Rick and I spent the month of May in Russia and visiting Capitols of the Baltic Sea. For the first half of our adventure (Russia), we flew into St. Petersburg and spent a few days at the gorgeous Grand Hotel right around the corner from the “Church of the Spilled Blood”, one of the iconic sites of Russian orthodoxy. We set out on a Viking river boat and traveled along the Neva River, across Lake Ladoga to the Svir River to Lake Onega and finally to the Volga, with a final stay in Moscow.
Russia was not what I expected.
We grew up during the Cold War, the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of the pictures I had seen showed a dismal, black-and-white Russia with unsmiling people in heavy coats and fur hats, or an immense army parading in Red Square. I can’t even remember how many movies we saw dedicated to Russian “moles” and plots to overthrow America and turn the world into communist collectives.
The last thing I expected was to hear Russians voicing political opinions, rather loudly, I might add. The rumble of “we’re not happy with what’s happening here” was clearly in the air, and not one guide (we had five) said they agreed with one man (Putin) stealing the election, jobs dependent upon how you vote, a declining education system, how truth is skewed by media and the economy in deep trouble. They sounded like Americans! We heard several Russians say (openly!) that Putin is “KGB and head of the Russian Mafia”. One man said Putin should be driving a Lado (a Russian made car) instead of a black Mercedes (symbol of the Russian Mafia).
Change is in the air. Many churches, used as warehouses during Soviet times, are now restored (or in process). The gold-leaf, onion domes of Russian orthodox churches shine everywhere. And the palaces of the czars are stunning reminders of Russia’s rich history, reminders of their tremendous wealth.
One thing that often troubles us when we travel is the amount of riches that end up in a few hands. The czars had many palaces, as did the boyars (think Senate/House of Representatives). The famous Hermitage (St. Petersburg) was Catherine the Great’s winter palace. It took us three hours of steady walking behind a guide to go through four buildings, barely pausing before the thousands of works of art, not to mention the floors, walls and ceilings – equally works of art. We did stop at Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son” and several Michelangelo portraits. We were told that it would take ten years to pause nine seconds before every piece of art work, and only 20% of the works of art Catherine owned are on display in this one palace owned by one czar.
Even the Vatican with its immense treasures pales by comparison.
The Armory in the Kremlin was loaded with gold gifts to the various czars, including a stunning collection of Faberge eggs, one with an exact replica in miniature train! Horses pulling gold-leaf covered carriages had jeweled harnesses! We found it perplexing that when the Bolshevics took over, the treasures were kept intact. Clearly, none were melted down. The wealth was never redistributed to the people. When the Bolshevic revolution was losing ground, and the people wondering if they’d made a huge mistake, Lenin ordered the murder of the entire Romanov family so they couldn’t go back to the old system. Lenin warned against what Stalin might do, but his warnings went unheeded after Lenin’s death. An appalling number of Russians died during Stalin’s reign: 27 million –7 million due to World War II, 20 million through execution, starvation on farm “collectives” and exile in Siberia.
There is still evidence of the attempt to make “everyone” equal under communism. There are still many large concrete apartment buildings in the major cities. Touring guests were taken to private homes to mingle with Russian families. One Russian man served tea in one of the three rooms he now shares with seven families. The kitchen had seven hot plates, one for each family, and one bathroom for everyone to share. This man holds a job as a university professor of philosophy. Oh, the sad irony in that. His family, well-educated and hard-working, once owned the entire building before the government decided no one should have so much.
We noticed new homes going up in the suburbs. One guide sighed. “Government bureaucrats are doing very well.”