I have been left standing on the north bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg helplessly watching my ship leave the dock without me, which makes sense in Russia, since after all I’d only devoted an entire morning to this specific enterprise, and why should I expect that in the country where Murphy’s Law is an absolute Constitutional Provision that anything would work the way it should? Because no trip to Russia can be enjoyed without seeing the knee-slapping humor in the everyday failure of the state-run monopolies to provide such non-essential services as reliable transportation, flushing toilets, or good drinking water, and no trip to that country will be complete unless you visit its crown jewels, St Petersburg and Moscow, which are about as different as Barack Obama and a real President.
But they have a lot in common as well, such as the world famous bargains you will find at such high end eateries as McDonald’s, where a cheeseburger can be yours for only $13, and of course in either city you get a chance to hone your nascent bartering skills as soon as you hit the airport Arrivals Gate like a lamb entering the slaughterhouse holding pen, when you are attacked by an assortment of Mafia-connected cab drivers demanding a month’s wages in return for a ride to your hotel, which has no air conditioning (or even an oscillating fan) in spite of the skin blistering heat, and where you will be rudely abused by truculent employees who eye every guest as an unwanted interruption of their morning vodka break. Plus you can enjoy the highly efficient Slavic service industry (motto: Smiles are for Weaklings), in which you run a gamut of rather large bouncers and hostesses just to assume a seat, and in which you will be engaged in a Spaghetti Western-style squinting contest with the waiters, who stare directly at you like Clint Eastwood in “Hang ‘Em High” without even a hint of animation, as if daring you to make the first move, because they certainly aren’t, since they are too busy occupying a stool, and of course it’s very difficult to provide good service when the ratio of customers to employees is approaching 1:1.
But as I said, leaving aside the service, which is measured in geologic Time, or the prices, which are higher than a rock concert groupie, these cities are as different as a child’s harmless Teddy Bear and the foreboding Ursine Russia of the Cuban Missile Crisis. St Petersburg is soft and embracing, inviting you to enjoy its voluptuous European charms, while dark and moody Moscow should be approached with caution, or the evening news may be breathlessly announcing that another tourist has been fatally mauled while stupidly interfering with a mother and its cubs, and what was he thinking? But your Russian vacation does have to include an obligatory visit to both Moscow and St. Petersburg, or else you will forever be explaining to all of your friends why you went all the way to Commie Country and missed one of the Big Ones.
So, a tale of two cities…with great apologies to Dickens.
St. Petersburg is a warm and enchanting port city on the Baltic Sea, and, like a beautiful woman, each newly discovered delight it slowly reveals is merely a prelude to something more exciting and mysterious. Copenhagen by day, Paris by night, it is an enigmatic queen, and in fact was the capital of Russia for almost 200 years during the great period of the Tsars and the Romanov Dynasty. Built by Peter the Great after defeating the Swedes decisively in 1703, when the lives of serfs (10,000) were sacrificed to such important causes as building suitable quarters for the Imperial Stable, it is a relative newcomer to the great cities of Europe, but make no mistake: it is a great city, one of the true treasures of the world. The Prince had a vision that Russia could have a proper capital that could rival any great European power, so he travelled widely, carried his ideas back to the Motherland, and built a city on the banks of the Neva River in what used to be a swamp, basically. If that sounds like a bad idea, take a look at DC. I would argue that the Russian result is far more satisfying.
If you go there, you must see the Hermitage, the famed Winter Palace of the Tsars, a striking mint green and white (call it the Evergreen Palace) Baroque structure which outwardly impresses with its size and inside has a collection of art so rich that it would make even a modern oligarch jealous, with a collection that has everything from thousands of ancient Greek masterpieces to the most contemporary modern atrocities under the same roof, and you could literally spend a lifetime studying its wonders. Allow at least a half-day for this, which is a lifetime for a tourist, and by all means take the English-speaking tour. You won’t be sorry.
