St. Petersburg Seminar: Living – and Loving – Russian Culture

St. Petersburg Seminar: Living – and Loving – Russian Culture

From November 13-20, 2011, three MIR colleagues – Jenelle Birnbaum, Liz Tollefson and Meaghan Samuels – traveled to St. Petersburg in order to try out a new Custom Group trip, a week-long seminar with an in-depth look at St. Petersburg’s illustrious literary and arts traditions, momentous history and inspired culture. Designed to incorporate classroom learning and travel, each day started with an introductory lecture and continued with themed excursions. Their travels in Western Russia concluded with a weekend in Moscow. Read Jenelle’s impressions of this comprehensive immersion into the life and times of Peter the Great’s enduring city.

For more information about arranging a tailor-made St. Petersburg seminar for your organization or any of MIR’s many other small group and custom private travel options, contact us by email info@mircorp.com or toll free at 1-800-424-7289.

  • Arrival in St. Petersburg

    Sunday, November 13th, 2011

    Our trip from Seattle to St. Petersburg was relatively easy. All flights were on time and passed quickly. Upon arrival, we quickly passed through customs and were met by MIR St. Petersburg Director, Katya, who drove us to the Helvetia Hotel.

    The Helvetia Hotel makes a great first impression. Walking in, one first sees the courtyard, which is absolutely charming. Wrought-iron tables and chairs sit on the cobblestone ground and elegant buildings with ornate details enclose the area. Upon entering, the concierge offered us a glass of champagne to welcome us.

    Katya checked us into our rooms with no problem. We took a few minutes to drop off our bags and freshen up and then met Katya at the Clairet restaurant. When we arrived, our first course, glass of wine and basket of Russian bread were laid out on the table. Tired and hungry after the long trip, this considerate touch was really appreciated. I’m vegetarian, almost vegan, and was really impressed by how well the restaurant was able to accommodate me and the abundance of fresh vegetables they served me.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

     

    Helvetia Hotel, St. Petersburg<BR>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Helvetia Hotel, St. Petersburg
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Helvetia Hotel courtyard, St. Petersburg<BR>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Helvetia Hotel courtyard, St. Petersburg
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

  • Early Morning Walk and the Siege

    Monday, November 14th, 2011

    When we ended dinner last night, Katya told us we’d be up around 5am, and that, if so, we should take a walk. Exhausted, I doubted this would happen. However, she was right. I woke up around 3:45 and tried to fall back asleep. Around 4, Liz (my roommate) noticed I was up and she asked if I wanted to get up and take a walk. Though tired, I was excited to explore the city. We left the hotel around 5 and took a walk along the Nevsky Prospekt.

    I’ve always found that Europe’s historic capitals seem magical when illuminated against the dark sky. St. Petersburg was no exception; our morning walk along the Nevsky Prospekt felt like walking through a work of art. Set against a cold, dark and drizzly backdrop, the illuminated buildings glowed, showing off their sculpted details. Architectural details, such as sculpted men supporting balconies, jumped out at me, but the most exciting moment happened about an hour into our walk. While admiring the glass and iron dome of the Singer building, I glanced to my right. There, rising above the state museum were the candy-colored domes of the Church of the Savoir on the Blood! As we walked towards it, I only became increasingly impressed with it. The level of detail was so much more intricate than I had expected from the photos I had seen.

    Deciding our walk couldn’t be topped after happening upon the Church of the Spilled Blood, we returned to the hotel for breakfast. The spread was impressive, and featured cereal, porridge, fresh fruits and vegetables, pickled vegetables, eggs, pastries, meats and cheeses.

    Following breakfast, we met Katya, MIR guide Tamara and MIR St. Petersburg Tour Specialist Alyona in a small conference room for our first lecture: Revolution and the Siege. Tamara’s lecture focused on the events from the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703 to Lenin coming into power in 1917, and the background she gave was beneficial to understanding the events leading up to the revolution.

    Following the lecture, we drove to the Church of the Savoir on the Spilled Blood for (another) photo shoot. As we were walking towards the church, we noticed the sidewalks along the river were lined with fake snow and a film was being shot on location! We didn’t meet any actors, but did see the film crews setting up.

