St. Petersburg, Russia

June 2009


The Heathrow Terminal Five Experience

If you ever need to know how NOT to design an airline terminal, consult with the blokes who designed Terminal 5, in London’s Heathrow Airport. Designed to handle British Airways and touted to be the most advanced terminal in the world, almost no one left the airport with his bags during the opening months. What I had to do to get on a plane to St. Petersburg was unbelievable.  To begin with, the Piccadilly tube lines that used to whisk you to your terminal are now divided between terminals 3, 4, and 5 so getting on the wrong train may add at least ten minutes to the trip.  The online check in and fast track that I paid extra for got me to security fast enough. Unfortunately, the fast track security line appeared longer and slower than the peon line. All I got by paying more was a tag saying “priority” on my bag and being allowed to stand in line with the rest of the elitist pricks who are willing to pay a lot more for not very much.  We arrived two hours before the flight so we could have the elitist’s free cup of coffee in the “invitation only” airline lounge. Unfortunately we used all the extra time getting to another train that carried us to the gates  - where the airplanes are not located. Signs warned us that we needed another twenty minutes just to get to the next place where the planes also were not, and that the gates would close an hour before the flight. So much for our free cup of coffee in the elitist prick lounge.   

When we finally reached the “real” gates, we plodded across 100 yards of tarmac, dodging water puddles from the rain the night before, to get to a bus that would take us to the plane on the other side of Heathrow. Packed like sardines, standing in the bus, we waited another 15 minutes before driving yet another 15 minutes in what seemed to be circles around the airport.  

To British Airways’ credit, we landed in St. Petersburg fifteen minutes early and headed for Russian soil shortly after with bags in tow.  

Myths about Russia

I quickly discovered that most of the advice I had gotten concerning the “challenges” I would face in Russia were myths (I find this to be true about most foreign countries I have visited).  By the start of the trip I had heard such wisdoms as “They want dollars, not roubles, and they’ll rob you blind.……..There’s a two tiered money system. Roubles are worthless…Russia is extremely expensive…They don’t allow roubles outside the country. …The maids will steal your stuff out of the hotel room.  It is very dangerous to walk around the streets ….”.  I purchased some roubles in the London airport, a complete contradiction to some of the wisdom provided me earlier, including the tour guidebook. 

The primary objective of the trip was to give a talk at the International Symposium on Measurements with Intelligent Instruments (ISMII09), a conference that is held every three years.  Never having been to Russia, after several previous failed attempts, I added 10 days for WWT styled touring as well as accessing the extensive social program offered by the conference organizers.  

A special escort provided by the conference had us at our Hotel Rossiya (Russia) by 5 PM where we feasted on borscht, a traditional Russian beet soup, and a full, delicious Russian meal with wine for about half what I would have paid in the equivalent American hotel.  

A Steep Learning Curve

Our hotel was located in the southern, newer part of the city, only six Metro stops from the old city where the Hermitage and many churches and palaces are located. We were on Moskovsky Prospekt (Avenue), the longest, straightest street in Russia. (It goes from St. Petersburg to Moscow, 700km to the southeast.)  A plan to move the city center to this area resulted in construction of major facilities like the national library, but the move never took place. Directly in front of the hotel was Victory Park, one of several major commemorations of St Petersburg’s victory over the Nazis. 

(Few of us can comprehend what Russia went through in that war. St. Petersburg, under German siege and constant bombing for nearly three years, lost over a million of its people and was almost destroyed.  We will never know what would have happened if Hitler had not double crossed and taken on the Russians.

Branch of the National Library near our hotel and the closest Metro stop 


Later we took a walk in bright sunshine at 11 PM and stayed up to watch a White Night– at this time of year it remains light at midnight and soon gets even lighter as the sun rises again over the horizon. At midnight, with daylight persisting we turned in to try and make up some of the sleep we had lost the night before in our last minute preparation to get here. The first time I woke up was 4:30 AM and I was greeted with bright sunshine. That didn’t keep me from going back to sleep for another 4 hours though.  

