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St. Petersburg Weekend

    I have already once told on these pages about St. Petersburg and the beauty of its numerous waterways, elegant buildings, and classical monuments. Two years have passed, and in June 1998 I again got a chance to visit the northern capital of Russia for a few days. This time I will not tell much about the city itself and instead will concentrate on two magnificent parks near it, Pavlovsk and Pushkin (also known as Tzarskoe Selo). These places should not be missed by any visitor to St.Petersburg. But they are much more than regular tourist attractions, they are an important part of Russian life. Everyone finds there something interesting and special, imperial palaces smelling of history or winding paths of English parks, famous artifacts or sculptural masterpieces, educational excursions or relaxing festivals.
These pages are called Moscow Life and there may be a question of how relevant is my story. Once upon a time, when I was a student, frequent visits to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) were a part of lifestyle for many Muscovites. Now traditions change a bit, the cost of such trip is prohibitively high for many Russians. Train tickets (two ways) may cost $60 - $70, a night in a hotel, $40. So with other small expenses for food and local tickets, the entire trip would require around $150. Alas, for many this amount is well above what one can afford to spend on a weekend.

   But let me start with a few notes about the life in St. Petersburg as seen by a Muscovite who does not visit the place too often. Of course my observations are necessarily superficial and to some extent reflect the old rivalry existing between the two cities. They have been competing all the time since Peter the Great moved the capital to St. Petersburg and thus deprived Moscow of its unique position of the one and only center of Russian political and cultural life, the seat of state power. Russian and later the Soviet state was very much centralized and being the administrative center meant being in the real center of all things.

   When Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow, St. Petersburg was doomed. Of course during all the Soviet era, Leningrad was called "The cradle of the Revolution" and was getting substantial subsidies for its industry, education, and culture. Still, it was even then obviously losing the importance and vitality of a growing and successful place. In the times of new Russia, the situation obviously became even worse. Money and energy of new businesses fueling Moscow never came to St. Petersburg. The difference between Moscow and St. Petersburg became more visible, and the residents of the latter found a refuge in believing that they are too refined and intelligent to be efficient businesspersons - and that being poor is a Russian way to remain proud.

   This is why sometimes working with partners in St. Petersburg is a torture for a Muscovite. Visiting the city one feels it too. For example, in Moscow one can use bars and restaurants with local management and experience the same level of service that is typical for places run by foreign staff. In St. Petersburg this is not the case, and if after Pizza Hut you will try any local cafe on the same street, you will feel the difference. Too much of it, in fact.

   But the decaying elegance of once great city is charming in its special way, and St. Petersburg is much more a tourist attraction than Moscow. The city depends on the vistors' money much more than Moscow - and of course offers more specials to the tourists. But these my pages are not a tourist guide...

   New St. Petersburg administration cannot offer efficient programs to fight unemployment or stimulate business growth - but it is smart enough to offer city residents more spectacular events instead of more jobs. The city now enjoys festivals, concerts in the open air, and other festivities almost every weekend. And people do like this lifestyle - even if they do not have enough money to buy all the funny staff available at the festivals.

   One of these festivals took place in Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo) on the day I was visiting the place. The city hall entrance was decorated with a large piece of cloth with a huge lock painted on it and the text "Everyone left for the festival" - a sign that the town authorities took the weekend event with all necessary respect - and just the right lack of seriousness. Moscow is too businesslike to be so much enthusiastic about having fun. Alas! Here Coca-Cola flags were streaming next to Orthodox crosses, ancient Russian "medovuha" was served along with imported and local brands of beer, pop singers and rock groups were generating lots of noise from several stages.

You can click on any picture in this story to open a larger and better quality image.

   On the lawns all over Pushkin one could observe participants of the carnival in the last minute preparations - and wonderful mixture of professional clowns, amateur members of history clubs, actors, and some characters whom I can hardly name properly. Anyway they all were looking great - and enjoying the party.

