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Chapter 21 - St Petersburg, Moscow, and Russian Power

By Neil and Nikki

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That’s not a clock, THIS is a clock! – St. Petersburg.

No, it’s not a peacock. Well it is a peacock, but it’s a clock too.

The Peacock Clock in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg

Built by a Brit in 1791, it took some time to assemble it. Swiss clocks have a cuckoo. But the Peacock Clock in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg does this.

The Peacock Clock showing the time……

The Hermitage is housed in four buildings, including the Winter Palace, which is quite simply the most ridiculously opulent, grand, outrageous palace I’ve ever seen. The Winter Palace was commissioned by Empress Elizabeth in 1754 but first lived in by Catherine the Great and then occupied by the Tsars and their families until the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.


The Hermitage is a collection of art works started by Catherine the Great, which now has over three million items which rotate on display through 360 rooms in the Hermitage.

The Winter Palace which houses part of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.


Nik and I had taken the little hop of a flight from Anadyr in the Russian Far East to St Petersburg (as with all things in Russia, via Moscow).

A map of the flight from Anadyr to Moscow in the Anadyr Airport, Chukotka province, Russian Far East.

Flying 6,826 km and crossing 9 time zones, it not only took a while, it also took some time to get the body clock corrected. 6,400 km’s is the radius of the earth, just to give a sense of scale.

Also, just to add a little spice, the flight went above the Arctic Circle to 70 degrees latitude and we could see the Arctic ice pack. So technically we crossed the magic circle, but not really…

Arctic pack ice visible on the flight from Anadyr to Moscow.

More about the history of St Petersburg later, but suffice to say it was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. And, called the Venice of the North, it’s famed beauty is not exaggerated.

Canals in St Petersburg

It’s iconic buildings, including the Winter Palace and Church of the Spilled Blood, literally make you stop in your tracks as you stroll around this walkable and friendly city.

The Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.

We started with being shown to our great apartment right in the “Golden Triangle” of the city; cornered by the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage and the Moyka Canal. The following day we did a walking tour with our host, which was both informative about the history of St. Petersburg, but also her experiences of living through the tumultuous history of the breakdown of the USSR. We then had 2 days to simply soak it all in and enjoy the architectural eye-candy that is SP!

‘The Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood’ that was built after Tsar Alexander II was assassinated on the site in 1881.

The 7000sq meters of mosaics on the inside of the Church on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg.

The view across Palace Square to the Winter Palace through the arch in the General Staff Building. Catherine the Great lived in a much smaller building on this side of the arch, watching the completion of her new palace with this very view.

Global Colossus! Russia? No, I’m writing about that other world colossus, the Singer Sewing Machine Company. They were massive a hundred years ago and we’ve been seeing their machines everywhere (an entire storefront of 100’s of them in Berlin). In 1903, they built an amazingly elaborate store in St Petersburg, although they were forced to abandon it with the revolution 15 years later. Note the writing in red letters on a gold background. It says, “Company Singer”. Kind of proud that our Russian did at least get good enough to be able to translate words that are shared with English!

The Singer Building in St. Petersburg, now a bookstore and café.

Our pre-conceptions of Russia were somewhat clouded by our experiences getting the visas (see chapter 20 of the blog) and we were expecting (unfairly) officiousness and unhelpfulness (and bad food!)

However, this was far from our experience! St. Petersburg (and Moscow) were full of friendly faces (and plenty of English speaking – which helped with our very limited Russian). And the food? I discovered a new food heaven called herring, which I have now gone on to eat in every city we have visited in the last 2 weeks! Our first night in SP I made my first foray into herring heaven with Forshmak (minced salted herring and eggs) and Nik reacquainted herself with a long held fondness for Vareniki (or Peirogi/Pelmini depending on your origin). And we both discovered a newfound and unexpected taste for flavoured vodka, in this case a savoury horseradish vodka, served chilled and then sipped with our dinner. Locally produced, we spent the rest of our time in Russia trying to find a similar vodka experience, to no avail. Trust me there was lots of vodka, just not of the same unique taste, not matter how much we tried….

Forshmak (minced herring and egg) washed down with Vodka infused with Horseradish at Yat Restaurant, St Petersburg.

Vareniki with potatoes and mushroom and traditional Russian beetroot salad.


