Tag Archives: St Petersburg

Not every hermitage is a mountain cave

Outside the Winter Palace on a lovely bright day

When I think about hermitages I image a skinny little guy in rustic robes living in a cave high up in the mountains or a tumble-down cottage deep in the forest. Somehow, the Hermitage in St Petersburg doesn’t fit the mould.

The Hermitage Museum complex. From left to right: Hermitage Theatre – Old Hermitage – Small Hermitage – Winter Palace (the “New Hermitage” is situated behind the Old Hermitage).

For a start, it’s huge. It comprises six buildings, one of which is our friend Catherine’s winter palace on the banks of the Neva River. She sure liked building palaces. It seems the museum has over three million items, although around a million of them are in the stamp collection. Even so, that’s a lot of stuff, only a fraction of which is on display.

A walkway from one building to the next crossing a canal

While our guide, Irina, went off to get tickets Pete and I hung around the entrance where we were approached by touts flogging picture books of the Hermitage and Catherine’s Palace. Pete had some fun haggling, then bought a couple to take home. Irina returned and took us inside. We were told we could take photos but please, no flash. I could understand that and set up my camera accordingly. But an awful lot of tourists can be just plain ignorant. Flashes were going off everywhere, despite the guards’ attempts at preventing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t allow photography anymore.

Once again, the building was covered in gold decoration. The main staircase is just the beginning. The Winter Palace is every bit as opulent as the Summer Palace with fantastic decoration on the ceilings and walls. The parquetry flooring is remarkable. It’s hard to imagine how much painstaking work went into creating them.

And then there’s the art. The works of every painter you’ve ever heard of is in the collection. I’ve included just a sample of European artists. There’s oriental art, Islamic art – everybody’s art. There are sculptures, porcelain ware, jewellery. There’s an Egyptian section with hieroglyphs and statues. We were supposed to be at the Hermitage just for the morning before moving on to shopping in Nevsky Prospekt but Irina was quite happy to skip the shopping trip and stay at the Hermitage. Even a day is just the tip of the iceberg. Like the British Museum, you could spend a week in here and then you’ve only just begun.

The lady herself, Catherine the Great

van Gogh



Probably Manet


The Malevich is to my mind one of those pretentious pieces where art critics look down at us plebs because we don’t recognise its worth. It’s called ‘black square’ and I seem to recall a figure like $1 million. Apparently he did four variations… don’t ask me .I’m just a pleb. Read all about it here. Give me Rembrandt any day. Look at the detail in the old man’s hands. I love the way he used light, too.

With just three of us in our little party, we took the chance to talk about politics. Irina told us that Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the dismantling of the USSR, is not popular in Russia. Maybe that’s why he lives in New York. Putin, on the other hand, is well liked. She also told us that when it came to changing the name of the city, many people wanted to keep the name Leningrad because of the nine-hundred-day siege during the war. A vote was taken and in the end a small majority preferred the old name – St Petersburg.

Wandering around inside a building is actually quite tiring. We were quite happy to head back to the ship for our 2pm curfew.

The Norwegian Sun sailed just before sunset, heading past the naval facility on Kronstadt. Rusting ships and submarines were tied up in holding pens, a monument to the Soviet days.

We sailed out through the barriers into the Baltic Sea. We were on our way to Helsinki.



St Petersburg – a jewel of the north

The entrance to Catherine’s Palace

The domes above the chapel at the palace

The next stop on our Baltic cruise would be a two-day stay in St Petersburg, Russia. We watched the ship being nudged into the dock by tugs. The liner didn’t need help but I expect that was part of the port dues. Whatever. We were in and ready to disembark after clearing immigration, the stations ‘manned’ by mainly dour-looking women in uniform.

Although the Russians had loosened entry restrictions to the country, we all needed a visa, which was provided by the tour company we travelled with. Pete and I had checked out the tours available via the Norwegian Sun before we left home and had a look for a better price (and a smaller group) from local providers, so once again, we didn’t go walkabout with our fellow travellers. We were met by our guide, a pleasant young woman whose name I’ve forgotten. We’ll call her Irina. We’d booked to visit Catherine’s Palace followed by a boat trip around the canals, with lunch at a local restaurant for today. Then tomorrow a trip to the Hermitage and a shopping opportunity at Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg’s premier shopping strip, finishing mid-afternoon. Our guide asked if we’d like to change to the other tour, which included visits to the Peterhof Palace as well as the famous subway stations. It would have been too long a day for us, so we declined – which meant we had a private tour just for us. Our guide stressed that we should not even think about playing hooky and coming back to the ship after the visa had expired tomorrow at 2pm. We would get into trouble. And we didn’t want that.