But don’t be late, as I was, while sitting quietly in a group of other Anglos when a squat and dower woman appeared out of nowhere and, without barking a command, simply motioned for us to follow her. Down corridor after corridor we marched, and at a pace that would have made Patton proud, through the Grecian Urns, Egyptian sarcophagi, and Roman sculptures, until we finally reached a “special tour” Diamond Room and I was told that I was not so special, and that I was in the wrong group, and that my own group of commoner underlings had already departed from the main entry hall and there was no way I could catch them.
So yes, I “did” the Hermitage on my own, using only a booklet, but I’d have been far better off with the guide, if I hadn’t been so obtuse as to think their might be an actual announcement made in my native tongue. Having said that, another thing to recommend St. Pete over Moscow is the everyday people, who tend to be a little warmer (excepting grotesque state employees, who could always find work at the DMV in any American city as well). I chalk this up to the fact that the city isn’t so crowded, and they aren’t as inundated with obnoxious tourists, like the Arab and African freaks I saw in the capital trying to buy the local women.
My patron saint is St. John of Kronstadt, a man who I identify with, not because of my decidedly unholy existence, but because he, too, was banished to an obscure outpost by his superiors, from whence he nevertheless carved out a name for himself among the lowly locals, if not the bishopric. I admire men who piss off all the right people, and St. John and myself at least share that in common. And he is a rarity among the saints in that he was married and didn’t die a martyr, though of course being married is a kind of sacrifice all by itself.
So I decided that I should pay homage to this great Russian by visiting the island of Kotlin, where the city of Kronstadt is located, which I thought would be easy because after all there was supposed to be a regular hydrofoil service, but of course I should have known that this did not mean efficient or reliable, this after all being, well, Russia. I was not disappointed.
So that brings me back to the beginning of my tale of woe, where I’m sitting at the hydrofoil dock, watching the boat slip away, and wondering when the next one will show up. I’ve been here for 2 hours waiting. Turns out that there won’t be another boat for 2 more hours. Of course, none of the deck hands bothered to tell anyone that, and there was absolutely no one at the ticket office once you bought your fare, so you’d better have some time to kill. I began my hike at 7AM and spent the next three hours trying to find the right dock before finally scoring a taxi in a desperation Hail Mary effort to make the boat on time, so why should I expect that a mere mortal’s efforts would be rewarded without divine intervention of some sort? Memo to me: next time, camp out at the dock the night before like some moron on Black Friday. But if Hitler and Napoleon couldn’t master the country with hundreds of divisions at their disposal, what chance do I have with just a few bucks and a bad command of tourist-level Russian? None, of course, and that is the attitude you must bring to your Russky vacation. And that sums up the attitude of the natives, who simply shrug and say, “That’s Russia”, as if they’re explaining the rising sun to a child, or decency to Anthony Weiner. When I ask the natives that are in line behind me why there had been no announcement for the fact that the next boat would require a two hour wait, they explain it this way: “Welcome to Russia!” with the kind of gallows humor you might expect in a country that lost tens of millions of its own citizens in an effort by the Bolsheviks to destroy the fabric of the society.
But, seeing as how we are waiting for a boat anyway, it seems like a good idea to the people I’m in line with to grab some lunch, which consists of beer and dried calamari. They share this with me, and one of the girls lets on that she’s an English teacher, so the time goes pretty fast. Besides, it’s a glorious day, the sun is shining across the broad river, and I’m enjoying the beer as well as the girl. What’s not to like?
The ride itself is comfortable and about thirty minutes and brings you into the naval base on the south side of the island. From the menacing-looking warships there, I start to walk to the cathedral, but of course there is a party going on at Petrovsky Park, since it’s Tuesday and all, so I stop to watch the bands, which are all belting out rock ‘n roll, and to grab a bite to eat from the street vendors.
I pass by the gorgeous silver and gold-domed Naval Cathedral, which the Commies turned into a cinema when they were busy trying to kill the Christians. I’m glad to see that today it is being rededicated as a church.
