St. Petersburg – Gold, Glory, and Glamor

Trip Start Jul 21, 2013
Trip End Aug 05, 2013

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Monday, July 22, 2013

This is Marcia and my first trip to the "Motherland."

Despite being lifelong students of Jewish history and having a 25 year history of volunteering for and donating to institutions whose primary mission was to bring a measure of relief to the “Double Victims” of Hitler and Stalin, we had actually never stepped foot inside of Russia.

None of our grandparents ever expressed any fondness for the places of their birth. Our grandparents made it out as children or teenagers in the beginning decades of the 20th century, in some cases just before America closed the gates in the early 1920's. They left behind innumerable relatives whose fate during the Shoah remains unknown. Family history was shrouded in the chaos of war and the fog of survivor’s guilt.

For us, this “roots” trip is not about reconnecting with actual places and people that were part of our family’s history. It is about learning the historical and social forces that impacted on our grandparent’s worldview. Along the way we hope to gain insight into the way the Former Soviet Union and its client states are emerging from the failures of communism and the early returns on the efforts to reconnect the “lost Jews of the Iron Curtain” back to their people.

My reading list is long and varied. It touches upon Russian history, World War II Warsaw, early Zionism, the geopolitics of energy, Stalinism, the collapse of communism and the rise of cowboy capitalism.

Peter “the Great” is the best place to start. As Russian ruler of the early 1700’s, he expanded Moscow’s reach eastward to the fur and gold riches of the Urals and Siberia and westward to the Baltic Sea by waging successful wars. By the mid 1700’s he had defeated the Turks, the Swedes and the Poles, carving out the largest empire in Europe. St. Petersburg became his capital and his gateway into Europe. Gold, fur, timber and (later) coal wealth morphed into shipbuilding, trade and industrial revolution wealth, supported and protected by globally significant armies and navies. According to Wikipedia, Tsar Nicholas II’s wealth at his 1917 overthrow was over $300 billion (in today’s dollars) making him the richest person on the planet.

Russian history intersects with Jewish history in the 1770’s. In the centuries following the Crusades (1096) and the Inquisition (1492), western European Jews were forced to find hospitable, or at least tolerant, places to live. Poland was by far the #1 choice and by the 1700’s nearly 2 out of 3 European Jews lived there. When Russia conquered Poland in the late 1700’s, much of European Jewry was under the sway of the Tsars.

St. Petersburg held 3 surprises for me – waterways, wealth and wifi. Sometimes called the “Venice of the North”, the city is filled with beautiful, ornate, and colorful buildings lining rivers and canals for miles. The tsars invited in the architects, palace builders and city planners from all over Europe to build a city from scratch. That city, never captured in World War I or WWII, and frozen in time during the Soviet period is preserved today as a shining example of European wealth and sophistication of the royalty of the 1700’s and the wealth of the industrial age of the 1800’s. Free wifi is seemingly everywhere, as if to announce to the world that the Soviet period of conformity and shortage is gone forever.

We arrive after a stop in Munich and check into our luxurious and funky hotel, the Domini Prestige, at about 6 pm. It is the season of the “White Nights” where sunset late in the evening and true darkness never falls. At 11 pm it is bright as day.

Our guide begins with a city walking tour and then we hop a boat for a one-hour canal and river tour. The bridges are low (because the river is high) and we have to pay attention to avoid a concussion! At 10 pm we hop an electric tram and head for the Vodka Number 1 Restaurant where we are shocked to find out that herring, sour pickles, cole slaw, borscht and pirogies were not Jewish foods – they were on the traditional Russian menu! Who knew?

The next morning we headed out for our first full day of our 3 day tour. After a hearty breakfast (where we the only non-Asians in the dining room), we head out to learn about Peter the Great’s rise from military leader to  setting the course for a Romanov dynasty that lasted another 200 years. Over the course of the next 3 days we crisscross the city and hop over many bridges to tour the sites inside the city – Peter the Great’s original log cabin, the Peter and Paul Fort with the church that holds the remains of hundreds of years of emperors and tsars (including Tsar Nicholas II and his murdered family), Russian Orthodox churches, the  Mariinsky Theater’s ballet production of Don Quixote – and to Peterhof (by hydrofoil - outside the city) – the Versailles of Russia.

Everywhere we went we felt that we were only one step ahead of the hordes of tourists coming off the cruise ships.

Enjoy the pictures!

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Carol Waits on

Alan, you are a superb writer! The pictures and captions are excellent. Thank you for all the history! Looking forward to reading more! Marcia, you know that "Funky Domini Lobby 2" is my favorite picture!

Susie Jacobs on

Dear Marcia and Alan ,
I am loving this trip that you are taking us on to Russia! Almost like we are there with you!
Enjoy and send us more!

linda on

ditto to Susie and Carol's words... living vicariousyl!

Varda Farber on

Hi Marcia and Alan,

This is a wonderful trip. Thanks for talking us along. I ditto what others have already said, you are a terrific writer and it's great reading your blog and seeing the pictures. I would guess that your grandparents would not understand why in the world you want to see Russia.
Enjoy the adventure and the vodka.

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