Cupulas, Christmas and Coat Checks in Russia

For many Westerners, a reference to Russia seems to evoke images of unwelcoming, gray cities, tense political relations, or even Cold War era spies. Alternatively, there may be an association with its famed ballet or the brightly colored onion domes that adorn the Orthodox cathedrals. From both perspectives, and most certainly my own, Russia is a country that is still mystifying and intriguing to many.

When asked to explain just what it is about Russia that intrigues, each person would likely have a different response. Does our fascination stem from a desire to know more about a country that occupies so much space on our map, or to procure a better understanding of the conflict that permeated the Cold War era? Is it the allure of the exotic looking onion cupulas atop the cathedrals, or the appeal of the stories about Russian historical figures like Ivan the Terrible and Vladimir Lenin?

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Kaitlan in front of the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral

On a trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow last month, I left my coat and any preconceived assumptions I had at the door, and eagerly embraced the opportunity to discover more about the history and culture of this country. I learned that Russians celebrate Christmas (most ardently I would add) on January 7th because the Russian Orthodox Church adheres to the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the more widely used Gregorian calendar. I did not learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet, but I found that when visiting the two largest cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, I was still able to find my way around without too much trouble and even ask for assistance in English. When English wasn’t an option, most persons didn’t hesitate to ask me to translate on my phone so they could still provide an answer. I also accepted the all but mandatory practice of checking my coat at the door and even survived the tedious and expensive visa process leading up to our departure. My first, but likely not last, visit to the largest country in the world by area was brief but memorable for the myths that were dispelled but the intrigue that remains.

Our visit to Russia coincided with the holiday season, which was great for viewing Christmas lights and decorations galore, but challenging because, with sunrise just before 10 AM and sunset just after 4 PM, the hours of daylight were limited. We arrived in St. Petersburg on Wednesday evening and while it was too late to start sightseeing, we did have a unique experience planned for our first introduction to Russian culture. With the help of a friend from Russia who also resides in Brussels, we were able to purchase tickets to the Russian ballet at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. We were particularly excited to see the Spartacus performance as it’s a historical drama based on the uprising against the Romans which was led by this hero gladiator – in other words, it was sure to contain plenty of action!

We arrived at the theater early to ensure we had time to check our coats and partake in a small dinner of caviar and duck sandwiches, washed down with champagne, before we were seated in our box just left of the stage by a friendly usher. With limited seats available for purchase online by the time I had my visa in hand, and was therefore certain I would be allowed in the country, we knew these wouldn’t be the best seats in the house, but were hoping for a decent view of the stage on account of the higher price paid. As the curtain lifted, it was us and another couple occupying four of the six seats arranged into two rows within the box. With the third front row seat unoccupied at the moment, Dan moved up and was able to watch with a better view until the usher brought another couple in and he had to move behind me again. Between the newly arrived couple commandeering more space than they should have and Dan’s seat only allowing for a view of less than half the stage, it was not the preferred way to watch the first half of the show.

Our luck improved after intermission though when the usher explained that the truant couple would not be returning to our box as they were now seated in their correct theater seats. As it turned out, their seats in our box were temporary on account of the theater’s policy of not disturbing audience members when people arrive late to the show – their other seatmates can thank our box for putting up with their truancy and space commandeering. Happy to have more space again, Dan and I occupied the two remaining front row seats and enjoyed mostly unobstructed views of the artists and their impossibly muscular calves and quads. It was a captivating performance that even included a real tiger being walked across the stage, but we agreed that we should have refreshed our memory on the storyline just ahead of the performance as neither of us is a particularly savvy ballet viewer.

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The cast of Spartacus at the end of the show

On our first full day in St Petersburg, I embarked on a whirlwind walking tour of the city that commenced after I bundled up and then made my way along the Neva River towards the State Hermitage Museum. Along the way, I figured out how use the underground walkways to cross busy streets (and avoid the wind), and admired the Rostral columns and twinkling lights adorning the Palace Bridge.

Arriving at my first stop of the day, the State Hermitage Museum, just as it was opening, I was pleased to find I wasn’t overwhelmed by the crowds that frequent this very large and popular art museum. Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, the collection has grown over the years and is now housed in the Winter Palace, which is the former residence of the Russian tsars. The pale green palace sits regally on the embankment of the Neva River, but it’s what is found inside this monumental structure that stuns. Rooms adorned with malachite and gold seem to be never-ending, while chandelier embellished hallways give way to grand marble staircases.

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The State Hermitage Museum is housed inside the Winter Palace (pictured here)

Along with the 1,500 plus rooms in the palace, the State Hermitage Museum collection includes over three million works of art and artifacts. Some of the more well-known pieces contained within the second largest collection in the world include (but are not limited to):

  • Works by the Dutch painter, Rembrandt
  • The 200 year old self-operating Peacock Clock which features three large mechanical birds
  • Portraits of the founder of the collection and one of Russia’s most iconic personalities, Catherine the Great
  • Works by El Greco, a founder of the Spanish Renaissance movement and resident of Toledo, Spain
  • Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy statue, which is the artist’s only work displayed the museum

I received help from several of the attendants on site who, while not having a complete mastery of English, were more than willing to assist me in locating specific artwork using Google Translate as our “middleman”.

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My take on a “grand” entrance

After over two hours of walking around the museum and not even seeing close to half of the collection, I knew I had to proceed on to the next site so I could stay on track to see everything I wanted to in my one day.  I reorganized myself after collecting my coat and bundled up again before making my way once more along the Neva River to the Bronze Horseman statue that depicts the Emperor Peter the Great, the founder of St. Petersburg. The city was founded in 1703, but the statue was commissioned in 1782 by a successor and admirer, Catherine the Great. Astonishingly, the horseman stands on a pedestal made from a stone weighing 1,500 tons – the largest stone ever moved by humans.

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The statue came to be known as The Bronze Horseman following Alexander Pushkin’s popular 1833 poem of this name

Just a couple blocks away is St. Isaac’s Cathedral which was erected in the early 1880s and is topped by a dome with a 360 degree view of the city. I scaled the stairs to the top and was rewarded with spectacular views of the sprawling city and a biting wind whipping me in the face.

I then wound through the crowds along the bustling and Christmas light adorned Nevsky Avenue on my way to the canal side Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. While I was disappointed to find that the exterior of this colorful cathedral and its topmost onion domes were undergoing refurbishment, I stepped inside and was wowed by the mosaics adorning every wall from floor to ceiling and the central dome.

The church is not renowned for its antiquity, having only been built in the 1880s, but rather its medieval Russian architecture, similar in appearance to Moscow’s iconic St. Basil’s. Also of interest, it is no longer a place of full-time worship, but rather serves as a museum of the mosaics. I spent quite a bit of time wandering around the inside and admiring the brightly colored walls before I was ready for my next stop.

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The beautiful interior of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood
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The altar inside the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood

Feeling fairly famished and in need of a quick warm-up, I spotted the always conspicuous Starbucks sign a block ahead and cringed knowing that, while this was not the most authentic of choices in the city, it would be a quick stop so I could warm up with a tea and quiche before continuing my city trek.

With only had a brief window of daylight left, I practically sprinted down Nevsky Avenue towards one of the oldest churches in the city, Our Lady of Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church.  In search of more Orthodox architecture, I was pleased to locate the yellow church with its five golden onion domes.

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Our Lady of Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church

While impossible to see everything in St. Petersburg in one day, there was one place remaining on my meticulously planned out agenda, the question was whether I would have enough time to see it before it closed. I quickly made my way back towards where I started my day and crossed the Palace and Birzhevoy Bridges to the Peter and Paul Fortress. With it already being dark, it took me awhile to figure out if the fortress was still open but after discretely observing a couple of people crossing over to the fortress without any questions asked by the security guard, I decided to give it a try.

The streets within the fortress were deserted by this time as I arrived just ahead of closing, but I was able to buy tickets to the Peter and Paul Cathedral after requesting the assistance of an attendant in locating the ticket office and then opening the very heavy and seemingly locked door. The Peter and Paul Cathedral is the first and oldest landmark in the city, but presently it houses the remains of almost all the Russian tsars. The most recent additions were those of the Nicolas II Romanov family who were killed in 1918 during the Russian revolution and whose remains were identified in 1998 and interned here thereafter.

It was an eerie feeling to walk alone through the grounds of the deserted fortress and I was happy to be back at the hotel to warm up and rest my tired feet. In total, I had covered around 15 miles on foot and considered the day a success on account of everything that I was able to see.

Our time in St. Petersburg came to an end when we boarded an early train to Moscow the next morning. With the trip taking about four hours on the high-speed rail, we travelled with the Russian country-side passing by in pre-dawn darkness until we approached the sprawling metropolis of Moscow. With a population of over 12.3 million people within city limits, Moscow is the second largest city in Europe (after Istanbul) and the capital of a country covering over 6.6 million square miles.

We arrived at our Moscow Marriott hotel and were happy to see that it was situated in a prime location for our planned touring on foot. Our first evening in Moscow included a stroll down the Christmas light illuminated city streets, a visit to the Red Square and its Christmas Market, and then dinner at Megobarri. The cozy Georgian restaurant was a welcome respite from the cold and damp temperatures outside. Before partaking in their delicious dumplings, I started with a traditional beef kharcho soup and a glass of homemade wine, and finished with a slice of honey cake for dessert.

We were intending to start our Saturday back in the Red Square with a visit to Lenin’s Mausoleum, however the line to enter was too long for us to see this peculiar exhibit and make it on time to our already scheduled guided walking tour.  We met our guide, Irina, at Slavyanskaya Square, and along with about 15 other people, commenced our city tour on a chilly overcast December day in Moscow.

Irina skillfully led our Moscow Free Tour group around the city, highlighting the below sites:

  • The former estate of the Romanov family – the reigning royal house of Russian from 1613-1917
  • An urban space called Zaryad’ye Park which was created ahead of the FIFA World Cup hosted by Moscow in 2018
  • A panoramic viewpoint overlooking the Moskva River from the Floating Bridge
  • The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was destroyed under communism and converted to the largest open-air swimming pool in the world before being rebuilt in the 1990s
  • The iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral with its colorful onion domes that were constructed under Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century
  • The massive GUM department store and shopping mall on the Red Square that has perfected the art of getting decked out for Christmas
  • Tomb of the Unknown Soldier monument located just outside the gates of the Kremlin that was erected in honor of those killed in WWII.

Along the way, Irina, a lifelong Moscow resident, provided historical context for what we were seeing, shared cultural insights, and made jokes about Russia’s government while standing in the Red Square… something she said would not have been a good idea just a couple decades ago. My favorite joke was when she explained that whenever she hosts US or French citizens on her tours, she always tells them that she doesn’t understand our elections. Directing her joke at Dan and me (two of the four Americans on the tour), she said that she doesn’t understand how we don’t know the results of our elections at least three days in advance, like they do in Russia. Irina ended the tour by thanking us for joining her to learn more about the city and country, and reiterated my sentiments about other corners of the world that we’ve visited – not everything you hear about a place is entirely reflective of the reality of everyday life for or the sentiments of its citizens.

After warming up indoors over lunch, a tour of the Kremlin was next on the agenda. Kremlin means “fortress inside a city” but is often associated with the governing seat of Russia. The walls of the Moscow Kremlin encircle a complex consisting of five palaces and four cathedrals, not to mention the official residence of the President of Russia, although I understand he works remotely quite often. While I didn’t visit the treasures and oddities contained within the Armory, I spent my time inside the Kremlin admiring more of the golden onion domes atop the Orthodox churches and viewing the Tsar Bell (the largest bell in the world), which has never been rung, and the Tsar Canon, which has never been fired.

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The cathedrals and their onion shaped cupulas inside the Kremlin

On the other side of the Kremlin walls, I made my way across the Red Square to Saint Basil’s Cathedral to tour the interior. Despite the legend, it seems that Ivan the Terrible did not in fact gouge out the eyes of the cathedral architect in order to prevent him from recreating another such structure; this architect was also credited with designing the kremlin in Kazan and another well-known cathedral.

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The iconic, but perhaps smaller than you would expect, St. Basil’s Cathedral

There are in fact nine chapels inside St. Basil’s which are connected by dimly lit and intricately decorated galleries and passageways. This iconic symbol of Russia has survived multiple demolition attempts and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts plenty of curious guests who wander through the small chapels admiring the murals while an a cappella group’s chorus echoes through the chambers.

My favorite meal of our visit was at the iconic Café Pushkin which is named after the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, and is located in a renovated 18th century mansion. The setting was festive and the food was delicious. For the third time this trip, I enjoyed dumplings, this time with a side of sour cream, followed by a white chocolate dessert which if I recall correctly was named Moscow Time.

On our final morning in Russia, we were able to enjoy breakfast at a local establishment before heading to the airport and back to Brussels. On the plane, I concluded that an extended weekend in St. Petersburg and Moscow is hardly enough time to absorb the complex history of this enormous country, appreciate the juxtaposition of concrete Soviet-era buildings next to colorful medieval churches and fortresses, and experience its rich culture.

What our brief visit did allow me was an opportunity to hear the perspective of a proud, lifelong Moscow resident and appreciate her (self-deprecating) sense of humor; get to know more about Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and how their reigns impacted the culture and politics of Russia; and at least partially satiate my desire for seeing the uniquely-shaped cupulas in person. Like the other cities I’ve lived in and places that I’ve visited, I am aware that this country and its citizens face challenges with poverty, human rights, and political tensions, but I felt welcomed by those I met – a hospitality extended by people whose perspectives are not always fully reflected in the media or by the government, and who likely harbor their own opinion of me and my culture.

In my opinion, the tedious and costly visa application wasn’t for naught, and as our visas are in fact valid for another couple of years, I don’t doubt that there will be a return visit in our future. I am certain that the next time it will be a visit during the warm, White Nights of summer though. I’d prefer to avoid being consistently caught off guard by the compulsory coat check and subsequent scramble to secure my pockets, undo my zipper, and part with my cozy outerwear in adhering with this quirky but admittedly practical custom.

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