Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Saint Petersburg

Fountains at Peterhof, with the canal to the Baltic Sea

[6/7/10 – 6/11/10 In St. Petersburg, as in Moscow, we slept on the boat and visited the city by bus. It was truly convenient to live in one place and not have to pack and carry luggage from hotel to hotel. St. Petersburg is the most glorious of all Russian cities—it was the dream of Peter the Great to create a magnificent Russian city facing Europe. And he did. The new Russian government has repaired and renovated those iconic structures built during the reigns of Peter, Elisabeth, and Catherine II. On this visit, the cupolas were gold plated, everything was shiny, and the fountains at Peterhof (meaning Peter’s Palace) spewed water exuberantly. Some of that water ran down into the Baltic Sea.]

Monday, June 7, journal entry. “On the evening of our first day in St. Petersburg, the ship is docked along the wharf on the Neva River, and I am sitting at a little corner table on deck 2 watching the river, a harp bridge spanning it and a cluster of high-rise apartment buildings beyond the bridge, some with odd, wavy profiles. It is nearly 11:00 pm and the sun has not yet set.”

That first day in St. Petersburg was a full day, with a city tour of St. Petersburg, stopping for a photo-ops along the way. One was the Smolny Cathedral and Convent complex—the Russians call it an “ensemble”—followed by the square across the river from the Admiralty and the Hermitage.

Peter and Paul Cathedral

Afterwards, we walked through part of the Peter and Paul Fortress, including most particularly, the amazing Peter and Paul Cathedral. Classical in external appearance but incredibly baroque inside, it houses the tombs of Romanov tsars in the side aisles.

Tomb of Elizabeth, daughter of Peter I

That afternoon, more than half of our group visited Peterhof, the palace complex begun by Peter the Great and completed by his daughter, Elisabeth. This was constructed on the Baltic shore, facing Europe, which was Peter’s symbolic strategy for turning away from the Asiatic backwardness of traditional Russian custom and thought, and turning toward the European Enlightenment. He was resisted mightily by both nobility and church, but the effect of his building efforts, including transferring the Russian capital to St. Petersburg, paid off in terms of commerce with Europe and control of the future direction of Russian culture.

Peter was a ship-builder, and he wanted to engage in trade with the rest of the world by sea. So he constructed his capital on the Baltic outlet of the Neva River, the bit of ocean he could find under Russian control that was nearest to Moscow, Russia’s traditional capital (after Kiev). During and following Peter’s forty-year reign at the turn of the eighteenth century--and until the Russian Revolution of the early twentieth century--Russian culture both absorbed from and contributed to the culture of Europe.

The palace grounds at Peterhof were enormous, with gazebos and waterworks along the walkways and hidden in small groves of trees. The fountains were spouting vigorously; the statues and figurines were freshly gilded and shone brilliantly in sunlight; the gardens and the wooded areas were a luscious green; and the sky was deep blue and dotted with clouds.

We didn’t go inside the palace, but we did go through the “cottage” at Catherine’s Block, as opulent as any ordinary palace. Eventually, that building became the royal family home for Nicholas I’s family of the later Romanov Dynasty. Elisabeth, the daughter of Peter, built most of the main palace at Peterhof. Peter, of simpler tastes, only constructed one long, flat building on the Baltic shore known as Monplaisir.

Terraced fountains at Peterhof, palace in the background
Peter also designed the fountains, which work by gravity flow, with its water source a few miles away, collected in a holding pond at the top level and from there, flowing into the fountains. The fountains stop at around 5:00 pm, and water in the holding pond becomes replenished at night. The entire water-works complex is drained at the end of September. A canal leads from the grand cascade of fountains out into the Baltic sea.

The fountains and the canal to the sea create a splendid panorama from the upper terrace across the lower gardens.

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