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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Russia

From Russia, With Love

Train number 054 left Moscow’s Kazansky Station bound east for the Middle Volga’s unheralded republics. The night train was lively. Four noisy men drank vodka and played cards in one compartment; two mothers barely contained boisterous infants in another. Throughout a fitful night’s sleep I was aware of passing stations and shadowy moonlit forest. The next morning, 750km later, we disembarked at Cheboksary -but I knew little about my destination. The Russian Federation incorporates 22 federal republics. Some are better known for the wrong reasons, such as Chechnya. And you may have heard of Russia’s latest acquisition, the Republic of Crimea?

I’d joined a pioneering small-group trip to six of these republics clustered around the River Volga’s lowlands, west of the Urals. I’d heard of Tatarstan but Chuvashia, Mari El, Udmurtia, Mordovia and Bashkortostan remained mysteries. Ivan the Terrible brought them into Russia’s fold when overcoming the warlike Tatars in the 1550s. He established a series of forts along the Volga to guard Russia’s borders across the lands of these minnow minorities; they were eventually subsumed into the Russian Empire and, over time, forgotten. Yet now they seem extra relevant given the prevailing crisis of Russia’s intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. If this current bloody mess is a precursor of how Russia might rule its republics I wondered what life must be like for those already assimilated? Are they subjugated people yielding to Russia’s power? Or thriving ethnic diversities with cultural and religious freedom? Only one way to find out.

The master brewers – At Cheboksary, capital of Chuvashia, we were greeted by Chuvash women dancing to accordion music in white dresses sewn with breastplates of coins. All very faux. But Tamara Vorobieyeva, our waiting Chuvash guide dressed in an embroidered scarlet kaftan, possessed the engaging enthusiasm of an explorer making first contact with a strange tribe. Tourists are a novelty here. We were soon touring Cheboksary with excitable Tamara yielding her microphone like a Gatling gun. She explained that Chuvashians speak a Turkic language courtesy of the Bulgars who settled here around the eighth century before dispersing.

Over time they mixed with the neighbouring Mari (more of them later) and were duly invaded by the Mongols before federating with Russia in 1552 for protection. They surrendered their paganism for Orthodox Christianity but, Tamara insisted, joining Russia was a matter of preservation rather than colonisation. She said that 68% of the republic remains indigenous Chuvash while the remainder are ethnic Russians plus myriad minorities such as Ukrainians and Tatars. Trying to piece together this region’s complex cultural casserole would prove as challenging as solving a Rubrik’s cube only using one hand.

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Visitors can get a close-up of the giant Russian sculpture by climbing up hundreds of stairs to reach it.

Cheboksary sits alongside the Volga, a river so wide that the opposite bank was barely visible. The city’s landmark is a 46m-high statue called Mother the Patroness, a sort of Chuvashian Christ the Redeemer. Otherwise Cheboksary retains a Soviet legacy I’d find common throughout these republics, with trolleybuses, solid neo-classical tenements and broad boulevards named after Lenin and Marx: “We haven’t got around to changing the street names,” offered Tamara.

Hearteningly, she felt Chuvashia was well represented inside the Russian Federation. “Were happy being part of Russia. We have our own national congress and our language is taught alongside Russian,” she said. Chuvashia’s cheeriest statistic is providing Russia with 80% of its hops. The Chuvash are prodigious beer-brewers. “In Chuvash culture you’re more likely to be offered beer than tea,” said Tamara. It duly flowed during lunch, when the costumed dancers returned to perform a Pythonesque beer dance that saw me eventually engaged in a traditional kissing ceremony. I took one for the team.

