St. Petersburg and Veliky Novgorod
Cathedral of the Holy Blood (Church of the Savior on Blood) - Photo by Charles Ganske
St. Petersburg is often called the "Venice of the North", but historically it is the Amsterdam of the North, since Peter the Great chose to model it after that city. But, like either Amsterdam or Venice, one can take a boat trip through the canals, at least in season, and one should.
A westerner notices that there is something intentionally non-Russian about many aspects of the city. The "cathedral" of Our Lady of Kazan doesn't look Orthodox at all. Instead, with its neoclassical dome and curved colonnades, it looks like an imitation of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. (The Russian word sobor is generally translated as "cathedral," but it does not mean "cathedral" in the Western sense of the seat of a bishop.) St. Isaac's Cathedral looks pretty classical too.
The St. Petersburg church that looks most "Russian" is the Cathedral of the Holy Blood (Church of the Savior on Blood), displaying all the onion domes and bright colors one could ever want. But it is not particularly old, having been built after 1881 on the site where anarchists shot Alexander II, the Liberator of the Serfs. It is of a period--architecturally speaking--when, all over Europe, and not just in Russia, people were starting to move away from the international pan-European classical style and looking to their own national and regional roots. As with the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain (called "Craftsman" in the United States), Russians began recovering their own traditional architecture.
Cathedral of the Holy Blood visible at the end of a water channel in St. Petersburg
One Versailles may be enough for the French, but south and west of St. Petersburg there are three or four of them! The first, Peterhof, is right on the Gulf of Finland, situated so that Peter the Great could look out over his ships at the nearby naval base of Kronstadt. Ships were his love, and that Russia should have a navy his great desire. He even had a little private canal so that smaller boats could row up to the basement level of the house. He was a rather crude person, who didnÂ¹t take himself quite as seriously as his older contemporary, Louis XIV, so there are places in the garden where fountains come on by surprise and water the guests. Farther to the southeast, the tsars Elizabeth, Catherine, and Paul built elaborate palaces at Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk.
The city of Veliky Novgorod is as old as St. Petersburg is "new." It was the first important city in the "Great Russian" portion of the old Kievan Rus (which eventually differentiated into three cultures, Ukraine, Belarus, and "Great Russia" or "Russia proper"). It was a commercial city and, at the time, a member of the Hanseatic League. Under different circumstances, this affiliation might have offered an alternative model for RussiaÂ¹s development. Instead, Moscow rose to be the power in Great Russia, and its grand dukes devastated Novgorod in the 1470s and again in the 1540s.
Now Novgorod is a pleasant small city in the country with a large kremlin containing some historic buildings and a lot of open space. (Note: Those of us of a certain age associate the word "kremlin" with dark Tolkienic fantasies like the Barad-dur, Minas Morgul, and Isengard, but actually "kremlin" just means something like "acropolis" in Russian Â even when, in an almost flat country, the site wasn't very "acro" (or high). Every town of any importance has one, except, as usual, St. Petersburg.)
Novgorod is also home to a delightful restaurant on the second story of one of the buildings in the city, and a river beach on the Volkhov River. The Volkhov--one of the great rivers in Russia--served as a trade route and helped define the economy of old Russia.
On the long drive from Novgorod to Moscow, we stopped off for a late lunch at Tver, a dusty town with a dusty art museum. Surprisingly, Tver in the 1300s and 1400s also had been seen as a potential rival to Moscow.
To be continued...