For many years, Michal and I have wanted to visit Russia during June, when the days are longest. We finally did it this month and it was beyond our expectations. While Russia casts a big shadow on the world stage, its high profile fits only its military/political profile. In other ways, Russia is more like a third world country than a superpower contender – excepting St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Russia is huge, comprising twelve different time zones and stretching from Scandinavia to the Sea of Japan. Russia’s economy is not diversified; its major sources of income are sales of oil and gas and other natural resources, plus weapons systems and heavy industry. Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is $1.58 trillion. If Russia, the world’s largest country, were part of the US it would rank only #3 in economic output, behind California and Texas and on a par with New York State.
Russia’s population of 147 million is estimated to sink to about 130 million by mid-century because of its low birth rate and paltry immigration. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin (b. 1952), rules Russia like an “emperor,” the description repeatedly mentioned by one of our guides. His successor will most likely rule a diminished Russia, not close to contending for superpower status. (For comparison’s sake, the US population will be nearing 440 million in 2050.)
With all that as introduction, let me say that St. Petersburg (StP) and Moscow are fabulous, first-rate travel destinations. We and our friends flew on Aeroflot to St. Petersburg in just five hours. We stayed at an apartment for a week in the very center of town, just off of the main shopping street, Nevsky Prospekt. We were exhilarated by the “white nights,” with no real darkness at least until at least 1 am, when we went to bed. The sun dipped below the horizon but the darkness didn’t progress beyond twilight.
At this time of year, the historic part of StP was populated mostly by tourists. Nearly all the must-see sites were within walking distance. We couldn’t help but notice the absolute absence of litter on the streets! Nobody dropped anything except into a trash receptacle. Another pleasant fact was the cleanliness and features of public bathrooms. There was always soap, hand dryers (that worked) or paper towels, and usually hot water.
StP was conceived by Tsar Peter 1 (the Great, reigned 1682-1725) during his travels as a young man in Western Europe, on an incognito trip to bring back not only practical knowledge of Western Europe but also to obtain ideas to turn Russia into a modern European nation. Peter desired to connect Russia with the most civilized and gentrified capitals to the south, such as Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, and London. His team of architects, working with Peter’s monumental ideas, began to build on the swampy terrain in 1703. Having been greatly influenced by Venice and Amsterdam, Peter conceived a capital city for Russia connected by a system of canals and bridges connected to the Baltic Sea. The first construction was the Peter and Paul Fortress (named for the eponymous saints) enabling access to Europe’s trade routes and for defensive reasons.
Many grand buildings and palaces were planned and some constructed by the time of Peter’s death, including Peterhof, his summer palace outside of town which rivals Versailles in its magnificence. Catherine the Great, who usurped her husband’s (Peter’s grandson) throne and became empress, completed Peter’s vision to make StP a glorious capital. (See https://www.st-petersburg-essentialguide.com/history-of-st-petersburg.html)
The incredibly colorful and glorious buildings still standing are easily accessible from anywhere in the historic zone. In our seven days, we were able to see most, but not all, of the “must-sees.” The highlights of our visit were an introductory free walking tour of the area, a canal boat ride throughout the city, two visits to the Hermitage art museum complex, which includes the gorgeous Winter Palace, an excursion by hydrofoil to Peterhof, the Russian Museum’s early 20th century art, the Faberge Museum, a “kilometer-long” supermarket built in a tunnel on Nevsky Prospekt, and the great cafes and restaurants featuring Russian food and international cuisines.
We visited one cathedral, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, just down the street from our apartment, whose interior is decorated completely with Biblical and New Testament mosaic tableaux. We also splurged on a wonderful ballet performance in one of the several beautiful music halls originally built for the upper classes.
Of course we had to see the Grand Choral Synagogue, Europe’s second largest. Our young guide took us all around the synagogue, which has a beautiful sanctuary and and equally striking chapel. She told us that just recently one of her best friends had found out from her grandmother that she was Jewish.
“The history of the Jewish community of St. Petersburg is truly fascinating. Initially banned from residing anywhere in Russia under the decree by Catherine I [Empress of Russia from 1725-1727], the second wife of Peter the Great, Jewish people gradually settled in St. Petersburg. By the 19th century, the local Jewish community grew to become very powerful. Many rich and educated Jewish people worked as bankers, doctors and entrepreneurs, and the Jewish population had higher literacy rates than the St. Petersburg average. Although almost a dozen Jewish houses of worship existed by 1870s, there was no large synagogue to serve all the Jewish community of St. Petersburg.