The pagan survivors – There was barely time for a third (or was it fourth?) glass before we departed for our second republic that day, Mari El – which sounded more like a fashion magazine. It was a 94km drive north through pine lands to its capital, Yoshkar-Ola. Mari El National Museum contained artefacts and costumes relating to the Mari, a Finno-Ugric people who share a linguistic heritage with Finns and Estonians. The museum guide, Nastia, said they were recorded migrating west from the Urals back in the sixth century. With 600,000 Mari remaining, they’ve long been a vulnerable minority so they too ceded to Russia. Nastia, raven-haired and dark-eyed, explained that it’s impossible to say how a true Mari looks because over centuries they’ve mixed with Russians and Tatars. Yet the Mari remain the last true pagans of Europe.

Recent photos showed karts (shamans) in birch groves practising the Mari traditional religion that, according to Nastia, still thrives in the forests. “Every village has a kart. I have attended the ceremonies and the energy of our offerings, including animal sacrifices, travel up sacred birch trees to the spirits above,” she said. Outside the museum, Svetlana Maimina was waiting to guide us around Yoshkar-Ola. ‘Are you Mari?” I ventured. “No, I’m Jewish,” answered the English tutor with an accent lifted from the streets of Brooklyn. She insisted she’d never been to America; I vowed to quit guessing ethnicity.

“My parents are Ukrainian-Jews who migrated here after the Second World War,” she said. “I’m one of many minorities in Mari El among the Russian majority but I’ve never experienced anti-Semitism.” We began our tour – which was totally unexpected. Yoshkar-Ola has become a city of architectural preposterousness that makes Dubai seem like a paragon of modesty. “Ten years ago three adjectives could be applied to Yoshkar-Ola – boring, boring, boring,” quipped Svetlana. “Now, whatever architectural style you want to see you’ll find.”

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Tatarstan’s oil wealth has helped fund its spectacular night fountains and recently completed Kremlin mosque.

Neo-Lego meets Disneyland is one description of Yoshkar-Ola’s showy rebuilt centre. Amid the abundant building cranes were a newly rebuilt replica Kremlin, a scaled-down fake of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle and a part-finished St Basil’s cathedral that was awaiting its golden domes. A fantasy Venetian clocktower was animated by a mechanical Jesus and the Apostles, while the pseudo-Gothic waterfront along the unfortunately named River Kokshaga resembled Bruges. Totally flabbergasted, I asked how Mari El could afford this theme-park makeover. Svetlana smiled and shrugged: “They say our president looked out of his office window and didn’t like the view.”

The easy-going oil-men – There’s no mystery surrounding the wealth of Tatarstan, the largest republic we were visiting. Eastern Tatarstan overflows with oil and gas. It was a 160km drive south to its capital, glittering Kazan, Russia’s third-largest city, home to 1.3 million people. Kazan’s darker-haired occasionally eastern-looking Muslim Tatar majority seemed to bear the most cohesive identity to date although our excellent Tatar guide, Rezida Mukhametzyanova, warned against stereotyping. “We’ve no particular look as we’re a mixture from Europe and Asia,” she said. Appropriately the word ‘Kazan’ translates as cauldron.

Winter In St. Petersburg

Architecture

WINTER PALACE – Excavations beneath the Hermitage Theatre in the late 1970s revealed the principal residence of Peter the Great. Some rooms have been restored, complete with Dutch tiles and parquet floors, and exhibit the tsar’s personal items from the Hermitage collection.

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Statues adorn the Hermitage, founded by Catherine II in 1764.

CHURCHONTHE SPILLED BLOOD – St Petersburg’s most elaborate church was completed in 1907 to commemorate the death of Tsar Alexander II, who was assassinated here. Despite its grizzly heritage, the glittering, multicoloured onion domes and intricate interior mosaics are simply spellbinding.

HOUSE OF SOVIETS – Sprawling southern St Petersburg was once planned to be the centre of Stalin’s new Leningrad, with House of Soviets intended as the central administrative building. Begun by Noi Trotsky in 1936, this magnificently sinister building is a classic example of Stalinist design, with its columns and bas-reliefs, and an enormous socialist realist frieze running across the top.

