FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

ST. PETERSBURG | RUSSIA

MOSCOW | RUSSIA

I’D FINALLY PENETRATED MOTHER RUSSIA.

Behind the old Iron Curtain, is a huge and varied country full of incredible sights and friendly people. Even the visa was surprisingly straight forward to get. I’d booked Trans Siberian rail tickets with an agency online, and with my Letter of Invitation, the visa process wasn’t anymore complicated than anywhere else. Unlike the Cold War era, you didn’t need to be a James Bond wannabe to sneak into ex-Soviet territory. I still imagine myself as one though.

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You never know where park gates will lead you in Saint Petersburg

The city of Saint Petersburg is an easy introduction to this enormous state which spans nine time zones. It’s quite euro-friendly, with many of the major signposts and directions having an English language counterpart to the Russian. This was especially helpful in the Metro, and before long I’d found myself in the city centre on the way to my hostel.

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The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood in the evening snow

Not far from where I was staying, just further down the canal in fact, stands the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. People often confuse it’s colourful onion domes with that of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, both being instantly recognisable symbols of Russia. Spilled Blood isn’t as old as Saint Basil’s, but it does have an equally morbid history having gotten it’s name due to it being constructed on the site of a royal assassination. I couldn’t resist heading straight down there for a walk around on my first evening. With amazing places like this I usually just let the pictures do the talking. They are worth a thousand words after all, and seeing as I’m pretty terrible with words, it’s probably for the best. Inside, the interior is covered in an incredible mural, like a Russian Sistine Chapel, only with angrier looking characters. I’m not sure if the place is in use any more as an actual church – all the chairs had been removed, so it definitely lends the chapel a strange kinda vibe.

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Someone had a lot of time on their hands, and an extensive set of crayons

The next day I met up with a friend-of-a-friend called Kamilya. While I was in Tibet I met a crazy Russian girl who thought belly dancing to children. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Innah inflicts her personal brand of moral corruption on american children these days but she is originally from Saint Petersburg.

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Russian orthodoxy is all about balls

It was a downcast and snowy morning when I met Kami at the Church of Spilled Blood. She was late, as all girls are, but we spent a great day walking around and chatting. The next day she brought me to to the old Winter Palace, now known as the Hermitage Museum. In the days of the Russian royalty this was the home of the Russian Czar. The bloody days of the Revolution saw Russia’s last Czar Nicolas II Romanov and his family dragged from the palace by the Soviets to be eventually executed in Siberia. This palace was their winter residence, and was populated by such famous figures as the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov and the mad monk himself Rasputin. Both characters suffered mysterious and controversial deaths. Rasputin, a star of many horror films subsequently, was said to have possessed dark powers with which he maintained a vice like grip on the royal family. He was famously drugged, stabbed, shot, and beaten before being thrown into the river where he eventually died of hypothermia while still clawing his way out of the sack he had been wrapped in. Just before he died he uttered that the most painful part was when they unfriended him on facebook. Some people just can’t take a hint. Anastasia was another who had cheated death it was believed. Many people came forward over the years claiming they were the duchess, and regaled the media with stories of daring escapes and heartbreaking loss. Then they found her body, and proved it was her via DNA evidence. Showing that, unfortunately, the world is full of liars but very few surviving princesses.

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The fairytale courtyard of the Winter Palace (copyright 2016 Walt Disney Corporation)

The Hermitage is a humongous building. You would need many days here to do it justice. Legend has it that priceless artifacts are stuffed into the many storerooms and crawl spaces here, such is the depth of wealth amassed over the years. The Russian version of Cash in Your Attic would be epic. Also, look out for the cute horse drawn carriages outside and the people walking around in old fashioned dress. Either cosplay is a big thing in Russia or I’m seeing dead people again. Pity my medication got confiscated at the airport.

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St Isaac’s Cathedral, and some real old fashioned dress. You know what they say, keep it around long enough it will come back into style.

St Pete’s (as it likes to be known) is quite the cosmopolitan city, as such foreign food is very popular here. The lovely Kami and myself headed to a Cuban restaurant for dinner. There I spent most of the night ogling up the classic Cuban car they had parked right in the middle. You could have your dinner in it! Obviously you’d have to book in advance, but with the recent fall in the ruble it probably wouldn’t have been too expensive either.

