A Travellerspoint blog

Russia

Overland to Russia.

Travels in 1985 and 1986.

Lenin looking on. - Saint Petersburg

Lenin looking on. - Saint Petersburg

Leningrad and Vybourg.

Leningrad.

I'll use the name Leningrad in this blog, even though it is now St Petersburg, because that is what it was when I visited.

I visited Leningrad twice. Once in 1985 and once in 1986. Of course this page will not have up to date information about Leningrad, now known as Saint Petersburg. I am writing this page because Leningrad made a deep impression on me all those years ago. I think my enjoyment of my visit there helps to explain my fascination with former Communist countries nowadays.

The Eternal Flame. - Saint Petersburg

The Eternal Flame. - Saint Petersburg

When I was nineteen, I went to live in Finland for a year and work as an au pair. I was not a very street wise or sensible nineteen year old. My poor mother was very worried about me going and insisted that I took 200 pounds with me in case the family I was to live with mistreated me. She told me if I was in any way badly treated or unhappy, I was to book a flight and come straight back home. I, horrible person that I am, used that money almost instantly to book myself a holiday to Leningrad. I then felt so bad about misusing my mother's money that I spent much of the year desperately saving off my meagre wages so I could give her the money back when I got home. I never told her what I had really done with her money. I just said I had never had to use it. Well, at that time it would have been difficult to go to Leningrad in any way other than on an organized tour. I went by myself on an English speaking tour. The other members of the tour group, mainly American, Canadian and Australian were incredibly friendly and I was not alone for long. I had a wonderful time and met some lovely, lovely people.

This is what I remember of the trip. When our bus arrived at the Russian border, we had to go through customs and passport control. I was nervous. The idea of crossing the so called Iron Curtain was a big thing in those days and before my trip, lots of people started telling me horror stories about people who had visited Russia never to be seen again. I laughed this off before the trip, but was not laughing when I reached the border. The border guard sensing my nervousness began to fire lots of questions at me in rapid succession until I got so confused, I accidentally declared I was carrying hundreds of Russian roubles. This would have been illegal. Then realising what I had just said I started shouting: "I mean I have Finnmarks; I don't have any Russian roubles. I have never even seen a Russian rouble in my life". At which point he just started laughing at me and let me through, so all the time he had just been joking with me because he could see I was nervous. Even I then saw the funny side of it and laughed, too, so maybe Russians were not as bad as I had been led to believe.

The Summer Garden. - Saint Petersburg

The Summer Garden. - Saint Petersburg

My other memories of the border were: the toilets had no doors on them. Due to desperation I used them anyway, but no-one else in my group would. Our driver had somehow forgotten the paperwork for the bus. He was told he had to drive all the way back to Helsinki to get it. After much negotiation, they let him drive the whole tour group to Vyborg and leave us there, while he went back for the paperwork. As an apology, the driver bought all of us Russian champagne that night and we all had quite a party. We stayed in a posh hotel during this trip. I had to share a room with a Canadian lady called Norma. She belonged to a Christian organization and she took no further part in the tour. Instead she secretly went off to meet with a group of people her church had sent her to help. She gave them everything she had brought with her including all her clothes. I gave her half of my clothes to carry on the way back, so she did not have to travel back with a suspicious looking empty suitcase.

Other things that stick in my mind are that we visited the opera one evening and watched a performance of the Doctor Faustus. It was wonderful and the audience enthusiasm and participation had to be seen to be believed. It was more like attending a football match than an opera. After two acts, being a bit of a philistine, I put my coat on and tried to leave. The person next to me explained that it was not actually finished yet. I was greatly surprised. In all I think there were five acts. It went on very late.

Next day we visited the Hermitage Museum and, after two nights of very little sleep, I actually fell asleep several times leaning on plinths holding priceless vases and things. A posse of little old Russian lady attendants followed me everywhere and kept holding me up every time I went to sleep against a treasured exhibit. It is just as well they did. If I had broken anything, I would probably just be finishing my prison sentence around now. They must have been delighted to see my tour group leave.

