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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

St. Petersburg Center: A Guided Tour

Last week one of the coordinators from the School of Russian and Asian Studies, named Sergei, led Sarah, Hillary, and I on a walking tour of central St. Petersburg.  It was a warm, clear day and perfect for walking.  It turns out Sergei is a professor at one of the universities in St. Petersburg, and he is a wealth of great information.  Beyond simply knowing an immense amount of information about Russian culture and history, he is able to detach himself from his Russian identity and talk about issues objectively and in a global context.  

"Dom Knigi" ("House of Books"), otherwise known as The Singer House.
It was the first building built in St. Pete by an American company,
(Singer Sewing Company), and at one time it even housed the
U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg!

Summer is here and the city is eager to get roadwork done before
the next big freeze!

This center building, in green, is the fire inspection bureau.  Sergei
explained that this bureau plays a special historical (and
contemporary) role in Russia.  It's a tool used by the state to control
the organization of certain groups and companies.  They might publicly
speak of democracy and freedom of speech, but political opposition
groups who try to establish a physical address are quickly shut down
because of their lack to meet "fire code."  Sometimes, Sergei says, certain
organizations are temporarily shut down and then allowed to reopen (having
done no renovations) once they change their stance on an issue or resolve
whatever it was that led to the state's disapproval of them.  This is exactly
what happened with the European University some years ago.

A government building across from St. Isaac's Cathedral.
I arrived at the Singer House a little reluctantly last Friday afternoon to meet for the tour.  I'd just finished my classes for the week and was tired.  What I really wanted was to sit down and rest. Plus, the Singer House is located right in the middle of my former commute from where I lived and worked during my Consulate internship.  I was positive that I'd seen everything we would walk past, but since there were only four people invited and one had already declined, I felt rather obligated to show up.  I'm so glad I did!  What I thought would be a very basic 45-minute to one-hour walk to two or three typical tourist sites turned out to be an incredibly thought-provoking 4.5-hour tour and conversation.

The golden dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral. To the right is the
Hotel Astoria, where Hitler stayed once and planned to hold a banquet
for his groupies (which was apparently cancelled last minute).

The facade of St. Isaac's Cathedral. 

These bronze doors in St. Isaac's are modeled after Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise
 in the Baptistery in Florence, Italy (dating to the early 12th century). I visited the
Gates of Paradise in 2007, and then did a research project on them in a Medieval World
class at Belmont, so it was really neat to have some contextual information when I
visited St. Isaac's!

This model shows how the columns on either side of St. Isaac's were
erected. They are pure marble; polished on the ground and covered
with cloth and wood planks, then hoisted into position.
No one died and none of the columns were damaged in process.

St. Isaac's Cathedral is the third largest in Europe.

One character in a larger-than-life mosaic.  The way that these mosaics reflect portray
such intricate shading reflects an amazing artistry.

Looking up at the central dome.

Unfortunately this came out blurry, but it's the only one I have of
the iconostasis.  Thanks to Dr. Byrne, our well-loved Medieval World
Honors professor, I arrived in Russia with some knowledge of the
Russian Orthodox religion and the rationale behind Russian
Orthodox church architecture.  An iconostasis is a wall or screen --
usually heftily decorated -- that separates the sanctuary from the nave.
Some women buy candles to light and place in front
of the icons.  In the Russian Orthodox church
women are expected to wear head coverings when
inside the church building.

The green malachite used to cover these columns is only found in very
small pieces.  The process of decorating the columns, therefore, is
similar to the application of gold leafing. There is much artistry involved,
as the architect actually creates the multi-colored design you see.

View from the top of St. Isaac's.

This blue-roofed church covered in gold stars is my favorite church in St. Petersburg!

Looking out over the park with the Bronze Horseman and beyond to
the Neva River. On the other side of the Neva lies Vasiliy Island.
On the island side, almost in the very center of this photo, is the
university building where I take Russian classes.
The trees are in full bloom and the parks are beautiful!

Another view from the top of St. Isaac's.  These colorful onion-shaped
domes are atop The Church on Spilled Blood (called such because
it was constructed on the site of the carriage-bombing of Tsar
Alexander II.  The grenade was thrown by what Wikipedia calls
"an anarchist conspirator").

The Hermitage, as seen from the top of St. Isaac's. The golden spire on the left belongs to the Admiralty.

Hillary, Sarah, and I at the top of St. Isaac's.

The Church on Spilled Blood

Our guide Sergei explains the assassination of Alexander II and the
construction of the Church on Spilled Blood. 


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