Russia on the Inside Deconstructing Travel to St Petersburg & Moscow

Domodedovo Airport in Moscow is a modern glass and steel structure that symbolizes modern Russia. As Peter the Great grabbed his backwater country by the scruff of its neck and dragged it to the forefront of European nations, Domodedovo opens Moscow to the world. It is thus no punishment to wait for a delayed flight at the conclusion of a Russian vacation. In fact, it gifts time for introspection... An opportunity to deconstruct the experience of travel.

Palace Square and the Triumphal Arch of the General Staff Building designed by Carlo Rossi in the Empire style, St Petersburg

The Peter the Great Statue, standing at 98m on the spit of Moskva River and Vodoovodny Canal, Moscow, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Russian navy

Tsarskoye Selo, or Catherine Palace, Pushkin, originated in 1717 as a Summer Palace for Peter the Great's wife, Catherine I, but was rebuilt by their daughter Empress Elizabeth

Dusk falls over Moscow City

Returning home from a foreign destination is quite different from initial embarkation. A sense of calm replaces the feverish anticipation of what is yet to be experienced. Contentment rather than excitement is the amuse bouche that whets the appetite for the forthcoming flight.

While waiting for the boarding call, I poured my memory glass, savouring single words to suggest the bouquet of spending New Year and Christmas in Russia...

Snow. Ballet. Herring. Tomato. Champagne. Chandeliers. Metro.

A first nose that hints at what is writ large on the expanding frame of my reference.

On the second nose these single words develop character.

Delicate flakes of virgin snow drifting down on my black jacket, bestowing ethereal jewels of inestimable value!

Walking into the hallowed halls of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi to lose oneself in the supreme grace of the ballet dancers.

Selecting delectable herring from the inexhaustible range of pickled fish on the breakfast buffet.

Seeing the surprise on my dinner partner's face when she bites into the exotic taste of a marinated tomato.

Sipping champagne in a cozy hotel room as Stalin's 'Seven Sisters' stand sentinel over an icy Moscow cityscape.

Gazing at chandeliers that once illuminated Russian Tsars in Summer Palaces and today shine on commuters in the Metro, modern-day 'Palaces of the People'.

Behind the Iron Curtain

The Russian Federation may not have the same foreboding and brooding reputation its predecessor the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had, but it is still a challenge to enter the country.

If Russia was a restaurant, a dress code would apply. The Russians respect the territorial integrity of their 'Motherland' and require that visitors apply for a visa. Granting of the visa is dependent on the inclusion along with the application of an invitation from Russia to visit the country.

Disinformation and mischief-making courtesy of the fourth and fifth estate further escalate a sense of anxiety with dire warnings of a closed society supping on corruption.

Russians are rude. Quality of service is appalling. The food is bad. Police demand bribes. Pickpockets target tourists. Uncivilized backwater. Dreary Soviet monoliths darken the streets...

This was not my experience.

Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Petersburg

Victory Park, Moscow, while festive at Christmas, predominantly commemorates Russia's military history, particularly the victory over Nazi Germany

Mariinsky Ballet during a performance of The Nutcracker, St Petersburg

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, at what would have been the site of Stalin's proposed Palace of Soviets, which - while never built - served as a blueprint for the Stalinist skyscrapers, the Seven Sisters

Entering Russia by train from Estonia was, well, painless. The Customs Officer collected passports, took them away for the necessary official stamps, and returned them. Ahem, welcome to Russia!

The hotel driver was waiting punctually on the arrival platform. No problem!

And then the shutters of prejudice came clattering down!


Driving along Nevsky Prospect towards the Admiralty took my breath away, akin to a Christian Le Squer inspired hors d'ouvre at Le Cinq. The sensory overload was almost overwhelming. The boulevard, of which Haussmann would have been proud, pulsed with energy and glittered in majesty!

A statue of Catherine the Great bid a stately welcome, the great shopping complex Gostiny Dvor dazzled in decorations, the Singer Building flashed by and the arms of the Kazan Cathedral reached out to embrace the fortunate onlooker...

I was hooked!

