Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 7-8: Russia

In my second post on the recent Unlock the Past Cruises (www.unlockthepastcruises.com) tour of the Baltic states, I described my visit to both Berlin in Germany and Tallinn in Estonia. So far so good, but a real treat was next on the agenda - Russia.

Specifically, we made our way to the Venice of the North, St. Petersburg. I say the 'Venice of the North', because that is all we heard about the place for two days, the length of our stay there, though with some justification - virtually every other building in the city was a palace, with the whole infrastructure developed in just nine years during the reign of Peter the Great. The city was founded in 1703, and for many years was the capital of Russia, before Lenin relocated the capital back to Moscow in 1918. With the widespread layout of St. Petersburg as it is, and the Russian requirement that you could only visit the city without a visa as part of a tour group, I accepted an invitation by Jane and Steven Taubman, along with Tony Beardshaw, to travel on a two day trip around the city in an organised tour with SPB Tours (www.spb-tours.com). Our Russian tour guide spoke excellent English, and importantly had a good sense of humour, something of major importance for a two day trip!

The first stop on Day 7 then was a visit to the spit of of Vasilevsky Island and its 'Rostral Columns', which used to act as port beacons. We stopped off for some photos, looking out towards Peters and Paul's fortress and cathedral, before then venturing on a two hour drive around the city centre with our guide pointing out some of the key features in the city. We then made our way to the fortress and the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, where some serious history was soon to be encountered. Within the building we first encountered the tombs of Peter the Great and his daughter Catherine the Great (see below), and various other members of the Greats, sorry, the Romanovs.

There was then for me a truly unexpected discovery of the fact that Nicolas II and his family were also buried there in an adjacent room, though with only a single tomb to mark the entire family. The last Russian Tsar and his family were murdered in Yekaterinburg in 1918 in the aftermath of the October 1917 Russian Revolution. In 1979 the remains of Nicolas, his wife and three of his daughters were discovered near the town, and after formal confirmation of their identity from DNA analysis, the family was laid to rest in the cathedral in 1998.

According to our guide their burial ceremony was attended by Boris Yeltsin, but the tomb itself was paid for by local subscription. Considering I am not at all a monarchist, I actually found the whole thing quite moving, the cathedral itself being a beautiful building which seemed somewhat fit for purpose as a royal tomb. As we left the cathedral, I saw a building with a boat viewable through the door, which Lena explained was a replica of the first boat built by Peter the Great (who founded the Russian Navy after learning boat building skills himself in western Europe). The real boat was located elsewhere, and as such, she did not want us wasting our time with it - but I snapped a pic anyway!

Next up we enjoyed a trip on a hydrofoil across the water to the Peterhof Palace, known as the Russian Versailles, not least because the same architects were apparently responsible for both palaces. As with all of St. Petersburg's palaces, this was ridiculously luxurious, though we only walked through the gardens rather than inside the building itself. Stunningly beautiful, and as with much of St Petersburg a technological marvel being built on swamps, but I couldn't help wondering how many lives may have been lost during its construction.

At the end of this our guide mentioned that the Nazis had destroyed the palace at the end of their occupation of the surrounds of St Petersburg in the Second World War, but that most of the furniture within, and the original drawings for the structure had already been relocated to safety, allowing a faithful restoration after the war.

We then stopped off for lunch, fortuitously as a shower broke out, and I took the opportunity to ask our guide about life in Russia, explaining that all we had to go on in terms of our perceptions up to this point was our own media - how did she see life there?

This was when it got really interesting! We had a fascinating conversation about the Soviet era, with her explaining how whilst there was no choice for types of food, there was at least food and a guaranteed pension, and how rent in the Soviet era for a basic room was one dollar a month, but now after Perestroika and westernisation it is anything up to two thousand dollars a month. Whilst she missed much about the Soviet era, she did say her favourite thing about today was her freedom to travel around the world. We also talked about the Revolution, and her disdain for Lenin, who she believed was a much worse dictator than Stalin, and we also touched on the Siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg's former name) in the Second World War. Some two million people died during the nine month siege apparently, with a further million surviving against the German war machine.

In fact this conversation revealed the most extraordinary thing from our two day trip in St Petersburg about 20th century Russian history, namely our guide's professional aversion to discussing it, save for mentioning when any palace we visited had been destroyed by the Germans, only to be rebuilt. It was clearly not part of the official programme, and yet her own personal willingness to discuss it when asked was much more interesting than the constant roll out of palaces and churches after palaces and churches. And as such, she was suitably toasted with a shot of vodka at the dinner table - "Na Zdorovie (На здоровье)!"

After lunch we then made for Catherine the Great's palace at Pushkin. Another extraordinary building with gilded interiors and Chinese porcelain walls, and to keep with the unofficial theme of the day, another palace destroyed by the Nazis and later rebuilt. We did the tour of the building and then made our way back to the minibus before the heavens opened, and then made our way back to the Celebrity Eclipse for our overnight stay. I was so tired with the day's programme that I missed Helen Smith's talk on Researching Australian and New Zealand Great war soldiers.

Day 8 then saw us proceed with part 2 of the tour, and our opening event today was an early morning boat trip, sailing past the Peter and Paul fortress and into the heart of the original city, which had originally been designed to replicate Venice with her waterways, although many have since been filled in and have had a road put over. We went past the Winter Palace, the statue of Peter the Great as a ship's carpenter, the Admiralty building and more. One of the interesting sites we saw was a former palace used for the performance of and registration of civil marriages, apparently encouraged after the October Revolution to try to lure people away from the attendance of churches in the town with a suitable alternative.

We then stopped off to buy some souvenirs, directly across the road from a former log cabin in which Peter the Great had resided within when he first arrived at the city that would soon bear his name. Unfortunately, there was a slight issue in seeing this cabin, in the form of a ruddy great brick building built around it to preserve it, allowing no views in (see below)!

Our souvenirs purchased, the next stage was designed to test mankind's limits - the Hermitage Museum, roughly the length of a small Baltic state, in which we spent two hours walking from lavish room to lavish room. We fought our way through crowds of tourists for two hours, being careful not to be pick-pocketed (a serious criminal problem plaguing the city), and occasionally stopping and rallying to the cry of "We don't leave our men behind" to retrieve members of our 16 strong bus party who wavered from time to time in the relentless battle to do a tour stop! It was hard work walking from opulent room to lavish room to gilded room to luxurious room, with occasional moments of delight and highlights such as the Rembrandt Gallery and the odd Da Vinci painting. We hardy souls persevered, however, until we were finally rewarded at the end with an opportunity to step outside onto St Peter's Square, providing a huge open air vista of the palace from outside.


After a spot of lunch we visited the extraordinary Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, a huge edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church, built on the site where the Tsar Alexander II was wounded and died in March 1881. The church was closed by the Soviets in 1930 and was later used as a morgue during the Siege of Leningrad (not explained to us when we were there), and later became a vegetable warehouse, before becoming a museum and then undergoing a full restoration. It no longer acts as a church, and remains a museum of mosaics, the pictures and biblical scenes on the walls all being made in this way.

Upon leaving the church, we were now due some more proper Russian history - the Moika Palace, built in 1770 as the palace of the influential Yusopov family, which housed a fascinating private theatre and luxurious rooms, and which for many years has been owned by the Department of Education in the city. The building has only recently been opened up as a museum.

Apart from being a seat of the Russian nobility, the Moika Palace has one other major claim to fame, it being the building in which the mad monk Rasputin was murdered by Prince Felix Yusupov in December 1916. The Prince tried to poison Rasputin in the cellars with tainted red wine, seeing him as a dark influence on the Romanov family, and when this did not work, he was forced to shoot him. Thinking he was dead, he did not see Rasputin crawl through a side door to an outside courtyard, at which point he was again shot twice more, including once in the head. We were unfortunately not allowed to use cameras inside the palace, but by luck our minibus was parked right beside the spot where Rasputin was finally executed, so I quickly retrieved my camera from the bus and took a spot of where he finally fell.

Proving you can never visit too many churches in one day, we then made for St. Isaac's Cathedral, the city's largest Russian Orthodox church, and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. Another extraordinary building, but at this point I was getting a bit churched out, though still took a few snaps!

Our final treat was a journey on the St Petersburg Metro, where I caught up with an old friend - St. Andrew, who not only acts as our patron saint here in Scotland, but who is also a patron saint of sailors, and therefore, the Russian Navy. In fact, Andy wasn't the only familiar face that kept popping up on our cruise, as across the Baltic states we also encountered many statues of St George slaying a dragon. The underground station was deep beneath the ground, having to be bored deep beneath the swamps on which the city was originally founded. We caught a train and went one stop along, purely to see the lavish underground mosaics on what was otherwise a similar underground tube network to that in London.

With this we purchased some more souvenirs, and were then finished touring for our second day. Upon a return to the boat, I had one more task to do, and that was to give an 8pm lecture on British and Irish newspapers, the only talk of the day, before crashing in my bed, ready to make our way to Helsinki.

Coming up - Helsinki, Stockholm, and another full day's conference at sea...

Additional Baltic based cruise posts:

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 1 to 3: From Southampton to Bruges

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 4 to 6: Germany and Estonia

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 9-11: Helsinki and Stockholm

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 12-14: Copenhagen and homeward bound


For details on my genealogy guide books, including my recently released Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit http://britishgenes.blogspot.co.uk/p/my-books.html.

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