Czar Peter the Great

Statue of Lenin outside government buildings

St Petersburg’s port is some way from the city and Catherine’s Palace is on the other side. Our driver – let’s call him Ivan – drove off, while Irina commentated. Pete took some pictures out the windows as we passed various buildings and monuments while I kind of hung on in terror. You know those video clips of Russian drivers? They’re true. Road rules are suggestions, parking is where you can fit your car (on the pavement is just fine), pushing in is the only way to change lanes. However, we arrived at Catherine’s Palace in one piece. A small band waiting for us when we alighted from the car played a few lines of ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

Catherine’s baroque summer palace is quite a pile. It’s also very popular. One nice thing about being with a group is you get to avoid the queues, especially when it’s a group of three. We walked up the stairs with Irina and put on the issued soft booties to protect the beautiful floors from tourist footwear.

The great hall reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Note booties.

Every time I go to one of these palaces it’s no surprise to me that the peasants revolted. The over-the-top opulence is breathtaking. Most of it was for show, of course, to impress other Europeans heads of state of Russia’s power and wealth, with more than a touch of anything you can do we can do better.

Gold decoration everywhere

St Petersburg, known as Leningrad after the Russian revolution, was besieged by German troops from Sept 1941 to Jan 1944 but Catherine’s Palace, which is outside the city limits at Pushkin, was under German control. The inhabitants suffered terribly in those years, with many dying of starvation and cold. Read more about the siege of Leningrad here. I have a friend whose grandfather, a young officer in the Red army, lived in the city during the siege. He wrote a dairy which his granddaughter translated into English. You’ll find The Ring of Nine here. Let me quote from a review of the book.

Treat yourself to this beautifully written amazing history of a period and a situation that most of us couldn’t imagine. Can you imagine no food or seeing frozen bodies wrapped and laying on the sidewalk outside your building in the morning or no electricity or fearing being a victim of cannibal gangs or surviving sub-zero, dark winters? He did. Be inspired by his courage. Beyond this, I am left speechless. It is a unique period in history and we are afforded a window into this nightmare by a man who lets us look in through his very human style.

When the Nazis left in 1944 they took with them priceless art and stripped all the amber from the famous amber room, then trashed and burnt the building. When the war finally ended, Josef Stalin made the restoration of Catherine’s Palace one of the country’s priority projects, perhaps a little strange for a man who was supposed to be a communist. But really the palace was a monument to Russian might and power in older times. Just as when it was built, its resurrection was a message to the Western world. “We can STILL do this.” Work still goes on here and there. Like all of these old buildings, maintenance is continuous. The amber room has been rebuilt with new amber – sorry, no photos allowed. No one knows what happened to the original cladding, another lost Nazi looted treasure.

Before and after photos showing the extent of Nazi damage

On a side note, while we in the West see WWII as being between 1939 and 1945, the Russian monuments to the fallen all had 1941 – 1945, 1941 being the year the Nazis attacked Russia. That meant they didn’t include Soviet attacks on Finland and Poland in 1939.

And on another side note, the city is not named after Peter the Great. Czar Peter was a very religious man and he named the city after Saint Peter.

But back to Catherine’s amazing palace.

A mannequin modelling one of Catherine’s formal gowns (must weigh a ton). Note that tiled stove in the corner. Peter came across this manner of heating rooms in the Netherlands. Yes, that’s Delft blue.

We walked through room after room filled with gold, fine porcelain, priceless paintings, gold-framed mirrors, parquetry floors, painted ceilings. Inside the building there are no closed-off passages with doors opening into the rooms. In those days, personal privacy wasn’t really a thing.

Crowds held back

A dining room setting

The ornate garden designed to be seen from above

Then it was back into town. Irina took us to a restaurant in the city for a typical Russian lunch of borscht and bread before we went on our boat trip around St Petersburg’s canals.