Walking the streets and bridges of St Petersburg in subsequent days continued to dish up courses of wonderment. I was enthralled by hues of green, blue and yellow adorning palace exteriors, the way in which up-lights illuminated buildings, the wealth of European and Russian art in museums, the talent on display at performances or sporting events...

I was convinced that this Venice of the North, Peter the Great's 'window to the west' was easily the equal of both Paris and Prague.

Little did I know that Moscow would make an even bigger impression on me!

The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, is built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated on March 1, 1881

The romantic Winter Canal, St Petersburg, was dug in 1719 and connects the Neva River with the Moika Canal

Atlantes of the Hermitge, carved by sculptor Alexander Terebenev and 150 assistants, St Petersburg

Alexander Nevsky Lavra or Monastery, St Petersburg, founded in 1710 and the final resting place of luminaries such as Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky and Glinka

“Remember that yours is not the only heart that may be wishing for love." - Cameron Dokey, Before Midnight: A Retelling of Cinderella

Prior to arrival in Russia, I had sternly cautioned myself to let balloons float away rather than pricking them. After all, I did not wish to end up in a chest-thumping contest with brawny Russian mobsters!

Good advice, but totally unnecessary.

I found many Russians throw a large shadow, are loath to speak English, and have a stern, no-nonsense manner about them. However, I also saw the shy smile lurk behind an initially surly expression, approved of the non-aggressive manner in which people shared public spaces, and appreciated the uninvited but undemanding way in which men would help a lady carry her suitcase from a train or down a staircase.

Cultural differences were no doubt apparent, but it is insufferably arrogant to believe that everyone, all nations, should share one's own value systems or customs. While not demonstrably 'warm' to strangers, I saw grown men shamelessly bear hug friends and grizzled grandfathers shake with mirth as they sent a staccato of Da! Da! Da! into their mobile phones.

Quality of service - like anywhere else in the world - varied, often in line with the depth of the customer's wallet. From unctuousness at some high end restaurants to unconcealed impatience from a few convenience store cashiers.

But there were also the compassionate hotel clerks, grandfatherly doormen and bashful waiters that would brighten up even the dreariest of days.

It was amusing to ponder how far celebrity status extended to entrepreneurs rather than adolescent pop stars judging from the amount of attention some maître d's bestowed on certain men of powerful mien - always with a dazzling girl on the arm.

However, none of these interactions suggested a sense of entitlement. Rather, it appeared nothing more than a firm but friendly commercial transaction based on the mutual recognition of achievement.

Luzhkov Bridge, Moscow, is a popular destination for wedding parties where newlyweds swear eternal love to each other by popping a lock onto the metal tree frames before tossing the key into the river

Novoslobodskaya Metro Station, Moscow, built in 1952 with 32 illuminated stained glass panels set in pylons of pinkish Ural marble and edged with brass molding

State Historical Museum, Moscow, designed by architect Vladimir Sherwood in the Russian Revivalism style and opened in 1894 to mark the coronation of Alexander III

Arbat Street, Moscow, mentioned as early as 1493, was originally where Moscow received trading caravans from the East

“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.” - Ruth Reichl

Russia does not have the fine dining pedigree of France or Japan with many of the top restaurants relying on glamour and glitz rather than cuisine to attract gourmands. Exceptions do exist, notably the exquisite Percorso in St Petersburg and Turandot in Moscow.

However, it is the country's multi-cultural wealth and culinary position straddling the east and west that provide the best ingredients for mouth-watering fare.

Georgian restaurants, serving up honest and tasty home-cooking with a focus on breads such as khachapuri, cheeses such as sulguni, soups like kharcho, and main courses such as khinkali and shashlik, are very popular throughout Russia. Georgia also has an ancient wine tradition, supplying some of the most popular wines in the region.

Historians agree that Georgia - not Greece nor the Roman Empire - is the oldest known wine producing region in the world. Archaeologists have found clay vases called qvevris containing grape seeds dating back to 6,000 years B.C., earning Georgia the title Cradle of Wine.

Most foreigners will want to sample the classic Ukrainian beet soup Borscht, Russian Beef Stroganoff and Siberian dumplings Pelmeni. Ubiquitous on almost every menu, care should be taken to order it from real purveyors of the art of cooking, like DOM in St Petersburg, rather than a poor first impression at a tourist eatery.

