Murmansk, on the Arctic! I’ll go to Astrakan, to see the Caspian and the land of sturgeon! I’ll go to Kazan, for East-meets-West and the Volga! I’ll go to Suzdal, for ancient Rus! I’ll go to the Altai Mountains, to hike! I’ll go to Elista, to see Russian Buddhists! It goes on and on.

Like my writing, my travels need editing. I only have three months, after all. (Less than that! In 2-1/2 months, on July 22, I’ll be in Wuhan, China, for the eclipse.) And before you scoff at “only three months,” consider that the world’s largest country covers 13% of the globe. A telling opening line from a Lonely Planet chapter: “Just 260 km from Novosibirsk…”

Beyond the physical vastness of the country, there’s the complex political and cultural history of both Russians and the many minorities that form the patchwork of distrcits, autonomous regions, semi-autonomous territories, and so on of the new Russia. (As an aside, I’m a bit mortified and how ignorant I am about this country. While it’s fine that I didn’t know much about, say, the hill tribes of Southeast Asia before I went there, my lack of knowledge about some basics of Russian history is ridiculous. All we learned in school was essentially, “USSR = bad!” And I never filled in the details. Sad.)

Anyway, I remembered last night that I’m seeking the offbeat, the odd Russia. So I’m ditching my half-assed idea to do the Trans-Siberian from Moscow in Vladivostok in one go (I’d miss too much!) and I’m doing it in chunks. At the moment the plan is to take the train to Moscow tonight, spend about 5 days there, and then leave European Russia behind. I’ll go to Kazan (capital of Tartarstan), then Tomsk (in western Siberia) and then…probably all the way to Irkutsk. I’d like to have at least a week – maybe two – in the Lake Baikal region. I want to get up to Yakutsk, especially if I can be there for their summer solstice festival (June 21-22). Other planned highlights would be Kabarovsk and some combo of Sakhalin Island, Magadan and/or Kamchatka (all along the Pacific coast). Then to Vladivostok and China.

Already that’s too much for the 10ish weeks I have left. But it’s only the first round of editing…

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.