we're in russia?

Yeah, Amy and I have to constantly remind ourselves (like we did again just now) that we’re actually in Russia… I think it’s going to feel this surreal for the whole voyage!

Anyhow, today was pretty intense, but in a good way. I had a trip planned (through Semester at Sea) to go visit a synagogue and some churches early in the day, which initially I thought I had slept through since the sun is really intense from early morning to late night (the “white nights” here at the time of year, similar to Iceland and Norway… just when I had thought we would be getting earlier sunsets here!) When I got to the bus for the trip, it was definitely interesting to see what people were wearing. We were told to dress conservatively and women needed headscarves to enter the synagogue… yet most of the girls were wearing jeans, flip-flops, small shirts, and just tied a really small bandana barely around their head. Oh well…

The first church we went to was St. Vladimir’s Cathedral, which was really beautiful on the inside. All of the religious icons were adorned and embellished with gold, gold, and more gold. The church is still active, but it is also setup on the inside so that there are many beautiful religious works of art and such around the perimeter of the sanctuary. It was also really nice because people lit candles all over the church on various pedalstools and tables to pray for loved ones, something I have grown up doing in churches of various faith. My tour guide was nice enough to help me buy a candle to light for everyone I have lost in my life over the past year or so… Kelly, Uncle Bill[y], Lucky Marie, Grandmum, and of course Captain Kritikos of our ship. It was comforting to be able to light a flame in the memory of others, even in a country whose language I cannot speak. We were also fortunate enough to see the priest and altar boy come out to a small alter (to the side of the main one) and pray – prayers I recognized by rhythm, even though they were all in Russian. I love seeing how people all over the world celebrate their faith in various gods and values.

Next we took a ride on the city Metro (subway) to get into town. This was mostly exciting because we have continuously been warned not to take the Metro because of gypsies, etc. It was fun though! Not too exciting, because it seemed a lot like subways in most cities like Boston or New York, though most of the students were bewildered because they had somehow avoided public transit their entire lives (a lot of students were even complaining about it, which I thought was really strange – and also rude). The funniest thing about it was that the escalators move really fast compared to ours, so you have to be much more adept at mounting and dismounting them as they are flying down into the ground and back up again. The stations were very beautiful, though usually because of being built under Stalin as a sort of propaganda trying to show that he cared for his people. Stations would have crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, yet most of the people would be living in very poor conditions.

The next place we visited was the St. Petersburg Synagogue, which is where the guys had to wear yamulkes and the women had to wear headscarves. The cantor came and spoke with us very informally, giving us a history of the synagogue and how it managed to survive the war without damage, yet struggles to keep a steadily large congregation. Unlike in Moscow, where there are several synagogues, there is only one in St. Petersburg, so people of all Jewish backgrounds come together there regardless of their differences (which would segregate them in a city like Moscow). One of the faculty members on out trip asked the cantor to sing for us, and I’m so glad she made the request. He turned with his back to us and the most amazing voice filled the entire synagogue (they built the place with amazing acoustics!) When he finished singing, he bowed his head and said farewell to us and that he had the city of London in his thoughts and prayers. Being on a ship, it’s much harder for us to get news on a regular basis… so none of us knew what he was talking about. The faculty on the trip were able to give us a short summary of the bombings, which was just so awful to hear about. Even more upsetting to me was that everyone immediately was whining about whether or not we would still be stopping in London, whilst my first thoughts were of the handful of friends I have there right now – I really do hope you’re all safe.

After leaving the synagogue, we dropped into St. Isaac’s Cathedral which I had previously only seen the outside of (quite beautiful itself). On the inside, it was much more incredible; a huge open space full of ornate architectural features and elaborate artistic depictions of various religious events and figures. We didn’t stay very long, and our stay was agitated a bit by the fact that many students were obnoxiously sneaking past buying a camera permit (so cheap, only about $1.25) which was rude and disrespectful… and unappreciated by our tourguides, of course. We are visitors to another country, and even a camera permit is so cheap… I can’t believe how bratty people have been about buying them (or failing to) in so many places we have been!

Finally, we went to the Tikhvin Cemetery, where we saw the resting place of both Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky, which was more of a sight than I had anticipated. Most of the graves there were beautifully sculpted, but it was especially cool to see Dostoevsky (having read Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground) and of course Tchaikovsky because of my love for music. Being there gave me an even more extended appreciation of how the Russian people honor their writers, artists, and musicians. We could learn a lot from that, I think.

When I got back I was dead tired but it was my only free afternoon so Amy and I went to the Hermitage and really covered a lot of ground in the time we were there! It was so strange to be standing in front of pieces of Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh… many of which I had in various textbooks over time and never expected to see in original form (especially here in St. Pete’s). It was a little chaotic dodging all of the humungous tour groups in all different languages that were stampeding all over the place, but I am so glad we went. The rooms themselves are incredible works of art, then layered with more art hung on the walls and held in cases. Since Amy went there briefly on a tour the other day, she was also able to fill me in and be my personal tour guide for a bit which was quite helpful since the place is so vast and overwhelming!

Finally we got back awhile ago, had some dinner, and both took rather extended naps. We both also had grandiose plans of getting a lot of schoolwork done tonight, but it’s pretty late and we have an early trip tomorrow so I don’t think it’s going to work out… on that note, I better be off to bed to get what rest I can squeeze in before an early wakeup!

outside of st. pete’s synagogue

inside of synagogue

synagogue wedding chapel

st. isaac’s cathedral

resting place of dostoevsky

tchaikovsky’s resting place

the enormous hermitage!

bear cub outside the hermitage...


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