Diary of our trip to St. Petersburg, Russia

Dec. 23-30, 1998

Note: This character: ¢ means Canadian cents. All prices are in Cdn. $.

We flew by British Airways from Gatwick airport, leaving at 10:15 a.m. The plane, a Boeing 757, was only 1/3 full. We saw nothing but clouds the whole way. It was the shortest day of our year, because flying east for 3 hours, it got dark by 4 p.m. (1 p.m. in UK time). True to style, we were greeted at the St. Petersburg airport by unsmiling customs officers. There were lots of Russian people returning home for Xmas from England, taking plenty of luggage, TV sets and microwaves for their friends and families.

Our trip was organized by the Ramblers hiking club of Britain. The tour included air fare, hotel, breakfast and dinner, and all admissions. We took $150 US and didn't spend it all. The Ramblers arranged for our visas which we needed to enter and leave Russia.

Our chaperone (not really a leader) was Pat who enjoyed travelling but was a bit of a muddler when it came to details. There were 13 English people on the tour and we liked them all. One of them, Janet, was a Cockney from East London and an accomplished adventurer. She'd swum 1/6 of the way across the English Channel last summer.

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 (fairly recent by European standards) by Peter the Great, the Russian czar (1682-1725). It used to be called Petrograd and then Leningrad, so it's the only city to have its name changed twice this century. It was the capital of Russia from 1712 to 1918, and has a population of 5 million. The land was all swampy and the city is intersected by 2 rivers and several canals. It has 300 bridges, which makes driving around the city a challenge.

We saw lots of ancient Lada cars on the roads and plenty of buses, trams and streetcars. The roads are all full of potholes, especially along the streetcar tracks. There are no lines on the roads, so cars weave all over the road to avoid the potholes. Pedestrians are fair game for drivers, but on the whole, the drivers seemed very careful. I think they wanted to avoid smashing up their cars or damaging them from potholes, because it would take a long time to buy another one. We didn't see any accidents. Policemen are stationed on the side of almost every street corner, where they wave cars over and inspect people's vehicles and papers.

There was a wide variety of gasoline prices: diesel was 11¢ a litre, then 4 grades of gasoline costing from 14 to 43¢ a litre.

We stayed for the whole week at the Sovietskaya Hotel, a plain, 5-storey 1970's building with 1,000 rooms. It was 3-star, although the rooms were small and pretty drab. The hotel was slightly threadbare but comfortable. We did enjoy nice 3-course dinners and buffet breakfasts in the dining room every day. Dinner consisted of a vegetable salad starter, fried potatoes and fish or meat, Russian beer or wine, tea and cake for dessert. We didn't get a single piece of fruit all week! The breakfast buffet included watery cranberry juice, porridge and a selection of cold salads, cheeze, pancakes and rolls plus strong, dark coffee.

The hotel was located in the suburbs about a mile from the centre of St. Petersburg. It was by no means full. In fact, there were very few tourists anywhere. The hotel was on the Fontanka River (canal, actually) which was crossed by the Egyptian bridge, an ordinary bridge decorated with 4 obelisks and small sphinxes. The river was frozen, and there were men ice-fishing in front of the hotel.

After arriving on the 23rd, Pat led us a couple of blocks to St. Nicholas Cathedral which is decorated on the outside with baby blue walls and white baroque statues and carvings. It was recently restored and a Russian Orthodox church service was underway. Most churches have not operated since 1917, being used until recently as museums or warehouses, but a few are in business again. The main disadvantages of the Russian Orthodox church are that they stand up for the entire service, which is over 2 hours long, and there are no pipe organs.

Our guide for 5 days in St. Petersburg was Yelena, who was about 35 and had blond hair and spoke quite good English. She was an excellent guide, very knowledgeable about history and kept good control of the group. Our driver was Anatoly and he drove an old red bus that spewed quite a bit of black smoke.

On our first day of touring the city, it was sunny and extremely cold, about -25 with the wind chill. The canals were all frozen. It was soon apparent that the English people had no ability to walk on ice! The rest of the week was mild with some rain, which made it very slippery for walking. The cloudy, grey skies gave the city a distinctly depressing look.

As predicted, there were no plugs in the sinks. The tap water was reportedly foul, full of minerals and bugs. We managed to stay well all week (I think there were fewer bugs in the water in winter than in summer).

On TV, we watched US movies dubbed into Russian. The local news and current-affairs shows seemed interesting and well-produced. Not all of the programs dealt with power dams, dockyards and tractor factories.

The most fun we had was taking part in a dinner party with dancing on Boxing Day. It was in our hotel dining room with a live band and lots of attractive, well-dressed Russian girls, so we all joined in the dancing.