Russian Culture

VODKA MUSEUM – This small private museum tells the story of Russia’s national tipple in an interesting and fun way, from the first production of ‘bread wine’ to the phenomenon of the modern international vodka industry, complete with waxwork models and some very ornate bottles. The English-speaking guide livens things up a bit or, if you’d like to sample the exhibits, take a tasting tour.

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Russia’s top tipple in all shapes and sizes at the Vodka Museum.

FOLK AND DANCE SHOW – Terrible title, but Feel Yourself Russian is an excellent show of traditional Russian folk music and dance. The two-hour performance features four different folk groups, complete with accordion, balalaika and Cossack dancers. It’s worth attending just to get a look inside the spectacular 19th-century Nikolayevsky Palace.

Soviet History

CRUISER AURORAThe Aurora had a walk-on part in 1917’s October Revolution when its crew fired a blank round from the forward gun as a signal for the start of the assault on the Winter Palace. Sunk by German bombs in WWII, it’s been restored and is now a museum where you can view the crew’s quarters.

SMOLNY INSTITUTE – This 1808 Palladian building was originally Russia’s first school for women, but went on to be chosen by Lenin as the Bolshevik HQ during the October Revolution and was the site of prominent Communist Party member Sergei Kirov’s assassination, supposedly at the orders of Stalin.

KIROV MUSEUM – Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov was one of the most powerful men in Russia in the early 1930s. His decidedly unproletarian apartment is now a museum showing how the Bolshevik elite really lived, with examples of cutting-edge 1920s technology, such as an American GE fridge and the first-ever Soviet typewriter.

KIROV-MUSEUM

The museum holds a large variety of antiques, each having an impressive story behind.

TRANSPORT – BA and Transaero Airlines fly direct from London Heathrow to St Petersburg. Pulkovo Airport is 14 miles south of the city – shuttle bus 39A links to the centre, or get the city bus 39. The St Petersburg metro is efficient, cheap and most useful for travelling long distances but it can be a bit of an adventure if you don’t read Cyrillic. Metro maps in English are available in the tourist publications that are distributed around town. St Petersburg is relatively compact and can be explored on foot.

WHERE TO STAY

The modern 15-room Green Apple Hotel in Liteyny has good-value ‘ekonom’ rooms, which sleep upto three people-the third bed is on a mezzanine. There’s also a communal kitchen.

Historic Alexander House, opposite Nikolsky Cathedral, has styled each of its 14 spacious rooms after an international city. There’s a fireplace-warmed lounge and vine-laden courtyard with restaurant.

No two rooms at the 1830 Belmond Grand Hotel Europe are the same, but most are spacious and elegant, and the top-floor terrace has spectacular views across the city’s rooftops.

Petrodvorets – St. Petersburg, Russia

A Czar’s Summer Palace to Rival Versailles

To get a taste of the mind-boggling opulence of imperial St. Petersburg, take the boat service from the riverside Winter Palace (The Hermitage) and motor on the Neva River to the Gulf of Finland to Petrodvorets, Peter the Great’s Grand Palace.

Just as St. Petersburg was built as a powerful combination of both East and West – too Russian to be European, too European to be Russian – Petrodvorets was Peter’s “window on Europe.” He built it in the early 1700s to rival the archi­tecture and glittering court life of Versailles, and to show European royalty that he could keep up with the best of them.

Peter personally drew up the plans for the extravagant summer palace and 300 acres of gardens, where 66 fountains, 39 gilded statues, and 12 miles of manmade canals were constructed by the finest French and Italian architects and engineers. St. Petersburg expe­rienced near annihilation during the 900-day German siege in World War II, but the czar’s pet project, completed after his death by Catherine the Great, was painstak­ingly rebuilt according to Peter’s original plans.

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Pavlovsk – St. Petersburg, Russia

Intimacy and Grandeur in Russia’s Finest Palace

The gold-and-white summer palace that Catherine the Great built for her son, Paul I (whose name in Russian is Pavel, hence Pavlovsk), has been painstakingly preserved and looks exactly as it did in the late 1700s when the young grand duke arrived with his grand duchess and their brood of ten royal children.

