Melissa's Travels

Insider Trip to Russia

Before I left for Russia three weeks ago a well traveled friend questioned why I was going? “What’s the appeal?” she asked. I was stunned. Aside from the fact that it is a superpower in a moment of major transition, Russia has been one of the West’s most influential empires for centuries. Consider the art, literature, music, theater and ballets that have come out of the country. The significance of Tolstoy, Chagall, Tchaikovsky, Diaghilev, Rachmaninov, Chekhov and so many more. Its contributions certainly rank with those of Italy, France and England. Frankly, before I had visited, I felt there was a major gap in my understanding of Western arts and civilization. Just back from our first Indagare Insider week-long trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, I feel that even more strongly.

We visited Moscow and St. Petersburg, cities that boast such richness of history, art and beauty that one is truly poorer for not having seen them. The fact that the originators of much of that beauty are legendary characters only makes visiting them more fascinating. Recent mini-series have focused on the dramas of the Tudors and the Borgias, but the sagas of the Romanovs come with even more excess. Add to that the current tensions between the Putin government and Russian reformists, which the whole world is watching. The country’s centuries-old tug-of-war between autocrats and the masses peopled by such pivotal characters as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin and Stalin, is being played out again with the Oligarchs. So the question that haunts me now is not ‘Why go?’ But ‘Why aren’t more people clamoring to come?’ And, ‘When can I go back?’

“Moscow is so underrated,” declared one of our group on our second day. “I had been told it was a city only for men looking for gorgeous women, but it has so much to offer.” Starting with the Diamond Vaults of the Kremlin, which display jewels the likes of which are only surpassed by the British Crown Jewels. Then there is the Bolshoi Theater, which reopened this past fall after a six-year, $760 million restoration. Whether it is judged for its facilities (it has fourteen underground floors; an orchestra pit that fits 130; an electronic stage; an eighteen-foot crystal chandelier; even individual air vents for every chair in the house) or by its pedigree (it’s where Swan Lake, Boris Gudunov and Aleko first premiered), the Bolshoi is really more of a cultural mecca than just a theater.

One could spend an entire day exploring the Kremlin, which is an entire city, not just Russia’s version of the White House, as many Americans think. It is a walled city of 60 acres, containing palaces, cathedrals, government buildings and Russia’s version of the Smithsonian, the Armory, which is packed with treasures collected over the centuries by the royal families. (Among the treasures: Fabergé eggs, the second largest collection of royal carriages, Catherine the Great’s wedding and coronation dresses.) Other iconic sites: Red Square with Lenin’s tomb (not worth visiting to circle his coffin) and St. Basil’s Cathedral. Lesser-known landmarks, which are worth a few stops are the Moscow metro stations, some of which bear marble decorations and benches from historic churches that the Soviets destroyed. The public transport hubs were meant to act as palaces for everyman, who were often living in communal apartments sharing one bathroom between five families.

Another way that the Soviets shared their treasures with the masses was to adorn chocolate boxes with famous paintings from the national collection. This also enticed the public into the state museums; the treasures they contain are jaw-dropping. And not just the Hermitage. Moscow has the Pushkin Museum, and the Tretyakov collection. The Russian painters of the 19th century were on par with those working in France and America who have become household names. “You realize that if the Revolution hadn’t trapped them and their works behind the Iron Curtain, the names Shishkin and Repin would be as well known as Monet and Sargent,” exclaimed one of our group.

We could have spent days in the museums of Moscow but if you were to spend just thirty seconds looking at every one of the more than 3 million treasures in the Hermitage it would take close to three years (and that is without sleeping.) The collection, truly one of the best in the world, occupies the Winter Palace, the former residence of the Russian royals, and numerous adjacent buildings. We focused our time in the rarely viewed Treasure rooms (where a curator showed us the Gold Rooms with ancient jewelry dating back to the 7th century BC and the Diamond Rooms with exquisite pieces amassed by Catherine the Great and other Russian royals) and on the Hidden Treasures Revealed, the cache of seventy-four 19th century paintings stolen from Germany at the end of World War II. It was only in 1995 that the Hermitage revealed the survival of some of the greatest works of the Impressionists and 20th century masters. There are entire rooms devoted to Renoir, Manet, Picasso, Gaugin and Matisse. And those interested in Dutch masters, Oriental art, Italian sculpture or Greek antiquities would be stunned equally by the holdings here.

Our six days of taking in the paintings, the palaces and the plots and pamperings of the Romanovs and the Oligarchs was like a cultural cram session. But thanks to our amazing guides, we were spoon fed the facts, so we could wander, gaze and soak it all in. We felt fortunate to be there under bright blue, sunny skies in May and yet wondered if we should come back and see the country under snow when rather than taking a hydrofoil to or from Peterhof, we could ride in a sleigh. St. Petersburg, in particular, is a city whose past is present. The focus of a visit may be on the paintings and the palaces of its golden era under the Greats: Peter and Catherine. But since their reign, the city and its inhabitants have been ravaged under Stalin and the Nazis, and traces of hardship linger on the faces of its buildings and its citizens.

During the Soviet era, the party tried to expunge memories of the tsars: discussing the Romanovs was off-limits; the national flag was changed to the golden hammer and sickle; Soviet slogans and symbols replaced coats of arms and imperial initials. Since the Soviet empire collapsed, Moscow has removed statues of Lenin and Marx and the history of the tsars is now taught in schools. St. Petersburg has shed the name Leningrad, but kept its Soviet statues. (One bronze of Lenin is now mocked as being a traffic director.) Both cities have restored and rebuilt their treasures, so exceptional churches such as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and the Church of the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg and wonders like the Catherine Palace, Peterhof and Pavlosk Palace now glitter under kilos of fresh gold. The Bolshoi and Mariinsky (name restored from Kirov) have been rebuilt and their corps de ballet flourish. After years of Russian dancers defecting to the U.S., the Bolshoi lured star American ballet star David Hallberg to its ranks last year.

Moscow and St. Petersburg have been rivals for centuries, and the fierce pride of their citizens and how they compare themselves enriched our sense of Russia as a whole. In both, there is opposition to Putin bubbling and growing. These are cities in transition. Their inhabitants are balancing hope and fear. For visitors the quality of the food and accommodation and the state of the landmarks have never been better. Once the Four Seasons in St. Petersburg opens next year, visitors will even be able to stay in a restored palace on Nevsky Prospect. What kind of change is coming is unclear but, to me, that makes going now even more exciting—whatever the season.

Published onJune 11, 2012

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