    Later that morning, we drove to the Piskarev Cemetery. Tamara’s presentation at the cemetery effectively illumniated what life in St. Petersburg was like during the horrific events of the Siege. Her narration of the movie and photos really demonstrated the courage of the people of St. Petersburg. To me, the two most vivid examples were one: footage of people walking around a dead body lying in the streets of St. Petersburg. At that time, people were too tired, too cold and too accustomed to death to move the body and knew the cold would preserve it; and two: a set of notes by a young girl showing the dates of the deaths of her family members. The last note says that “I am the only one left.” Tamara then told us she was taken to an orphanage but did not survive the war.

    After the presentation, Tamara gave us time to go outside to see the mass graves. She told us that there were graves under all of the grass. So often, we hear figures, like over one million people died during the Siege. The number sounds shocking, unbelievable even, but it is hard to quantify. Seeing the expanse of grass, the headstones simply marked with the year, star for military service, and an oak leaf in keeping with Russian tradition is incredibly powerful and effectively showed the scope of death during the event.

    Tamara’s presentation also demonstrated how the people of St. Petersburg came together to save their city. During our drive to lunch, Katya and Tamara shared stories of their family’s involvement during the event. They told us that every family in St. Petersburg has had some involvement in the events of the Siege. I appreciated them sharing their stories. It made the experience more meaningful, and I understand why our clients so often say that their guides and managers are the best part of the tour. They provide a perspective that is really difficult to get from simply going to the museum.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

     

  • Political History, Palaces and Rasputin

    Monday, November 14th, 2011

    We stopped for lunch at the Mozart Cafe for what Katya and Tamara called “pie.” As such, I expected something like pot pie, and was surprised to find that the “pie” was similar to piroshki. I asked if Tamara and Katya made pies like that at home. They said no because it was a lot of work, but told us it was cheap, and therefore popular to serve at parties during Soviet Times. (I must find the recipe.)

    After a quick photo stop at the Aurora, we went to the Ballerina Kseshinskaya’s Palace for a tour of the museum. Our museum guide was fine, but Katya and Tamara really made this experience for me. Katya kept saying how important the museum was and she and Tamara continuously shared their views and memories. It was a meaningful experience to see how important and close to their hearts they kept the political history of St. Petersburg. Katya emphasized why the recreated rooms were so significant and Tamara pointed out objects that really showed the violence (such as a painting of Nicholas II with bayonet lines tearing the painting and a branch indented from the rope used to hang prisoners).

    Following this tour, we went to the Winter Palace for a photo op. Though I’ve seen many pictures of both the double triumphal arch that leads into the complex and the Winter Palace itself, it is so much grander and impressive in person. It also provided some beautiful views of the river and historic part of St. Petersburg.

    We then made our last stop for the day: the Usupoff Palace. Tamara vividly explained the assassination of Rasputin and then led us on compelling tour of the rest of the palace. The wealth of the Usupoff family was unbelievable; they had 52 palaces and the one we toured had its own gallery and theater.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Kseshinskaya’s Palace, St. Petersburg<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Kseshinskaya’s Palace, St. Petersburg
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Kseshinskaya’s Palace, St. Petersburg<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Kseshinskaya’s Palace, St. Petersburg
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Kseshinskaya’s Palace, St. Petersburg<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Kseshinskaya’s Palace, St. Petersburg
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

     

    Nicholas II portrait at the Kseshinskaya’s Palace, St. Petersburg<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Nicholas II portrait at the Kseshinskaya’s Palace, St. Petersburg
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

  • Peter the Great and Friends

    Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

    The day started with a wonderful lecture by MIR guide Masha, focusing on the early life of Peter the Great; that is to say his childhood and formative years, ending in 1703. I had read a little bit about Peter the Great before coming on the trip, but Masha added so much depth to what I had already learned. I enjoyed hearing about Peter the Great’s parents and his relationship to the Germanic (meaning foreign, and not of German descent) village near Moscow. Masha did a fantastic job of outlining the factors that caused him to turn away from traditional Russian culture in favor of a more European way of life. As part of our research, we were to meet as many of MIR’s Guides and Tour Managers as possible, so MIR guide and tour manager Olga accompanied us for the rest of the day.

    The Menshikov Palace, the day’s first tour, really emphasized Peter’s fascination with Western culture. Masha explained that Peter the Great spent time in Holland to learn more about shipbuilding. But, when we went to the Menshikov Palace, I realized the extent to which he was influenced by Dutch culture. The blue and white Dutch tile work throughout the palace was incredible, as were the intricately carved furniture and clocks. I was also surprised to discover that there were Chinese and Japanese inspired tapestries, and learned that they had some contact with Russia through trade.