This masterpiece of neo-Palladian style was built on a bluff overlooking a 1,500-acre estate. The former royal hunting grounds now make a lovely park of ponds, lime-tree-lined allées, rolling lawns, pavilions, and woodlands popular with residents of St. Petersburg. Most palaces and estates of the period were built as symbols of Russian imperial might – venues for state occasions, royal balls, and entertaining on a scale surpassing anything seen in the West. But Pavlovsk was conceived as a home.

By palace standards, its rooms (numbering approximately forty-five) are intimate (and exquisite), their contents precious and personal. Although Pavlovsk seems miraculously untouched by the ravages of history, it is in fact an extraordinary replica. Hitler’s troops used the place as Gestapo headquarters before setting fire to it and the gardens in 1944.

It took a virtual army of Russia’s finest artisans twenty-five years to re-create the finest architectural monument to Russia’s prerevolutionary past, following detailed logs, plans, prints, and correspondence. A loyal palace staff somehow managed to bury, warehouse, hide, and protect a large number of the original furnishings and artworks that once again grace Pavlovsk.

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The Hermitage – St. Petersburg, Russia

Looted Booty Finds a Home

It would take approximately nine years to cast even a brief glance at each of the museum’s 150,000 works on display (and that’s only 5 percent of the museum’s collection!) in the never-ending maze of the Hermitage Museum’s 1,000 rooms.

The unrivaled bounty of the collection (twenty-four Rembrandts, forty Rubenses – just for example) is enhanced by the immensely beautiful salons themselves: the Hermitage was the Winter Palace of every czar and czarina since Catherine the Great.

One of the world’s finest collections of Italian Renaissance art can be found on the second floor, an artist’s who’s who that culmi­nates with two works by Leonardo da Vinci and the museum’s only Renaissance sculpture: Michelangelo’s Crouching Youth. The top floor houses prominent works by Picasso and Matisse and a host of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

The rooms themselves are so busy with patterned parquet floors, crystal chandeliers, inlaid marquetry, molded and painted ceilings, gold leaf, objects of jasper, lapis lazuli, and amber, they almost upstage the art collection. It’s easy to imagine the gala balls, power meetings, and declara­tions of war that took place in the State Rooms. The Malachite Room, fashioned almost entirely from the rich green stone mined in the Ural Mountains, is a masterwork in itself.

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Nobleman’s Nest – St. Petersburg, Russia

Dining in the Garden of the Yusupov Princes

Half the fascination of visiting the amazing Yusupov Palace, once owned by one of the richest families in Russia, is dining at the elegant restaurant, Dvorianskoye Gnezdo, which means Nobleman’s Nest. Housed in a glass pavilion in a corner of the palace garden, it is the dining venue of choice for visiting heads of state and those who wish to recapture the romance of St. Petersburg past.

Candlelit and chic, its menu offers Europeanized Russian cuisine, though the occasional detractor complains of erratic quality. But who can concentrate on the food when you are in the middle of the perfect Anna Karenina moment? The restaurant’s proximity to the Mariinsky Theater (formerly the Kirov) makes it an ideal après-theater choice.

Find time to visit the palace itself. Its private gilt and velvet rococo theater is as precious as a Fabergé egg, but it’s the infamous cellar that draws many tourists and history buffs.

This is where Rasputin, the Siberian mystic who wielded a sinister influence over the last czar, Nicholas II, met his grisly end at the hands of Nicholas’s good friend Prince Yusupov, in 1916. When cyanide-laced wine didn’t work, Yusupov shot him, tied him up, and threw him into the Neva River – while still alive, many believe. A wax statue of the “mad monk” now sits at a table in the shadows of the palace cellar.

