I boarded the 11:55 p.m. train in Moscow last night for the eight-hour overnight trip to St. Petersburg, scheduled to arrive around 8:00 this morning. (I almost missed the train, as I was inadvertantly in an adjoining train station in Moscow--which explains the difficulty I had in trying to buy a ticket there two days earlier!--but was pointed in the right direction and found the Leningradsky Station to be much friendlier to foreigners, with English-language signage and announcements.)
I was assigned to a four-berth sleeper coupe, which I shared with two Russian businessmen, and settled into an upper bunk for some shut-eye. As I drifted in and out of sleep through the night, I was aware we were not moving for long stretches of time. When I arose in the morning, one of my companions in the compartment, who spoke some English, explained to me that there had been a terrorist attack on an earlier train on this route, and thus we would be delayed and rerouted. Apparently some Chechen separatists had blown up the tracks under an express train from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
The upshot of all of this was a 12-hour delay in getting to St. Petersburg. To make matters worse, the switch from an electrical engine to a diesel one meant we had no air conditioning throughout the day. So it was a pretty brutal experience, particularly as the two gents with whom I shared the compartment wanted to talk all day (one of them kept rambling on in Russian, as if I understood anything he said!). The one who did speak English at one point confided in me that he did some work for the KGB, but asked that I not tell anyone else! I found this doubtful, if amusing.
I was relieved to finally arrive in St. Petersburg. I am staying in a hotel just off the main thoroughfare of the city, Nevsky Prospect, which was just one Metro stop away from the train station.
The reliably brilliant Tom Toles on Karl Rove's "retirement" from the Bush Administration:
St. Petersburg was established by Peter the Great as part of his efforts to Westernize Russia, connecting the country to the rest of Europe in a way that remote Moscow never could be. The city today has a more cosmopolitan feel than does the capital. Like Sydney and Melbourne, there is clearly a competitive aspect to the reltionship between these two cities, both of which have served as the seat of political power in Russian history.
The photo above is the Church On Spilled Blood, the city's answer to St. Basil's Cathedral, and marks the spot where reformist Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
From The Beatles' self-titled double album (a.k.a. "The White Album"), this is "Back In The U.S.S.R." [iTunes link should be coming someday soon; the label just released all of John Lennon's solo albums for download; maybe we are waiting for a Yellow Submarine special iPod or something?]
I spent the day on my feet in a 90+ degree day here in St. Petersburg, came back to my hotel for a refreshing cold shower, and collapsed.
The first half of the day was spent poking around The Hermitage, truly one of the great museums of the world. There were sections of the museum I skipped outright, and yet I had my fill of artifacts from antiquity (Egypt, Greece, Rome) right on through the history of Western art (Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Rodin, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse, to name a few!). Of course, the architectural setting, which includes the opulent Winter Palace, is worth the admission price on its own.
In the afternoon, I crossed the Neva River to explore the Peter and Paul Fortress, the place where the city was founded by Peter the Great just over 300 years ago. The fortress features the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the plain aspect of which hides an impressive Baroque inerior. All the Russian czars from Peter I to Alexander III were buried within and nearly a decade ago the remains of the Romanovs murdered in the 1917 revolution were also interred there, in a controversial move.
A long day, but well worth it.
Tomorrow I fly back to Moscow and then home.
Being so northerly, daylight lingers past 10:30 at night, even in mid-August. I am taking advantage of the chance to read Dostoevsky in his native city, re-engaging with The Brothers Karamazov.
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