St. Petersburg and impressions of Russia
I wrote about my first impressions of Russia, but I should have labeled then first impressions of Moscow. St. Petersburg had an entirely different feel and culture than Moscow. I realize now that would have been like visiting New York City and writing a post about first impressions of the United States – Russia is, of course, a large and varied place!
We had a wonderful time in St. Petersburg (know as the Venice of the north) and most of the people we met were very open, friendly, optimistic about the future and proud of their history and culture. That is not to say that people in Moscow are none of those things, but the outward appearance of most (not all) people in Moscow seemed to convey that life is a difficult drudgery to be gotten through and no fun is to be had.
We asked someone in St. Petersburg about the difference and she said that she thought it was because Moscow is the business center of Russia and so people are very serious and hurried there and that St. Petersburg has always had more contact with tourists from many cultures and adapted to that with a more open attitude. Part of it could also be that Moscow was experiencing its worst heat wave in a very long time and the nearby out-of-control fires bathed the cities residents in a smoke so thick it stung the eyes as soon as one ventured outside.
I think that the way an area is founded and its history also play into the current culture. St. Petersburg was founded by Peter I and a relatively young group of people who were open to new ways of doing things. Peter I had a grand vision for the city – it would be built along rivers and man-made waterways and people would travel to the palaces and gardens only by water. The city has suffered from many floods (the greatest of these at oddly regular intervals of 100 years in 1724, 1824 and 1924) and has been rebuilt each time by its people, who seem optimistic that things will go their way in the future even when current times may be tough.
Our tour guide on a boat tour was a young woman named Tatiana who smiled broadly and told us how much she enjoyed her years at university learning English and French, which allowed her what she considered to be a most wonderful professional as a tour guide. Although the Russian-speaking guide on the boat broadcast her commentary over extremely loud speakers, sweet and determined Tatiana tried to speak loudly enough (without benefit of a microphone) for us to hear her enthusiastic account o the history of her city. When we came to the spot where there are seven bridges close together along an intersection of waterways, she proudly exclaimed that, “even in Venice there are not so many bridges in such a short distance.” When we passed by a side waterway with unused buildings, Tatiana told us that the city has plans to add more artistic and cultural based attractions in that area, that they could not do it now due to the difficult economy, but the people of her city are accustomed to waiting until the time is right and when it is, she is sure they will be able to accomplish the goal.
Being in St. Petersburg felt like a being in a different country compared to being in Moscow. I realized that this should not be surprising to me, a person from the State of New York, where a trip of just 40 miles can bring you from the sprawling urban center of New York City to tree-lined small town streets and another short trip will take you to farmland so rural that cows outnumber people.
I would recommend a trip to St. Petersburg to anyone who likes to travel. The biggest downside was the cost of the visa – $140 per person – which may be a bit less if you have more time than we did to get the visa. Once we were there, we stayed in inexpensive accommodations, experienced the (amazing) world class Hermitage Museum, took a boat tour, experienced the beautiful city lights and the opening of the bridges which is celebrated every day at 1 am, walked around for hours on end with one street offering more wonderful surprises in architectural beauty and cultural treasures than the next. We also enjoyed the people and the weather at the time we visited was wonderful. Getting around the city speaking English and gesturing (with of course, a few polite words and phrases) worked out just fine.
We did notice a lack of efficiency in many procedures, and when things didn’t work (air conditioning in the hotel for example), people would sometimes just shrug and say, “This is Russia. What do you expect?” It takes time for an entire society to change from being State run in a way where inefficiency is simply accepted to one where capitalism gives people a better incentive to make things run well. Russia is in still in the process of that change.
On this blog page, you can access our photos from St. Petersburg. We hope you enjoy seeing a bit of the city as much as we did! Next we are on to London (with an hour stopover in Denmark). I really wanted to visit Scandinavia, but alas, it is too expensive for our budget. I am determined to make the most of the hour stopover and soak up as much of the culture as one can with only a quick stop at an airport :-)