Hotel Ukraina, one of Stalin's famed Moscow 'Seven Sisters', was recognised as the largest hotel in Europe when it opnened in 1957 - today it is known as the Radisson Royal

Nikolskaya Street, Moscow, with Kazan Cathedral (left) and Moscow's historic department store GUM (right)

Annunciation Cathedral, inside the Kremlin, Moscow, rebuilt by Ivan the Great between 1484 to 1489, it contains celebrated icons of master painter Theophanes the Greek

Vorobyovy Gory, or Sparrow Hills, with another of Stalin's 'Seven Sisters', the Moscow State University from Neskuchny Sad (Garden)

“Hi, this is Ganymede, cup-bearer to Zeus, and when I'm out buying wine for the Lord of the Skies, I always buckle up!” - Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters

It was a fleeting moment only. A tingling of the senses that something might be amiss. New Years Eve, formally dressed and on our way to Bellevue Restaurant for a late dinner after The Nutcracker at the Mariinsky. Across the road a young man perhaps taking too much notice of our passing...

I broadcast my awareness of his interest and scanned ahead for any possible accomplices, and he faded away leaving us undisturbed.

It was impressive to see how law enforcement proactively went about their duties reassuring law abiding citizens and visitors. Palace Square in St Petersburg was a hive of activity prior to and during New Years Eve celebrations with heavy concrete barriers and snow plows protecting revellers from the danger of vehicle-borne explosive devices.

Near Moscow's Red Square, police officers judiciously scanned the crowds, courteously bracing individuals to verify their identity, leaving those with anti-social tendencies in no doubt that the forces of law and order were primed to deal decisively with any criminal behaviour.

Both St Petersburg and Moscow exuded a sense of personal safety increasingly rare in cities like Brussels, Paris and Sydney. Crime fighters appeared vigilant rather than wasting time on public relations stunts designed to elevate superficial popularity ratings as has become de rigueur in so many Western nations.

Even the Metro stations - typically a haven for pickpockets - appeared quite benign with not a single witnessed incidence of public order or property crime.

Children are the Victims of Adult Vices, a group of 16 sculptures by artist Mihail Chemiakin - here, unaware children are confronted by (from the left) alcoholism, ignorance and irresponsible science

Muzeon Park of Arts, Moscow, is the largest open-air sculpture museum in Russia

Komsomolskaya Metro Station, Moscow, has an imposing Baroque ceiling painted in yellow and decorated with eight mosaic panels of small and precious stones representing the Russian fight for freedom and independence throughout history

Dutch artist Juriaen van Streeck's 'Vanitas: still life with feather fan' hangs in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." - Edgar Degas

France may best Russia when counting coup on the number of Michelin starred restaurants, and they may think they unfurl a broader art canvas in the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay, but don't be so sure!

While Prussian King Frederick II was overextending himself during the Seven Years War and France suffered an orgy of bloodletting during the revolution, Catherine the Great judiciously acquired a series of outstanding art collections that found a home in St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum. Travel agents boast it would take visitors 11 years to view the entire collection if they spent one minute viewing each of the more than 3 million works of art and artifacts.

Even prior to her reign, Peter the Great lay the foundations for a cultural 'Renaissance' by sending Russian artists to study abroad while inviting Western European artists and architects to work in Russia.

By the mid-18th century, Russia was producing art of the highest quality and gave birth in the 19th century to the incomparable writings of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy; breathtaking paintings by Shchedrin, Briullov, Ivanon, Kramskoy and Repin; along with masterful compositions from Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov.

While the Hermitage is one of the world's leading museums for European art, the nearby Russian Museum in Mikhailovsky Palace, as well as the Tretyakov Gallery and Pushkin Museum in Moscow exhibit Russian works of immense artistic value.

The cultural revolution that started under the watchful eyes of two Greats continue unabated in two of the world's greatest enclosed colosseums of performing art - the Mariinsky in St Petersburg and the Bolshoi in Moscow.

Russia is absolutely spoilt with principal ballerinas like Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova and Ulyana Lopatkina who dazzle international crowds with their incredible poise and technical expertise - often to the melodious strains of their compatriot and great composer Tchaikovsky.