Monument to Tzar Nicholas I. - Saint Petersburg

Monument to Tzar Nicholas I. - Saint Petersburg

St Peter and Paul's Fortress. - Saint Petersburg

St Peter and Paul's Fortress. - Saint Petersburg

Saint Isaac's Cathedral - Saint Petersburg

Saint Isaac's Cathedral - Saint Petersburg

One of my most treasured memories of visiting Leningrad is the trip we took to see the Palace and Gardens of Peterhof. To get there we had to travel by boat. The fountains in front of the palace with their stunning gold statues were quite amazing to see. There is a fountain at Peterhof Summer Palace in which four model ducks swim continuously round in a circle chased by a little dog called Favoritka or Favorite. As the animals move round there are lots of barking and quacking sounds. A notice by the fountain explains “The little dog Favorite is chasing the ducks on the water; the ducks are saying to it: ‘It’s no good. You have the strength to chase us, but not the strength to catch us!’” This fountain dates from 1725 and was built by Paul Sualem for Catherine I. The animals are moved around by a water wheel under the fountain. The sounds were originally created by bellows. Now they are tape recorded. During the war the fountain was destroyed by the German troops. It was restored in 1957.

On the boat to the summer palace. - Saint Petersburg

On the boat to the summer palace. - Saint Petersburg

The Summer Palace - Saint Petersburg

The Summer Palace - Saint Petersburg

Peterhof Palace

Peterhof Palace

Duck and Dog Fountain, Peterhof Summer Palace. - Saint Petersburg

Duck and Dog Fountain, Peterhof Summer Palace. - Saint Petersburg

Other wonderful sights that we visited were Saint Isaac's Cathedral, the Plain of Mars with its eternal flame, the Summer Garden with its elegant statues, Smolny Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. That church has that name because it is built on the spot where Tzar Alexander II was assassinated. Saint Isaac's Cathedral is a beautiful and impressive building in the heart of Saint Petersburg. Saint Isaac's was originally the city's main church. It was constructed between 1818 and 1858,by French architect Auguste Montferrand. Under the Soviet government, the building's interior was stripped of all religious images. It was like this when we visited in the eighties. In 1931, the cathedral was turned into a museum. A huge Foucault pendulum was installed in the centre of the cathedral to help visualize Copernicus’s theory. We were able to see this pendulum when we visited. With the fall of communism, the museum was removed from the cathedral and religious services were resumed once more.

Smolny Cathedral - Saint Petersburg

Smolny Cathedral - Saint Petersburg

Saint Isaac's Cathedral. - Saint Petersburg

Saint Isaac's Cathedral. - Saint Petersburg

Kazan Cathedral. - Saint Petersburg

Kazan Cathedral. - Saint Petersburg

On my second visit to Leningrad in 1986, I travelled with my boyfriend, who is now my husband. This trip illustrates our different travelling styles. For the first trip I paid lots of money, booking the first trip I found with no research, shopping around or planning. For our second we went on a cheap Finnish speaking tour at a fraction of the price of my first trip. On my first trip I stayed in a five star hotel. On the second we stayed in a tourist class hotel and caught fleas from the bedding. The first thing I did when I returned to the super clean Finnish family I lived with, was leap into the bath and try to stay there until I felt sure I had drowned all the little blighters. On the first trip I stayed with my tour group and went where I was told. I was mainly well behaved except for falling asleep against a few priceless treasures in the Hermitage Museum. On the second we used the tour group to get to the centre of Leningrad, then ditched them and did our own thing. That man is a bad influence!!!!

When we ditched the tour group, I took us to some of the sights I remembered from my first visit which Peter had not seen. Then we spotted a ferry on the River Neva. Lots of locals were getting on. There was a sign next to it in Russian which neither of us could understand. "Let's get on it, " my adventurous husband said. "What if it goes out of the Leningrad area?" I said knowing full well we only had visas which allowed us to stay within the city. "It lasts an hour, " said Peter. "I am sure it will go half an hour down the river, then half an hour back. " So we got on. At first, we were having a great time, enjoying the scenery, sampling local food and drink, enjoying being the only tourists on a real attraction that locals used. Then we looked at the time. We had been on for 45 minutes, no sign of turning back. Where were we going? 50 minutes still sailing onwards! 55 minutes the same. We were panicking big time, wondering what kind of mess we had got ourselves into, where we were going to end up and whether we had the right visa to be there. Amazingly the boat seemed to sail 55 minutes in one direction, then make it back to the starting point in 5 minutes. Don't ask me how. I just know it did. Tides ! A partially circular route ! I don't know. All I know is that it was with great relief that we disembarked where we had got on. Surely nothing else could go wrong! Oh, but it did!