    Lunch was at a Georgian restaurant called Kateyano. After reading so much about the Georgian Table, I was really excited to try traditional Georgian cuisine. We started with a flavorful red bean dish, stuffed eggplant, a Bulgarian pepper pate and a fish stew. For the main course, we ordered a potato and mushroom dish and a chicken dish for the meat eaters. Most dishes were topped with pomegranates. This was accompanied by a pot of mint tea and traditional Georgian bread. For dessert, we split a slice of honey cake, which was delicious. In addition to great food, the restaurant’s atmosphere was wonderful. Paintings made in a variety of different styles hung on the walls, giving the restaurant a sort of gallery feel.

    Following lunch, we made a brief photo stop at the new sea facade. Today was a great day for pictures, as the sky was bright blue and clear. (However, the clear sky made the weather that much colder. Good thing I packed all those layers.) From the Sea Facade, we had a perfect view of Winter Palace and Peter and Paul Fortress.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

  • Peter and Paul Fortress

    Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

    Next on the agenda was a tour of the Peter and Paul Fortress. This stop was a substitution for the tour of Peter’s winter palace, and the visit was quite chilly in the winter. We started our tour of the grounds by looking at the exteriors of the gold-domed Peter and Paul Cathedral and facing burnt-red building, and continued to a sculpture making fun of Peter’s tall size and disproportionately small head. We then continued to walk through the museum grounds, through a tunnel and onto the banks of the river. On the walk back from the river, Olga pointed out lines marking the flood lines on the wall of the tunnel leading to the bank of the Neva. The walk continued and we passed by a modern art installation of 12 chairs made of iron, all in unique and whimsical arrangements, an allusion to a Russian fairy tale. After a fun photo session (Meaghan and I chose tall chairs where our feet couldn’t touch the ground) we started to visit sites.

    When we entered the Peter and Paul Cathedral, I was surprised at how light and airy the cathedral was. It reminded me of a Russian interpretation of a Renaissance church; Renaissance in the floor plan, columns and architecture; Russian in the choice of colors and materials. Olga emphasized that this church was built in the European style, which was completely different than the traditional Orthodox church. She also expalained that all the czar’s since Peter the Great were buried here, pointed out the grave of Alexei located under the stairs, and took us on a tour of the decorative tombs of the czars and their families. (The actual czar’s graves are under the cathedral.)

    Then we went to the prison. Olga stopped at most all the cells and shared stories about the most famous prisoner who was held in that cell. The stories really are what make this tour because the cells look alike.

    When we got into the car, Katya suggested we stop at St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Once again, the photos did not do the artistry of the Cathedral justice. The frescoes on the ceiling and dome of the cathedral were breathtaking, as were the bronze relief panels lining the cathedral’s doors. The intricately gilded sculptures and motifs added a layer of beauty as the sun shown through the windows of the domed ceiling. We didn’t have time to climb the stairs, but I felt very satisfied with this visit.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

  • The Hermitage

    Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

    MIR guide and tour manager, Katya Puzyreva, gave today’s lecture, which focused on the reigns of Catherine I, Anna, Elizabeth, and Catherine II, as well the coups that put each czarina in power. We learned that Catherine I, who was born a peasant and died a czarina was as close to a real-life Cinderella as possible; that Anna, niece of Peter the Great, gained power after her husband died and was primarily counseled by her lover Ernst Johann von Biron; that Elizabeth, celebrated for her beauty and loved by the soldiers, gained power through the so-called “coup d’amour,” and that Catherine the Great (Catherine II), from Prussia, organized a coup against her husband to gain power, and once appointed, focused on securing St. Petersburg’s position as a leading city of the arts and culture.

    Following the lecture, we took the bus to the Hermitage. The Hermitage was every bit as beautiful as I imagined, with gilded staircases, ornate sculptures, frescoed ceilings and elaborate parquet floors. Our tour started at the grand staircase, which was spectacular, and continued to the room with the peacock clock, the theater and on to the art gallery, where Katya pointed out masterpieces by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael and daVinci. We saw the throne room and on our way back towards the entrance, we noticed a crowd of people gathered in front of the peacock clock. At this time, it was almost 1:00 pm, and we were told that the peacock clock was going to be set in motion. Sure enough, the clock technician appeared and activated the clock, which was amazing and a highlight of the visit.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

  • Catherine's Palace

    Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

    After a quick lunch in one of the Hermitage cafés, we met our driver and drove out to Pushkin. Along the way, Katya gave us a history of Pushkin’s life and pointed out his dacha and high school.