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It’s never too early for vinyl

Walking around the city that night truly made me feel like I was in a cold war spy flick. Jetting into the heart of a Russian winter and meeting up with a contact – who just so happens to be a beautiful Russian girl? What more could a guy want? A good pair of boots was the answer. The hiking boots I had obliterated in Venezuela had finally given up the ghost and were slowly disintegrating in the snow. With Siberia in the near future I invested in a waterproof pair of Russian army issued hiking boots. I still have them today. They’re indestructible. Best €25 I ever spent.

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Built by Catherine the Great, it pretty…….great?

On the outskirts of Saint Petersburg is the cute little town of Pushkin, scene of the greatest mystery of World War II. It’s about 15 miles from the city centre and is home to the Disney-esque Catherine Palace. Here, during the height of the war, the Nazi’s pulled off the world’s most daring smash’n’grab. It’s not often a “wonder of the world” can be stolen, but it happened.

 

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The Catherine Palace undergoes extensive restoration during the winter. Less queues though.

It’s worth spending some time walking through the palace grounds. There are some cool looking buildings and a cute little frozen lake here. I actually didn’t realise it was a frozen lake until I’d crossed it. Frozen lakes just aren’t something you need to deal with a lot back home.

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Chapel in the Woods. A Joss Whedon film.

Back in St Petersburg there was still so much to do and see. We climbed to the top of Saint Issac’s cathedral for a panoramic view of the city close to the Hermitage and the Admiralty, and even Spilled Blood a little further away. That night there was an art exhibition. Now I’m not a huge fan of art, I think The Simpsons is the pinnacle of human achievement, but it was really well presented. My favourite part was lying on the bean bags and watching the light show. I had initially learned a lot, but I’ve since forgotten most of it. All in all it was surprisingly enjoyable. Maybe I’ll be more into art in the future, especially if there are more bean bags. I can’t see the Louvre going for that right in front of the Mona Lisa unfortunately. I spent the rest of that night trying to teach my new Russian friends how to speak some Irish, which as any Irish person will tell you, is like the blind leading the blind.

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The beautiful golden domes of the Catherine Palace

Moscow next, and the unpleasant surprise of Russia’s capital city having everything written almost exclusively in Russian, was offset with the pleasant surprise of my Trans Siberian rail tickets having already been delivered to my hostel. I teamed up with a guy from Belarus after we heard about a canteen beside Red Square in the State GUM Department Store decked out in old Soviet style propaganda posters. Obviously I don’t speak Russian, or even understand Cyrillic lettering. Because of that it was fun to come up with slogans for them in the absence of any translations. Some of my favourite posters included “Let’s all share our cabbages with the Great Leader”,”Importing food hurts us all”, and “Eat your damn sausages”.

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“Women know your limits” In this case solid food.

Red Square is of course right beside the Kremlin, notable for housing Vladimir Putin for the past sixteen years, and probably the next one hundred and sixteen years once Russian scientists eliminate the “problem” of him aging. The square is actually black, and is bordered by the walls of the Kremlin Palace complex, The State Historical Museum, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and the aforementioned GUM store with it’s aggressive pro-sausage posters. There was a winter carnival in full swing in the middle of the square during my visit, and the crisp, sunny February morning was filled with the sound of music and the carving of skates on ice. It’s a vibrant and lively scene, one completely at odds with how it’s often portrayed in western media as a rain sodden and stoic place, full of bear riding war mongerers planning world destruction. Dublin is probably closer to that, well the rain part at least.

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Red Square. The Kremlin is on the left, and dead ahead is the State Historical Musuem. They claim to contain JFK’s testicles.

At the southern end lies the undoubted symbol of Russia – Saint Basil’s cathedral. No longer a functioning church it is now a museum – about itself. It was built by Ivan the Terrible in the mid sixteenth century, and, in a legend sometimes attributed with the Taj Mahal, he cut out the eyes of his chief architects so that they could never design something as beautiful – or as weird again. Whatever the case, nothing has been constructed to match the eccentric look of the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, to give it it’s full name. Up close it looks like it’s made out of lollipops.

The interior is strangely cramped, a winding staircase leads upstairs to the main chapel, which is quite small, but has a great view over Red Square through a side alcove.

