GUEST BLOG — Bobbi Speck on Russia’s Golden Age

NOTA BENE: Many of you will know that Sean Forester, classical painter and lover of 19th century Russian art, literature and music, had to cut short his trip due to a death in the family. Sean did get to escort the group through the Tetryakov Gallery in Moscow and lead two discussions of Anna Karenina. Here are a couple quotes from Bobbi early in the trip: “Stellar trip! Sean is doing an excellent job on all fronts!” “You should know that he was brilliant this week. Everything went so smoothly. He did a very professional job.”

Door frame in the summer palace of Catherine the Great
Door frame in the summer palace of Catherine the Great

What makes a trip perfect?

So many factors must come together – planning, organization, guides, participants, weather. . . ! It’s difficult to describe this particular trip because if you use too many superlatives your credibility is questioned. But I will still venture to say that this was one of the very best trips I’ve ever taken.

I was primed for this Russia trip by the 2009 Classical Pursuits boat journey on the Volga and Neva Rivers. This was a delightful rural adventure. The brief visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg whetted my urban appetite and I wanted to explore the streets and to spend more time in the historical buildings and museums.

I tend to do little preparation for trips. Of course, for Classical Pursuits I do a careful reading for the discussions, but I don’t pour over the itinerary ahead of time. I’d rather treat the trip as an adventure, placing myself in the hands of the leaders. And what a great adventure it was!

To begin with, I learned the meaning of our guides’ phrases, “Moscow weather” and “St. Petersburg weather”! The only drawback of travelling pre-season was this weather. I’d never experienced sheets of snowfall in my life! However, it melted soon after it fell, and as it had caught us as we entered the Kremlin, we had numerous buildings in which to take shelter and continue our tour.

Snow fell suddenly from behind us at the Kremlin. This was the beginning. At the end Joan Gurry looked like a snowman!

The snow became puddles as quickly as it arrived!

The fast train from Moscow to St. Petersburg took just over four hours, and afforded a look at the Russian countryside. In St. Petersburg, temperatures were a bit warmer with little wind, and the sun shone on most days.

The advantages of travelling pre-season far outweighed the weather disadvantage: there were no crowds other than groups of school children, who were moved along quickly to accommodate juvenile attention span. We actually had the Kremlin Armoury to ourselves, being the last group to enter it, and our marvellous guide, Irina, took advantage of this luxury and gave us an extensive tour!

So, although there was some overlapping of sites, I got to see much more of spectacular places in both cities like the Hermitage, the summer palaces of Catherine the Great and Alexander, the extraordinary Tretyakov Gallery of Russian art, and the Kremlin Armoury. We also had tours of some of the magnificent churches, which we had viewed only from the outside on the other trip. In addition we visited the Moscow State Art Gallery of Glazunov and the Pushkin Museum, with our excellent guides; and enjoyed an illuminating lecture in our hotel by one of our St. Petersburg guides, Masha, on Russia’s Golden Age in art, music and literature.

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Tsar Alexander’s summer palace was especially touching to visit because it was where Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra and their children lived before execution, and the rooms were filled with their personal items, portraits, photographs, toys, clothing.

Our hotels in both cities were centrally located, conveniently reducing our time in buses. In Moscow we could walk to Red Square, the Kremlin and the Bolshoi. The Hermitage was within walking distance of our hotel in St. Petersburg, for anyone who wanted to leave the tour early.

Moscow store window display noticed as we strolled by one evening.
Moscow store window display noticed as we strolled by one evening.

Our guides were intelligent, well educated, knowledgeable, extremely helpful, and proud of their history and heritage. They were some of the best guides I’ve ever travelled with. The guides also seemed to enjoy their time with us, because (as they told us) we were an unusual group for them: we were congenial, energetic and engaged. Everyone had done the reading carefully and was interested in learning about the art, music and literature of 19th century Russia. It was a terrific group to travel with.

The Russians honour their composers and musicians: tomb of Alexander Borodin.
The Russians honour their composers and musicians: tomb of Alexander Borodin.

Among the highlights of this trip were backstage tours of the Bolshoi (where we saw a dress rehearsal!) and the old Mariinsky theatres, and the breathtaking Kirov performance of Swan Lake in the new Mariinsky. In another theatre we also saw a brilliant and athletic performance by a world-renowned folk dance group which rarely gets to these cities.

We toured the Moscow subways, some magnificently decorated with bronze sculptures, mosaics and stained glass windows, and a few of us attended a moving Russian Orthodox Sunday service.

One of the more playful highlights of our stay in St. Petersburg was the tour of the Dostoevsky museum, which is housed in one of his apartments, and a walk through the pages of Crime and Punishment, visiting the sites in the book. Our charming guide rendered a dramatic retelling of the story and the book was brought to life! We saw buildings that would never be on a guided tour, hidden in back streets and courtyards – not gorgeous architecture but unique to our eyes!

I was impressed by the overall organization of this trip. We viewed the art in depth in the various art galleries and museums in each city, learning about the Russian painters, as well as the musicians and writers whose portraits they painted. Sean Forester got us off to a fascinating start at the Tretyakov Gallery of Russian art, where he helped us view the paintings through his eyes, as a realist painter. This was a solid grounding for us as we continued to look at art as the trip progressed. Then we actually visited the homes and studios of two painters, Vasely Polenov and Ilya Repin.

After studying and familiarizing ourselves with their paintings in the galleries, the visits to their estates provided a kind of intimacy. We saw studies of some of their works we had viewed in museums, and portraits and photographs of other painters and writers and of their families, amid the artifacts of their daily lives. A visit to Tolstoy’s house was equally fascinating. There was also a good balance between museum days, and short bus trips, keeping our energy at a steady level.

At the estate of the 19th century landscape artist Vasily Polenov.

Our discussions of Anna Karenina were energetic, and gave flesh and life to the portraits and landscapes we had been viewing, and further steeped us in the history and culture of Russia.

To round out our experience, we were treated to the different cuisines of the ethnic Russian cultures – Georgian, Bulgarian, Russian, and so on, similar yet unique, and all very tasty.

Herbal tea at Hotel Peter I in Moscow.

Lunch at the fabulous Eliseyev Emporium in St. Petersburg was European Russian and extremely elegant! In the private dining room upstairs we sat on gilded chairs at an elaborately set table.

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Our trip was capped on the last day by a delightful visit to a community of dachas in Komarovo, where many of St. Petersburg artists and intelligentsia had summer homes during Soviet times, and which remains a vibrant community. Our main host, Katya Boyarskaya, has just published the third edition of her book on her two famous actor parents. She gave us a personal tour of the community and then we dined in the dachas of two of her friends. Each course was preceded by a shot of vodka and a toast; amazingly we always seemed to find someone or something to raise our glasses to! What a grand finale to this amazing trip!

No one knows how this huge metal sculpture of Shostakovich ended up outside this dacha in the musicians’ community!
No one knows how this huge metal sculpture of Shostakovich ended up outside this dacha in the musicians’ community!

At the end of the day we gathered together in our hotel’s little pub for a light farewell snack and some sad goodbyes, before preparing for our departures the following morning. The two weeks had flown by, leaving me with much to think about, new friends and the memories of a lifetime. A great trip!

Bobbi Speck

At the entrance to a Moscow shopping arcade.
At the entrance to a Moscow shopping arcade.

You are invited to view a Russian slide show, comprised of a selection of photos submitted by Jean-Paul Ginestier.

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