    When we arrived at Catherine’s Palace, the blue and gold of the facade stood out against the white sky. Upon entering the palace, we first visited the grand ballroom. Mirrors illuminated by gilded candelabras were flanked by a two-story row of Palladian windows. According to legend, the beautiful Empress Elizabeth was quite vain and surrounded herself with mirrors so she could frequently admire her reflection. (Elizabeth renovated Catherine’s Palace after Catherine I died.)

    The tour continued through the dining rooms displaying typical place settings and sugar sculptures. Dyed pastel pink and green, sugar cubes were arranged in graceful swirls atop the table. I found it interesting to see the sugar sculptures because I took a class on Italian Baroque art history which discussed how the art of sugar sculpture was once highly fashionable.

    Another highlight of the tour was the reconstructed Amber Room, whose walls were tiled with pieces of amber. The level of dedication and craftsmanship it took to recreate the Amber Room after the Nazis stole the amber panels was impressive. (In general, the reconstruction of historic buildings post WWII really impressed me over the course of the week in St. Petersburg.) I also found it interesting to see the progression of style from Elizabeth to the more modern tenants. A little to my surprise, I preferred the gilded interiors of the original palace to the pastel pinks and greens of the more modern sections.

    The rest of our evening was free, so following our tour, we headed to the Imperial Porcelain store. Founded by Peter the Great’s Daughter, Elizabeth 1 in 1744, Imperial Porcelain (formerly called the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory) was Russia’s first porcelain factory. The shop, filled with delicate white porcelain could practically be a museum itself.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

  • Mariinsky Theater Backstage

    Thursday, November 17th, 2011

    Today’s lecture focused on literature and ballet, and was given by Kseina, Curator of the Pushkin house. She was excellent. In her lecture, she discussed the importance of Pushkin in Russian literature, outlining the plot of The Bronze Horseman, talked about Gogol and his work The Nose and the significance of Andrei Bely, Aleksander Blok and Anna Akhmatova. She also discussed themes that appear in literature about St. Petersburg, such as the role of the weather, the architecture and an author’s attitude towards St. Petersburg as either a cultural capital or a heartless city. Her lecture inspired me to add several books to my “to read” list.

    Today’s first stop was a backstage tour of the Mariinsky Theater. We started the tour in the main auditorium where the guide explained the general history of the theater. We learned that the first opera performed was by Glinka, and so they try to open every season with his opera The Life of the Czar. While we sat in the main hall, the set builders were working on stage and the entire orchestra pit was raised to the level of the stage so that a piano could be added to the pit and then lowered down again. Our guide also told us that the curtain pattern was based on one of Elizabeth’s ball gowns. The tour then continued to the czar’s box where the guide explained that there were several boxes reserved for the royal family, two of which were closer to the stage. The box closest to the stage had a secret passage from the boxes to the backstage area so that the grand dukes could visit their ballerinas. That box also led straight to an exit.

    The tour then continued backstage. We climbed several flights of stairs to see the costume room, which was incredible! Stacks of toile tutus sat on boxes, and colorful costumes hung from the ceiling. We saw several emerald green costumes with sturdy bodices and skirts hanging from the ceiling, which we learned would be used for that evening’s performance. During this portion of the tour, we learned the intricacies of maintaining the costume shop, such as the fact that each seamstress is assigned 8 ballerinas whom she is in charge of costuming. Before helping the dancers into their costumes, it is required that she soak her hands in warm water, so as not to offend the ballerina by touching her with cold hands. From there, we walked down to the stage and had the opportunity to step out on stage! That was really amazing and we could imagine dancers standing in the wings, awaiting their entrance.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

  • Dostoevsky Tours and Mariinsky Performance

    Thursday, November 17th, 2011

    After a quick stop at the hotel for lunch, we walked to the Dostoevsky House Museum, housed in the great author’s former home. The rooms are decorated as they were when the author and his family resided in this home and many of the family’s personal objects (including toys, clothing and writing implements) are on display.

    Though it was interesting to see where the author lived, to my surprise, I found I enjoyed the walking tour much more because it was fascinating to see the world of Dostoevsky’s characters come alive. This definitely became a highlight for me.

