I had the privilege of visiting Russia four times in the past year. Yes, in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, I was exploring Moscow and St. Petersburg under the expert guidance of Viking Cruises, who have vast experience in Russia.
If you have visited Russia, or the USSR before, it was probably for a 2- or 3-day stop in St. Petersburg on a Baltic Sea cruise. The city of the Peter, (St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad) has never had an identity crisis despite a multitude of names. It is the home of the wealthiest dynasty the world has ever known and that history is the highlight of any itinerary in Russia. A few travelers may have taken a land tour with a few days in Moscow and a few in St. Petersburg with an overnight train ride in between or a river cruise on the Volga between the two. But what is there for the return visitor? I discovered some lesser visited sites in both cities, uncovered new histories and new insights. This article is about St. Petersburg. The next will be Moscow.
Peter the Great’s Answer to Versailles: Peterhof. Most tourists will visit this beautiful palace, but there is so much more to see in St. Petersburg and nearby.
During the Gilded Age, St. Petersburg was on the social calendar of the traveling elite in the winter. The social whirl of the Romanovs, and their courtiers, began as the days shortened and ended with Lent. The city and its environs were painted, literally, to be seen in the snow. One of my three visits this year was in January fora very exclusive behind the scenes visit at the Hermitage with Viking River Cruises and it was magical. One was entering the city by water after cruising the waterways of the tsars, again with Viking and one was entering by private jet during my around the world by private jet expedition with TCS Expeditions.
The Hermitage in Winter’s Morning Light
The Hermitage: Peter’s Original Winter Palace
In the 1980s on the ground floor of the Hermitage Theater, original fragments were found from Peter the Great’s original rooms. These are now displayed on this subterranean level to recreate his rooms in early 18th century decor with many of Peter’s original furnishings. To walk among his possessions is the way every tourist should begin a tour of St. Petersburg. The birth of this city was miraculous but many lives were lost. It was Peter who almost singlehandedly made it all happen. To see how he lived and worked is a rare insight. To tour these recent finds, took me back to the early 1700s.
Peter the Great’s desk, office and dog-yes, his real dog…stuffed.
The Hermitage Storage Rooms
A new off-site facility about 30 minutes outside of St. Petersburg allows visitors to see many treasures never displayed at the main Hermitage. Tours must be set up in advance and are difficult to secure. But the trouble is worth it. What each group is shown may vary, but on both my visits this year there were some constants and they were amazing. Furniture removed from the Winter Palace and other imperial residences post revolution shows a very personal look at royal life. The storage rooms have built the walkway for visitors protected by plexiglass in the middle of huge storerooms so you are the one encased as you look at centuries of decorative art. I spotted, but was not allowed to photograph, Josephine’s (of Napoleon and..) exquisite swan furniture from her post-divorce home of Malmaison. Her friendship with Tsar Alexander I immortalized in furniture. Many pieces of baroque furniture remain, but the exhibit ends with the art nouveau pieces of Nicolas II. Near the front you also see his easy chair, positioned beside the telegraph machine used to monitor the troops in World War I. Other treasures included the imperial carriage collection, including that of Catherine the Great that Faberge used as the model for the surprise in one of his imperial eggs.
Newly opened in 2014, The Faberge museum showcases the Faberge collection of oligarch Viktor Vekselberg and equally his meticulous restoration of the beautiful Shuvalov Mansion. The collection’s centerpiece is the Forbes collection. This collection was sold privately to Vekselberg in 2004. This is the largest single collection of Faberge eggs worldwide, 11 of them Imperial. Tours are privately arranged for small groups. The Hermitage is salivating over this collection and it is a don’t miss for anyone in St. Petersburg. Temporary exhibits on the ground floor were also astounding. The last one in July, was of the private letters of Nicolas and Alexandra. I was the only visitor with this priceless collection.
Interior of the Shuvalov Mansion, Home to the Faberge Museum
Museum of Political History
I know, you may not have even read this section with that title, but trust me. There is much more to this site than a politically charged name. It is a must see. One half of the museum is housed in the beautiful Art Nouveau mansion of Matilda Kshesinskaya, a prima ballerina with the Mariinsky Ballet who was Nicolas II’s mistress before his marriage. The story of her life prerevolution, Ballet Russe and finally in exile in France was the subject of a book and reportedly is being made into a movie. It is rare in St. Petersburg to walk in such well preserved mansions. But the history of this house only begins with Matilda. The Bolsheviks took it over and it is from her balcony that Lenin delivered his most famous speech immortalized in the painting below. Adjoining her home is a the section of the museum housing post revolutionary memorabilia. Interesting to see for what is chosen to display. Most intriguing is the portrait of Stalin. It is behind bars. When I asked the curator the meaning she said that “Stalin enslaved a nation, now we view him behind bars.” I asked who was responsible for this and other interpretations and she said it was the decision of the Director of the Museum and though it is owned by the State, she said he is “fully independent.”
Lenin, 1917 in St. Petersburg
Stalin, Behind Bars
I have saved the best for last. The Alexander Palace is being restored to show the history associated with the final Romanov tsar, Nicolas II and his family. The palace was built for Alexander I and used by many others, but the story of Nicolas II pervades every room. Nicolas was born in this palace and it is from here that his family left for their final exile and execution. It was in the gardens of this park that his family stayed isolated from the world and most significantly the politics of St. Petersburg. It was here that when under house arrest, Nicolas and his children gardened a small garden in the back while groups of voyeurs from the city looked at them and jeered through the fence. It is here that many of their personal effects were left in the rush to pack when ordered to Tobolsk. And it is only recently that many of these toys, clothes and some furniture are back on display. The much visited Catherine Palace which is right next door is magnificent. The Alexander Palace is personal, just like it was when the final Romanov family lived there. I have never felt so close to history as I was here. It is a must visit and I will be visiting again and writing much more about this palace and it’s continuing restoration.
The Alexander Palace, Pushkin
Reception Rooms, Alexander Palace. As they looked when Nicolas II and his family walked through to leave for their exile. Notice the prescient portrait of Marie Antoinette, a gift to Alexandra from France.
Newly Restored Study of Nicolas II including the family’s much used Brownie camera
Uniforms belonging to the Tsarevich Alexei, left as the family packed for exile.