After a train ride from Moscow, we were greeted by the stunning architecture and terrible weather of St. Petersburg (unfortunately it is often rainy and cold). Doug, as he did throughout the trip, immediately started comparing everything to New York. Tristan, on the other hand, was busier trying to take in the whole experience, although stopping periodically to laugh at Doug for being a caricature of every American stereotype imaginable. Needless to say, we were an interesting trio, and did as much as we could to explore as much of the city as we could.
Our first day there, we decided to walk everywhere, defying nature's instance otherwise (conditions progressively got worse as the day went on). Personally, I was pretty impressed by what I say, but unlike Doug, I will not compare it to New York, but compared to Moscow, there are a few stark differences. Moscow dates back to the 11th century, but Petersburg was constructed only in 1703, and then was rebuilt almost entirely from the rubble after being nearly destroyed during the Second World War. In short, Everything was significantly newer, and more European as well. Peter the Great (Пётер I) commissioned the city with the idea of it being the window to Europe, and to this day, it still seems to act accordingly. The architecture looked more European. The canals were reminiscent of Amsterdam of Venice, and the people all dressed in Western Style. For example, unlike Moscow and the rest of Russia, there were no women in headscarves and no men in ushankas (the classic Russian hat), except for Doug who bought one at the market and insisted on wearing it everywhere. And many more things were written in English as well.
Although Moscow's nightlife is nothing to scoff at, I do have to hand this one to St. Petersburg. After just a simple walk along Nevsky Prospekt (The city's main road) at night, this becomes apparent, as you'll see everything from casual dive bars, nice places for dinner and drinks, and even European style clubs. The city itself is a little more open in this way, making it easier for one to go out and enjoy themself whereas in Moscow you'll usually have to wait until the weekend, which makes sense, I guess, since Petersburg is more for visitors while Moscow is more for employment and living.
On a personal account, I had the pleasure of joining Doug and Tristan on a 'casual' night out... that lasted until about 5:30 in the morning. While it would be interesting to get into detail, I'll let those stories stay in Petersburg.
Since it was my friends' first time in Russia, we decided to see some of the famous sites as well, and we decided to start with Russia's largest art museum, The Hermitage. At first, the building, a former palace, was itself a pretty impressive sight. It was large and grandiose, painted blue and white, standing behind a large open square. Upon entering, Tristan suggested we go to the Italian and French section, while Doug, naturally, began comparing everything it to the MET and other New York art museums... We went with Tristan's idea.
I kind of feel bad saying this as a person who is both interested in art and history, but as we walked through massive portrait gallery after massive portrait gallery, I began to get a little bored. Yes, I understand how difficult is must have been for these artists to create such intricate depictions of other human beings, but I was in the mood for something exciting. I wanted to be pulled in with wonder and fascination, but images of European nobility standing in glorious poses wasn't quite doing it for me. Luckily though, I saw another room on the map that did sound more appealing: Ancient Art and Artifacts (with exhibitions from Central Asia and the Caucasus). I made an executive decision: we were going there next, and right away, I noticed the change. Here, there were pagan animal statues with interesting, bizarre faces, burian masks, clothing from over 3000 years ago and medieval armor. This is what I wanted, and this was my kind of exhibit.
Leningrad Memorial Graveyard
On a serious note, there was one site we knew we should see while we were there: the Leningrad Memorial Graveyard from the Second World War. In the 900 days of the siege, almost 2 million people were killed until the Soviet Army repelled the attack, and now being a resident of the country, I thought I should pay homage to what had happened only two generations ago.
It was a somber setting upon arrival. There was a long stone path walkway with fields on either side, that were still partly covered in snow, all leading to a large monument and an eternal flame that has continually been kept burning for decades. Quietly, we all walked towards the monument, expecting the graveyard to be just behind it... then it hit me. The fields, to either side of the walkway were marked with years (1941, 1942, 1943). They were the graves. So many people had died in such a short period of time, it was impossible to give any sort of individual burial, so each section of grass was a mass grave.
That very second may have been the most sobering moment of my entire life, realizing I was in the middle of the final resting place for more people than all Americans who have died in all wars combined. All around me were those who suffered through one of the worst atrocities in human history, something so horrific I honestly can't even fathom. Even Doug was unusually silent.
So as not to end on a depressing note, I'll revert to the last thing everybody talks about: the weather. Throughout most of the year, the weather in St. Petersburg is pretty bad. Even as I write this now in the end of April, the main river running through the city, the Neva, is still partially frozen. However, if you have the chance to go in June or July, it's a completely different story. Since the city is so far north, there is barely any darkness (about 22 hours of sunlight), which is pretty incredible, especially when everything is in bloom. And as a result, the city throws a White Nights festival, which leads me to...