Russian art is an unmissable main course on any itinerary of the world's largest country!

Ivan the Terrible in shock after killing his son on November 16, 1581, by Repin, in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The Appearance of Christ to the People by Ivanov, in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, depicting people (on the left) turning towards Christ, the slave's face (kneeling in the centre) lighting up in hope, and those (on the right) turning their backs on Jesus

Bolshoi Ballet Theatre, Moscow, founded in 1776, is recognised along with the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, as one of the foremost ballet companies in the world

Yuri Nikulin (1921-1997) is regarded as the most popular Russian cinema and circus actor and one of the best clowns of the 20th century - he is buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow

“I felt a wish never to leave that room - a wish that dawn might never come, that my present frame of mind might never change.” - Leo Tolstoy

There is an obvious historic and aesthetic difference between Moscow and St Petersburg - but also some similarities...

Moskva, named after the river that runs through it, dates its inception back to, possibly, the 9th century. Official records, however, accept 1147 as the city's foundation date, when Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy sent a letter to his brother to "come to me, brother, to Moscow".

Moscow's rise parallels the decline of Kievan Rus, which at the time was the principal political and cultural entity of Eastern Europe. As Kievan Rus splintered into principalities and regional centers, Dolgorukiy established himself as the dominant force in north-eastern Rus with his capital in Suzdal - a mere 215km from Moscow.

Kiev's political implosion served as the foundation for the future development of three nationalities: Ukrainians in the southeast and southwest, Belarusians in the northwest, and Russians in the north and northeast.

By the late 12th century, Moscow had eclipsed Kiev as the most influential Rus state and established itself as the cradle of Russian culture.

Kremlin, Moscow

Fast forward a few centuries to 1703. Peter the Great, who as a young boy had seen two of his uncles murdered in the Kremlin during the Moscow Uprising fomented by Sofia Alekseyevna, viewed the city and the old customs it represented as an impediment to future prosperity.

Russia at the time was vastly underdeveloped compared to economically powerful European nations. While Western Europe also rode the crest of a cultural wave known as the Renaissance, Moscow stubbornly maintained a focus more towards the East.

Peter realized that Western prosperity was largely a result of their maritime and trading prowess. Russia on the other hand had no permanent access to trading harbors and routes due to its geographic location, and Peter set about to change this.

Convinced that the Baltic with established Hanseatic ports and trade routes were the answer to a Russian Renaissance of sorts, Peter founded a city on marshy ground in the extreme northwest of Russia, 7° south of the Arctic Circle. For Peter, the father of the Russian navy, this location's most important aspect was the port it provided to the Gulf of Finland and the prospect of sea trade that had enriched the powerful states in Western Europe. He called this future capital of Russia, Petersburg!

With few exceptions, St Petersburg looks more like a Western European capital than a Russian metropolis organized around a Kremlin. Broad boulevards, extensive canals, pretty bridges, imposing churches and luxurious palaces is reminiscent of Paris, Prague and Venice, that part of Europe Peter most wished to emulate.

Winter Palace, St Petersburg

His summer palace on the Gulf of Finland, Peterhof, is an unsubtle but convincing attempt at matching the splendor of Versailles, while Catherine II's Hermitage collection is easily in the same league as those of the Louvre in Paris and Uffizi in Florence.

Peterhof, St Petersburg

Moscow is a much more distinctly Russian experience. The indomitable Kremlin proudly rises above the Moskva River, Red Square - whether exhibiting Russian military parades or festive Christmas markets - remain one of the world's premier public spaces, and St Basils Cathedral billows in mouthwatering whirls of colour, like the most beautiful dessert ever seen!

Prince Vladimir the Great Statue, Moscow

Moskva River and Cathedral of Christ the Saviour from the Kremlin, Moscow

The Kremlin, Moscow, is a fortress that includes cathedrals, palaces, government buildings and parks surrounded by a wall and guard towers

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

The Novodevichy Convent, Moscow, was built in 1542 by Tsar Vasily III to serve both as a religious institution and a fortress

Church of the Intercession, or St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Created By
Johan Louw


All images copyright Johan Louw

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