Friday 16 July 1993 - Russian Folk Dancing
A brisk shock in the morning -- no hot water for showers. At breakfast (a step down from Moscow, a bowl of gruel with jam), we learned the city council supplied hot water to all buildings. And for some reason, it had turned off the hotel's supply this morning.
We caught the Metro to the Hermitage. It's more expensive than Moscow, fifteen verses ten roubles (or one penny!), but no less interesting. A wall of doors greeted us on the platform. When the train arrived, it stopped so the compartment and platform doors lined up. The platform doors opened, and we walked straight into the carriage -- there's no chance of falling in front of the train from the platform.
The Hermitage Museum is expansive, with three buildings: the Small and Large Hermitage and the Winter Palace. The Bolsheviks stormed the latter in October 1917 to oust the Provincial Government, which ultimately led the Soviet Union.
There are thousands of rooms in each building, packed with art and antiquities. And each building is an art form in itself, within and on the outside.
Our visit got off to a perfect start with a smile and a "Dobroye ootro", good morning, shared with a cleaner, a friendly old woman. The good vibes continued over the next three-four hours as we wandered through the rooms and marvelled at the exhibits.
Now and then we'd bump into someone from our group, most of whom like us, had skipped the Intourist organised tour to visit the museum on their own. After seeing dozens of tour groups hurry past us following their guides, we all agreed the Hermitage was best taken in at a leisurely pace.
Ended our visit at a display of Stone Age art and remains from Siberia. Exhibits included a skeleton in a stone sarcophagus and a mummified body. Unnerving to stare at the leathery shell of someone who once lived like me, but also compulsive.
We left the Hermitage with another smile and a "Da svidAniya" to the old cleaner. Inspected the paintings on offer in the square outside the Winter Palace, but settled on cheap sets of postcards. The vendor, a middle-aged woman, kept looking around nervously -- perhaps another black marketeer?
Black Market River Cruise
There were more bear cubs in Palace Square next to the tourist buses. Gave them a wide berth and headed to the River Neva. Checked times for the hydrofoil ferry to Petrodvorets for tomorrow and then we hopped on an hour-long river cruise, via more black-market trading -- a crew member snuck us aboard for US$3 each, by-passing the official ticket office selling tickets for US$4.
Not as enjoyable a tour as last night's, but we passed a few interesting sights: Finland Railway Station where Lenin returned to Russia, the Aurora battleship which fired the blank-shell to unnerve the Provincial Government during the Bolshevik Revolution, and a grim-looking prison. Thought the prison was derelict until I looked closer through my binoculars and saw gleaming coils of razor wire on the walls and people on roofs outside the prison, presumably calling out to friends and relatives inside.
Folk Music and Dancing
Returned to our hotel from where we'd booked a night of Russian folk music and dancing with Intourist. I chatted with our guide on the bus to the venue. Told me she liked Pink Floyd, as well as classical and other forms of music, but not Russian pop music. She said it was a poor imitation of western pop.
Everyone had a good time at the folk night, with traditional singing and dancing, and audience participation encouraged. I was "dragged" up for a couple of dances. In one, I had to protect my partner from being grabbed by another bloke in the middle of a circle. Having protected her, I then met my partner in the middle and kissed her three times on the cheeks. She didn't seem too happy about this -- perhaps it was my five-day stubble?
During the interval, traditionally dressed waitresses served us Russian tea and vodka and nibbles. There was also the opportunity to buy souvenirs -- added a balalaika to my collection of stringed instruments for US$15.
I chatted again with our guide on the bus back to the hotel. It was the best (only!) firsthand insight I'd had into Russia. She revealed you no longer had to be a party member to get on in Russia. And, although times are tough, she said life could be good, "If you look at the bright side of things".
She also explained why there are so many talented buskers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Music tuition was free in the Soviet Union, and even now it is heavily subsidised.
Keen to practise my balalaika at the hotel, but soon realised it was a souvenir "toy" -- didn't sound anywhere near as good (or real!) as the demo instrument had at the folk night.
Late Night at River Neva
After our series of late nights (and disappointed with my balalaika), I decided it was too early and light outside to go to bed, and caught the Metro back to the city centre. Although it was 11 PM, it was still light enough to write up my travel journal beside the River Neva.
An old, rough looking bloke sidled over and sat beside. With a smattering of English and German, he explained he had no house, no "Arbeit", and not even a pair of socks. Then he gave me a present, a one rouble coin. I reciprocated with a thousand rouble note. He shook my hand and kissed it.
As there was no chance of returning to my journal, I bid the old bloke, "Da svidAniya", and headed back to the hotel, via Palace Square. Although it was past midnight, I felt surprisingly awake, and it felt good (and safe!) to be walking the streets.
I arrived back at the hotel at 1 AM. The sky was dark overhead, but the horizon was light, like at sunset or sunrise. Woke briefly at 4 AM and I saw it was light outside again. Love these long summer days, but doubt I'd cope with the dark days of winter.