Onto Moscow.

Britain has Big Ben. Australia has the Sydney Opera House, France has the Eiffel Tower, and Russia has St Basil’s Cathedral:

Neil and Nik at St Basils Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, Russia.

St Basil’s Cathedral was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 to celebrate overcoming the Tartars in Kazan. It was completed in 1561. An interesting fact that our guide in Moscow was keen to point out was that Ivan’s moniker ‘Terrible’ is a mistranslation, and in fact is more accurately translated as ‘Powerful’, which was what was needed to defeat the Tartars. She also hastily pointed out that he was still “not a very nice man”.

And then, of course, the Kremlin. The entire complex below is the Moscow Kremlin, which includes the red fortress structure, 5 churches, a theatre, and a number of palaces, as well as the building inhabited by the Russian president.

The Kremlin, Moscow. Actually, it is a misnomer. “Kremlin” in Russian means Fortress, so in Russia there are lots of Kremlins…

And a twisty tower.

Twisty Tower, Moscow. Yes. Really.

And, very importantly, The Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

I never really understood before coming to Russia, how big it’s role was in the Second World War, or “The Great Patriotic War” as it is called there. Russia lost an unbelievable 27 million people during the war.

The Great Patriotic War Museum, Moscow.

Stalin was seriously miffed when, having signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler, Hitler nonetheless launched ‘Operation Barossa’ in June 1941. With 4 million troops, 104 Infantry divisions, 19 Panzer and 15 motorised infantry divisions and 2770 aircraft (65% of the Luftwaffe). By December 1941 the Nazis were 30 km’s from Moscow.

The battle front was enormous.


But whilst the battles with the Nazis around Moscow, the Ukraine, the Baltic States were bloody, it was the 872 day Leningrad Blockade (as St Petersburg was called in 1941), that was perhaps the toughest fight.

The aftermath of the siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg) – 1941 to 1944

About a million-people died from the 150,000 shells, from starvation and disease. People ate pets, rats, and birds to survive. At one point the ration was 175 grams of sawdust laden bread per day.

There is, in my view, no question that without the Herculean efforts of the Russians during the War, necessitating so many Nazi troops and armaments being sent to, as the Nazis called it, the Eastern Front, that the outcome of the war could, and probably would, have been very different.

Russia also fought the war on fronts in the Far East with Japan as well.

The Victory room in the Museum is absolutely appropriate.

The Victory Room with plaques for each of the 16 theatres of war and the names of each of the 12,000 heroes of the war.


Now, onto the political vibe, man, from the Russian part of the trip. Plus, of course, going off on a tangent or two!

Communism. It’s a nice idea, isn’t it?

You know. We all work for the common good. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” as Karl Marx wrote in 1875. It all sounds like a nice idea. As Nik said, having read some of the writings of Che Guevara, “the concept is good, but the implementation that let’s it down (oh, and the dictators…)”.

Communism in Russia lasted from 1917 to 1989 – 72 years. Communism lasted in China from 1949 to 1979 – 30 years. In Cuba from 1959 to 2016 – 57 years. And it’s still going in North Korea. Or is that the Kim Jong Un dictatorship? By the way I was grooving down the other day to the latest hits “My Country is the Best” and “Song of Hwasong Artillery” (Hwasong is the name of North Korea’s latest missile, by the way) from that North Korean Girl Band called the Moranbong Band.

North Korean Girl Band, “The Moranbong Band”

Great stuff. (The “B” side on the first song also has the catchy title of “Kim Jong Un hasn’t murdered me. Well, today at least..”.)

Please, please, please google “Moranbong Band – Song of the Hwasong Artillery – You Tube”. It is, quite simply, gold. Fabulous. Horrible. Scary. Disturbing…..

But seriously, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China is estimated to have killed 55 to 60 million in the 1960’s and 1970’s (say 6% of the population), Russia is estimated to have killed 30 million in the Gulag’s, and 15 million due to the collectivisation in the 1930’s (say 15% of the population). As I said in earlier blogs, the education, equality, and health in communist countries is excellent, but the downsides are, in my view, not worth it.

So, in Russia, in 1989 – 1991, it all turned to custard.

The fall, and fall, and fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

It was this bloke who was the initial spark that lit the fire:

Lech Walesa – Born 1943 – Chairperson of Solidarity 1980 to 1990, President of Poland – 1990 to 1995

In the shipyards of Gdansk in Poland in August 1980, he led the Solidarity Trade Union movement. Instead of the tanks rolling in, as they had done in Hungary in 1956, General Jaruzelski, the leader of Poland, let it slide.

However, the kindling for starting the fire had started in the 1960’s and 70’s. Leonid Brezhnev had become the General Secretary in 1964. Repression increased, but so had the number of dissidents, and in 1972, the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, introduced forced emigration and imprisonment in “psychiatric institutions”.

The Soviet economy at this point had become moribund. Why? This beautiful cartoon sums it up.


The leaders of the Soviet Union and those on the Politburo had become fat cats.

Brezhnev became ill and was rarely seen after 1979. The kindling was as big as a house.

Soviet Union ready to burn in 1985.

Then these two old codgers were rolled out as General Secretaries (head honcho’s) of the USSR after Brezhnev’s death in 1982:

Yuri Andropov – Leader of the USSR from 12th November 1982 until his death on 9th February 1984

Konstantin Chernenko – USSR leader from 13th February 1984 until his death on 10th March 1985

Between them they lasted just over two years. The scene was set.

Add, at this point, add Gorbachev and Glasnost (Openness) and Perestroika (Restructuring) and the wood started to burn:


- 1987 – the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the nuclear arms reduction treaty
- 1989 – Withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Advice to all politicians, world leaders, military leaders, please read the stories about the British Afghanistan invasions of the 1838-1842 and 1878 to 1880. Leave Afghanistan alone. It always has, and always will, end in tears. And failure. And massive loss of life).
- 1989 – The fall of the Berlin Wall.

Fall of the Berlin Wall - 1989

- 1990 – The reunification of Germany
- And on 18th August 1991 – the Communist Old Guard attempted a coup. They sent the tanks to the Russian Parliament. Boris Yeltsin went out to the tank drivers and convinced them to switch sides.

18th August 1991 – Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank after standing up to the Communist Old Guard’s attempted Coup.

With that, the Soviet Union was dead.


Economic Impact on the Russian Economy and People of the 1991 collapse.

“I was on the streets in 1991 but Yeltsin broke the industries in the country. People turned to drink. I know engineers who were reduced to begging drunks on the street”, one of our guides in Russia reminisced. (Now steady….. I know I’m an engineer and like the odd tipple, but…..).

I thought I’d take a bit of a look.


This is the graph showing the Russian GDP from 1991 to 2006. As you can see, there was massive drop from 1991 to 1999 of around 60%. Since then there has been a steady increase. Today the Russian Economy is at around US$ 1.3 trillion or, to put it another way, the same size as Australia’s. Compared to US$18 trillion for the USA, $16 trillion for the European Union, and $12 trillion for China. This reduction obviously had a massive, and painful effect on the Russian people.

The collapse was not a smooth process. Ask the people of Cuba, whose “money teat” ran dry in 1991 causing a 60% reduction in the Cuban economy almost overnight and led to the Cuban people losing, on average, a third of their body weight from 1991 to 1994. Yes, a third of their bodyweight!

In particular in the 1990’s there was the rise of the Russian Oligarchs, and also the mafia. The number of Mercedes, Lexus, etc I have seen in Russia is 10 times what I have seen anywhere else in the world. At the Kremlin, there was even an AU$1 million Maybach.

Boris likes a drink!

Whilst there is little question that Boris Yeltsin had a significant, and beneficial it can be argued, effect on the Russia, it was also known that he was fond of a drink or two. One of my enduring memories of Yeltsin is this one (they’d obviously had a couple before they came out to give a conference)

Boris Yeltsin tapping his watch to indicate to a very hung over looking Bill Clinton that it was time to end their press conference. Presumably so that could have a little tipple. Boris was later found wandering the Whitehouse lawn in his underwear in the middle of the night “Because he wanted a pizza”.

In late 1996, Yeltsin underwent quintuple heart bypass surgery, and then sank from view. It was then that this bloke emerged.

Vladimir Putin – President of the Russian Federation

Taking over as President in 1999. Putin, in general, has been a power for good in Russia. But now it’s time for a couple of lessons in Geogrpahy…..

Geography lesson #1

Here is a map of Russia’s access to the Sea of Finland (and hence the North Sea and the Atlantic) in 1700. Swedish territory is marked in orange, Russian in green. Note Russian access is blocked by the Swedish Empire.


One of the things Peter the Great worked out when choosing the site of his new capital was that access to the sea was crucial. You’ll notice from the map above that Sweden controlled Russia’s access to the sea in 1700. Then there was the war of Sweden (1700 to 1721). Peter the Great put paid to that and grabbed some seaside land for his new beach pad, the soon to be St Petersburg.

Off on a tangent:……….

Peter the Great was very tall…..

Did I mention that Peter the Great was 6 feet 8 inches tall? Or 204 cm? The average height in 1700 was 160 cm tall (or 5 feet 2 inches). Here’s Peter the Great.

Tsar Peter the Great – 1672 -1725

Now, so you’re the Tsar of Russia, right? You want to go to Europe to have a sticky beak at what they’re doing. Shipbuilding. Military. Society. Etc. So, you decide to travel incognito. So, people don’t know who you are. So the average height of people in 1700 was 160 cm (5 feet 2 inches). Can you just imagine Peter travelling incognito?


“Bloody Hell Beryl! Did you see that 6 feet 8 inch bloke walking by?”

“No not at all Arthur. He was wearing a hat”….

So, go with me here. Now imagine Peter the Great was American. And Black. And played basketball. Well, there is an American Basketball player called Anthony Carmelo who is 6 feet 8 inches tall. He is married to the rather fabulously named “La La”. She is 166 cm tall (5 feet 5 inches). So, a full 2.5 inches taller than people in 1700. And she could be wearing heels in this photo. This’ll give you some sense of the “travelling incognito” scenario….

American Basketball Player Anthony Carmelo (height 204 cm or 6 feet 8 inches) with his wife La La (Height 166 cm or 5 feet 5 inches).

Anyway, back to the story……

Geography lesson #2

Here is another map. This time showing the extent of the Ottoman empire before the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774 (when Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia) and after. Before Russia has no access to the Black Sea and after, it does, via the Crimean Peninsula. This is really important to Russia because, without the Crimean Peninsula, Russia doesn’t have a warm water port and access/ influence over it’s southern neighbours


Despite the Crimean war (1854 to 1856), the Crimean Peninsula remained effectively under Russian control.

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine granted Russia a 25-year lease on the Naval bases on the Crimean Peninsula.

Then in around 2004, the Ukrainian government started saying that they would not extend the agreement.

Background and comment on the sanctions against Russia:

So, you’re next to river with lots of Salmon coming up to spawn and next to you is a 900 kg Grizzly Bear. You’d leased the river to the Bear. But you say to the grizzly that you’re not going to extend the lease.

Not commenting on the right or wrong, just saying. The bear should not steal the river. And, very importantly, should not “Annex” it. The Europeans, and the world get very toey about countries that “Annex” other countries. Or parts of countries.


Now onto, in my view a much clearer situation. The “but there’s a lot of Russian’s in the Ukraine, so we should Annex it, or part of it” is just rubbish and should be called out as such. Talking with a Russian guide in Moscow, the comments were “the Ukrainians are just crazy and there are a lot of Russians that live there, at least in the east of the country, and Putin is standing up for Russia”.

To quote Albert Einstein, “if you want to know the future, look at the past”. Did I mention that Putin is from St Petersburg and really admires Catherine the Great? Hmmmm…..

In 2014, Russia agreed in the Minsk Agreement to play nicely. That didn’t work. In 2015, there was Minsk 2. That didn’t work. There were sanctions. Putin’s approval rating soared higher. Yesterday the USA said they’d increase sanctions against Russia. Once again, cartoonists have summed it up nicely.

Cartoon about Russia’s view on the sanctions against it for the downing of MH17 and the support for separatists in southern and eastern Ukraine.

The Russian Bear is hungry. Despite the cartoon above, the sanctions are, at a minimum, making Russia think a bit harder. Watch this space……. And look to history. Russians play a long game…….


Posted by capetocape2017 08:34 Archived in Russia Tagged moscow hermitage museum petersburg st putin sanctions yeltsin

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