Riding the canals

St Petersburg isn’t a city where everybody speaks English. Our commentary on the boat was delivered via the little oval MP3 players popular in 2011. The boat’s speed was carefully controlled to match the narration. Except mine was a bit off because I pressed a wrong button somewhere. I can imagine the Russian crewman rolling his eyes at the daft old Australian after he fixed it for me. Never mind. I managed to compensate by looking back at what we’d passed.

The admiralty buildings and the Hermitage from the river

Superficially it’s a bit like Venice, drifting past rows of opulent upper-class mansions but unlike Venice there are parks and gardens, too. We caught a glimpse of the colourful onion domes of the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood through the trees and passed by Czar Peter’s own modest Dacha.

Cathedral of the spilled blood

Peter the Great’s modest summer palace, a stark contrast to Catherine’s version

The fortress of St Peter and St Paul

Out on the River Neva, with the wind as cold as we were warned it would be, we had a great view of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul on Hare Island in the Neva River. Peter the Great imprisoned his son Alexei there after he was found guilty of plotting against his father. Peter apparently despised his son as explained in this article from Russia Beyond. It’s worth your time just to look at the pictures.

Tomorrow we would be off to visit the world-renowned Hermitage museum, which we’d seen from our boat.


‘The Ring of Nine’ – a brand-new primary source

St Petersburg canalsSt Petersburg is a beautiful city, full of superb architecture, canals, the world-famous Hermitage, a centre of art and culture. But when I visited the city, I learned of a darker episode during WW2. We’ve all heard of the devastating siege of Stalingrad but thGreen room in Catherine's palace - photo showing devastation in the ware siege of Leningrad, as St Petersburg was called in the Soviet era, is a backwater in the history of the war. The photo to the right is a stark reminder of those days. Catherine’s palace, just outside the city, was occupied, looted and trashed by German troops. The photo shows the devastation and this same destruction would surely have been delivered upon St Petersburg if the city had been taken.

But it wasn’t. The people of Leningrad kept the surrounding German armies at bay for twenty-nine months.

Maria Kuroshchepov is the direct descendant of survivors of the siege. Her grandfather wrote a diary of those years, chronicling the impact on him and his family and friends and she has translated the document into English. The Ring of Nine is one of those rare and wonderful assets in history – an eye-witness account of those dark days. Here’s her story of the diary.


Compared to other grand cities of the world, St. Petersburg is fairly young. Nonetheless, one could argue that it had seen more tumult and unrest than the ancient Slavic capitols Moscow and Kiev in half the time. History is ever present in St. Petersburg – from memorial plaques with names of famous writers, artists, composers and scientists on nearly every building, to dents left in the cobblestones by bullets dating to the October Revolution of 1917.

When looking at the beautiful architecture and historic names, visitors often forget this city was also the site one of the worst tragedies in human history. During World War II, before the German army’s advance was finally halted by Soviet troops, Leningrad ended up well behind enemy lines, but was never actually taken. Military personnel and civilians stacked sand bags around the walls to protect the buildings and placed anti-aircraft weapons on roofs to fight back during air raids. When there were not enough soldiers to man the weapons within the city, women and children took over the roof canons and taught themselves to put out fires. The city defended itself even as food rations fell and hundreds of people died of starvation every day.

Children dragging their dead parents on small sleighs through the snow, railway stations used to store bodies until ground became soft enough to bury them – this was all real, something people like my paternal grandmother, for example, were faced with when going to work at the factory every day. Grandma’s entire family died one by one, starting with her father who went to pick up the food rations one day and simply did not return. His body was never found.

While the winter of 1941/1942 was one of the cruelest and coldest in Leningrad history, the frost turned out to be an ally in the end. It kept the enemy troops at bay, as they did not dare to venture too far away from their established position and advance onto the city in sub-zero temperatures. Their planes remained grounded due to cold and blizzards. And, most importantly, the savage winter created a bridge into the struggling city – the Road of Life established over the frozen Ladoga Lake.

While removing the entire blockade was impossible at the time, Soviet troops were able to win back a section of the lake shore. As soon as the ice became solid in November of 1941, trucks with supplies started making daily trips into the city – insanely dangerous thirty kilometer (nineteen mile) crawls across the frozen expanse, protected as much as possible by anti-aircraft batteries on the ground and airplanes in the sky.

The blockade lasted for twenty-nine months, and each winter the Road of Life resumed its operations, not only bringing in the precious supplies, but also allowing people to escape from the city. The sick and wounded were transported by truck, raft and boat. Everyone else walked. 1.3 million people, including my grandmother, owe their lives to that fragile stretch of lake ice. Nobody knows how many people perished during the Leningrad Blockade.