Our learning curve took a major upturn after we met up with our friends the Markovs. In addition to the answers to hundreds of questions we had saved up, they taught us the operation of the Metro, a major step in getting around in any big city. Mastering a city’s metro and tram system, a worldsworsttourist given, is vitally important, but what usually takes days to learn was handed to us on a silver platter by the Markovs.  I may have never worked this one out on my own, even though, once learned, it seems childishly simple. A hundred roubles into a machine gets you five tokens. One token gets you into the system to go anywhere. With a different alphabet and signs in improbable places, language is the largest problem, so the best way to cope is to figure out where you want to go and then count the number of stops.  

Walking Around the Old City of St. Petersburg

With the help of Vladimir and Natasha we took the deepest Metro in the world, and, within 15 minutes, emerged in the heart of city, where we walked all over old St. Petersburg s to see many major landmarks and marveled at the amazing eclectic architecture.   My first sight upon exiting the Metro at the Nevsky Prospekt station was the beautiful Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood, a church built on the site of the assassination of Alexander II.

The Church of the Resurrection of our Savior on the Spilled Blood. Viewed from Nevsky Prospekt (The main avenue of the city)


Our walk took us around the Hermitage, and Winter Palace, a lot of beautiful churches, and along the River Neva. Lunching in a tiny café near the home of Pushkin, the famous Russian poet, we watched artists paint the canals in the city, which is often called the Venice of the north because it is crisscrossed by 50 rivers and many manmade canals. Pauline had enjoyed the borscht so much she ordered it again. Upon Vladimir’s recommendation I ordered salanca, a pork based soup. We both ordered golupci, a cabbage wrapped pork dish as a second course. In the following days I became quite enamored with Russian cuisine, especially the soups. After trying half dozen of these delicious concoctions, I could never again look at a can of Campbell’s.

 St. Peter’s Cathedral and Fortress, located on an island in the Neva River, started in 1703 by Peter the Great, was the beginning of St. Petersburg. Here is where I first discovered how beautiful the clouds were in this lighting.


Barnaby the Bear with the Winter Palace (Hermitage) as a backdrop. 


Artists painting on one of the 65 canals and rivers in St. Petersburg (There are over 400 bridges in St. Petersburg, which was often called “Venice of the North”). On the left is the home of Pushkin, the great Russian poet. Our lunch in a tiny café by the canal included borscht, a traditional Russian soup and golupsy, a cabbage wrapped pork dish. 


Architecture in the Old City is eclectic including classic, baroque, rococo, art nouveau, Soviet, and even some modern. This is a large bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in the art nouveau style. 


As the day passed the trip became even more exciting, though none less challenging especially where not only the language is different but so is the alphabet. Once learned, the Russian alphabet sometimes translates a word into understandable English. For example, the Russian word for restaurant, pectopah, converts directly into Restoran, if you know that a Russian P is an English R and so on.  We had fun translating the signs into words that often had an obvious meaning, although just as often a meaningless word emerges.

This sign says “Information”. It was a bit ironic since simply translating the letters converts the Russian into a useful English word leading to useable information. 


From the Mars Field not far from the Hermitage, while standing near the flame honoring unknown heroes, I looked across the horizon to see the golden cupolas of the Church of Our Savior of the Spilled Blood against a sky decorated with beautiful clouds. This was the most beautiful scene yet, and I knew I had to come back and paint this.

On Friday, I sat in the Field of Mars and painted this scene while Pauline admired the gardens. The clouds and lighting were amazing. 


One cannot walk around St. Petersburg without noticing the beautiful, slim Russian women, short skirts, and long, gorgeous legs.  I saw very few fat people; they must know how to eat and exercise better than Americans. Maybe it’s all in the soups.

Russians appear very healthy, especially the women with long beautiful legs. I saw very few fat people in St. Petersburg. 