You hear alot about violent crimes in the western news media. The biggest problems tourists face is petty crime like pick-pocketing or having their hotel room broken into. The hotel had stern-looking women occupying desks on every floor of the hotel; their job was to check on everyone coming and going. The Russian mafia is more interested in wealthy Russian businessmen than in us comparatively poor tourists. Fortunately, no one in our group had any problems.

Believing the media, we expected to see people starving but instead, the stores in St. Petersburg were well stocked. There was plenty of food, including some being sold in small kiosks and by street traders. However, Russians have so little money (average income $150 a month) that they can't afford to buy groceries. Government workers are hardly paid anything and the total amount of unpaid wages in Russia now totals over $6 billion.

The old-age pension is only $62 a month so most old people work just to survive. They sometimes have to support their unemployed kids too. Yelena said there's no middle class to protect the Russian society, so unless things change, there could be another revolution within 10 years.

Since last August, a lot of banks have collapsed; even Mikhail Gorbachev lost most of his life savings. So now no one wants to put their money into banks, so they save US dollars and keep them under the mattress. The rouble is worth less than a third of its value last August and inflation is high.

Yelena said that under communism, employment was 100% but now the unemployment rate is 12%. Men are especially set adrift if the wife still works, and they don't want to take a menial job. Pogey pays a maximum of $100 a month but decreases quickly after 6 months. Yelena said all the changes have been hard on old people especially, because they're used to being told what to do and can't cope with having to make choices. The young people are more adaptable and have benefited from the reforms.

With the shutdown of alot of factories, buying and selling things has become a big industry. People will import truckloads of stuff from Poland, China etc. and sell it in markets or on the street. The rumour is that alot of stolen cars from Europe end up in Russia, but the police are underfunded, corrupt and demoralized.

We bought a matching ring and earring set made of malachite, a green gemstone mined in the Ural mountains. We also bought many postcards and a couple of laquered and painted wooden boxes. There were lots of people and shops selling wooden dolls that fit inside each other and black fur hats.

Peter the Great wanted the streets in St. Petersburg to be straight, wide and long. To build the city, he hired a lot of Italian stone masons and English and French architects. We were impressed by how meticulously clean the streets and subways were. There was no litter or graffiti anywhere. Sweeping the streets seemed to employ a lot of people.

St. Petersburg is attractive in the summer with lots of parks and canals. In the winter, it didn't get light until 10 in the morning. Everyone wears dark coats and black fur hats. No one smiles and they avoid eye contact.

Despite the gloom, there were lots of Xmas decorations and lights, and people were buying little 2' high Xmas trees. The Russians live for today and are fond of travelling. Yelena said it's hard to get a visa to the States or England because alot of people have tried to emigrate there.

In line with another stereotype, it seemed that nothing quite works. Rules change all the time and it's hard to get anything done. In our hotel lobby, there was a schedule listing all the plays and concerts--very useful. The only problem was, it was for November instead of December. The currency exchange place was open as advertised, but they'd run out of roubles to sell to anyone.

We walked up Nevskiy Prospekt which is like the 5th Avenue of St. Petersburg. Yelena said alot of the buildings had been fixed up in the last 6 years, because of private ownership. They had KFC, Pizza Hut, etc. and all the western brand-name clothing stores. We had lunch in a fast-food restaurant which was just like McDonalds. Very few Russians could afford to eat there. We walked back to the hotel and didn't even get lost! In one of the parks, we saw a man who had a pet brown bear that he wanted us to photograph (it was muzzled). We shopped for groceries, and were pleased that beer cost less than soft drinks (40¢ for beer but 50¢ for Coke).

On Friday (Xmas day), Yelena gave us a 2-hour tour of the Winter Palace, which has a huge marble staircase and elaborate gold carvings. One room had so much gold rococco decoration that it almost made you dizzy. Another room featured carved cherubs along the ceiling. Some of the cherubs were playing or picking fruit, while others, obviously of Russian descent, were fighting and hitting each other with clubs and axes. We then looked at the paintings in The Hermitage. It has 1,000 rooms and over 3 million pieces of artwork, so we will have to make a return visit to see the rest of it.

Tickets for the Kirov ballet at the Mariinskiy theatre were $86 each, so instead we went to an orchestra concert of Strauss music for $9 each by the Capella Youth Orchestra. Another night, we went to see the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, who were very good.

We took a day-trip on the bus to Peterhof, built from 1714-21 by Peter the Great. He designed it like Versailles Palace in France, with 1,500 acres of landscaped grounds with gardens and fountains. Then in WWII, the Germans occupied it and wrecked everything. Because it's a national treasure, it was restored within 20 years after the war.