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Waterways of the Czars – Moscow, Russia

Cruising from Moscow to St. Petersburg

Follow the song of the Volga boatman on a cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg, sailing the Volga and Svir rivers, trolling the shores of lakes Onega and Ladoga, and exploring some of the villages that make up Moscow’s “Golden Ring,” with monasteries and churches dating from the 11th century.

Just outside Moscow is Sergeiev Posad, the capital of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the small town of Uglich, founded in 1148. Uglich retains much of its charm and original wooden architecture, including the famed Tsarevitch Church, built in memory of Ivan the Terrible’s son, who died mysteriously on this spot.

In Lake Onega – the second largest lake in Europe – the island of Kizhi is filled with extraordinary examples of ancient wooden architecture, a highlight being the 18th-century twenty-two-domed Church of the Transfiguration, built entirely without nails.

Your vantage point is a serviceable though not luxurious German-built, Swiss-managed river cruise boat, where European chefs interpreting local cuisine add to the quintessentially Russian experience.

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Tretyakov Gallery – Moscow, Russia

The Most Important Repository of Russian Art

Home of the world’s largest and most important collection of 19th- and 20th-century Russian art, the Tretyakov Gallery underwent almost ten years of renovation and expansion Even with the exhibition space, only 5 per cent of the colossal collection can be displayed at any one time.

The basis of this astounding assemblage of art was bequeathed to Moscow by the wealthy merchant P.M. Tretyakov in 1892. Here, 19th-century works predominate, added to by subsequent state acquisitions. In the early decades of the 20th century, Russian painters were in the vanguard of European art, and the work of Kandinsky, Chagall, and Malevich are on display here.

An exceptional group of 11th-century icons is another principal attraction. The main gallery dates to the early 1900s, a fanciful building in the Russian Art Nouveau style, which incorporates Tretyakov’s home. A visit here is an intimate experience compared to St. Petersburg’s daunting Hermitage.

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The Moscow Underground – Moscow, Russia

The Subway that Stalin Built

You may have imagined that an evening at the Bolshoi followed by some celebratory caviar and vodka would surely be your most vivid memory of Moscow. But don’t even think about leaving the city without venturing deep into its subterranean passageways on the least expensive subway ride (about 30 cents!) you’re ever likely to take.

The first stop of the very safe 140-station system was completed in 1935. The older the station, the more elaborate the décor – we’re talking crystal chandeliers, gold leafs, mosaics, and faux Roman statues. The most beautiful and interesting stations are Mayakovskaya, Kievskaya and Komsomolskaya. Some escalator descents are so steep, you’ll think you’re on your way to the center of the earth.

Each station is announced – though that may not help you much. While rush hour is not recommended for claustrophobes, others may find it provides the most insightful moments. And they said New Yorkers were the champions at scowling and avoiding eye contact.

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The Bolshoi – Moscow, Russia

Russia’s Most Famous and Influential Cultural Institution

For decades the Bolshoi was a sacred artistic institution, flourishing under czars and Soviet leaders alike. After the fall of Communism, Russia’s perilous economy gave rise to the rumor that the Bolshoi had exhausted itself and was now simply rehashing past glories.

But the excitement is back as one of the world’s great ballet and operatic companies evolves into a creative force once again, deserving of its majestic, gilded 19th-century theater. Although tradition remains sacrosanct – the repertory still consists primarily of the Russian classics – innovation, reform, and new blood are bringing the Bolshoi into the 21st century. Not all performances are sold out, but that doesn’t mean that tickets are easy to come by.

Check in across the street at one of the finest hotels in Russia, and be assured of top ballet seating (for which you’ll pay top dollar) while you enjoy a stay at a five-star landmark you may recognize from Doctor Zhivago. The Metropole Hotel, run by an efficient British-Russian joint venture, offers the opulence of the late 19th century.

Even if you’re not taking a room here, stop by for a drink before the ballet or come for an extravagant caviar breakfast in the posh glass-domed salon, where Lenin used to deliver impassioned speeches.

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