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Winter is actually great when it’s dry and sunny. And when you have a backdrop like this.

Continuing my spy movie theme, my contact in Moscow was the dashing Sonya, a girl who had never eaten a doughnut. I often remember people by learning weird facts about them. To rectify this we went to a doughnut shop. I’m not sure if I converted her, but she didn’t throw up or go into any sort of seizure, so I always consider that a success. That night we took a stroll through central Moscow. We passed by the cathedral where the girl band Pussy Riot were arrested for their anti-Putin protest. Across the bridge and following the Moskva river, we encountered the Red October factory. Formerly a chocolate factory, it’s now a chic mini-village of art museums and hipster cafes.

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Peter the Great. There he goes. Yeah you’d better run!

If there is one thing Russia loves it’s enormous statues. Moscow doesn’t disappoint. One of the world’s tallest statues is here on the banks of the river. It’s a dedication to Peter the Great, the czar who moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg before the Soviets moved it back. Quite why a statue honouring a guy who downgraded the city would be here instead of St. Petersburg is a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe it’s an ironic statue, like a giant middle finger? That would be cold blooded.

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Moscow’s Kremlin at night, and those red stars are shining bright.

Gaining access to the Kremlin is pretty easy, but also kinda complicated too. You can simply buy an entrance ticket at the large office on the north side of the walls, but each section is ticketed separately, and are only available for certain times. I got access the the Armoury and the Cathedrals. The Kremlin is a sprawling complex complete with palaces, bell towers, cathedrals, and mausoleums, there is a lot more to it than a presidential home. The Dormition Cathedral is probably the most interesting, it being the building where the Russian czars were crowned, and where many of them are buried. Around Cathedral Square are many other notable things too, such as the Czar Cannon, which is the largest cannon by calibre in the world, and the Czar Bell the largest cast iron bell in the world.So big was this friggin’ bell that it literally broke the mould it was cast in and a large chip broke off the front of it. It was never actually used as a bell. It just lies there, broken and unwanted like me at a wedding.

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Cathedral Square in the Kremlin. That’s the Czar Cannon right in your face, and behind that the Dormition Cathedral, resting place of the czars.

You’ve probably noticed the Kremlin contains a lot of “world’s largest”.  It’s a medieval lego set built czars with the mentality of a school yard bully.It’s main purpose in creation is to inspire, impress and intimidate, and it does all of that incredibly effectively. From the famous red brick walls, to it’s multitude of soaring towers, it commands respect and awe from all who see it. Even the word Kremlin means “fortress inside a city”. Like so many of Russia’s leaders past and present it doesn’t mess around.

In terms of jaw dropping splendor it’s hard to top the Arsenal (the Kremlin armoury, not the perpetually underachieving London football team). This place contains weapons and armour so fantastical it would make the designers of Assassins Creed wet themselves. It also contains the state’s crown jewels, some fabulous chariots, and strangely a hell of a lot of stuff from ancient Persia, and other central asian countries like Uzbekistan. I guess the Russian empire was at one point so large it simply rolled over all these states like a behemoth Mc Donalds until the arrival of Burger King and KFC.

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I’m getting real tired of calling to people at home and not being offered tea. Putin is now on my list of enemies.

Just outside the Kremlin’s palace walls, on Red Square, is the edifice of Vladimir Lenin’s tomb. His body has been preserved here since his death in 1924. I doubt he is really dead. Instead he has been placed in a state of suspended animation, awaiting the day in the future where – like Mr Burns – scientists have found a cure for 78 stab wounds in the back. And I for one welcome our new Robot Lenin overlords.

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One hell of a farewell from Moscow. Next stop Siberia.

Later that night it was time to embark on my epic Trans Siberian Railway adventure. I followed google maps’ direction to Yaroslavski station for the first of a five night journey. As usual everything was in Russian (will these people ever learn?!) Eventually I found my train, bound for Irkutsk, in the heart of Siberia, and began to board. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but in stereotypical Russian style, I could smell the vodka as soon as I entered my cabin. So OK I knew one thing to expect. Vomit. And lots of it.

Next time: Vomit. And lots of it. Driving across a frozen lake, and other probably-dangerous things. Russia.

 

 

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