These are hard times for Russia. The economy is a bust and food prices are rising rapidly. Democracy as Americans know it has been replaced by what Putin has called a “special democracy” consistent with Russia’s history. Anyone who disagrees has been jailed or forced to leave the country. A Neo-Stalinism is slowly taking over the country making foreigners, or иностранец (inostranyets), people to be viewed with suspicion. The ruble has fallen from 28 rubles to a dollar since my last visit in late 2011 all the way down to 62 rubles to a dollar. This might be a good time to visit Russia. It is cheap, Neo-Stalinism does not have a complete grip on the major cities, and the chaos that will follow Putin is still in the future.
If your high school world history class was like mine then you learned that Russia was a poor country and the grinding poverty eventually resulted in the Russian revolution. What you will learn from your visit is that Russia was an incredibly rich country with all the wealth being held by a very few and shared with no one. The palaces around St. Petersburg are a great place to start your journey. Plan to spend the better part of the day at the Hermitage viewing what may house the world’s greatest art collection. Depending on your schedule, return to the Hermitage and take the boat to Peterhof Palace which was designed by Peter the Great and easily rivals the Palace of Versailles. The Russian Museum deserves a visit and will take at least half a day. After visiting Peterhof, the palace at Pushkin may seem modest but as you will see it is stunning. It is possible to spend the entire day exploring Nevsky Prospekt. This three-mile stretch of St Petersburg is the center of the city’s cultural and social life. Just off Nevsky is the Church on Spilled Blood. It is one the most beautiful churches I have ever visited. My list is just a sample of places to visit. If you have time then you can also take in the Peter and Paul Fortress, Mariinsky Theatre, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Bronze Horseman, the Rostral Column, Kazan Cathedral and more. I have been to St. Petersburg six times and I see something new each time.
From St. Petersburg, take the day train to Novgorod which was the capital of Russia for many years. You will need your passport to purchase a ticket. The Volkhov Hotel offers an excellent base for a visit to Novgorod. You can walk to the hotel from the train station. You can also walk to most of the major attractions in the city. You will need your passport for the hotel. The hotel will register you with the Russian authorities. This must be repeated in every city you visit. Remember you are a foreigner and all иностранец are potential spies.
Novgorod suffered terrible damage during World War II but still boasts a variety of notable medieval monuments. The Kremlin is a great starting point. Known as the Detinets, it is home to the oldest palace in Russia and the oldest Russian clock tower. Do not miss the bronze monument to the Millennium of Russia, unveiled in 1862, which represents the most important figures from the country’s history up to that time.
Another must see is St. Sophia Cathedral, one of the best preserved churches from the 11th century and perhaps the oldest structure still in use in Russia. We were lucky enough to hear a choral concert here in 2005. There are other things to see and do in Novgorod. For example, we enjoyed our river cruise and visit to St. Nicholas Cathedral. The hotel staff can help with suggestions and transportation.
Come back tomorrow and we will visit more cities in Mother Russia, Part II.