We decided not to climb to the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the tourist view of St. Petersburg because we were taking a late-night boat ride on the Neva River. We’d see the monuments of St. Petersburg in bright lights, we reasoned. (There was probably a degree of rationalizing over that decision not to climb those 300 steps.)
After one o’clock in the morning the bridges on the Neva rise to allow barge and sightseeing traffic. The River Neva divides this city on a swamp that Peter the Great built in the early 1700s. Well, actually it was the serfs, dragooned by the thousands, who drained the swamps, dug the canals, built up the land by hand, literally – they were always short of shovels and wheel barrows — and died for this Venice of the North that became Russia’s glittering window to the west.
In the years that followed, baroque and classical palaces rose like mushrooms, either admired or reviled by Europeans, symbols nonetheless of Russia’s growing presence on the continent.
Living in these palaces was quite a different experience from looking at them. Noblemen, who were required to live in the new capital if they expected favors, resented the demands of the tsar. Beneath the glittery façade buildings were damp with the distinct essence of must and mildew. How they missed Moscow!
The pier was only a ten-minute walk from our hotel. Yes, it would be safe to walk at midnight. St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a few blocks away, and the Bronze Horseman, opposite the pier, were our landmarks. Simple enough.
You can’t miss St. Isaac’s. It’s Russia’s largest cathedral and its shimmering dome punctures the skyline. Looking at it today, you wouldn’t know this was the fourth try. The first, a small wooden church, commissioned by Peter the Great in 1710 was flooded. Fire finished off the second, after bad foundations caused the stone walls to crumble.
Catherine the Great commissioned the third try in 1768, but she died before it was finished.
Her son, Paul I, whose taste in architecture is questionable at best, commandeered its marble for one of his palaces, substituted clay bricks for the church’s façade. (Maybe some not-so-passive aggression against his dead mother, whom he hated?)
Finally, by 1818 Alexander I got tired of hearing nasty jokes about that church his father had left in such hideous condition, so he ordered a new one. The undertaking was monumental. Think about building a 4,000 square-foot church – room for 14,000 standing worshipers – walls faced with slabs of granite, stone columns and pediments as grace notes, mosaics and gold icons decorating the interior, altogether weighing hundreds of thousands of tons. In a swamp. Ten thousand pines were dragged from virgin forests, tarred and sunk to create footings.
It took 40 years and the reigns of three tsars before it was finished. It cost 123 million rubles (so they say, I can’t imagine how the cost was accurately reckoned) and the lives of hundreds of serfs, but what’s the loss of a few serfs when you’re building a grand city and a grand church. Like minerals, there’s an unending supply in this country that never ends.
There’s actually a connection between America and Russia here. Alexander II (memorialized by the Savior on the Spilled Blood Church) used the money from the sale of Alaska to gild the great dome. Sixty serfs died from toxic fumes of mercury used to spray the gold. Day or night the dome is a beacon, much like our own capitol dome which was modeled after it. Only during World War II was it shadowed, painted gray to mislead enemy bombers.
Let me point out that reading a map at midnight in a strange city under a dim streetlight can be next to impossible. Nor is it recommended travel behavior, nor is asking strangers for directions on lonely streets late at night. Avid walkers, avid map-readers, we had, on this simplest of walks, lost our bearings.
No choice but to march sure-footedly ahead. Into this dark and deserted neighborhood? No, this is wrong. Ah, a taxi driver. Would he take us to the Bronze Horseman? He apparently understood our monosyllabic gibberish as well as we understood his Russian, though we managed to figure out he was saying No. We thought maybe he gestured toward the river, so we marched sure-footedly ahead in a different direction.
Ah, a gentleman leaving a private club(?). And so gracious. Oh you want the beeg sheep, he said, which we did not think we wanted a beeg sheep but we figured a beeg sheep had to be on the reever and from there we could find the leetle sheep, so we said yes and thank you so much.
He spoke English so well, with just that trace of accent; and doubtless he knew other languages. Our lack of language skills made us feel provincial, and maybe a little self-centered. But we couldn’t dwell on that; we only had twenty minutes before cast off.
Yes, we found the river. Along the embankment we caught up to a jolly gentleman with two happy lady friends, one on each arm. Follow us, they suggested (we think), we’ll get you there. But they were having too much fun ambling down the avenue, and we were on a mission. They took no note as we jogged past them. The night was quiet but shattered glass embedded in the stoney walk suggested previous rowdy times.
Up ahead we saw an elegant couple disappear onto a pier. That’s it, we cried. We’ve made it with time to spare. But. . .why are they leaving?
Hey, the boat is untied and revving up and moving and it’s not time yet and we have tickets. No, the gatekeeper gestured emphatically. “Teekets,” I cried. Head shake. “Teekets,” again and again (my Russian-accented English becoming more authentic with each try). I shoved the indecipherable papers at the gatekeeper. They could have been tickets to Siberia for all we knew.
The Captain must have heard the commotion, for I was making a commotion. I was not giving up. We were, after all, on a schedule. There was a lot of thinking going on. The captain finally agreed to allow us to board.
Relief and exultation, but embarrassment, too, when we realized how much was involved. They had to stop the boat, pull in, anchor, rope up two boats lying next to the pier, then tie them to our tour boat before we could walk through them to board. Meanwhile, boats were rocking and water was churning.
Strong hands steadied us, but we never saw their faces. Our expressions of gratitude went unacknowledged. We were settled on the ship before we realized the elegant couple had followed us. We glanced their way, but they remained aloof. (Probably didn’t want to acknowledge that badly behaved American woman.)
Day or night, this must be one of the most spectacular waterfronts in Europe, especially with piped-in music by Tschaikovsky. The boat idled as bridges opened to let us pass. We were mesmerized by disembodied patterns of light floating up in the night.
Around a bend, the domes of Smolny Cathedral glowed, lit up against a dark sky. We said we had to see it by day. But next day, when we looked on the map, it seemed too far for us to manage.
You’d think, at three am, we’d take a taxi back to the hotel, but the taxi drivers looked baleful and the empty streets looked petty safe. Besides, how could we communicate?
We turned to go, and we saw the magnificent Bronze Horseman. I can’t imagine, as we sprinted for the boat, how we could have missed that mammoth statue of Peter the Great bathed in blue and mounted on a monumental rock, Thunder Rock, it’s called.
Here is Catherine the Great’s tribute to Peter the Great, posthumous gift from a young German teenager turned Russian empress who won the hearts of her people by embracing all things Russian, to a mighty tsar who turned Russia’s face to the west. It took years to design and build. It’s a masterpiece of design and engineering.
We were confident we knew the way. It was a short walk. We passed a young woman in peacoat and leggings, and then a man in jeans and leather jacket, each walking alone, in no particular hurry. Otherwise the streets were deserted. We felt comfortable enough to cut a corner through a spacious park.
We had a cup of tea and a nice chat to celebrate our return. We said we didn’t think our husbands would care for this kind of adventure.
Postscript: From then on, we took taxis to evening events. We took the precaution of having our hotel do the booking and tell us what the fee would be. This was a wise move. On one occasion the driver could not read our tickets. We did some sort of opaque polyglot back-and-forth, like an Abbott and Costello routine, but we never did understand each other. Finally, he called our hotel for directions. When we wanted to return, we depended on the good nature of a concierge in another hotel to summon a cab.