Back on the subway we practiced our newly learned Metro skills that would make us comfortable doing this trip without help later in the week. We encountered one hitch that would have thrown us for some time. The entrance to the subway that we had used before was now blocked. Vladimir and Natasha, knowing that this is not unusual, began immediately looking for other entrances. No one seemed to know why it was blocked, but everyone routinely moved on to an alternative entrance down the street. Irina explained to me that Russian people are used to experiencing systems that, for whatever reason, cease to function, and they accept it without explanations. 

In the evening, I sat by one of the lakes in the Victory Park near the hotel and painted a sunlit scene until 11PM, about the time the mosquitoes discovered me. 

On Friday we again took the Metro to the old city where Vladimir and his grandson visited the Navy museum, Natasha and Irina the Russian Museum, I painted the golden cupolas, and Pauline admired the gardens.  As the day passed the most beautiful clouds I had ever seen backed the cathedral, and the light came in from a different side, so I decided to do a second painting, this time paying more attention to the clouds.  I could have painted this scene over and over without tiring.

Church on the Spilled Blood, 9x12, watercolor on paper. Painted on location in St. Petersburg


Church on the Spilled Blood 2, 9x12, watercolor on paper. Painted on location in St. Petersburg


In the days after that we also joined in with tour groups set up by the conference for palace, cathedral, city, and boat tours. In some instances the tour groups are more efficient and possibly the best way to make visits to some sites. 

Encounter with a Pickpocket

I consider myself very lucky to have traveled the world and always avoided the awful experience of losing something valuable to the pickpockets that we have all been warned about. I met my first close calls in the St. Petersburg Metro, twice on consecutive days, and now understand some of the methods of a pickpocket. Staying alert and focused, especially in certain surroundings, is key, and this does not happen without  effort. I had been impressed with the manners of the men on the subway after watching them give up their seats to the ladies and to be helpful to foreigners. This time as I mounted the subway I observed some different behavior that immediately brought me to full alertness, possibly even paranoia.  

Remembering a friend’s advice to not be too paranoid, but just paranoid enough, I tried to establish a focus on protecting my wallet, which normally would be safe in my back pocket simply because it is really hard to remove. Two big guys got on the subway ahead of Pauline and me and then suddenly waited in the doorway, essentially blocking it, with their backs turned to us. Ordinarily, this would not have made sense because, even though the train was crowded, there was still room and a lot of people pushing from behind. As I attempted to maneuver around one of the guys I found myself between them, and sensed their deliberate crowding me. Had I not been alert, I would have believed it accidental when suddenly the guy on the left shoved me against the other guy who then shoved Pauline as though he was losing his balance. I immediately went for my wallet and encountered the first guy pushing the wallet against one of the stops that make it hard to remove, and I knocked his hand away. Pauline looked at me, amazed at the behavior of the two guys as she pressed against me, not yet realizing what had just happened. Both guys got off at the next stop.  

The experience essentially repeated itself the next day at the same station. Alarms went off in my head when a guy behind me began gently pushing me as we mounted the train. The guy in front suddenly blocked the door. I had moved my wallet to my front pocket. During the process of again being shoved off balance, I yanked someone’s hand from my front pocket. Both guys left the train even before it left the station.  Before reaching the next station Pauline, having noticed the strange and similar set of events, asked me if what had just happened was a repetition of the day before. My response was “If that wasn’t your hand I just pulled out of my pocket, then it was a repeat.”   

The tactic now seems obvious and clearly effective. Two or three guys on a pickpocket team spot a ringer like me, an obvious tourist from a foreign country, sticking out like a sore thumb. After that experience I moved my wallet to a zipped compartment. 

Palace of Katherine the Great

Later in the week we toured the palace of Katherine the Great.  I was stunned by the opulence of the palaces and learning that the royal family had palaces like this all over Russia and Europe.  This visit and others, including one of the palaces of the Yusupov family, caused me a bit of anguish, knowing that some people feel that it is perfectly okay to have such possessions and lifestyle when many of the people who built them could barely feed their families.  Could anything good come from such attitudes? One may argue that only such concentrations of wealth could support the creation of major works of art for the enjoyment of generations to come. I continue to struggle with this dilemma. More about this later.

