Tuesday, June 26, 2007

St. Petersburg, Russia (Day 2)

Looking across the Neva River to the Hermitage Museum (at right)

Interestingly, when Peter the Great originally envisioned St. Petersburg, he saw a city of rivers and canals instead of streets. Impressed by memories of Amsterdam and Venice, he laid out St. Petersburg on the same principles. In fact, no permanent bridges were allowed across the Neva River until 1850!

On this our second and rather rainy day in Russia, we visited the Hermitage. Over the centuries, through wars, trades, and other acquisitions, the tsars of Russia collected tens of thousands of priceless works of art. Those that remain after the burning and pillaging of World War II (a whole 'nother story) are now on display in this palace-converted-to-a-museum -- itself a work of art.
The interior of the Hermitage -- art, architecture, and decor in dizzying array

It would be impossible to convey the immensity of the Hermitage. We were overwhelmed by the multitude of exhibits, themselves lining ornate hallways that alone would dazzle the senses. Toward the end of our visit, we were actually relieved to spend a few minutes in a plainer section that houses its impressionist art collection.

The blue urn above is an example lapis lazuli -- with amber, one of Russia's characteristic "gemstones" (ok, amber is really not stone). On closer inspection, the work is amazing. What we see on the surface is actually a veneer of lapis fragments, but so carefully selected and fitted that the grain of each piece matchs the next, making the urn appear to be carved from a solid block.
On this rainy day, it seemed that all of Russia's tourists had flocked to the dry haven of the Hermitage. Thus, we spent these hours with -- as the saying goes -- "ten thousand of our closest friends".St Petersburg's Resurrection of Christ Church is also know as The Church of Our Savior On Spilled Blood. Within this classic sanctuary lies the the section of cobbled pavement where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by an assassin's bomb.

It was a tragic end for this forward-thinking tsar, best known for emancipating the Russian serfs. Change is always difficult -- even change for the better. Tsar Alexander II produced considerable change and thereby excited much opposition. Some said he went too far; some, not far enough.

He had already survived an attempted shooting, a railway sabotage, and a bomb detonated in his dining room. This time, an assassin threw a bomb under his carriage, damaging it and killing some of his guards. When the tsar got out to inspect the damage, a second assassin threw the bomb that killed him. And if that hadn't done the job, a third was standing by with another bomb.

Being tsar -- or being associated with one -- was a perilous occupation. To the dying Alexander II's bedside was summoned his timid and impressionable 13-year-old grandson, Nicholas. Nicholas later became Tsar Nicholas II and married Alexandra (granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England), who bore him four daughters and then a son, Alexei.

Alexei suffered from hemophilia. The strange and mesmerizing monk, Rasputin, seemed able to help Alexei's condition. Because of this power, Rasputin was enabled to exercise increasing power over Alexandra, which extended through her to Nicholas and thence to Russian government. Russian aristocrats plotted Rasputin's assassination, a bizarre sequence of events that ended with the monk's body being found shot, bound, and drowned, under the ice of the Neva River. (We also toured the Yusopov Palace where Rasputin met his end.)

Shortly thereafter came the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks placed Nicholas & Alexandra and their children under house arrest, eventually moving them "for their safety" to a villa in the Urals. They were murdered in the basement of this house on July 17, 1918. All were shot (including the imperial physician and three servants who attended them), but the four daughters were also bayoneted, as the several pounds of diamonds sewn into the linings of their clothing rendered them partially bullet proof. Their bodies were then soaked in acid, burned, and buried in an unmarked location. And then, in 1998, eighty years to the day after their deaths, their exhumed remains were laid to rest with state honors alongside their forebears in the St. Peter & Paul Church in St. Petersburg.

The complete tale combines elements of royalty, revolution, sex, genetics, religion, politics, intrigue, psychology, drama, and pathos.
... But to return to the Church on the Spilled Blood ...

This was probably our favorite church in St. Petersburg. With its stunning interior mosaics, its characteristic exterior architecture and color scheme, its fenced shrine enclosing the patch of cobblestones where Alexander II bled (nearly) his last, its history in the pageantry and pathos of the tsars, it is certainly the most memorable.

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