I continue on through the center of town and finally find a shrine supposedly dedicated to the saint, but later find out it’s actually for a celebrated icon of Mother Tikhvinskaja. I’m used to blundering around on vacation, so this doesn’t bother me, and I just keep soldiering on until I see a much larger cathedral, also dedicated to an icon, and I enter it.
It’s stone cold and quiet inside, and I try to ask an attendant if this is where St. John’s relics are, but can only glean that he did indeed attend church there. I spend about an hour at a pew praying, before I go back into the World.
Now it’s late afternoon, and I head back to the hydrofoil dock, but I can see from the line that I’ll never get on the last one, which leaves at 6. Of course, no one will tell you that. They would be just as happy, perhaps even delighted, to see you standing at the dock with your mouth on your chest while they merrily speed away toward St. Petersburg without you. No, you just have to figure it out from prior experience, which means you count the number of people standing in front of you, assume a factor for those who will inevitably cut in line, and then apply that to what you know to be the approximate capacity of the boat.
By the way, to make this seem even more absurd, the boat could actually carry far more people than they allow on it. It’s just that they will only accept on board as many passengers as they have seats, even though once underway everyone gets up and moves about the boat freely. Just another way they screw you.
So I head back to the streets, head hung low like a defeated dog, and wondering how I will escape from the island without a boat and/or the ability to swim 15 miles in freezing water, when I see a bus that says “St. Petersburg” on it. Amazed, I make a mad dash for it, but, unfortunately, I think the driver sees me, because he suddenly floors it, pulling away from the curb with a chirping of the tires reminiscent of the Dukes of Hazard, and I’m pretty sure I catch a glimpse of his expression in the rear view mirror, which is one of immense satisfaction that can only come from either a great sexual experience or leaving a tourist helplessly stranded overnight on a spit of land in the middle of the Gulf of Finland.
But I am not to be denied, so I approach strangers asking for advice. Of course, all of them happen to be beautiful women, because I would never stoop to asking a man for directions, even in an emergency on a foreign island, but I don’t mind approaching women with the same story at all. In fact, I kind of enjoy it, and I get plenty of help, at least from those who understand my pathetic stab at basic Russian.
In fact, one of them goes so far as to say that’s the way she’s headed and if I’ll just follow her I’ll be OK. So I do, and so it is that I find out that Kotlin Island has long ago been connected to St. Petersburg via a land bridge, and, after only changing buses three times and taking the subway once, I am back in my hotel, ready for the night’s festivities, which consist in large part of drinking flavored vodka from label-free bottles in a dark bar on a St. Pete side street, wherein I exchange jokes with the bartender, and neither one of us understands a single word the other says, but we both nevertheless laugh late into the night anyway.
I won’t bore you with the rest of my St. Petersburg escapades, because this is a quasi-family friendly publication and because I am concerned about your suicidal thoughts stemming from the thought of yet more stories from the dark side of a trip to this city, but suffice it to say that it included a visit to the bejeweled Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood, where the Emperor was murdered by Jewish dissidents, and a girl named either Tatiana or Lena, I don’t really remember which.
I would really only recommend Moscow because of the Red Square complex, from where you can easily see the most beautiful church in the world, St. Basil’s magnificent 7-domed masterpiece, which looks like something out of a children’s fairy tale, as well as visit the World’s Most Overpriced Shopping Center, GUM, where you can see conspicuous overconsumption on a scale and level of taste that would make Donald Trump blush, and visit the tomb of perhaps the greatest mass murderer in history, Vladimir Lenin, all on the same day, and, if you really start early, you can even visit the Kremlin as well.
Only in Russia are people so used to suffering abuse that they can look the other way when a monster is honored on the city’s main terminus, and only there will you find the incongruous sight of the City’s Only Black Man outfitted in Japanese samurai garb holding a sandwich board advertising dinner to the tourists. It’s a strange place, and honestly I find it a bit too cold and impersonal to like. So there you have it. A tale of 2 cities, and only one of which I’d really like to see again.