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Two Tours: Luxury and Literature

May 8, 2010 at 9:46 am
By Karl Snyder

Our arrival in Petersburg on the morning of Friday, April 30th occurred at 6:30am. We had arrived on a sleeper train, so (luckily) this is also the time we awoke. Because we woke up so early, we had time for two very thorough tours with our wonderful purple-clad tour guide, Valery (Валерий), all before dinner. The first tour was to the Hermitage (in English), and the second was Dostoevsky-themed (in Russian), especially focusing on the places of action in Crime and Punishment. You may be able to tell already that the atmosphere of these two tours differed wildly (one in a palace and one on the streets and in dirty entryways), and yet both tours covered important aspects of the history of St. Petersburg's culture.

Once we got to the Hermitage just before 11am, we got our tickets after a surprisingly short line. In the 10 minutes we were in line, I heard Russian, Dutch, Italian, and French. Later on, I would hear more of each of these, as well as German, English, Japanese, Spanish, and others I couldn't recognize. The Hermitage, as you can see, attracts people from all over the world, and with good reason. The first part of the Hermitage, the Winter Palace (Зимний Дворец), was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764. Catherine bought thousands of European paintings and sculptures for the palace, as part of an overall attempt to Europify Russia at that time. These thousands of works served as the Romanovs' private collection until public access was granted in 1852. By this time much more had been built onto the palace complex. Now the Hermitage has about 3 million items in its permanent display. After a three-and-a-half hour tour, I felt like I had only seen a tiny fraction of the palace and its art. Being in the Hermitage was both overwhelming and surreal. The enormous halls we passed through were decorated with intricate wooden floors, enormous chandaliers, complicated stone- and metalwork, and impressive paintings. The amount of money and time that clearly went into every detail was amazing by itself, but what really made it dream-like was the enormous scale of the project. It is hard to the level of luxury in words; I hope my pictures will help!

After our experience in the lap of luxury, we quickly transitioned to a taste of everyday surroundings for common people in the mid-19th century. Interestingly enough, Dostoevsky sets Crime and Punishment in St. Petersburg as it really exists; that is, streetnames and even addresses are referenced. Therefore, it is possible to make very good guesses as to where the main characters 'lived', and the main events 'took place'. As Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite novels, it was a chilling and exciting experience to be led around the neighborhood and see where Raskolnikov lived, where he found the axe, and even (probably) where the main murder takes place. In contrast to the Hermitage, most of this tour took place on narrow streets packed with old 4-or-5-story buildings. Fortune even allowed us to enter the courtyard where the front door to Raskolnikov's building was located. Even now, it was a pretty dirty place; and even now, it was a very, very dark place indeed. Although the characters in the novel never really existed, the novel does give a pretty realistic view of what it was like to live in Petersburg in the 1840's. I could have stood looking around the courtyard for an hour, it was so eerie and full of creepy details. I loved it. (I have included a few pictures of this tour as well.)

I think these two tours were a pretty good introduction to Petersburg, in that they had great cultural breadth. We saw alleyways and we saw Da Vinci masterpieces; we discussed literature and we discussed raw wealth; we saw the biggest vase in the world (let's just say a full-grown hippo could take a comfortable bath in it) and we saw chipped yellow paint on apartment buildings. We even listened to both English and Russian! Petersburg really is an interesting mix of opposites. On one hand, it is much more overrun with tourists than Moscow, and its architecture is more overwhelmingly European. But on the other hand, it has been captured in great works of Russian literature forever, and there is a deep Russian air to the place as a whole.