by Sean Forester, leader of our September 2019 trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg
For many of us, the images we have formed of Russia are rooted in Soviet times: We picture a tyrannical and bureaucratic country full of dreary buildings. Or maybe our images come from Hollywood and its counterparts—the romance of Doctor Zhivago, the suspense of James Bond outwitting his foes at SMERSH, or the brutality of the Second World War as shown in Stalingrad or Come and See.
Traveling is a great way to break through such stereotypes. Visitors to central Moscow will find a city that is surprisingly colourful, with an eclectic mix of architecture: churches, museums, hotels, and international fashion boutiques. Several of our travellers told me they felt Moscow, with its wide, clean boulevards, rivals Paris or Vienna. The Kremlin is the seat of Putin’s power, but walking through it you are more likely to encounter decorative gardens and medieval cathedrals than soldiers or politicians. The metro stations are works of art in themselves with metalwork, mosaics, sculptures and stained glass.
The theme of our Classical Pursuits tour was Russia’s Golden Age (1860–1910). For me, this is one of the high points in world culture. We explored the shift from romanticism to realism to modernism through the arts. In our literary seminars we discussed Gogol, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. It was fascinating to hear how Olga, our Russian guide, experienced these works when she studied them in high school and college. We saw the classic Russian ballet Swan Lake in St. Petersburg; then, in our seminar, we watched a film of Rudolf Nureyev’s Paris debut. We contrasted this with Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes in the Rite of Spring. Some in our group also saw opera and ballet at the Bolshoi and Mariinski theaters.
We immersed ourselves in the late nineteenth century by visiting Tolstoy’s house—preserved just as the family left it in the late 1890s, with Tolstoy’s writing desk, piano, dining table and bicycle. Then we took a day trip outside Moscow to see the country estate of the naturalist painter Vasily Polenov. This wonderfully creative artist designed his home and painting studio, where he collected everything from Russian folk art and Italian pottery to artifacts from ancient Egypt. His wife and children were also artistically talented, and the family performed live theater productions and “slide shows” for the village children. I call them slide shows although this was long before film. On transparent paper, Polenov painted watercolours of famous sights from around the world. He placed a lantern behind them so the children could see these glowing images.
While Moscow looks back to traditional Russia, St. Petersburg looks to Europe. Palaces line the boulevards and canals in this “Venice of the North,” where the architecture is Russian baroque and high classicism or Empire style. St. Petersburg embodies imperial grandeur. The hotel where we stayed, the Helvetia, fits into this tradition with elegant décor, orchids in the stairwells, free champagne, and a Russian tea service. We also enjoyed drinks at the art nouveau bar in the magnificent Grand Hotel Europe.
Of course, there is also the underbelly of St. Petersburg, the crowded, dilapidated apartments depicted in Crime and Punishment. We visited Dostoevsky’s museum and saw the rooms where he spent his final years, the desk where he wrote, the icon he prayed to, and his death mask.
Later in the day we drove past neighbourhoods of large apartment blocks built in Soviet times. Our Russian guide explained that buildings constructed in different decades were known as Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev apartments. Russia has a heavy history. The people have suffered a great deal from serfdom to modern-day mass starvation and war. This came to mind when we saw the statue commemorating the siege of Leningrad.
Few apartments can compare to the Amber Room in Catherine’s Palace. The entire palace is ornate, but the Amber Room is unique in the world. Happily, Worldwide Quest arranged for us to arrive early because the line of tour groups stretched around the block. Amber (fossilized tree resin) is a fascinating material, and we were fortunate to have a tour of the amber workshop. It was a highlight of our tour to see the carvers and guilders at work, to touch and smell the amber. We heard the story of how the artisans reconstructed the room, which was taken by German army during Operation Barbarossa, reinstalled in Königsberg (today part of Russia), and perhaps lost when that city was destroyed by allied bombing raids in 1944—or perhaps not; the whereabouts of the Amber Room are still a mystery.
Russia has beautiful and vast landscapes. Although we did not travel to the Russian Far East (consider Worldwide Quest’s Trans-Siberian Railway tour for the full experience), we did see expanses of birch and pine trees from our tour bus and from the train. As we walked through the forest on Polenov’s estate, we felt we were inside a painting by Ivan Shishkin or Isaac Levitan.
No Classical Pursuits trip would be complete without enjoying delicious dinners. We dined at the famous Tzar Restaurant and at the eccentric Idiot Café filled with old books and Dostoevsky memorabilia. We sampled Russian cuisine and the cuisines of Georgia and Ukraine. But my favourite was our dinner at a dacha in the forest north of St. Petersburg. It was a privilege to be welcomed into the home of a Russian family and hear their experience of the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia while we ate a home-cooked meal and drank vodka in tiny shot glasses. As our host said, vodka warms you on a cold night, one Russian stereotype that rings true. Za zdaróvye! (To your health!)
I will sign off with a few more images for you to enjoy. If you are interested in a future Russia trip, or for more information about any Classical Pursuits program, please contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.