My maternal grandfather was also a blockade survivor. He was studying to be an officer at a military school in Leningra, when the war began, and reported for active duty while there, but did not get a chance to leave the city before it became surrounded. He and his fellow cadets continued their studies to the best of their ability, although they could not participate in combat – they were too weak from constant malnutrition, and some could not even pick up a rifle, let alone use it in battle.

Grandfather kept a diary of his blockade ordeal and managed to preserve it almost in its entirety. Whatever pages were lost, he was able to restore thanks to his phenomenal memory. He and I were always very close, very good friends, and he told me, “Someday, we need to publish this, because people must remember these things.” After grandfather died in 1994, I inherited his entire library and all his journals and personal notes, including the blockade diary.

Transcribing and translating these notes proved to be more difficult than I thought – because of the subject matter. It is one thing to watch a war movie with fictional characters. It is an entirely different thing to read something that happened in reality – and happened to someone you knew and loved. Many times, I had to set the manuscript aside and take a break. Some entries took days to complete, because I wept over every page.

In the end, I am glad that I didn’t give up on this project. Grandfather and I have often talked about publishing a book together, and now we have.


December 25, 1941. One hundred and ninth day of the blockade and one hundred eighty-seventh day of war. Behind us are thirty-four days of the lowest food rations during the entire blockade, which laid foundation for higher death rates in the subsequent months.

Is there any historic significance to the day of December 25? Not much… It’s the shortest day of this year, but it doesn’t always fall on the same date. The Russian Emperor Peter III – the grandson of Peter I – ascended to the throne on this day. It wasn’t a very important event, but was recorded in historic records nonetheless.

For us, blockade survivors, December 25 is a very important day in our personal history – the history of the blockade.

Morning… The room is quiet. Last night our contingent has been expanded to full six people in a room. There is unusual activity somewhere in the hallway. The patients can hear the noise, but don’t know the reasons for such uncommon bustle.

Sergey Vasilyevich listens carefully but is not in a hurry to evaluate what he is hearing. “Something has happened,” he says anxiously, “Do you hear that? Someone’s talking, running around, it has never happened before.”

“It can be anything,” snaps Travkin, “The hospital is poorly guarded and the guards are asleep on their feet. Someone may have popped by and stolen all the food, that’s why everyone is fussing around. What else can it be?” and he quickly dives under the blanket.

“Poor auntie, soft in the head,” Ahmed says. The implication of his words is fairly accurate, apparently Ahmed is quite capable of thinking in Russian.

“You, Travkin, have a mean tongue and a panicky mind. You don’t know what you are talking about,” Pavlovski concludes.

“Yes I do,” Travkin insists, “There are only two cases, in which the ‘death ward’ staff starts running around: when someone steals the bread or when the food rations go up. Think dialectically, get it, you old fool?” Travkin yells angrily.

“If this is about a ration increase,” calmly says Sergey Vasilyevich, “I’ll forgive your insult. But if it’s something else, I’ll pay you back.”

“And how would you pay me back, old man?” Travkin asks mockingly.

“Oh, I’ll find something?” Pavlovski says quietly, “For example, I could dialectically eat dinner for two hours right in front of you.”

“Oh! That really is scary, please, do what you want, dear Sergey Vasilyevich, but spare me this torture,” Travkin begs.

At that moment the door into our room flies open and Anna Vasilyevna and Nurse Lida walk in, their faces shining with hope and kindness.

“My dears!” Anna Vasilyevna says happily, “Great news – all of the city’s population is getting a larger bread ration. Starting from today all factory workers will get three hundred and fifty grams per day, and all other workers, as well as dependents, children and retirees will get two hundred grams per day.

“This is just the beginning. Soon we’ll get another ration increase – you’ll see, my friends. Everything will be restored, life will become easier, quality of bread will get better.”

The patients express their delight at such news by all-around opening of blankets. The long-forgotten wrinkled bony smiles appear on their faces and their feeble hands applaud before hiding under the quilts.

The front line troops, the reserve divisions and the hospitals don’t get a ration increase this time around. So, the patients will continue getting three hundred grams of surrogate bread per day.


Thank you, Maria.

You can buy The Ring of Nine at Kindle: Paperback: Nook: