On a tour of Moscow and St Petersburg recently, Dr S. Mathana Amaris Fiona discovers a Russia that’s more than just Tolstoy, Pushkin and the Tsars

“SEIZE the moments of happiness, love and be loved.”

The lines by Leo Tolstoy precisely describes the feeling of spending a week in Russia.

Last year’s FIFA World cup piqued my interest to visit the country, to learn more about the people, their hospitality and their culture, beyond what I have come across in books and movies.

My family and I joined a tour to Moscow and St Petersburg last autumn. In Russia, autumn is a brief season between September and October, with the day temperature of between 18-20˚ Celsius and sunshine of 8-10 hours.

With our tour leader Kim Chew, we left Kuala Lumpur on Friday night. After a day of flying and transit via Istanbul, we finally reached Moscow on a bright Saturday morning.


The red building of the Kremlin

We started with a city tour on a bus. I marvelled at high-scrapers and the Seven Sister buildings (the seven-tiered neoclassical towers around the city ordered by Joseph Stalin). We drove along streets lined with blooming apple trees. The ground underneath the trees was laid with plenty of apples,enough for students to satisfy their hunger while on their way to the Moscow State University.

Named after its founder Mikhail Lomonosov in 1755, the university’s centre tower was visible from every corner of the city.

Our tour bus took us into the university compound to have a view of its stretching floor area, dormitories and library. The humongous structure speaks for itself about its long-standing tradition of academic excellence.

After a Russian set lunch with dessert and tea, off we went to the Patriarchal Bridge, taking a stroll at the steel pedestrian bridge, which spanned Moskva river and the Vodootvodny canal.

Then we headed to the nearby Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the tallest orthodox church in the world, which is also the official church which President Vladimir Putin attends.

The day ended with dinner and a light stroll near the onion-domed St Basil’s Cathedral to catch the nightlife in Moscow.

MORE OF MOSCOW

The next morning, we left early for an early excursion to Red Square that’s flanked by Kremlin. The colourful iconic onion domes of St. Basil Cathedral stood majestically, inviting all of us for a photo-stop.

Next was the world famous Lenin Mausoleum.

The entrance was free but we had to join the queue for almost an hour before we got through security check and pass a few generals’ tombs. A stairway led to where the body of the former Soviet leader, Vladimir Ilych Lenin, was preserved for public display ever since his death in 1924.

The guards at every corner gestured that we walk in silence in small groups. I was told his body was one of the world’s most preserved corpse for more than a century. The fine preservation and embalming techniques had maintained the look and flexibility of Lenin. We got to gaze at him dressed in black suit for about two minutes before we started moving out. We went out thinking whether we saw a real preserved corpse or a wax-like mummy.

Our local specialist, Nina, insisted that we visited the Armoury Chamber at Kremlin. Originally, a royal arsenal, today it is a huge museum displaying empress’ clothes, armour and gifts received by the Tsars.

It has unique collections from Russia and Europe, among others, religious icons in decorated frames, royal crowns, ivory throne of Ivan the Terrible, regalia, jewels, coronation outfit, tableware, engravings, and decorated royal carriages.

The long walk across the halls, with an audio guide, took us back to the olden days. One that caught my attention was the coronation gown of Empress Catherine the Great (Catherine II), who hailed from Germany.


St Basil at night

She wanted to show the people that she was one among them, and so she wore the coronation gown adorned with double eagled motifs representing the symbol of Russia. I left the chamber with awe and wonder.

Lunch was near Kremlin. Each one of us was served a Russian traditional dish, called Zharkoye, in a ceramic pot. A bread topping like our roti canai covered the pot filled with potato gravy andmeat, a perfect choice to match the rainy weather.

The next day, we travelled an hour to Sergiev Posad to visit the Trinity Lavra of St Sergius, a traditional orthodox centre built in the 14th century.

The story went that St Sergius lived a simple life, selling wooden dolls to build the monastery church, on a land surrounded by cottages and greeneries.

No wonder till today the wooden Russian dolls were popular souvenir items among tourists. With development, the woods were cleared and the monastery gradually grew to what it was today, the official seat of the Patriarch and home to monks.

The blue and gold dome tower seen from far invited us toaserene place, now commercialised withafew shops selling books, hot cakes and souvenirs.


Raphael Loggias gallery features reproduction of frescoes of Vatican

The highlight in Moscow was the Metro train station. The Moscow Metro was like a Russian History museum showcasing extravagant decorations of Soviet era. You were forgiven to think that you had entered an arts exhibition.

Marble walls, chandeliers, high ceilings and beautiful mosaics would hold you spellbound that you would likely miss your next train. The trains were punctual, arriving every next minute and on Sundays, about two minutes’ interval.

Nina took us on a train adventure, changing from one line to another, for us to see the unique setting of different stations. We left the green ring line Tetranalaya to Mayakovskaya and then to Belorusskaya before changing to brown ring line to Belorudskaya and then to Novoslobodskaya and finally to Komsomolskaya.