Russia has suffered from centuries of political unrest, interspersed with wars, rebellions and revolutions. Yelena told us how the czars did each other in, even killing off members of their own family if they didn't like them. We asked her about Mikhail Gorbachev, whom we admired for bringing in so many reforms, but she said nobody talks about him any more, they just want to forget about him.

Another thing you don't see any more is the hammer and sickle emblem that was characteristic of Soviet Russia. The current emblem is a two-headed eagle, the symbol of the Romanov family who ruled Russia for 300 years. Many of the statues of Lenin have been taken down, but 4 are still standing in St. Petersburg.

The centre of St. Petersburg is quite old with mostly 5-storey buildings. To get into people's apartments, you have to enter through an alleyway on the street. Louise went into one and said it was so old, dark and dirty, it was scary.

The suburbs of St. Petersburg have no houses, only tall apartment blocks built in the 60's, examples of the well-known "Soviet block" architecture. The apartments are very small and the surroundings are bleak. In front of many of the buildings, they'd put up modular kiosk-type stores selling a variety of supplies.

The worst apartments are communal ones where several families share the same washroom, kitchen and hall. If you can imagine several families who have nothing in common with each other all living in close quarters, you get some idea of how horrible and conflict-inducing it would be.

The rent is the same for all apartments, regardless of size or location: $31 a month. No new apartments have been constructed for a long time, so the waiting lists are years long. People are desperate to get their own apartments but can't move out or they'd lose their place in line.

Alot of the buildings were very ramshackle, as they didn't have any money to fix them up. Yelena pointed out one office building that they'd started in 1980 and were still working on.

One of our most enjoyable days consisted of an excursion to Pavlovsk, a quiet, snow-covered town about 20 miles out of St. Petersburg. We saw 2 palaces, Catherine the Great's summer palace and Pavlovsk Palace, and walked in the big parks surrounding them. We were greeted by free-lance brass-band musicians who played "O Canada" for us. Some of the group went on a troika ride (sleigh drawn by 3 horses).

We went to see a Russian folk show on Sunday evening. You could sure tell it wasn't the high tourist season because there were only about 30 people in the audience. The instrumental music, singing and dancing were excellent. The funniest part was a clown act depicting 2 Eskimos wrestling. It was in fact 1 person wearing a costume and bent over.

Another interesting experience was riding on the Metro (subway) system. It only cost 13¢ for a ticket to ride anywhere (4 lines covering 50 stations). It carries 2 million glum-faced Russians every day. It was crowded but not packed. The subway is very far underground and the escalators are long and steep. As advertised, the stations are very nice and clean with lots of marble. The city is served by lots of streetcars, tram cars and buses, but the buses and trams were usually jam-packed.

We saw through St. Isaacs Cathedral, one of the biggest cathedrals in the world, and at 300,000 tons, one of the heaviest. It took 30 years to build and the decoration inside is incredible. It no longer functions as a church and was turned into a museum of atheism during the Soviet era (1918 to 1989).

On Monday, our free day, we took the subway to see the Victory monument to WWII. It covers a city block and employed 8 people cleaning and shovelling snow. Then we saw Peter the Great's museum, Kunstkammer (a German word), the first museum in Russia. It had displays of ethnography (clothes, implements and decorative things from people all around the world). But the most fascinating part was a collection of babies with genetic deformities and siamese twins, preserved in formaldehyde in glass jars. Peter the Great bought them in 1717 from a Dutch doctor. Yelena later told us that when Peter the Great opened his museum, no one had heard of the concept and being fearful, they stayed away. So then he offered a free glass of vodka to every visitor and the crowds flocked in!

Another museum we went to (the Museum of Russian Political History) had about 25 staff and I think we were the only people to visit it all day. We also went to the Russian railway museum which was interesting.

On our flight back to England, we sat beside a 22-year-old Russian fellow who was going to Miami for a month's holidays (his father was a businessman). He confirmed many of the things we'd been told. For example, his family of 5 lives in a 750 square-foot apartment that they'd waited 15 years to get, and the rent is $31 a month. He said you could buy an apartment but no one wants to because the taxes are too high. He had a Chargex card but his bank wouldn't honour it; they couldn't offer any credit to their customers.

Conclusion: Having been to Cuba twice, we noticed some similarities but alot of differences. Both countries have many poor people but Russia also has fabulous riches, especially from its long history and interesting culture. People of both nationalities live for the moment. We thought that the grim economic conditions for people in Russia today make living there worse than in Cuba. We found both countries interesting in different ways.

Below, check out the fabulous (!) pictures of us on our Russian visas:

visa pictures

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