    It was awesome to see the buildings and world associated with his works. We saw the bridge where the heroine of White Nights stands crying and the flats of several characters (Raskolnikov, Sofia, Alyona and Lizaveta Ivanova) in Crime and Punishment. This world is completely different than I had imagined. I imagined a more spacious landscape; in the White Nights I imagined an empty city square, lined with cobblestones and maybe with a commemorative column in the middle. In Crime and Punishment, I imagined dingy and dirty apartments, but again, I imagined it with a little more space. In both these works, the characters felt somewhat isolated, and because they were isolated, I imagined that there weren’t many people around. However, visiting the sites of these works showed me that the places were, in fact, densely populated and underlined the idea that the city can be a cold, lonely and perhaps even sinister place.

    After an early dinner at the Dostoevsky themed Idiot Café, we went to the Mariinsky Theater. We saw Balanchine’s award-winning “Jewels”, which is a ballet in three parts set to the music of Fauré, Stravinksy and Tchaikovsky. The ballet company made dancing look as easy as breathing. The orchestra was awesome and gave a flawless performance. The audience demanded at least ten curtain calls of the evening’s stars, Ulynana Lopatkina and Nikolai Tsiskaridze, and if possible, would have asked them to give another performance.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

  • En Route to the dacha

    Friday, November 18th, 2011

    This morning’s lecture focused on the beloved dacha. Our lecturer, Oxford-educated Russian history scholar, Catriona, explained that the origins of the dacha dated back to the reign of Peter the Great and then traced the evolution of the dacha through Soviet times to the present day. Following the lecture, we hopped in the van to visit the dachas, located about 30 km from St. Petersburg.

    I really enjoyed the drive out to the Karelian Isthmus and Komarovo. The weather was gray and rainy, which reminded me of Seattle. This was our first long drive, and it gave us a chance to rest a little while discussing the impact of Perestroika and contemporary politics on the lives of those living in St. Petersburg. As we got closer to the Karelian Isthmus, Katya started discussing the history of the region. While I knew that Finland and Russia fought for land, I didn’t realize how far into (what is today) Russia the Finnish territory extended.

    At this point, we made our first stop: Repin’s dacha. After taking a few pictures of the dacha, we went in for the tour. Katya told us we would have an English tour, and so I expected a museum guide to lead us through each room and discuss the important points. When we went into the first room, I quickly realized that the guide spoke no English, and was wondering when our guide would show up. But then, she instructed us to take a seat and started an English audio CD discussing the room we were sitting in. Though this caught me off guard, I realized that this was a really smart way for a small museum to guide people of different nationalities through their museum. Each room had its own guide, and each guide must have been trained to listen for certain key words, because they pointed to objects described in the audio track.

    For me, the audio track added a lot of information. For example, when we were in the dining room, the “tour guide” described the rituals surrounding his dinner table. The round wooden table is quite large, had a lazy susan above the main dining surface and drawers below. Our “guide” explained that Repin and his wife believed in complete equality, which meant that everyone should take care of themselves. (Guests got in trouble if they served a friend.) So, the lazy susan allowed people to grab a dish from any part of the table. After the meal, guests were instructed to clear their plates by placing them in the drawer below their place setting. If a guest made a mistake and served someone else, they were punished by being sent to the tribunal. The tribunal looked like a small pulpit above atop a short platform. From the pulpit, the offending guest would be asked to give a witty speech.

    The museum tour continued to Repin’s studio, which featured studies for his works, objects he used in his paintings, his paintbrushes and copies of his famous works, which now hang in the Tretyakov Gallery. The studio featured a huge yellow stove and amazing bay window. It was easy to imagine Repin sitting working in his studio.

    Going in, I didn’t have any expectations for this stop because I was unfamiliar with Repin. However, upon entering, I started to understand the importance of the dacha; the way it served as a sort of escape from the crowds of St. Petersburg. The views from his windows and the trees surrounding his dacha created such a sense of tranquility and escape from the everyday world and I understand how this scenery must have been inspiring for the artist.

    The next stop was to visit the dachas of Anna Vyrubova, lady in waiting to Czarina Alexandra, and Shostakovich. Painted green and decorated with lacy white trim, lady Vyrubova’s dacha exuded elegance and wealth. In contrast, Shostakovich’s summer cabin, painted light blue, was small and utilitarian. The cabin’s simple design didn’t feature any embellishments.