The Summer Palace of Katherine the Great 


The front side of the palace of Katherine the Great. It is impossible to get the palace in a single frame.


Inside the Palace of Katherine the Great


The Yusupov family, possibly the best example of the excesses of the Russian wealthy, owned 53 palaces.  Their St. Petersburg palace is probably the most outstanding, including its notoriety as the venue of the murder of the psychic Rasputin, which is depicted in totality with wax figures and photographs of the bullet riddled body.  The marble staircases in this palace alone would finance an entire neighborhood of ordinary homes.

White marble staircase in the Yusupov Palace 


White Nights

Cities as far north as St. Petersburg experience very long days in June and very short days in December. The longest day is at the June solstice. We watched the sun set at 11:30 PM, but it never went far below the horizon before sunrise at 4:30 AM, so the period between sunset and sunrise was more like dusk with high clouds still in full sunlight. 

 The streets were still crowded with people at 2 AM with many gathering along the banks of the Neva River to watch the raising of all the draw bridges around 1:30 AM.

Pauline, Irina, and Natasha watching the raising of the drawbridges at 1:30 AM, allowing ships to go up the Neva River. To the left of the drawbridge is St. Peter’s Church and fortress that guarded the entrance from the sea to the harbor. Here we are looking northeast, so the sun is actually behind the photographer (The photographer’s shadow is from a street light).

View along a canal at 1 AM, a good example of a White Night.  Here I am looking to the west about two hours after sun set.


St. Isaac’s Cathedral

St. Isaacs is the fourth largest cathedral in the world.  It is worth a visit just for the huge wood and iron sculptured doors that are so large and heavy it took two dozen men just to open and close them.  This remarkable church survived a barrage of bombing by the Nazis and was used to protect much of the art of St. Petersburg.  Some war damaged columns on the outside were left as a remembrance to the war. The columns of marble, lapis lazuli, and malachite are unmatched in beauty as well as the paintings, mosaics, and sculpture.   One regret is that I was unable to make time to climbe the tower of the St. Isaac Cathedral during my visit to St. Petersburg. I have to go back for this.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, fourth largest Cathedral in the world. 

Huge columns in St. Isaac’s Cathedral 


Paintings and sculpture in the dome of the cathedral. The paintings are about 20 feet tall.


The Hermitage

The Hermitage, which occupies the Winter Palace and other buildings, owns, most likely, the largest collection of paintings and other art in the world, and they display about 10 per cent of the collection at any one time.  To visit each room would take days and to see every item would take years, so one has to choose carefully.  The easiest ways to get in at this time of year are either to go with a group or purchase tickets in advance on line.  Our group entered ahead of very long lines waiting to get tickets.  Once inside, I quickly discovered that viewing the art with the group was not a very pleasant experience, because all tour groups target the same exhibits, and I found myself struggling with shoulder to shoulder people, unbelievable noise, and disgusting behavior, so both Pauline and I set out on our own to view art in our own way. With proper timing, one can have a few seconds alone with a Da Vinci and a minute alone with a Rembrandt.  A few fantastic rooms are so empty of people I caught myself wondering if I was supposed to be there myself.

The Grand Staircase in the Hermitage


La Danse by Matisse, one of many well known painting in the huge collection of impressionism and post impressionism


The Litta Madonna by Leonardo Da Vinci. The Hermitage has 2 Leonardos and 26 Rembrandts in the collection. 


The Hermitage is a place where cultural differences really stand out, and almost all of the examples of problems between cultures can be observed here; it would be a good place to understand how wars begin.  Communication, of course, is one of the major problems.  Our group included a wide array of cultures including Russian, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Swedish, and many more.  We were given an ongoing commentary as well as specific instructions in English, the language of the conference, including what is and is not allowed in each place we visited.  One can speak a language and still not be able to understand it well. A second unmastered language is easy to shut out and hear only as noise in the background. During the instruction period, many of the non English speakers continued with their own conversations, hardly aware that instructions were being given.  Even the English speaking people had difficulty in hearing over these other ongoing conversations.  

