With a similar anticipation to that on my flight from New York to Moscow, I couldn’t wait to get to Saint Petersburg. On the overnight train from Moscow I could only muster one hour of sleep. Like Moscow, I had learned so much about Saint Petersburg, Petrograd, and Leningrad, and wanted to see the city and its history in person. The city of Saint Petersburg is a fulcrum of Russian history: it was the imperial capital of the Romanovs as well as the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution. There are plenty of contrasts evident in the city, which add to its substantial character. These are a couple of highlights from my time in Saint Petersburg.
I should start with the State Hermitage museum, which left a strong impression on me because of its historical significance and the reverberating vestiges of Empire that echo through its halls. Palace Square struck me right away as a testament to the power and wealth of the Russian Empire. One feels so small standing at the edge of it and looking at the panorama of the palace complex. The same is true of museum’s interior. The entire time I was inside I couldn’t keep my eyes on anything for more than a couple of seconds, with the exception of the museum’s Raphael and Michelangelo works.
The architecture of the halls and the quality of the artwork inside them caused me to feel conflicted and unsure about what to look at. Often when I’m overwhelmed by a museum, I take pictures of everything I see because I am unsure of what to pay attention to. Although I did stop to scrutinize portions of the museum here and there, such as the Hall of 1812, I wish I would’ve slowed down throughout our tour of the museum. I have around 100 pictures from 2.5 hours of walking, plenty of material to look back on if I ever get too bored… On top of the beautiful architecture and the world-class art on display, the museum is even more breath-taking when you remember it was an oft-used private residence of the Romanovs. Once I was reminded of that, the enormous contrast between the lifestyle of the emperors and of the city surrounding them was clearer than ever before.
Two days later I encountered one of the emotionally heavier experiences of my travels in Russia, at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery. There are several features of this cemetery, dedicated to those who perished during the Siege of Leningrad, that gave me chills. Piskaryovskoye weighs on your senses in a profound way. There is an eternal flame at the entrance which stands in the middle of a long, wide walkway towards a towering obelisk at the other end. On either side as one approaches the obelisk are the rows of mass graves of citizens and soldiers, creating a spatial vastness reminiscent of the tragic number of casualties.
While you walk across this path, classical music subtly plays from speakers and heightens the significance of the memory this cemetery preserves. More than the Hermitage or anything else I encountered in Russia, this experience gave me perspective. Here I felt a connection not just to Russian history, but to humanity.
I came to Saint Petersburg unsure of how Soviet and imperial history would coexist or interact, and I realized that sites belonging to both eras in Russia’s history are complementary rather than divergent. While Saint Petersburg is the city of the Romanovs and the origin of the Revolution, the entire city feels like a museum of Russian history of the last 300 years.