I Can See Russia From My Stateroom
By Carol L. Bowman
As the Azamara Journey navigated through the Gulf of Finland, I stood on our veranda and fidgeted with binoculars. For the past six months, ‘Russia’ had spurred an onslaught of negative press in the US, but I felt a surge of positive energy. In a matter of hours, I would experience the crowning glory of this trip, St. Petersburg.
Through the dawn’s mist, I spotted the first sign of land; a small mound of earth and rocks rising out of the water, sprouting fruit trees and a vegetable garden, neatly furrowed. In the center stood a tiny cottage, a traditional summer house called a dacha. Practically every urban Russian family either owns or rents one of these vacation properties to escape the chaos of the city on weekends. After the collapse of the USSR, citizens had the opportunity to privatize these retreats, which have been a unique part of the Russian way of life since Tsar Peter the Great started giving dachas as gifts to loyal staff.
Miles of commercial seaport activities, cranes unloading cargo and fuel depots emerged along the banks as we glided toward St. Petersburg’s harbor. Considered a ‘small ship,’ the Journey by-passed massive cruisers forced to tie-up far outside the city, while our captain maneuvered his craft to the most enviable dock location in downtown St. Petersburg.
I called for my husband to share the magnificent view from our veranda. The gilded domes of the Russian Orthodox Church of Assumption of St. Mary, glistened in the early morning sun. He raced out, camera in hand and in his witty manner, yelled out, “I can see Russia from my stateroom!” Of course, unlike Sarah Palin, he really could.
Facing the Neva River, imposing 17th and 18th century buildings shared the block with this five-domed place of worship. The ship’s marina berth was located directly across from the tree-lined promenade that fronted the street. I paused for a few speechless moments to take in the enormity of our current position on the globe and the breadth of history before us.
We snapped photos of the church while the ship cleared Russian customs. I googled this forgotten St. Petersburg cathedral not included on major tours. I had to know about it. Originally erected in 1730, the current building was reconstructed in 1895 with curved brick and mosaic tiles. Crossing arches inside the main dome provided a spacious interior and gleaming aluminum coated the cupolas. The church functioned as a Russian Orthodox monastery until the monks were arrested by the government in 1932. It served as a warehouse until 1956, when the Communists converted it to the Leningrad School of Figure Skating.
USSR ice skating athletes trained at this facility and I remembered that in the late 60’s, Soviet champions dominated every Olympic skating event. That supremacy developed here. Returned to the Russian Orthodox in 1991, restoration to the church’s original splendor, revealing interior frescos hidden under layers of whitewash and oil paint, remains in progress.
‘Visas Upon Entry’ for cruise ship passengers differ from individual travel permits obtained from a Russian Consulate. No one is allowed ashore without a pre-booked tour ticket and passport in hand. Every person leaving the ship must pass through immigration for inspection of these items. Wandering the streets of St. Petersburg without a tour guide who serves as a ‘minder’ is now forbidden.
Three full days in port, with two scheduled 10-hour tours allowed time to visit many of St. Petersburg’s historic sites. Jaws dropped at Peter the Great’s residence, Peterhof, Catherine the Great’s opulent Summer Palace in Pushkin and the meandering halls of the Hermitage Museum.
Thousands of summer tourists shuffled along the corridors of these magnificent structures. My experience of being swept along with the crowds, left me cold. At the Hermitage, I viewed Rembrandt’s Mother and Child in between taller heads bobbing. Security guards ordered the mob to ‘move along,’ crushing any hope of appreciating the art up-close.
I longed to feel the cultural capital of Russia that I had witnessed from the bus window; immaculate streets void of trash, sidewalks filled with on-the-go Russians and outdoor cafes brightened by petunia-filled flower boxes. Schools of ballet, concert halls and opera houses lined wide boulevards that resembled the Upper Eastside of New York. Draw-bridges that crossed the Neva River connected the 14 islands that make up the city. I wanted to be part of the fabric. On day three, this American in love with St. Petersburg got her chance.
(To be continued next month)