“The initial construction of the Synagogue became possible following a building permit that was granted by Emperor Alexander II [Emperor of Russia from 1855 until his assassination in 1881], who had introduced a number of reforms, officially allowing [some academic and or rich] Jewish people to reside in St. Petersburg, as well as other Russian cities outside of the Pale of Settlement. Although no building in St. Petersburg was allowed to be higher than 23 meters (the height of the Winter Palace), Alexander II allowed the Synagogue to be 47 meters high, provided certain other conditions were met. A group of architects responsible for the design modeled the new synagogue after Berlin’s Oranienburger Strasse New Synagogue with its Moorish and Byzantine style.” https://www.insider-tour.com/Grand-Choral-Synagogue.html
After spending seven days in StP we were ready for several days in Moscow. Rather than fly, we took the “bullet train” south to Moscow, a pleasant ride of four hours with little to see on the route except green fields and a few small towns. Our hotel was located in the tourist area close to Red Square. It was a renovated small palace with all the services we needed, especially very helpful people in the reception area. By the way, though English is not spoken widely, someone who knows English always approaches you to help when you’re fumbling with a map or appear lost.
Russia’s tourism is predominantly internal, not international. Just 25% of tourists are from abroad and most of them aren’t Americans or Europeans. While the tourists in St Petersburg were mostly foreigners, Moscow’s crowds of “Chinese” tourists were more likely Asiatic Russians, not Chinese or Japanese visitors. Also, many of the workers in both cities are from now-independent Asiatic countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, which devolved into many separate countries in 1991.
Most people are familiar with iconic, colorful pictures of cathedrals, fortresses and other buildings in Red Square: the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, GUM department store (gorgeous, upscale mall), Lenin’s Tomb, etc. That area was ten minutes from our hotel and the endpoint for the walking tour that we took the first morning. Our guide was a young man with Asiatic features who was saving money to pursue graduate studies abroad, after having received his first degree in England. During the nearly 3-hour tour, we learned Russian history, church history, political history and a lot about current life.
After finishing the tour at the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, we were directed to an excellent “chain” restaurant with terrific Russian food (borscht, blintzes, sour cream, salads, cakes, etc., which we enjoyed in many places during our trip). We then wandered around the neighborhood, which evidently has a lot of high ranking government offices and/or lucrative businesses. I say that because of the inordinate amount of chauffeured luxury cars, almost all painted black, with drivers sitting in them waiting for the important owners. Most of the cars were Mercedes, with quite a few Audis and BMWs. The most common model was the Mercedes Maybach, a fabulously expensive model which sells for about $250,000.
That evening, we enjoyed exploring our upscale neighborhood to find yet another good restaurant, marred only by the waiter’s poor English which scrambled things a bit (this was the second instance during the trip of a botched dinner).
The last day of our visit we spent at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre, which is currently the most high-tech museum in Russia. Since the complex is located in a Jewish neighborhood, we had to take the subway and a bus to reach it. But subway rides in Russia are a far cry from those in New York. The stations are immaculate and sometimes even beautiful, while the equipment seems to be up to date.
Our guide in the Jewish Museum, a young man, told us of his discovering his Jewish roots as a teenager. When he asked his father to tell him more, he was directed to “ask your grandmother.” When we asked him when the Jews came to live in Russia, he enlightened us. It wasn’t that the Jews of Poland and its vicinity left for Russia, but that Russia conquered those areas and absorbed its many Jewish inhabitants into an expanded empire. I then recalled my grandmother telling me of her youth in Galicia, which was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire at the time of her birth. “I lived in several different countries without having to move from our home.”
The Jewish Museum boasts an extensive collection of materials presenting the history and culture of the Jewish people as well as Russian history, in an interesting and visual manner. The quality and level of the Museum’s permanent and temporary exhibitions is exemplary. The museum opened in 2012 in the former Bakhmetyevsky Bus Garage, a Constructivist (early 20th century) landmark. It is designed as a full-fledged cultural and educational complex consisting of numerous organizational structures including a research center, a library, and a medical facility. As expected, there was full security to enter the museum campus.
“The Museum’s permanent exhibition is split into twelve interactive thematic spaces, equipped with panoramic cinemas, audiovisual installations and huge panels that feature unique photo and video archives, documents and interviews showing the Russian history through the prism of everyday life and culture of the Jewish people from the early days of Empress Catherine II’s rule all the way to the present time.”
There is a lot of interaction between Russia and Israel. Don’t forget that more than a million Russian immigrants came to Israel in the last 40 years. Our time in the museum and in Moscow itself was too short. I expect that we will make a return trip in the future.