It had been a great day. I was sold on the attraction of doing things by ourselves, rather than being taken around. We were already starting to laugh about the boat trip after all it had all worked out in the end. We were tired and hungry, dinner was included at the hotel. All we had to do was get back there. "We'll get on a tram," said Peter. "Or we will miss dinner." We had not researched anything, tram routes, how to buy a ticket, nothing. We just waited for a tram. Peter said confidently that it was going in the right direction and we got on. Or rather I did! The tram was packed solid with people and the only way to get on was to throw yourself in and stand packed like a very, very squashed sardine inside. I struggled to even turn my head and say sarcastically to Peter: "This is going to be fun !" Only to find that the doors had closed and he was still standing on the street while I was well and truly on board. I had no idea where the tram was going, no idea where our hotel was I have an appalling sense of direction. I had no money, no ticket and no map. Peter was shouting something at me that I could not understand. Then we were moving off! I decided the only sensible thing to do was to get off at the next stop and try to find my way back to Peter. I would just have to hope no-one asked for my ticket before then. To be honest, the ticket inspector would have had to be squashed against me to be able to check my ticket anyway. No way could anyone move around this tram. I would also have to hope Peter had not got on the next tram. The distance between stops seemed endless and I was trying to commit every twist and turn to memory. I could follow the tram lines back if need be if they did not criss cross each other too much. Finally, we stopped, the doors opened. I managed to get off and started to make my way back. I soon found Peter. He had chased after the tram at top speed and was clutching his heart desperately trying to stave off a heart attack a few blocks away. Greatly relieved we boarded the next tram together this time and even made it back just in time for dinner.

Field of Mars and Church of the Saviour on Blood. - Saint Petersburg

Field of Mars and Church of the Saviour on Blood. - Saint Petersburg

On Nevsky Prospekt. - Saint Petersburg

On Nevsky Prospekt. - Saint Petersburg

One evening on our second trip was spent watching the ballet Giselle. An amazing performance with encore after encore and the audience going wild with delight. The audience enthusiasm and participation really made being there so special. There was cheering, clapping, foot stamping. The performers lapped it all up. Peter, who had not really wanted to go, said it was more like going to a football match than a ballet and absolutely loved it.

Next night was spent at a local bar where we drank vodka and danced. There were four of us. We were careful with money, handbags as we knew people were poor, but one of our party left her sweater on the chair while she danced and it got stolen. In a way we could not really even resent it. It was easy for us to buy a new sweater, but not easy for people in Russia to buy anything at that time. I remembered on my first visit when I had had a long time in Vybourg while the driver returned to Helsinki for the missing paperwork that I had wandered into a clothes shop. Nothing had been on rails; everything was lying jumbled up in boxes on the floor. Every item looked old, gray, drab. It was more like a jumble sale than a shop. I'm not a clothes person, most of my clothes are fairly cheap and yet people kept looking enviously at my cheap red jumper. I think it was the bright colour that made it stand out. On our second trip the chambermaids at our hotel starting miming that they wanted to buy tights from me. If I had known, they were so difficult to get, I would have brought some and given them to them for free, but I hadn't. Instead I offered them a used pair. I was not asking them for money. I was just trying to be kind, but they stuck their noses up in horror. Maybe it was the smell of my feet, or maybe they did not understand I was giving them the tights without expecting money. Anyway they refused to take them, making me the butt of many can't even give her clothes away jokes for years to come.

Taking Photos.

Back in the eighties, I took hardly any photos. I had no money for films or film developing, so I do not have lots of pictures from my visit. We should and hopefully will visit Saint Petersburg some day to see how it has changed, but I feel very privileged to have visited Leningrad when it was Leningrad and to have briefly seen such a different way of life.

The Peter and Paul Fortress. - Saint Petersburg

The Peter and Paul Fortress. - Saint Petersburg

Outside Saint Isaac's Cathedral. - Saint Petersburg

Outside Saint Isaac's Cathedral. - Saint Petersburg

Vybourg.

In addition to visiting Leningrad, on both trips we briefly visited Vyborg. On the first trip I had lots of time in Vyborg as the driver had to abandon us there while he went back to Helsinki for his missing paperwork. I walked by the river and looked at the Viking ship and the castle. I also went inside a Russian orthodox church but hurriedly left as there was a funeral going on and I did not want to intrude. As I said earlier I also visited a clothes shop that was more like a jumble sale than a shop. Everywhere I went people stared at my clothes which stood out as much more colourful than everyone else's. On both trips we stopped for lunch in Vyborg. The first time we ate in the Druzbha Hotel.

I think this bus is in Vyborg. - Saint Petersburg

I think this bus is in Vyborg. - Saint Petersburg

Vyborg Castle and Viking Ship. - Saint Petersburg

Vyborg Castle and Viking Ship. - Saint Petersburg

Vyborg Castle and Viking Ship. - Saint Petersburg

Vyborg Castle and Viking Ship. - Saint Petersburg

Posted by irenevt 22:29 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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