Archive for Peter the Great

An unlikely adventure in sleepy Pskov

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2009 by Alec
I counted 133 rungs, so I'll estimate over 200 feet.  At the time, it felt like the Tower of Babel.

I counted 133 rungs, so I'll estimate over 200 feet. At the time, it felt like the Tower of Babel.

With a day off in honor of  women’s day, we decided to get free from the metropolis and head to the ancient Russian city of Pskov.  We expected a lazy weekend of touring churches, but found a little adventure instead in the provincial city.

Peter the Great supposedly shanghaied hundreds of thousands of able-bodied souls from this booming civilization to toil and die in the godforsaken swamp that would become St. Petersburg.  Pskov was a world center at one time, boasting Europe’s largest kremlin, but this blow just about did the old nag in.  All that’s left now is an urbane Russian city, tens of churches in the Pskovian architectural style, and 20 meters of historical refuse buried from sight in the strange, gradual effect of Pompeii-syndrome.

Many banal and brutal things happened in Pskov that weekend, including a bumbling, wine-burping tango and too much Russkii Standart, pickles and carmalized milk cookies, but the height of the action came Sunday afternoon, when our afternoon stroll ended in the dark bowels of an old Soviet “elektrostantsia,” or power station.

The Estonian Jonas took a side path into a mysterious doorway that led into an old boiler room in the basement of the hulking behemoth.  We stood in the darkness for awhile, then prepared to turn around, when we noticed another set of steps leading up.  Up the steps, through the looking glass, and a few rooms later, and we realized we had stumbled upon something big.  Jonas had led us into the belly of the whale.

Hall after gargantuan hall was littered with debris, piles of crumbled cement and hundreds of penciled-in ledger sheets detailing power flows.  An old cart with a red star outlined in its wheels.  Coal funnels in the floor descended into darkness below.  The ceilings were 50 feet high, but above the first level was another, then an upper story, then the river.  It was on the roof I caught sight of the smokestack, rising twice as high as the hulking elektrostantsia.

"Mechtateli" (Dreamers): Jonas and I face the Kubrickian music.

"Mechtateli" (Dreamers): Jonas and I face the Kubrickian music.

My soul shrunk in fear, but I knew like a moth caught in the lamp’s orbit that the attraction was too strong — trying to resist now would be like flailing against the rush-hour tide in the metro.  I waited until everyone had disappeared back into the factory, then set off for the base of the stack.

Halfway up, someone called to me.  I paused to look down, and at that awful moment got a full grasp on the situation.  The wind was rushing fast by now, like the sound of a thousand steam engines reverberating into the infitesimal end of a conch shell.  I felt like Kong, swatting at planes, and the fall couldn’t be far off.

Almost turned back, but then I caught sight of a blue-domed cathedral in the distance.  It wasn’t a religious epiphany that struck me, however, but merely a realization — when would I get a better chance to suck straight from the adrenal gland of life?

And so onward!  At the top of the stack at last, I felt close to what Hunter S. Thompson described as “the rumored echo of a high white noise that most men never hear.”


Parks, as big and Russian as they come

Posted in Cultural Impressions, Photo with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2008 by Alec
Field of Mars

Марсово поле (Marsovo pole, or the Field of Mars) with Спас на Крови (Savior on the Blood) in the background.

The Russians know how to do a good park.  Their winning formula is simple: Bold, well-sculpted statues, bombastic God-save-the-tsar or Long-live-the-party rhetoric on every plaque, and incredibly huge open spaces.  We’re talking open space so big it’ll bend your camera lens.  So big you want to yell and wait for an echo.  So big it would make the Great Plains look like a shoe-box diorama (okay, maybe I got carried away here, but you get the idea).

Here, giant parks are only natural; Russia is a big place, after all.  The biggest, in fact.  Not only that, but the tsars always had a thing for extravagant splendor and were able to indulge their whims to unheard-of extremes, unencumbered by funding or manpower thanks to serfdom and a weak noble class.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s “Window on Europe.”  He wanted something impressive, and with limitless expanses of open swampland and hundreds of thousands of poor sops conscripted to do the grunt work (it is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 people died just during the initial construction). The staggering results can be witnessed at the Summer Gardens, Mikhaylovsky Gardens, Tavricheskiy Gardens and the Field of Mars, to name a few Petersburg parks.

When the Soviets came to power, they had a similar agenda for public building projects: shock and awe. They drew on a patriotic naming scheme (Park of Victory, etc.) rather than religious imagery, but the scale was just as large and the monuments just as forceful.

It beats the crap out of Peace Park back in Madison, Wisc.

The eternal flame at the Soldiers of the Revolution memorial. Mothers, keep an eye on your kids.

The eternal flame at the Soldiers of the Revolution memorial. Mothers, keep an eye on your kids.

McDonald’s, Dostoevsky, Vodka

Posted in Fun facts with tags , , , on September 9, 2008 by Alec

Fun facts from Sergei Aleksandrovich, professor of political science at St. Petersburg State University:

• Vodka is not a Russian drink: It was first introduced in the time of Peter the Great. Before that, peasants drank mead.

• Russian literature students’ most hated author: Dostoevsky. Number two: Tolstoy.

• A five-kilometer line formed outside the first McDonald’s in Russia when it opened its doors in 1988 (May I add that it’s still a hip place to go for a bite).

• East or West? A Russian saying goes, “Russia is the heart of the world.”