This post is by Benjamin Rogers, an International Relations First Major and Economics Second Major at Pennsylvania State University. During the Spring 2014 semester he is participating in the CIEE Russian Area Studies Program.
Finally, the Leviathan is over and I’m able to continue talking about what’s been going on in Russia and my new adventures here. The past two weeks have been filled with some true Russian adventures and delving into some of the great cultural experiences St. Petersburg has to offer.
First, I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence, winter is finally over! The sun has been out for nearly two weeks straight, the grass has gone from an awkward shade of greenish yellowish brown to a full-fledged green, buds are beginning to form on trees, and I can start walking around with a t-shirt (yet sometimes I still need to wear a light jacket). With al of this springtime happiness, the city also has taken upon itself to clean the streets, power wash the sidewalks and sides of buildings, and begin making this city presentable for the summer. How amazing it is! With that said, everyone I speak with who is Russian is convinced that it’s going to snow during the first week of May. I pray that doesn’t happen. But for now, I’m enjoying the warmth and loving spring.
Enough about the weather, let’s talk about adventures. Nearly two weeks ago, I had my first banya experience. It was interesting to say the least. In essence, banya is Russia’s version of the sauna, but slightly more intense. The heat gets cranked up, you stay in there longer, and you go in four or five times. I went with the group of American missionaries I know here and some Russian friends, and we made a whole event out of it. We brought salamis and cheese, bagel ring crackers, mors, kvass, and other snacks. While in there, a local Russian introduced us to a little trick by adding a dab of kvass into the water which we poured over the rocks. It filled the room with a sweet smell and aromatic sensation which was entirely enjoyable. Overall, I truly enjoyed my time having a guys-night at the banya. It took a little time to get used to it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The next day, I set off for my solo adventure to Vyborg, an old town with a castle fortress 15 miles from the Finnish border. Initially, I was slightly upset over the overcast that day, but when I approached the island castle covered by low clouds and fog, it was totally surreal. It was a scene straight from the movies. I enjoyed my time there, explored the little island, climbed the tower, and checked out the museum.
Vyborg itself has an interesting history. For much of its history, it was apart of the Swedish empire, and most of the town’s legacy and culture date back from that period. Yet, the town reverted to Russian control when Peter the Great carried out his northern campaigns. However, once the entirety of Finland became apart of Russia receiving with it special semi-autonomous rights, Vyborg reverted back to the Russian-controled Grand Duchy of Finland. Up until WWII, Finnish culture thrived in Vyborg, becoming Finland’s second largest city. Therefore, many ties still exist between the town and Finland, and that relationship was apartment in the Vyborg Museum. Throughout the museum, there were certain exhibits that were jointly created by Finnish and Russian curators, and ones solely created by Russian ones. And how apparent the differences! The mere physical quality of the Finnish exhibits really over shadowed the rest of the museum. Over than that, my trip there was splendid. I love castles, and checking out another is just a dream come true. The little town itself was fun. It was a quiet little place that’s trying to rebuild itself after post-industrialization, so checking out the ruins and old areas was both sad and exciting. Overall, my trip to Vyborg was a fun day. I got to check out a castle, explore a cute town, and adventure outside the city.
Yet my adventures are not done. Last weekend, a friend and I traveled slightly closer to the city, to the suburb of Pavlovsk. Pavlovsk is about a 30 minute regional rail ride away from center city St. Pete, and is most famous for Paul I’s enormous palace and gardens. I had never really checked out a real royal palace and estate, and this thing was impressive. The gardens, I learned were designed in English style, which means a whole lot of fields and forests which actually looks like the natural surroundings in stead of the trimmed shrubs and flower beds of more traditional European estates. Even though we might have been only a few minutes outside the bustling city, it was nice to lose ourselves in nature and enjoy the sensory relaxation of our surroundings.
The palace itself was extravagant. Paul’s wife, Maria Feodrovna, took control of the interior design of the palace, and what an amazing job she did. Obviously, money was no object. Each room had something painted in gold, something covered in marble, or fantastic paintings adorning the walls or ceiling, or everything combined. Truly spectacular, and most impressive. Additionally, our tour was all in Russian, and though I tuned out half-way through, I did actually understand a gross majority of what was said prior to that. Overall, Pavlovsk was a day of relaxation. The weather was so nice, the park so beautiful, and overall not too taxing. It was a different excursion than Vyborg. It was a pleasant change to travel to somewhere closer, enjoy the day with a good friend, and get back not totally exhausted.
Well, those are the major adventures over the past week. It’s weird that I’ll be coming home in a month! So, there’s a whole lot to due in my limited time here. Though I totally enjoyed my time here, I am starting to get ready to come home. I truly miss some my friends, my community, and some of the luxuries we have in the States. I’ll be sure to make these last few weeks count and experience as much of Russia as I can. With that said, that’s all that I have for you this week. See you all soon.