Friday, June 22, 2012

Tourism in the Eastern Bloc – Part 2: palaces and museums

It has been some time since my last post due to the rather unfortunate interruption suffered every May and June by indignant students: exams.

The Benedict School rigorously tutored us in key language skills, with lessons in grammar, speaking, lexicon, phonetics and translation – as well as the added cultural topics of cinema and СМИ (Сре́дства Ма́ссовой Информа́ции Media). Taught in groups of 6 – 8 students, we each had fifteen hours of tuition a week, and one glorious day off (everyone prayed for a Monday or Friday). Such intense teaching caused a natural and speedy progression in language for many of the students, as well as serving vastly to improve our confidence.

As with educational establishments the world over, that progression was tested with a few end-of-term exams. Cunningly billed as unimportant 'tests', they somewhat crept up on us, and the majority of the pupils suddenly found themselves spending every waking minute on the very handy Memrise – a vocabulary-learning website which allows users to create and learn vocab lists, as well as those of other users, for numerous different languages. This website now comes highly recommended by all students and teachers of the Benedict School, and as we start to head home to different universities, it's likely to go viral amongst final-year languages students in the UK.

Exams finally being over, the end of term has hit us rather unexpectedly. It seems hardly two minutes ago that we were landing in the dark and the snow, and yet now the White Nights have arrived in St Petersburg, and we're lucky to see half an hour of darkness at night. As I wrote in February, Russia is not the most accessible or cheap country to travel to, and so our last few days have been filled with fitting in as many of the myriad sights of the city as possible, once more accompanied by our trusty Lonely Planet guides.

A key thing to remember: if you are a student, USE YOUR STUDENT CARD. English cards will often result in a reduced entry fee to the majority of sights, but if you produce a Russian student card, there may well be no entry fee at all, so it's always worth waving it at entrance desks just in case. We've had instances of ticket-officers telling us that our cards aren't valid as student cards, but we've found that with a bit of an argument, they usually look grumpy and back down, so be prepared to fight your corner!

On every street of St Petersburg we have become accustomed to seeing palaces and onion-domed churches, so I will attempt to describe as many of the things we've seen as I can.

Starting with museums. Depending on your interest, there is a museum for everyone in this city. In the first week, for example, we visited the Kunstkamera, a museum containing exhibitions on native peoples from around the world...and also a large scientific collection of mutated foetuses of all varieties. Intriguing, but not for the faint-hearted. We also discovered the Vodka Museum, where the one room of information isn't the most interesting, but a shot of vodka chosen from a list of at least 200, with a plate of 'vodka snacks', goes down delightfully, especially among students!

However, for those looking for the more standard educationally informative museums, there is no shortage. Any flat that once housed a famous poet, novelist, or composer has, more often than not, been transformed into a mini-museum, pleasing the many culture-lovers making a pilgrimage to the city that was home to greats such as Pushkin and Dostoevsky. Museums across St Petersburg are dedicated to them, and also to such people as Akhmatova, Blok, Nabokov and Rimsky-Korsakov. For the more general literary experience, the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) is the place to visit. While not over-endowed with pages of useful information (or indeed any English information), it houses exhibits from many of Russia's greatest Golden and Silver Age writers such as Tolstoy and Chekhov, including many hand-written manuscripts. Fascinating for anyone studying literature at university, or indeed with a general interest.

Burial site of Nicholas II and family
For those more interested in history than literature, again there's no better place than St Petersburg to find a museum to suit, as the city has a rich and fascinating history. Alongside our studies, we've hardly scratched the surface of the historical museums; however, a trip to the Peter and Paul Fortress is a must. There you can walk around the prison interior, seeing the bare cells and isolation chambers of inmates including some famous political dissidents such as Gorky, Trotsky and Lenin's older brother, Alexander. Another 'must-see' feature of the fortress is the cathedral, in which all Tsars from Peter the Great onwards are buried. Interestingly and most controversially, Nicholas II, his wife, and three of his daughters are also interred here, but tourists cannot get close to the graves. A plaque commemorates all the Romanov children killed in 1917, but the Russian authorities maintain that it is Maria, and not Anastasia, whose body has not been properly laid to rest, along with that of her brother Alexei.

A key moment of Soviet history, the Siege of Leningrad, is commemorated in various monuments and museums across St Petersburg. The Museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad houses uniform and weaponry of Russian and German soldiers alike, alongside photos and propaganda posters of the period – and, perhaps most interestingly, donations from survivors of the siege. A trip to the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad is also a poignant moment for anyone living in a city whose survival is arguably due to those who clung onto life during the siege. Whilst the bronze statues are impressive monuments, the main and most moving feature of Victory Square is a 48-metre high obelisk dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the war. A starkly Soviet monument, it is a severe and haunting memorial to one of the most important periods of St Petersburg's history.

From history to art, our trip to the Russian Museum was very much appreciated as a condensed history of Russian art. The museum contains art exclusive to the country, ranging from old Slavonic church icons to contemporary art. As we discovered, you don't need to be an art expert to enjoy the museum, nor indeed to find pieces of personal interest in there – as long as you have a map or guide book to navigate the floors. Another museum free to students, the money you save can be well spent on the huge range of copies of Soviet propaganda posters, which are a stylish addition to any student's collection!

And that's all for museums...but, wait, aren't we forgetting something? Ah yes, the Hermitage. World-famous, the Hermitage occupies the Winter Palace and the Large and Small Hermitages, and houses the art collections of various Tsars – most prominently that built up by Catherine the Great, which, it has to be said, mainly belongs to other countries (not that it seemed to bother her). The museum is extraordinary in every sense of the word – the palace itself is stunning, and the world-renowned art and sculpture displayed there is, in my opinion, beyond compare. There is not room to exhibit a large proportion of the collection, and it is said that if you examine each exhibit it could take nine years to see everything in there. So far, nobody appears to have been brave enough to try, and four months has certainly not proved long enough. My advice would be to pick the bits you want to see first and work out where they are on a map of the museum – it's a clinical approach but saves a lot of time and leg-work, and ensures you will visit everything you want to. My personal recommendation is the Rembrandt room. Once more, it's free to students – and if you plan to take visitors, you can book in advance (give it three days) here.

Of course, the last four months hasn't all been museums – amongst other things, we appear to have visited more churches than I ever thought could possibly exist in one city. And of course as students we have had plenty of fun and games, largely involving ending up on Dumskaya, the road dedicated solely to clubs and bars. Many require more than one trip there in order to remember it. Or Metro, the club where Russians do unspeakable 'dancing' to win free pints. But I don't want to taint the image of the city as one of the world's best centres of culture, so I think those places are best left for my readers to discover on their own (at their peril). Take your student card and stick to the Hermitage.

1 comment:

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