Of Tsars and Troikas

Trying to blend in with our new hats, St Petersburg

“I’ve finally worked out a half decent anti-freeze combination: 3 pairs of trousers, 1 pair of tights, 3 pairs of socks, 5 tops, 2 jumpers, 1 thick coat with collar most assuredly up, 2 scarves, a fur trappers hat and as many pairs of gloves as I can wear without cutting off the circulation!”

I used to have a bit of an obsession with Russia. From reading about the fated Kirov Dynasty to Anna Karenina and everything in between, the romantic notions in novels easily lend themselves to the belief that the country is brimming with fur laden aristocrats dashing through mysterious snowy forests on troikas, rugged Cossack horsemen saving the day, and the fact that every other bloke seems to be called Basil!

Feeling small and insignificant next to Lenin, St Petersburg, Russia

Feeling small and insignificant next to Lenin, St Petersburg, Russia

So it was only natural that a visit would be near the top of my travel to do list, and that St Petersburg would be the chosen destination.

I was still at university and travelled with my best friend and room mate Kayna, who was equally besotted with Russian literature. Not wanting anyone to break the spellbound enchantment of our dreams we didn’t tell a soul! Sneaking out of our accommodation in the dead of night, laden with oversized backpacks and hoping our pals would believe we were off to a family wedding for a few days, we set off on our secret winter journey.

After spending some time in Finland, we caught the train from Helsinki across the border to Russia. The journey took place at night, with nothing but miles upon miles of dark pine forests rushing by, each tree heavily laden with fresh snow glinting in the moonlight. Just how we’d imagined it. In these icy wastes the temperature had plummeted to -18 degrees C since it was February – we thought winter would be more romantic and in keeping with our vision of the country. Still shivering under 8 layers of clothing, with hindsight we wondered about the wisdom of this.

Geography graduates getting lost, Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg

Geography graduates getting lost, Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg

Some time later the train was stopped by border guards, huge serious strapping men with heavy overcoats and icy moustaches. And guns. They took away our passports and for nearly an hour we sat wondering what on earth was going on. There was no-one else in our carriage, and the other passengers we’d seen consisted mainly of official looking military personnel. With our vocabulary limited to ‘thank you’ and ‘cheers’, we had no way of communicating with the officials, and began to worry that we were about to have our own novel-worthy adventure.

Eventually however they returned, and with a suspicious stare and a grunt our documents were returned. No doubt they just wondered what the hell we were doing there in the first place. Our arrival in St Petersburg was a little surreal. The Finland train station reminded me of the one in Bolivia where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid disembarked. It was like an old run down warehouse full of little Russian stalls, and a big map board on the wall that looked like an unfinished Primary School project. I half expected chickens to be running around the dirt floors. I was cheered slightly as I noticed at least one aspect was the pure Russia of my imagination – nearly everyone was wearing a fur hat! We’d have to get us some of those.

The frozen Neva River, St Petersburg, Russia

The frozen Neva River, St Petersburg, Russia

Hardly anyone spoke to us, or even acknowledged our existence, apart from the kindly grizzled old chap who ran a small hostel in which we were the only guests, and cooked us a boiled egg for breakfast. I didn’t have the heart to tell him they weren’t exactly my favourite, especially since clearly the alternative was to starve. There were very few shops open, absolutely no restaurants, and only one tiny ‘supermarket’ where we managed to purchase pizzas, before realising the hostel microwave might not be quite the best cooking method. Our emergency supplies from home, which consisted mainly of chocolate biscuits, had all frozen so weren’t much good either. Don’t think I’ve ever been so hungry in my life, the boiled egg was pretty much all we had each day, except when we dined on iced up bread and cream cheese, a bit of a treat to break up the monotony.

Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg

Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg

We didn’t see another tourist in all the days we were in St Petersburg, which was fantastic, but didn’t help with the niggling feeling that we weren’t really supposed to be there. We visited many of the main sights, including the aptly-named Winter Palace, the Mikhailovsky Castle, and the Peter and Paul Fortress where we stood before the tomb of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the last of the Romanovs, unless rumours are to be believed.

“It felt so strange, I was a bit in awe to think that, albeit dead, he was a few feet away from where I stood.”

Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Being the only visitors most sights looked shut and we felt like common thieves breaking into these places of religious and historic importance. My personal favourite was the church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, which looked more like a gingerbread house or something out of a Hansel and Gretel tale. Maybe Russia truly is part of a fairy-tale?

Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia

Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia

One highlight was seeing a ballet performance of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre, although neither of us knew the storyline and of course the programmes were in Russian. We did cause a bit of aggravation on our visit, which although turned out to be mainly our fault, was not helped by the distinctly hostile manner of many locals and staff alike. Usher woman no. 1 took our tickets off us and directed us upstairs where we reached our balcony level seats only for usher woman no. 2 to glare at us, saying we did in fact need those tickets. So back we trooped and attempted to retrieve them from usher woman no. 1. She wasn’t having any of it, and pretended she’d never even seen us before. I got a bit cross, which being in English didn’t really have the desired effect, until eventually she suddenly remembered that yes, she did have 2 tickets in her pocket, perhaps they were ours? So off we went upstairs again, and to our dismay there were 2 people sitting in our seats. I challenged them, but they seemed to think they were in the right seats, so off I marched to find usher woman no. 2 who, fearing more argy-bargy promptly told the occupants to move to the cheaper seats upstairs as they were clearly in the wrong.

Under the frosty gaze of the other theatre-goers we finally took our seats and sat back to enjoy the ballet. It was only about half way through that I realised we were in fact on the wrong level. Those poor people had paid more than us to get these better seats, and were now higher up in the Gods, no doubt fuming at the English idiots below them. I felt so guilty, but the feeling passed. And the show went on.

To add to the whole weird feeling of the place, we went for a night walk around the city since it was far too cold to sleep, and it was eerily romantic all lit up in the snow. The streets were deserted of course, and we were enjoying the solitude when around the corner came an elephant. It was lumbering along the middle of the road in the snow, and as it came closer we saw it’s head was painted in green and gold. We stood watching for several minutes, wondering if the earlier vodka was stronger than we’d thought. Then, some way behind, a lone figure was following, dressed in a drab outfit that had once seen flamboyance in it’s former life. Ah, there must be a circus nearby, although quite what he was doing taking an elephant for a walk through the city at midnight I’ll never know.

We’d purchased fur hats by now, and it was so cold at -25 degrees C that our breath froze around the fur and there were constant icicles on my scarf and eyelashes, making it a struggle to keep my eyes open. However even that attempt to blend in failed, and people still kept starring at us. Why on earth would tourists want to visit in Winter after all?


I’d love to go back and visit in the summer, to see if the experience will be different and whether we’ll be more accepted as tourists along with all the rest. But I had my snow, my winter, my dark pine forests and my Romanov tombs, so for now, I’m happy with that. Although not quite the Russia of my dreams, it was still a different experience and at least I can play at being a Russian Countess with my new fur hat for many years to come.

Dr Zhivago here I am, St Petersburg

Dr Zhivago here I am, St Petersburg

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