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Russian Splendour Renewed: A Heritage Tour of Moscow and St Petersburg

Published
June 27, 2020
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A few years ago I went on a ramble through much of Europe, including the Russian cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. It was fascinating to see how much of the country’s old heritage was being restored in ways that should interest everyone, beyond the politics of the moment.

My story begins with a painting that hangs in one of metropolitan Russia’s many art galleries.

The Tretyakov Gallery holds a masterpiece by the nineteenth-century painter Ilya Repin. It shows the scene a few moments after the very first Tsar and founder of the Russian Empire, Ivan the Terrible, has just struck his son and heir with a heavy stick in a fit of rage. His son would soon die.

Ilya Repin (1885): ‘Ivan the Terrible and his Son on November 16, 1581'. Public domain artwork at the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, via Wikimedia Commons.

This was one of the many unstable and extreme incidents that led Ivan to be called ‘the Terrible’.

The life of Ivan the Terrible is a touchy subject in Russia. Fancy living in a country where its most famous founder isn’t some George Washington type, but an erratic tyrant known as ‘the Terrible’!

The second-to-last Tsar, Alexander III, banned Repin’s painting from public display. Alexander eventually relented, on the grounds that the painting was just too good to keep locked up.

Later on, in the 1940s. the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by the even more terrible dictator Joseph Stalin to make a three-part film about the life of Ivan, in the hope that Ivan’s achievements as founder of the Russian Empire would rub off on his regime.

Eisenstein must have spent sleepless nights figuring out how to deliver a biopic that was warts-n-all enough to be believable without pissing Stalin off, and thus winding up in Siberia if he was lucky.

Basically, all of Russian history is like that. We of the English-speaking world have toppled a few statues lately. But we’re really latecomers to the idea of a history that’s difficult to deal with or somehow ambiguous, compared to people like the Russians. Who have had to deal with all kinds of drastic revisions of the worth of their history.

After the Communist Revolution, a lot of the old heritage of the Tsarist era became ideologically suspect. In Moscow, Stalin actually had a number of important heritage buildings aound the Kremlin and Red Square destroyed to make way for grandiose plans of inner-city reconstruction that never eventuated.

These destroyed buildings included the Moscow Kazan Cathedral, the Iberian Gate and its associated Little Chapel, and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Fedor Yakovlevich Alekseev (1753–1824), ‘Kazan Cathedral, Provincial Board, Zemsky Prikaz, Voskresensky Gates [Iberian Gate]’. Public domain image via Moscow Travel Guide.

‘19th-century postcard of Voskresensky (Resurrection) or Iberian Gate in Moscow’, Library of Congress collection, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Old photograph of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow between 1883 and 1918, photographer unknown, sourced by Ilya Varlamov, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

There’s also a Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg, a city known as Leningrad for most of the Soviet era. The St Petersburg cathedral is in a totally different style, Italian and Catholic in appearance even though it is a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, in Russia. Happily, this cathedral survived the years intact: in part because the Soviet authorities decided to turn it into an anti-religious museum, complete with waxworks of the iniquities of the Spanish Inquisition!

Cathedral of our Lady of Kazan in St Petersburg, Russia, (31 May 2017), image by Ludvig14, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The contrast of the two Kazan Cathedrals highlights the most obvious difference between St Petersburg and Moscow: namely, that the old heritage buildings in St Petersburg generally look more Western. The reason for that’s quite interesting, and I’ll get to it a little further below.

Intolerance wasn’t the only threat to Russian and Soviet heritage in the century that has just passed. For of course many buildings, such as the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo near St Petersburg, were also heavily damaged or destroyed during World War II. When I visited the Catherine Palace, there were pictures of its wartime devastation on display.

Reconstruction of the heavily gilded Catherine Palace began under the Communists in 1957. The restorers performed their work on the basis of pre-war photographs and sketches, and did a good job in the end!

Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo (30 July 2012), by Alex ‘Florstein’ Fedorov, «© Alex Fedorov, Wikimedia Commons», CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

All the same, a lot of the heritage of Russia and neighbouring countries such as the Ukraine was allowed to fall into a paint-peeling condition of disrepair, as the emphasis in those days was mainly on industry and also on housing for the workers.

In the last few decades, a lot more a lot of the old stuff has been patched up. There has even been a miraculous resurrection of buildings once thought to have been destroyed for all time. The Gorbachev-era Soviet authorities approved the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and it was rebuilt in the 1990s. The Moscow Kazan Cathedral, the Iberian Gate and the Little Chapel have also been rebuilt from scratch.

There’s plenty more gobsmacking Russian heritage where that came from. For a start the Palace Square, Alexander Column and Winter Palace — the one that got stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 — in St Petersburg.

You can go and stand where history was made, like I did!

Here are photographs taken in Catherine Park, near the Catherine Palace.

The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is interesting, if perhaps a little overdone. It was erected in honour of Tsar Alexander II, who was assassinated in 1881. As the name suggests, it was built on the spot where he bled out.

