Saturday, February 23, 2013

So it’s official: I want to be a Russian Tsar

In general, life for Russians throughout history has been pretty tough. They’ve had to deal with communism, excessively cold winters, starvation, and war. However, it’s very difficult to comprehend the historical presence of suffering in Russia when you see the grandeur that St. Petersburg has to offer. I thought I had seen the grand opulence of the tsar’s living quarters just by visiting the beautiful blue winter palace in downtown St. Pete. Even though the winter palace is one of the most architecturally beautiful wonders I have ever seen, it just doesn’t compare to marvel I explored this past weekend: Empress Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace: Tsarskoe Selo.  

I have got to admit that Tsarskoe Selo has thus far been the highlight of my adventure in Russia. Two of my friends and I had to travel to the suburbs of St. Pete in order to see this magnificent tsarist palace, and we were not disappointed. If you think the exterior of this building is beautiful, just wait until you see pictures of the inside.

I swear I have never seen more gold in my entire life; all the rooms were covered in gold leaf. I’m very sure that only one door in that palace is easily worth more than my entire house. The room that truly blew me away was the Amber Room. This room was completely (ceilings and walls) covered with amber stone and gold. Actually more than 6 tons of amber was used to create this amazing room. I’m still in shock that people actually lived in this house and walked through this room every day!

So after spending several hours at Tsarskoe Selo, we decided to venture over to two other palaces in the area. Yes, the Tsars built a total of three palaces (all within 15 minutes of each other) outside of the city of St. Petersburg. These other two palaces, Alexander Palace and Pavlovsk Palace, were in general unbelievably impressive. The rooms were gorgeous, and the architecture was spectacular. However, Tsarskoe Selo ruined me forever. On any other day, Alexander Palace and Pavlovsk would have stolen my breath away. But compared to the scope and grandeur of Tsarskoe Selo, I remember only saying “Well these are nice.” I know this seems may seem petty, but Tsarskoe Selo was just that magnificent. So long story short, the tsars lived like gods. I’m betting that the most difficult aspect of their lives involved getting lost in their own homes. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Winston Churchill was Right

Winston Churchill once said that Russia is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Let’s just say that I’ve been in this country for almost 3 weeks now and I still don’t understand how it ticks. Before now, I have settled with explaining the complex and sometimes contradictory facets of Russian life by saying that Russia is in itself a dichotomy. But this explanation is simply not sufficient to reconcile the history of suffering in the city’s recent past and the very western mindset that St. Petersburg has today. So I think it’s time to talk about the Russian culture as I have seen it here thus far. 

I guess I’ll start off by recounting my experiences with cultural enigmas that hark back to the Soviet past. Back in the Soviet era, alcoholism was a common aspect of life. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that at certain times during the Soviet Union, alcohol was subsidized by the government. Even today, there are some restaurants and cafes that sell water for a higher price than beer. So this leads to my experience at the hockey game I attended last Wednesday. My friends and I had a very exciting experience watching the number one rated National Russian Hockey team play Finland’s hockey team. After the first period, however, I was surprised to see almost all the spectators hurriedly file out of the stadium. Apparently, drinks are not allowed in the actual arena, so after every period Russians will run out to the food stations to down a quick beer. After the second period, I followed the Russians out the arena only to find drunk Russian men dancing with female hockey cheerleaders. I don’t know why I found this so funny; I guess it’s because scenes like this are bizarrely Russian and quite common. Of course not all Russians drink; it just seems that way. I think this stereotype is similar to the perception that all Americans love ketchup. The other day my host mother gave me spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, so of course she tried to insist that I put ketchup on my meal. Because Americans put ketchup on everything right? Nope. False. I stuck with some butter and salt. 

On another note, some Russians still hold a very strong views regarding fascists. In many ways, I can understand why. In St. Petersburg, more than 1 million people in the city died during the 900 day blockade during World War II. The Nazis held the city in a state of starvation and despair for almost three years, and this memory remains imprinted on the minds of many people. I was fortunate enough to see the memorial dedicated to the blockade on Saturday (see below). 

Almost everyday in St. Pete, we hear a story about the blockade or an accusatory remark about Germans. This is one of the most memorable stories: One of my friends lives with an 80 years Russian babushka who claims that birds today are stupider than in the past. Well why you may be asking? Apparently my friend’s babushka said that before WWII, people would give food to birds and the birds would simply fly away. After the Nazis invaded, this all changed. When the Nazis fed the birds in St. Pete, the birds began returning for more and more food. Now, birds in Russia keep returning for food. According to her explanation, the Nazi’s stupidity has permanently transferred to the birds. And thus, it is the fascist Nazis’ fault that birds are stupid today. The Soviet system of blame perpetuates. 

So in contrast to the alcohol drinking and Soviet influences on modern Russian life, I spent almost all of last Saturday viewing some of St. Petersburg’s fantastic churches. On this “day of churches” I visited the Nikolsky Cathedral, which held services during the Soviet Union even when religion was officially band. It’s nice to see that enforced secularism didn’t completely eradicate the beautiful religious traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Here’s some photos of  Nikolsky Cathedral (top left) and Chesme Church (bottom left):

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Life is Getting More Russian by the Minute

As part of my experience studying in Russia, I have the opportunity to live with a host family in order to better immerse myself in the Russian culture and language. This semester I’m lucky to live with a 60 year old babushka (russian for grandmother) in the center of St. Petersburg. She is very friendly, but as of now I can only understand about 40% of what she says. But in many ways, living with her has been a truly Russian experience. My first night living with her is a prime example. While eating dinner, we took two gin shots together, ate borscht with copious amounts of sour cream, and watched Кто хочет стать Миллионер? which is the Russian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I really don’t think it can get any more Russian than that. 

I have been in Russia for a full week now, and I’ve been able to visit some pretty amazing places: the winter palace, the spectacular Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood, the burial sites of the 300 year Romanov dynasty, St. Peter and Paul Fortress, Kazan Cathedral, St. Issac’s Cathedral, and the infamous Bronze Horseman statue to name just a few. Even though these places are filled with historical significance and jaw dropping architectural beauty, I have got to say that the interior of the Church on Spilt Blood has certainly impressed me the most thus far. I think these pictures will suffice to explain my fascination with this church: 

The interior is filled with icons (but these icons aren’t painted, they are mosaics!!!). absolutely spectacular. To make my Church on Spilt Blood experience even more memorable (and bizarrely Russian) was what was waiting for my friends and I as we began heading home from the Church: Two gipsies were standing in the street holding a monkey and a raccoon. Yes that’s right, people are legally allowed to walk around the crowded downtown St. Petersburg streets carrying a real live monkey and raccoon. Cool right? No, not when they try to put the monkey on you and steal your money. They tried that on us, but didn’t succeed :D 

All in all, these last seven days have been a whirlwind. Classes are tough since we are not allowed to speak english anywhere on university grounds. The city is new and beautiful. Walking to class at 9:30 means walking to class in the dark with a bright shining moon. So to celebrate, my friends and I decided to finish the week on another high note: by going to a Russian karaoke bar in downtown. I’ve got to say that it was a blast. We celebrated a 21st birthday, sang american songs like “I love Rock n Roll” by Joan Jett, and took our very first Russian vodka shots (about $2.50 each). Just like the great St. Petersburg city, karaoke was a blend between Russian culture and westernization. I can’t wait to see what Russia has in store for me in the next week!