    We then continued our drive along the Gulf of Finland. With the gray, foggy weather, it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the water began. I find days like this have a certain mysterious beauty. We stopped to walk along the beach, take photos and have a light lunch.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

  • Komarovo and Dinner at the dacha

    Friday, November 18th, 2011

    After our snack, we visited the Komarovo Cemetery, where Anna Akhmatova was buried. Covered in spruce trees, the cemetery grounds are beautiful. A gravel path divides the grounds into segments, and each segment is connected to the main arterial by a small footbridge that spans the water drainage ditches. Walking through this cemetery can easily be compared to walking through a sculpture park; each grave is different, elegant yet respectful of its occupant. The graceful bust of a ballet dancer adorned one grave, while ballet slippers and a black rose made of iron commemorated the life of another former ballerina. The memorial to Anna Akhmatova is simple, yet elegant. On the ground in front of the cross, sits a large plaque engraved with the poet’s name. Several bouquets of fresh flowers rested on the plaque, showing that her readers and admirers still come regularly to pay their respects.

    As we strolled through, Katya pointed out graves of former dancers, scientists, teachers and her parents. As always, her stories added another layer of depth to this experience. Because she spent her summers in Komarovo, she knows the stories of those buried there and holds them very close to her heart. Without her, I’m not sure if this experience would have been so meaningful.

    After seeing Akhmatova’s final home, we went to visit her dacha, or “booth”, as she referred to it. Though small, Akhmatova loved it because it was the only home that she considered truly her own (the state Writer’s Union lent it to her every summer). While parked in front of her small, light blue, utilitarian dacha, Katya explained that Akhmatova never had her own home; that she stayed with boyfriends and friends for most of the year, which made her time at the dacha even more meaningful. While still paused in front of the dacha, Katya continued telling us stories; this time about the tragic love affair of Joseph Brodsky. The heartache he experienced after his very beautiful girlfriend cheated on him with his best friend impacted his entire oeuvre. As Katya said, though Brodsky considered this betrayal as the biggest tragedy of his life, who knows if he would have become the great poet that he was if it had not happened.

    After a very enjoyable day of touring, we arrived at Katya’s dacha around 5pm. Katya’s dacha is charming and I see why she is so proud of it. Surrounded by woods, the rectangular A-frame house is made of cedar-colored wood. The windows and roof are trimmed with green. All week, Katya has been telling us that she was excited to see her “doggy, Mona”. When we arrived, Mona ran up and greeted Katya just as enthusiastically as Katya greet Mona.

    When we entered, Katya gave us a tour of her dacha. Simply put, it is beautiful – cozy and relaxing. The walls are the same cedar-colored wood as the front, and she’s furnished it with plush red couches. Little sculptures of dogs are the most common motif and the walls are filled with black and white pictures of her family. A traditional brick fireplace warms the apartment. Upstairs is the game room, featuring a pool table, reading area and poster for Katya’s book about her family ‘s history. Walking in, one cannot help but feel calmer. The setting, the colors and the warm environment make the rigors of daily life feel very far away and insignificant.

    We helped Katya set the table and then sat down to dinner. Katya’s husband did most of the cleaning and cooking for the event. For the first course, we had a shredded cabbage salad topped in a vinegar dressing, fresh tomatoes grown in Georgia, sour and half sour pickles, bread, red caviar and a choice of cabbage or vegetable and rice pirjiki (made by her in-laws who were staying in her old dacha). Katya explained that everything on the table was ideal for eating with vodka and proceeded to review the Russian way to drink vodka.

    For the next course, we had vegetarian borscht made by her husband, specially prepared for the vegetarians, since Russian borsht normally has beef in it. For the main course, we ate a mushroom and rice dish. This was also wonderful; it had a creamy consistency and slightly salty flavor. For dessert, she served a Georgian specialty Churchkhela which I had wanted to try since reading about it while working on MIR’s tour materials. The subtly sweet flavor and chewy texture of the grape combined perfectly with the crunchiness of the nuts. She also served tea, chocolate and a Ukrainian liqueur that tasted like honey.

    Over dinner, Katya shared her family history with us. She told us of her summers at the dacha, how both her grandparents and parents met, of her parents’ careers as prominent actors and of the next generation; her cousins who are becoming Russia’s next stars. She showed us her book and told us about the photos in it. Katya must have inherited some of her parents’ genes, for she is an absolutely engaging and charismatic storyteller.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Anna Akhmatova’s grave at Komarovo Cemetary<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Anna Akhmatova’s grave at Komarovo Cemetary
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Dinner in Katya’s dacha<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Dinner in Katya’s dacha
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Komarovo Cemetary<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Komarovo Cemetary
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Komarovo Post Office<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Komarovo Post Office
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

     

  • En Route to Moscow and the Armory Museum

    Saturday, November 19th, 2011

    Today started with an early breakfast in the hotel restaurant because we were taking the 6:30am train to Moscow. Our driver, Vladimir, helped us load our bags into the car and then escorted us through the train station and onto the train. This was very helpful, as the station was large and we didn’t speak much Russian.