Assassinations and acts of terrorism were rife in Tsarist Russia, a country that seemed to lurch from one level of instability to the next in its final decades. Also commemorated in a later monument in Moscow, Alexander II was a comparatively liberal ruler. Had he lived he might have helped Russia to become a more normal sort of a modern democratic country. Instead, his murder by terrorists profoundly destabilised the Russian Empire and set it up for its eventual revolution, by way of the intervening right-wing over-reaction.

For the next Tsar, Alexander III, was as right-wing and autocratic as Alexander II had not been. ‘No more of this liberalism nonsense, it only gets you killed’, seems to have been Alexander III’s motto. The last Tsar, Nicholas II, tried to be a right-wing autocrat just like his dad, Alexander III: but wasn’t as good at it. And then World War One came along: an event that toppled many of Europe’s crowns, Russia’s among them.

The name of the Mariinsky Palace and Theatre reflects the maritime heritage of St Petersburg, a city founded by the early eighteenth-century Tsar Peter the Great, whose palace of Peterhof is also on the shore.

Peterhof means Peter-Court in German. The German language was widely spoken all the way up the Baltic coast from Germany itself to St Petersburg in Tsarist times, and the ruling classes of Russia also spoke French at home. Peter the Great regarded his own country as rather backward, and dictated that its architecture should henceforth be more like that of central and Western Europe, whence the style of St Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral, which looks like it belongs in Rome rather than Russia.

Peter is commemorated in an amazing 1782 statue that the poet Pushkin named ‘the bronze horseman’. Even more amazing is the fact that the statue is erected on block of granite weighing an estimated 1250 metric tons (tonnes), whittled down from 1500 or so when the Russians first tried dragging it to the intended spot. The Egyptians had nothing on this!

In less popular terms, Peter also dictated that the educated classes of society should wear eighteenth-century Western attire such as breeches for men with tights and buckled shoes below the knee and three-cornered hats on top — and certainly no long hear or beards — instead of flowing robes, soft boots, furry hats, long hair and beards as in the good old days of Ivan the Terrible.

Women weren’t required to change their attire so drastically, But the men of Russia complained that the Tsar was trying to freeze them to death. That French fashions were all very well for France but he’d forgotten about Russia’s awful climate!

The Kremlin, where Tsars and Communist rulers of every stripe were holed up for centuries, is fascinating in itself. These days, you can actually go inside. Strictly speaking, it’s the Moscow Kremlin we’re talking about here: for the word kremlin simply means citadel, a fortified area similar to a castle but a bit bigger, a sort of city-within-a-city around which the wider, more suburban city is organised. Lots of old cities have citadels and the Moscow Kremlin is but one of these, albeit one of the most spectacular to still survive intact.

As such, the Moscow Kremlin is not a building but a walled precinct with numerous churches, palaces, monuments and office buildings. As I say, you’re able to wander about the grounds these days.

Grand Kremlin Palace viewed from outside the walls. The first in a group of three images that were joined together when I first published them.

Grand Kremlin Palace, inside the walls

Grand Kremlin Palace inside the walls, with gate tower

(These frescoes are, no doubt, fully restored by now.)

The Kremlin has many gates with colossal gate-towers above, two of which appear in the following collage. It also includes the modern-day, reconstructed Iberian Gate and Little Chapel. The Iberian Gate’s not a Kremlin gate, but nearby.

Incidentally, the ‘Iberia’ that the Iberian Gate is named after isn’t the peninsula that comprises Spain and Portugal. It’s actually a region of the Caucusus, part of modern Georgia I think, a region which is also called Iberia. Apparently it’s just a coincidence that this region has the same name as the Iberian Peninsula.

Not every heritage building in Moscow is ‘old style’ of course. Much of the Kremlin is done in St Petersburg style, and so is the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

But St Basil’s Cathedral definitely is.

Before I get on to St Basil’s, it’s worth mentioning the monument to Russian national heroes Minin and Pozharsky that you can seek at the bottom of the collage, in front of St Basil’s. Minin and Pozharsky organised the troops to hurl back Polish and Lithuanian invaders who had otherwise made it all the way to Moscow in the 1600s. Minin and Pozharsky have long symbolised a sort of ‘finest hour’ quality to the Russians, and it was especially timely, in that sense, that the statue was commissioned just before Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and completed soon after. The statue is the Russian equivalent of the lions of Trafalgar Square, or the nearby statue of Winston Churchill. Fittingly, it also faces onto Red Square.

Now, here are some images of St Basil’s, including its interior (rarely photographed).

Lastly, another great piece of heritage is the Moscow Metro, begun in the 1930s and steadily added to ever since. Its stations are palaces for public transport users!

This post is (very) loosely based on a chapter in my book A Maverick Pilgrim Way: A Kiwi hikes Old Europe’s Trails, which is on Amazon, Kobo and Lulu. For more, see my website a-maverick.com.

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