The Komsomolskaya station, with Baroque styled ceilings, marble walls, mosaics and floral moldings, stole my heart. Every mosaic on the ceiling portrayed an era in history. You could possibly have a history lesson as you pass every mosaic ceiling as an era in timeline was revealed.

We also took turns to touch the nose of the “lucky dog” statue at Ploshchad Revolutsii Metro station.

BEAUTIFUL ST PETERSBURG

On the fourth day, it was time to transfer to Moscow railway station on a high speed train “Sapsan”. Traveling at a speed of 300km/hour, we got to St Petersburg, a four-hour journey passing through small villages, barns and churches.

To ensure the privacy of all, passengers were required to speak in low voices, or else a train inspector would come to check on

you.

I fell in love with St Petersburg, the former capital of Russia, which was home to historic and cultural centres, havens of cathedrals, museums and palaces.

Though my first impression was that the buildings needed a new coat of paint, I soon realised that the buildings were preserved

as Unesco heritage sites.

The bronze horseman statue of Peter the Great, the founder of the city, stood tall, inviting you toacity of wonder.

We began our visit with the Paul and Peter fortress, the original citadel of St Petersburg, founded in 1703. The cathedral has a 123m bell tower and a gilded angel topped cupola, and also houses the tombs of Russian emperors.

In 1998, the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, who were executed back in 1918, were interred here.

The main attraction was the St Isaac Cathedral, the largest orthodox basilica and one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world with its gold leafed dome.

Inside the cathedral, there was a video showing how the humongous columns were erected.

We noticed the green malachite gem columns at the altar with a height of 10 metres. Due to the cold weather, the paintings on the wall had been partially replaced with mosaics but they looked so real that one could not differentiate between the two.

Another beautiful cathedral was Our Lady of Kazan, dedicated to the most venerated icon in Russia. Though currently under restoration, the orthodox church with numerous columns, palatial hall and fittings was a must-see.

Outside the cathedral stood the monument of Kutuzov, the Marshall who headed the Battle of Borodino against Napolean.

The Nevsky Prospekt street was just nearby for some quick shopping.

If you had not seen Catherine Palace, then you had not completed your visitin St Petersburg. The 300m length palace was painted with Empress Catherine’s favourite colours of blue, white and gold, with interiors by her favourite designer of Italian origin, Francesco Rastrelli.


The rows of red and white arches in the Great Mosque of Cordoba

The palace has a 300-year-long history and boasts the world famous Amber room with its amber stoned walls.

Photography was prohibited in this room.

Catherine II was the “best ruler”, according to our local specialist, Inga.

The palace represented an era of luxury, with plenty of rooms and beautiful decorations, attracting visitors and leaders all over the world.

Transported in time, I was lulled into imagining thatI was there dancing in royal gowns and walking along the hallways.

Another grandiose architecture could be seen at the Peterof Palace (Peter’s court), the summer residence of Russian emperor, complete with fountain and parks.

The palace was a grand ensemble of ballroom, white dining room, imperial suite, throne room, portrait room, Chinese Oriental room and Oak study room.

Art lovers must visit the State Hermitage Museum (formerly the winter palace of the Tsars), which has about three million items in its collections including Egypt antiquities, the Raphael Loggias gallery (featuring reproduction of frescoes at the Vatican) and gems, antics and arts from Central Asia and China.

There were many masterpiece paintings, art from Renaissance period, and works of Italian artists.

Catherine’s insatiable passion for the arts speaks for itself. Inga told us that palace workers had to bring down the wall to transport a unique vessel into the hallway.

I was enthralled to see the painting of Madonna Litta (and the child), a depiction of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding her baby.

The infant child could be seen smiling at you from every angle. The picture was attributed to Da Vinci.

We had time for a photo stop at Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, which had a beautiful onion domed architecture.

The building marked the tragic death of Alexander II who was bombed in his carriage at this place.

After along day, it was refreshing to join the Neva river cruise, where one got to see the complete city landscape, passing towers, palace and ship wrecks.

The hour-long relaxing boat ride prompted my parents to recall Russian literature such as Crime and Punishment and War and Peace.


The Gold Tower guarding the Guadalquivir River waterfront in Seville

The tour in St Petersburg ended with a spectacular Russian folklore dance show at night.

It’s held at the Nicholas Place, a grand residence with marble staircase and elegant rooms.

Local delicacies such as caviar, vodka, and drinks served during interval complemented the two-hour-long performance.

It was truly the best way to experience and celebrate Russian culture, something that I would cherish forever.

At the wall of the hotel that I stayed in, there hungaquote: “The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning you did not even think to ask”.

Indeed enchanting Russia was more than Tolstoy, Pushkin and the Tsars. It was not the Russia that we had known in news and movies.

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