Traveling in Russia’s current and former capitals is hardly rough and ready. Almost out of necessity, we stayed in nice hotels, took taxis rather than carrying backpacks, and confined ourselves to the standard tourist sites.
Russia was a late addition to our plan. We had originally planned to fly to Central Asia via Istanbul, but it became too complicated and too expensive to go that way. I finally spotted a much cheaper route on Aeroflot via Moscow, but that required a fourteen hour layover. So if we were going to have to get a visa and spend fourteen hours, we might as well stay five days and see a bit of a great country we had never visited before. And it was a good introduction to see the imperial capitals that have so strongly controlled Central Asia for the last few centuries.
We began in St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia from 1712 to 1918. Built on an imperial scale, St. Petersburg saw the height of tsarist Russia as well as its October 1917 downfall. There are many churches and monuments to that tumultuous history.
Of course we visited the Hermitage, one of the great art museums of the world. Located in several buildings of the tsar’s former palace, the building is as much on show as its paintings. It’s as if the Louvre were housed in the palace of Versailles.
Unfortunately, some of the most interesting collections were closed for renovation. None of the rooms with early Buddhist art from Dunhuang were open, and even the Central Asian section was very thin. There were a few impressive frescos from the ruins of the Sogdian city of Penjikent, now in northwest Tajikistan. We hope to visit there in early October, but we know its art is mostly in Russian museums.
We did have one close call. On our final evening in St. Petersburg, a team of pickpockets tried to rob me as I boarded a subway train. Fortunately, I sensed trouble when one blocked my entrance into the car, and I reacted immediately when his accomplice reached for my pocket. With a quick jump, I was able to vault back out of the train past the thief, Marcia, and several surprised riders. Had I waited another second, we would have spent the first part of our trip replacing credit cards.
At the end of our time, we boarded an overnight train to Moscow. These are the finest trains in Russia and among the finest in the world. We splurged on a first-class sleeper, which was very comfortable indeed.
Moscow is also a great city, though it is painted in gritty socialist and modernist tones rather than imperial. We had only two days, so we focused on the three-star attractions at the Kremlin and Red Square.
Every visitor to Moscow takes pictures of St. Basíl’s cathedral, but we were more impressed by the interior, a cramped fortress-like structure with many small chapels. Clearly at the time it was built, the cathedral didn’t have to serve large masses of people.
On our final afternoon, the rain became steady and we holed up in the museum of 19th and 20th century European art. Its collection of impressionist and modernist paintings beat the Hermitage by far, although it tended to stop at 1917 when the collectors began having bigger problems than art.