Regal splendour

Regal splendour

cultural transformation

national hero The Bronze Horseman in St Petersburg. photo by author

This, combined with the sufferings inflicted by the two World Wars, make a sunny temperament difficult to acquire.

But, what took our breath away was the wealth of art and treasure and the way it is maintained here. The regime did not indulge in vandalism. Most of the rich national heritage is extremely well-preserved and taken care of. Everywhere, there is evidence of the pride Russians have in their prized national possessions. Though the transition from communism to capitalism has brought its share of trauma, exclusive shopping areas display designer wear and high-end consumer goods. As everywhere else, American fast food joints are quite common here too.

We were in awe of Russian art and culture from the time we set foot in St Petersburg. The greatest attraction here is the Hermitage Museum, the brainchild of architect Rastrelli, located in the Winter Palace, which was the official residence of Russian royalty up to 1917. The spell-binding features are the Jordan staircase, the Peter hall, the malachite drawing room and the white dining room, to mention a few.

The Hermitage is an extensive museum with a collection of 3,000,000 magnificent art objects. In 1764, Catherine II bought 225 paintings by western masters. To this, she added sculptures, engravings, tapestries, decorative art, arms and armour. As the collection grew, the museum kept extending and now consists of five inter-connected buildings on the Palace Square.

Palace Square is distinguished by the imposing General Staff building and the ministerial building connected by a triumphal arch, with the Chariot of Victory on the top (this marks the Russian victory in the 1812-1814 campaign against Napoleon Bonaparte). Of equal interest are the Obelisk and the Alexander Column, which also commemorate the victory over Napoleon Bonaparte.

Peter and Paul Fortress Citadel was built to protect the areas around the Neva River taken back by Russia from Sweden during the Northern War. The roughly hexagon-shaped fortress has six bastions named after Peter and his associates. St John Bridge was the first of over 300 bridges built to link Hare Island and Petrograd Island. The main gate of the fortress is a triumphal arch in honour of the victories in the Northern War. Catherine Palace in Pushkin is famed for its Amber Room where photography is strictly forbidden. It is an aesthetic feast for the eyes.

Vasilyevsky Island is another attraction in St Petersburg. It emerged as a centre of trade in the 19th century with its stock exchange building assuming importance. The Rostral Columns — the two light houses, catch the eye. The figures at the foot of these columns relate to Slavic river stories. The Academy of Sciences and the Menshikov Palace (where Alexander Menshikov, the first governor of St Petersburg, resided) and the Russian Academy of Arts, which has granite figures of Egyptian Sphinxes guarding it, are places of interest.

The Admiralty, a shipyard-cum-fortress, is another symbol of St Petersburg. A gilded ship-like weather vane is atop this building. The pride of being the earliest monument dedicated to the founder of St Petersburg is the Bronze Horseman by French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet. It bears the inscription, ‘To Peter the First from Catherine the Second’ in Russian and Latin. Close to the Senate Square is St Isaac’s Cathedral, an imposing domed structure, which took 40 years to be built.

The Summer Gardens, the first in the city, has a variety of trees, shrubs and flowers, Italian marble statues and fountains. The distinctive railing of the Summer Gardens is considered a marvel.

Later, we took a boat ride along the Neva River, which gave us a panoramic view of the city. Walking down Nevsky Prospect, we came to the Cathedral of the Resurrection. It was built on the spot where Alexander II had been murdered.

We then took a train to Moscow. If the heart of Russia is the Kremlin, its soul is Cathedral Square, the oldest area within the Kremlin. The gilded domes of five cathedrals shine to this day as they did all those years ago. The famous Red Square was formerly Russia’s main market place, also used for public ceremonies, proclamations and coronations of Tsars. It is now used for all official ceremonies and military parades. The ‘Red’ originated from the colour of the bricks around it. The most famous landmark in the Kremlin is the St Basil’s Cathedral, built in the 16th century. The brightly painted onion domes are an attraction.

Another must-visit is Lenin’s Mausoleum, which houses the leader’s dead body. The Kremlin Walls are the Soviet Union’s prestigious cemetery. And there is more. The Pushkin Fine Arts Museum houses much of the world’s art in plaster form.

A fitting finale to our visit to Russia was a journey on the world-renowned Metro train, a feat in civil engineering history.

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