    When we left St. Petersburg, it was dark out. About halfway through our trip, the sun started to rise and we enjoyed looking at the houses and water along the way. We arrived in Moscow as planned at about 10:30 am and were greeted by MIR Moscow Director John, MIR Guide, Irina and Driver, Rashid. They quickly helped us gather our belongings and loaded them into the car.

    Once we were in the car, John and Irina took us on a drive through the city. Along the way, they pointed out places of interest, such as the Pushkin Cafe (the most fashionable restaurant in Moscow, named for the author) and the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow. Our first stop was along the river across from the Kremlin. This gave us amazing views of the domes and spires of Cathedral Square and the red walls enclosing the fortress. After a quick photo stop, we were dropped off at Red Square and went to have lunch at GUM.

    We then proceeded to the Armory Museum, which ended up being one of my favorite tours of the trip. Of course this is partially because of the museum’s collection, but Irina’s tour also really added to the experience. Because of time constraints, we were unable to stop at every glass case and look at every item; however, Irina stopped at least once or twice in every room and provided a very strong framework for the significance of each item. We saw Fabergé eggs, armor, bible covers, goblets designed to entertain the czars and their friends at parties, ball gowns, carriages, crowns and thrones. I think this tour was even more interesting following the week we spent in St. Petersburg, because we were familiar with the czars and their reigns. We knew that Elizabeth was very vain and that Peter was disproportionate, and it was amazing to see their clothing in person. Irina also explained to us that this was only about one third of the czar’s collection, which was unbelievable. She shared with us that after seeing all the excess in the Armory, one of her clients commented that he understood why the Bolshevik Revolution occurred.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

  • Walking Tours

    Saturday, November 19th, 2011

    Next, we went on a brief walking tour of Red Square. We started in the Cathedral Square, so named for the many cathedrals that surround it, and went into Assumption Cathedral. The painted arch of the entryway was impressive, but nowhere near as awe-inspiring as the painted interior of the church. Irina told us that the Assumption Cathedral was a typical example of a Russian Orthodox Church, and pointed out the typical elements, such as the fact that the entrance faces east. After this visit, I had a better understanding of what Olga (one of our guides in St. Petersburg) meant when she told us that the Church at Peter and Paul Fortress was atypical for a Russian Orthodox Church.

    We continued to walk through the grounds of the Kremlin. Cold and stormy, the weather was what the Seattle weather reporters call a “wintry mix.” The sky was white and foggy, yet the brilliant colors of St. Basil’s and Kremlin really popped against the white sky. There was something almost magical about seeing the colorful domes of St. Basil’s emerge from the mist as we entered the Kremlin gate. After an abbreviated photo session, we went into GUM to warm up, dry off and have a snack.

    After our snack break, we went back to the hotel to check in and rest. Following our nap, John (director of the MIR Moscow office) met us at the hotel and accompanied us to Arbat Street. John took us to the little shop where he buys his souvenirs. The shelves were full of matrioshka dolls of various shapes and sizes, Fabergé eggs and lacquered boxes. He advised us to take a look at prices to know what was typical and to use that as a base for bargaining at Izmailova Market the next day.

    Dinner tonight was independent, ad we chose an Azerbaijani restaurant on Arbat Street. This restaurant had a really cool ambiance, with brick arches throughout, Azerbaijani tapestries, live performance by a violinist and pianist, and staff in traditional dress. After dinner, we continued our walk around Arbat Street and stopped quickly at the grocery store to pick up a few snacks and souvenirs before returning to our hotel.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Moscow Cathedral <br>Photo Credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Moscow Cathedral
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Snack break in Moscow<br>Photo Credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Snack break in Moscow
    Photo Credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Moscow statue<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Moscow statue
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

     

    Starbucks in Moscow<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Starbucks in Moscow
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

  • The Tretyakov Gallery and Izmailova Market

    Sunday, November 20th, 2011

    We started the day with breakfast at the Park Inn. The breakfast selection was similar to the Helvetia, cereal, fruit, eggs, vegetables, yogurt, etc. In particular, the baguette and citrus fruits were wonderful. The dining room had WiFi, so we were able to check our e-mail over breakfast.

    We met Irina at 10 am and walked to the Tretyakov Gallery. The Art Nouveau-inspired facade and pale orange building give the feel of a house out of a fairy tale. The clever design makes the museum look like a small cottage, while in reality, it is quite large.