   The visitors arriving from St. Petersburg by trainloads were joining the the crowds, some already dressed up, others hurrying up to numerous stands and kiosks to buy masks, wigs or at least some paint for their faces. Yes, everyone was participating to some extent, not just waatching.

   Of course in the historical part of the park, near the Catherine's Palace, everything was a bit more quiet. Still, even in these parts one could observe amazing scenes of past mixing with the future... The park was full of young Russian Navy officers who just a few days ago had graduated from several Navy Academies located in St. Petersburg. These future heroes of the oceans now were interested in beautiful girls and were looking perfectly with ladies dressed in costumes of the Russian court of XVIII century. Well, Navy officers have always been the elite of the military - and of the nation. And St. Petersburg has always been the main Russian center of Navy education.

   Everyone can find something to his or her tastes in the park. The kids are happy feeding the ducks in the pond (that looks so much like a natural lake), their parents enjoy excursions to historical places or new exhibitions and galleries in the park. Some buildings here remain us of the times when the concept of political correctness was not yet invented to politicians. The strange building at the banks of the pond looks like a mosque - but is just a bath-house built to commemorate a victory of Russian fleet over Muslims. A thing impossible in the last years of XX century when we live now.


   The quiet beauty of the park is somewhat monumental and a visitor all the time gets the reminders of the glory and power of Russian Czars. Obviously this was the intention of a landscape architect - or perhaps even the direct order of Catherine. The park was a place to have important talks with politicians and ambassadors, to show off as well as to relax. But some views and places are really relaxing nonetheless. And so were some exhibits inside. This weekend Cameron Gallery was fragrant and beautiful, full of bouquets, these short living creations of real artists.

   The spirit of a carnival of course reaches even the palace park and even the formal balcony of Cameron Gallery - and a bronze sculptures of ancient heroes and philosophers feel it. I wonder how much Scipion likes this colorful wig. Perhaps its more fun than watching dull crowds of serious tourists...

   Pavlovsk, a place very close to Tsarskoe Selo, is an example of a different style and different tastes of the owner. Tsarskoe Selo reflects the artistic and elegant style of the early XVIII century, the time of masquerades and rapid changes. Pavlovsk was founded in the last quarter of that century - and is much more solemn, and at the same time sophisticated. The park of Pavlovsk is a successful attempt of constructing a sample of Russian nature so that it all could be shown as a set of almost natural scenic views in the course of a relatively short walk. Trees and meadows along Slavyanka river look like a wilderness - but they are have been carefully planned and built. It is a perfect picture of Russian wild nature drawn by outstanding landscape architects - not by nature itself.


   To make the nature more comfortable for the high guests of Paul's Palace, lots of small pleasant surprises were scattered all over the park. Among them were pavilions and sculptures, perfectly groomed trails and paths, bridges and towers. As you see in the photos, Pavlovsk looks enchanting in June, but believe me, it is a real jewel in the fall when the leaves change color. The trees were planted to form artistic studies in the fall palette - and they sometimes are more impressive than the best views of New England... If you like scenic views of fall foliage - do not miss Pavlosk, it belongs to the most impressive places in the world at that season.

   Some parts of the park have been converted to recreation and amusement area for the visitors after the revolution when private estate became the public land. If at some point you get tired of perfect park, there are boats, beer, and other simple pleasures available. I could not resist the temptation.

   There are hardly more comments needed. Please look at the pictures and enjoy the views of the parks. That's the place where millions of Russian spend their weekends, relax after hectic and difficult life of the city - even if life in St. Petersburg is less hectic and nervous than in Moscow. These parks are also important treasure of Russian history, a strange message from the past that keeps changing over the years and still has the same core meaning of very Russian beauty...

Okay. This one is perhaps the most heavy on the graphics side story on my Moscow Life pages. More than 30 pictures - hopefully, you have enjoyed at least some of them.

Here is the last photo, taken in the fragrant meadous of Pavlovsk, with a bottle of beer brewed in St. Petersburg, they make beer better than anything made in Moscow.

Time to come back home, to Moscow. The weekends are short, and the summer is not such a slow season as they say...  


Andrey -

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