In places where photography was not allowed, cameras were clicking, and in places where flash photography was not allowed, flashes were continuously going off.  One needed good luck and good timing to take a legitimate photograph of anything without someone muscling in to pose for a photograph of themselves in front of it. Though I admit doing it myself at times, I marvel at people who want a photograph of themselves standing in front of every famous painting in the Hermitage.  One lady must have left the Hermitage with at least a hundred photos of herself in front of paintings.  Who would want to look at these? 

Viewing a Rembrandt in the Hermitage


I try very hard to give people the benefit of the doubt. It is often difficult to distinguish between rudeness, ignorance, and plain stupidity, and yet, you would think that, by now, most people would know that you don’t use a flash on a 1000 year old masterpiece, decide to have a slug from your water bottle in front of a Da Vinci, have your photo made with your arm around the Three Graces, or feel the texture of a Michelangelo with your grubby paws. (Just a few things I witnessed.) I guess that is why all of the rooms have a least one guard who is constantly jumping on someone for doing something that he should know better not to do. 


One of the group had an unruly child who, in spite of repeated instructions to touch nothing was dragged off  300 year old couches multiple times in every palace we visited, including the actual throne of Peter the Great.  The guards were in a state of hysterics while the parents just smiled and wondered what was the big deal.  Embarrassing as it was I thanked God they were not Americans.

Outside St. Petersburg

On our way to visit Peter the Great’s summer palace at Peterhof, we passed through high rise complexes that house many of the people who work in St. Petersburg. Massive construction sites were underway to add to the hundreds of high rise apartment complexes already in use, some of which looked new compared to what we saw in St. Petersburg.  We saw very few houses, and concluded that most people live in the high rises.

Modern high rise apartments on the way to Peterhof. The ground floors are always occupied by stores that serve the apartments. 

A huge amount of construction was in progress in these southern suburbs of St. Petersburg. 


The area around Peterhof is beautiful and well maintained with flower gardens, a beautiful church, and many nice homes, which I guessed were owned by the new wealthy people. These were the first individual homes I had seen since arriving in Russia.

Peterhof-Summer Palace of Peter the Great

Located about 25 miles south of St. Petersburg, this could be favorite of all castles, not only because of an amazing array of fountains and 600 acres of gardens but also because of the rich design.


Peterhof, summer palace of Peter the Great. Constructed in 1715, the fountains were gravity operated and ran continuously, draining fresh water piped from the mountains into the Gulf of Finland. 


The Cascade, looking from above


Lower Garden at Peterhof. Part of six hundred acres of gardens and fountains. 


Other Survival Information

A few things are as important as learning to use the metro. One is learning to find toilets.  One of the myths was that there are no toilets.  I had no problem finding toilets. The Russians have solved this in a practical way, turning it into a business. Restaurants and hotels usually have them and didn’t seem to turn anyone away, although sometimes there were waits.  There were plenty of pay toilets, which were clean and friendly.  A few people make quite a bit of money at 15 rubles a pee (about 45 cents).

You only need to know that it says “Toilet” and it costs 15 rubles.  They are mostly quite nice, clean, and user friendly, always having toilet paper, towels, soap and water supplied. 


I had been instructed by several sources not to drink tap water so the next vital matter is a source of low cost water.  As in America, the hotel is the most expensive place to purchase anything.  Without Natasha’s help I would never have realized that the hotel was surrounded by tiny little markets tucked away in the most unrecognizable places.  These little markets are apparently run by entrepreneurs, who serve the hundreds of high rise apartments.

These tiny shops located in the basements of all the high rise apartments surrounding the hotel were a gold mine.  A 30 ruble liter of water was five times more in the hotel. It was like a Seven Eleven store and some stay open 24 hours.  