    Once again, Irina’s skills really shone on this tour. As the museum is quite large, it would have been impossible to see all of it in a couple of hours. She focused the tour on the 18th and 19th centuries, and pointed out a few paintings in each room we visited. For each of these paintings, Irina stopped and gave us a history of both the painting and the artist. This worked well because it gave us a context in which to place the piece of art and made it feel like we had the opportunity to really view the works.

    Irina pointed out that most of the world ignores Russian artists, and to some extent I agree. As an art history major, my classes were designed to give a general overview of the history of world art. Yet, we didn’t start talking about Russian artists until the era following the Russian Revolution.

    Once again, I am really happy we did this tour after our week in St. Petersburg. The stories we learned throughout the seminar series were illustrated in the paintings we viewed at Tretyakov. In particular, I enjoyed seeing Repin’s paintings, because we had seen copies and studies at his dacha. It was also interesting to see how Russian paintings followed those of the rest of Europe. This visit inspired me to learn more about Russian art.

    After the gallery, we rode the Metro to the Izmailova Market and stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Vega near the market, where I had a beet salad and cabbage piroshki. For me, the highlight of the meal was black tea with thyme. I wouldn’t have thought of the combination myself, but thought the fresh flavor of the thyme went well with the tea.

    Then we went to Izmailova Market. It was so cold when we were there (around 4 degrees Celsius), especially when the wind picked up. Temperature aside, I enjoyed seeing the matrioshka dolls and jewelry that vendors were selling. Though I like to get a good deal, I learned I don’t have a knack for bargining, whereas Meaghan bargained extremely well and made most of her purchases for about half of the asking price.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

  • Night Photography

    Sunday, November 20th, 2011

    We left Izmailova Market at about 5pm and headed over to Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery. We knew it would be too late to do the tour, but Irina wanted to show us the viewpoint. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to tour the cemetery, but the rest of the day was so nice that I wouldn’t have wanted to rush any of it either.

    Even though we weren’t able to tour the interior of Novodevichy, I’m so glad we visited the exterior. The convent was illuminated and the contrast between the deep blue sky and gilded domes and spires was stunning. Our viewpoint also overlooked the lake. The whole sight was captivating, and one can understand why this site inspired Tchaikovsky to write Swan Lake.

    After the photo stop, we walked back to the Metro. When we arrived, we saw crowds of policemen outside the Metro station. Two or three were stationed on horses, several others formed two lines, creating a walkway guiding people into the train station. Inside, groups of three-four policemen chatted at every arched entrance to the train platform. Alarmed, we asked Irina if something was wrong. She explained that there was a soccer game and the heightened police presence was normal.

    We got back to the hotel around 6:45 pm and got ready to meet John for another independent dinner at 7:30 pm. The restaurant we ate at was within walking distance of the hotel. The food was good, and as it was my birthday, John and the girls surprised me with an apple-cinnamon pastry topped with a candle. They started singing to me and the other restaurant guests chimed in.

    Following dinner, John accompanied us to the local grocery store to help us pick out vodka and other last minute presents to bring home. After shopping, John walked us back to the hotel, where we said bye to him.

    Throughout the week, Meaghan kept telling us about her late night visit to see St. Basil’s lit up on her previous visit to Moscow. Though it was cold, the three of us really wanted to see it, so we bundled up and walked over to Red Square. The sky was clear and dark and the bridges were beautifully lit, as were the classical buildings lining the river. The towers of the Kremlin glowed above. When we reached the square, we were not disappointed. The night gave the square a different energy. The Christmas lights on GUM created a festive feel, supported by the colorful domes of St. Basil’s. Happy, though frozen, we took our pictures and walked through the rest of Red Square. To our delight, we found the Metro waiting for us at the opposite end of Red Square. We had taken the Metro from Red Square to our hotel the previous day with Irina, but were still a little anxious about taking the Metro to the hotel on our own. We managed without too much difficulty and felt like true Muscovites after our accomplishment. We returned to the hotel around 12:30 am and finished packing.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Moscow’s GUM department store<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Moscow’s GUM department store
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    St. Basil's Cathedral lit up at night<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    St. Basil’s Cathedral lit up at night
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Moscow’s Novodevichy convent<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    Moscow’s Novodevichy convent
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    St. Basil’s Cathedral lit up at night<br>Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

    St. Basil’s Cathedral lit up at night
    Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum