St. Petersburg

Trip Start Sep 02, 2005
Trip End Dec 10, 2005

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Where I stayed
winter palace

Flag of Russia  ,
Sunday, October 23, 2005


Founded by Peter the Great as his 'window to the west', St. Petersburg is the most European of Russia's cities and the perfect place to ease ourselves into 3 weeks in the world's biggest country.

Once regarded as one of Europe's grandest capitals, the last 100 years have been hard yacka for St.Pete and a flick through the page's of it's 20th century history is depressing to say the least...

Overcrowding, poor sanitation and horrendous working conditions led to widespread strikes and political protests, culminating in the 'Bloody Sunday' Masacre in January 1905 when a non-violent strikers march to petition the Tsar in the Winter Palace was needlessly fired on by gaurds, killing hundreds and sparking the revolution that would put Russia under the control of the barbaric Bolshevik party. Over the next 80 years, anyone who didn't surrender complete aligence to the powers that be would be either exiled to Siberia, worked to death in slave labour camps or simply disappear in the 'dead' of the night. The total number of Russian to have succumbed to this fate is estimated to be at least 20 million.

St.Petersburg also suffered enourmous losses during World War II. Hitler's troops besieged Leningrad (as the city was then known) from 1941-44 and although many people were evacuated, approximately 1 million people lost they lives due to shelling, starvation and disease during the '900 days'. (As a comparison, the USA and UK suffered a total of 700,000 casualties between them during the whole of World War II).
This were so dire that when there were no cats or rats left they resorted to eating glue off the back of wallpaper...

I'm glad to report that today St.Petersburg is a much happier place, buzzing wth a revived sense of national pride and optimism for their future in the free market. Much of the city has undergone restoration in recent years, though I suspect that the Puppet Hostel is still awaiting it's post-Soviet face-lift. We arrived at our home for the next few days on the top floor of a grey cob-web filled Soviet building above a Puppet Theatre in the pitch black darkness of 8am (St.Petersburger's have a month of near darkness to look forward this Christmas, trade-off for their 'white nights' in August when the sun doesn't set at all). Thankfully the kind staff let us check in early, so after a power-nap to recover from our overnight bus we took to the streets in search of sustanance.

With little to choose from (on average only 1% of Russians eat out more than once a year) we try our luck at Russia's Soviet-time McDonald's equivalent. It's still state owned to this day, portions are ration-esque small in size, burgers are rep[laced with pancakes, fried with dumplings and everything is served with a healthy dollop of sour cream.

We start our first afternoon getting acquainted with the sights and smells of the city (see photos) before a 4pm sundown and a premature hunger for some 'real' food lead us into a very local-looking Russian restaurant. Shortly after we place our order a black limousine with dark windows parks out front and soon we are sharing the otherwise deserted restaurant with 2 large gold-chain wearing Russians and their team of 4 dark suited bodyguards (that's in addition to the 2 other bodyguards who are waiting outside with the limo). They received their meal the second they sit down. We are still waiting for a drinks 10 minutes later.

I try not to look in the bodyguards direction while ever-vigelant (paranoid) Melanie flicks through the 'dangers' section of our Russian guidebook. As Bodyguard No.1 answers a ringing mobile and presents it to one of his heavy-set bosses, a wide-eyed Mel informs me that "St.Petersburg is one of the most dangerous cities in which to operate a business as it is not the local council but the Mafia who really run the city".

Minutes later a second limousine pulls up and in walk 2 more Mafiosos and all manner of man-kisses and secret handshakes are exchanged. Still waiting for our drinks while the Mafia-table tuck into their desert, Mel's increasingly sweaty palms hand me the guidebook and I read that there are believed to be around 8000 mafia-related gangs operating in Russia and shoot-outs between rival gangs are 'not uncommon'.

With this new snippet of information Mel's paranoia finally becomes contageous and we agree that we will be a lot more comfortable away from the closing of shady deals. A quick consultation with the phrasebook to say 'sorry, emergency, must go' and we're out of there, trying not to make eye-contact with the toughs standing by the limos on the way out.

Once we make it to the end of the street we share a chuckle and look around for Plan B. The only thing in sight is an Irish Pub, so we cut our losses and go inside. Turns out the only thing Irish about the place is that they serve Guinness. After downing the most expensive pint of Black Stuff in Europe we opt for the universal cop-out food of all nations - doner kebabs.

We spend the next 2 days exploring St.Petersburgs biggest drawcards - the Russian State Museum and the Hermitage. Housed in the Winter Palace and 4 other connected buildings, the Hermitage is one of the world's premier art galleries and definitely one of the vastest - the Winter Palace alone has 1057 rooms. The entire collection contains over 3 million catalogued works, and there's only room for 10% of them to be displayed at a time. One figure thrown around is that if you were to look at each piece for just a few seconds each, it would take you 18 months to see the entire collection.

Our for days were not nearly enough time to even scratch the surface of what St.Petersburg has to offer. When we weren't in museums or colourful onion-domed cathedrals our senses were being bombarded by the bustle of city life in post communist Russia. The open-market has brought with it all the trappings of the western world - enourmous advertising billboards - many in English - displaying everything from mobile phones to the latest Gucci range (although authentic animal fur is very much the clothing of choice as our photos shall reveal). Sales are booming as people who lived through the oppressive Soviet era make up for lost time and indulge in material goods they could have only dreamed of 15 years ago. A chat with an english-speaking local on a trains reveals that althoughmost city-dwelling Russians cannot afford it, priority is given to purchasing items that give the 'impression of wealth'- living for today with almost no emphasis on saving or investment. He tells us that this is changing however, with the emerging generation consumed with thoughts of the future and putting a lot of importance on education to compete with the established nations of the west.

To give you some idea of what he's on about, here's some excerpts from an amusing and loosely relevant article we came across in a copy of St.Petersburg's english street press, interviewing the 'super kids' of St. Petersburg:

Anton Ivanov, 11, of School No.590 has been studying economics since age 6, and believes that pensions must be raised, taxes must be paid and welcomes increased investment in youth education.

Egor Suvorov, 10, of School No.550 has created several computer programs including a game called 'Battle on the Flowers', and studies 3-D modelling. He owns 3 computers but no TV, and surprised his mother when at the age of 5 he asked her to read him the user's manual for Visual Basic instead of bedtime stories.

Kristina Akinshina, 12, of School No.349 has been a model since the age of 8. She spends her spare time reading glossy magazines, closely studying various models, but wants to 'be herself'.
Under favourite clothes she stated: "Expensive ones, but can't afford it yet".
Favourite Music: Mozart, Bach, Linkin Park.
Future plans: Does not intend to spend her whole life modelling but considers it a good paycheck.
Special personal qualities: Very humble, very flexible - easily does the splits.
Quote: "It doesn't matter how good the clothes are if they're not displayed well".
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