The Conference Banquet

The conference banquet on the last day of the conference gave a good introduction to Russian cuisine. We had a little of everything beginning with cold dishes, referred to as zakusci to be washed down with shots of vodka.  The locals showed us the proper way to “chug” the vodka. This was followed by a steaming bowl of mushroom soup, then fish and steak.

The Conference Banquet. Zakuski (cold appetizers) and drinks. These starters included caviar, the round pink items at 12 o’clock, and vodka, between the caviar and water. Later came soup, fish, and meat. Even though I knew better, I enjoyed the Zakuski and vodka so much I was full when the fish and meat arrived. 

During the meal musicians and dancers entertained us with folk music and dance.  The music, drinks and food somehow seemed to complement each other very  well.

Russian Folk Dancers 


Subsequent Thoughts

Katherine the Great had a great passion for collecting art. She purchased entire collections, and she had the resources as Czarina of Russia to do it.  Similarly, wealthy families like the Yusopovs built up sizable collections.  This had to be good for the art industry, creating artist jobs and enhancing the art market by pulling so much art off the market.  The church, having historically played this role before, had restricted the art to religion, so the wealthy enabled art to extend to other subjects.

Access to the collections were available only to the royal family and guests until the end of the 19th Century and then to a limited elite until the late 20th Century.  Did she know and did she care that sometime in the future this would be a great public collection viewable by all?  Now, anyone with a few can see it.   

The situation seems to have evolved from one extreme to another.  Perhaps Katherine truly loved art and felt she deserved such expensive entertainment; perhaps she just wanted to show certain people how wealthy or intellectual she was.  Apparently, showing one’s wealth turns a lot of people on in every generation, and the palaces had special places and furniture for displaying jewelry to guests.  This is perhaps analogous to our contemporaries who carry Gucci handbags and wear diamond studded Rolexes, with the huge price tag essentially hanging out. Everyone knows that a 20 dollar Casio keeps better time than a 2000 dollar Rolex and even stores phone numbers.  Wealthy people have no interest in showing their Guccis and Rolexes to the cleaning lady as Katherine had no interest in showing her wealth to common folk.  

What is the motivation of all of those millions of people who go to the Hermitage today?  Clearly, a few people love art and would like to sit and admire and study many of the paintings for hours.  This is an extremely small percentage of the Hermitage clientele.  People who go to the Hermitage to admire the art would probably go in the winter time when there are very few tourists.  Most of the people I saw in the Hermitage were there for one reason, to have their picture made standing in front of a Rembrandt so they could show it to their friends.   

I observed person after person standing in line, never actually looking at the painting, impatiently waiting their turn to pose, while someone took their photo in front of a painting.  They were not there for appreciating art. They never even looked at the painting or other paintings in the room by lesser known artists.  I wondered if they were even enjoying being there, packed in like sardines, wondering when the next tea break would be; they just needed the photo to somehow convince others that they are to be admired, not unlike a guy showing off his Rolex.  

When it comes to conclusions I have difficulty arguing that any of these motivations is any better or worse than the other.  If Katherine had not brought it all to the Hermitage, a lot of it may not have survived. On the other hand, what did survive may have been much easier to view somewhere else, unless, of course, you go in the winter.  

Before leaving, I made my way into the lower floor to view ancient art. The place was so empty at one point I wondered if I was trespassing into a restricted area.

Our experience in leaving St. Petersburg had us oscillating between laughter and panic. We arrived almost three hours before our flight to make sure there were no time problems. Upon entering the lobby and seeing no check in counters, we realized that we had to maneuver a very long slow moving line through security just to get to them. As we inched along, it was unclear how long that would take, maybe hours. After about 45 minutes our position had arrived at the security checkpoint. A lady looked at our passports, confirmed that we were going to London and then told us we were too early and could come in only two hours before the flight.  Our only solution was to go to the end of the line and start waiting again. After another 45 minute wait we made it to the check in counter, where we joined another line finally checking in about an hour before the flight. Some of the people at the end of the second line barely made the flight. I hope the bureaucrats in America don't discover this stupid system.