Liberty!

Russians erected Church on Spilled Blood on the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination and treat it as a monument to him with no religious services held there. Alexander II ended serfdom and released serfs from their bondage to nobility and land, and he was killed by a bomb.

We have enjoyed a view of the Church morning and night, and its soaring onion domes popped up almost comically above the cityscape almost everywhere we went, like a lighthouse, guiding our way home. But we had not yet had a chance to visit inside the church and it was #1 on our priority list for our last full day in Peter.

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It would not have seemed possible for the interior to exceed the beauty and marvel of its exterior, and yet it did. Every wall, pillar, and towering ceilings were covered in minutely-tiled, blue, red and gold mosaics depicting Biblical scenes. The exact spot where the assassination occurred was marked by a stunning marble canopy. We spent a long time here, marvelling at the beautiful mosaics, made even more compelling with the 30-year reconstruction of the mosaics after the Church was badly damaged in the war.

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We exited the Church awestruck and in need of fortification. Time for Business Lunch! Shirley found a wonderful restaurant, Freeman’s, just off Nevsky Prospekt behind the Kazan Cathedral. We had another wonderful Russian meal with a twist: a dense berry juice, salad, borsch, parmesan risotto and rich desserts.

In order to save travel time and see as much as possible today, we availed ourselves of the wonderful Metro system, making our way to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. This is one of the most important monastaries in Russia, having been instituted by Peter the Great in honour of Alexander Nevsky, considered to be the father of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 11th Century. Our first stop was the necropolis where we visited the graves of Dostoevsky, Tchaichovsky and other great Russian artists, poets and writers. Then we visited the Cathedral, another uniquely beautiful Church. Tradition applied here and we covered our heads and took no photographs of the interior. The many devout pilgrims’ acts of genuflexion were touching: they crossed themselves, bowed deeply, lit candles and kissed or tenderly touched their foreheads to their venerated icons.

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We raced back to the city centre where we visited the Stroganov Palace (yes, Beef Stroganoff is named after this aristocratic St. Petersburg family). The senior Mr. Stroganov was interested in science and had an impressive mineral collection. The rooms of the palace were beautiful and the family had a stunning art collection. Like Peter the Great, Count Stroganov recognized and supported talent. He recognized artistic talent in a serf, Veronikhin, from the Urals, freed him from serfdom and educated him. Veronikhin won an award for his work as an art student, and became an architect. He designed, of course, the Stroganov Palace, and went on to design the gorgeous Kazan Cathedral, the collonade at Peterhof, and the Lantern Study and Rose Pavillion at Pavlovsk Palace. All this could have been lost to a less philanthropic serf owner, and I thought about the millions of serfs in Russian history forced to work the land, whose immense talents may have been passed over.

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All this thinking made me hungry again, and we hadn’t yet visited the famous Singer Cafe (yes, formerly the site of a Singer sewing machine factory). We got the rock star table, and had a view overlooking the bustling Nevsky Prospekt, a delightful jumble of Metro takers, pedestrians, tourists, food carts and 8 lanes of traffic.

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Hopped back on the Metro one more time in order to introduce me to Galeria, an amazing shopping mall Shirley had found. Six floors of gorgeous stores containing beautiful clothes and we realized this is where all the beautifully-dressed St. Petersburgers shopped. The winter season had started, and we were reminded that we were in Russia by all the woollens, furs, fur-lined boots and cozy clothes one would need to survive winter here. With the balmy days and evenings we had experienced it was hard to believe that -20 C was a winter norm.

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I imagined what the stores, if they could even be called such, carried during soviet days and see by contrast that capitalism is thriving in this post-communist city. Certainly a more socialist system than Mr. Putin would ever endorse would benefit more Russians, but really their economy is in its infancy when you recall that it took the first decade for people to figure out how to make a living and in that gap period organized crime took over and had to be reined in. (There was still evidence of its existence in the many beefy drivers/body guards we saw standing around, and one taxi driver pointed out a couple of Maseratis which he said were owned by “Administration,” meaning government officials.) To guide your own career, and personal ownership, are other individual freedoms only recently gained here. While capitalism is far from perfect and doesn’t benefit everyone evenly, the people here take great pride in their cars, jewelry and clothes, and one can see that they live much more comfortably than they did in the days of crowded communal apartments and no personal bank accounts.

We hadn’t planned our last day to carry the theme of freedom, but we seem to have explored it rather thoroughly today. Tonite I am watching on the news a lone male gay protester being dragged away from an Olympic Committee Sochi inspection. Such is Russian history….

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