Cultural Learnings of TRT for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Russia

Diogenes's picture

This will be the last entry in the The Reluctant Traveler Diaries for St. Petersburg and Russia. 

If you are starting with this blog, you may have missed some important background information of why TRT ended up in Russia. Then again, you probably did not miss anything at all.

Part I - To Russia With Love

Part II - The Palaces of St. Petersburg

Part III - Just Another Palace

This blog -- Cultural Learnings of TRT for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Russia (CLOTFMBGNOR) is about the weird things that never make it into the tourist guide books.

We have used up all the good pictures now and spent most of the time talking about tourist things.  It's now time for a little cultural trash talk.

TRT only spent a week in St. Petersburg. It could have been more. It's a big city and there is lots to see. There are great walking tours; the city feels safe; the restaurant food is good and inexpensive.  It's a scenic city; the subway is great; the public transit very good.

But there are weird things too.

We did not see many police except at big public events. There are women police officers, a small minority. Their nails are manicured and painted, their make-up is immaculate like most of the women in St.Petersburg, and they wear high heels. Nothing too flashy, quite sensible for most women, but pumps?

There are few old people on the streets of St. Petersburg. It's as rare as seeing long hair on a guy.

At least 3 out of 4 males under the age of 30 have a bad haircut. Nine out of ten have the same haircut.

Here is a police car. It's a high performance Lada. You can tell by the rear spoiler fitted on the hatchback.

There are few cap or head stones on any of the buildings to indicate what year they were built.

There are many styles, not all of them are good looking. TRT saw this building which might be called Socialist Classicism or Stalinist Gothic. Sort of avant-garde.

Here are some of the balconies on the same building. TRT decided to NOT walk under these balconies, and he never saw anyone step out on one for a smoke.


Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting

Our intrepid travelers are in a shisha bar on a Saturday night. The restaurant has an upstairs mezzanine and a main floor, with a large spiral staircase. They are seated on the main floor under the staircase.

Suddenly there was rapid footsteps pounding down the stairs and a blur of bodies rushing out the door. Naturally TRT had to go see what was going on. Maybe they knew something he didn't (was the place on fire?).

Outside the door, two young guys were going at it, in a comical street fight that resembles amateur kick boxing. Whatever -- TRT returns to the table.

The bar had only two windows for a street view, separated by a bit of wall. For a while the customers were entertained as the fight moved from one window to the next and then back again. Then it was back to the normal window view.

A couple of minutes later, TRT went outside to have another look. The guy in the sleeveless t-shirt had the other pinned on the sidewalk and was bitch slapping his face. OK, whatever. This will soon be over.

Five minutes later, TRT went outside again to have another look.

They were still going at it except this time it was more like Greco wrestling (an Olympic event). They had also moved the fight from the sidewalk to the middle of the street.

There was a red light at the intersection about 10 meters from the main event, and cars were dutifully stopped waiting for the light to turn green, mindful of the wrestlers who were doing somersaults over each other.

So surreal was this scene that TRT looked around to see if Quentin Tarantino was filming another movie. He wasn't. TRT returned to the table and gave a report to MLW.

Eventually the fight ended.  One of the participants came back into the bar, escorted by the proprietor, and went into the washroom to get cleaned up. The other sat on the curb, with his head slumped between his knees while his girlfriend pleaded that he get up and GO HOME. We could see this through the scenic window.

There was a bit of blood but nothing serious.  No one called the cops (or if they did, no one showed up). This is rather  different from where our intrepid travelers are accustomed to.

Welcome to the Wild Wild ????

Another evening we were walking around the neighborhood when we heard a loud BANG. I gave a quick look. Behind us and across the street, maybe 30 meters away, some dude had a handgun pointed up thru the sun roof of his pimped-up car. He fired two more rounds in rapid succession.

Two people went running to the car. Apparently the shooter was not prepared to wait much longer and if those people wanted a ride, well they would have to pick up the pace. They did.

Naturally I was alarmed. I looked for cues from others nearby. Were they diving for cover? Was there mass panic? Was this like Eaton's Centre in Toronto or a movie theater in Colorado?


The people got in the car and drove off without a squeal of tires or the smell of burning rubber. The people on the street rolled their eyes and carried on. Nobody called the cops.

The White Nights Festival

We were in St. Petersburg in June. The sun does not drop below the horizon till around 11:30.

The White Nights festival is celebrated at this time of year. There were two large stages set up in Palace Square.

Admission was free.   A full orchestra was on hand to provide music, and one of the country's renowned opera singers did a set.

This is TRT's favorite fountain photo, taken at 10:40 at night just outside of the Hermitage.

We walked along the Neva embankment back to our hotel. There were some teaser fireworks around 11:00 but it still wasn't dark enough yet for the serious stuff.

There was another event across the river that caught TRT's eye, but it could have been a trick of light. We tried to figure out if it was a stage with a translucent curtain, or a giant display.

TRT thought it might be the Microsoft Blue Screen of Death Museum.  Or at least it could be, after the White Nights festival is over.

The Drainpipes of St. Petersburg

Our next topic is a rant. It's not important but TRT became obsessed with this because none of it makes any sense at all.

St. Petersburg has beautiful buildings. Many were designed by world class architects of the time.

The buildings did not originally have eave troughs. Eave troughs are roof top water collection systems for rain. For a long time, the rain that fell on the rooftops of St. Petersburg simply dripped from the roof to the sidewalk or courtyard below.

TRT has determined that sometime between 1955 and 1961, it was decided that every building in St. Peterburg should have a rooftop rainwater collection system. It may have been a five year plan; we don't know.

Something must be done with the collected rainwater.

So they decided to install oversized drainpipes to dump the collected rainwater on the sidewalks below; at prescribed distances. No doubt this was a big improvement.

The drainpipes are so BIG you could drop a bowling ball down any one of them and it's exit velocity would pose a danger to any pedestrian who happened to be walking by at the wrong time.

These drainpipes have been retro-fitted on almost every building. The Winter Palace? The Yusupov Palace? Peterhof? Of course! We need more drainpipes comrades!

What were they thinking? Imagine what the architects of these buildings are saying to each other in heaven, if that is where the good architects go when they die.

On one walk, TRT came upon the Smolny Cathedral and Convent. More beautiful buildings retrofitted with bowling ball dispensers!

There is an urban legend that I want to start. The angels that adorn the keystone above each window on the Smolny Cathedral miraculously changed expression the night after the drainpipes were installed.

A few photos of the Smolny Cathedral.

The drainpipes have been tastefully repainted to highlight this stupidity.

The Monument to Krylov

So we walk into this park and see this monument that is, uh, really interesting.

We are in the Summer Gardens of Peter the Great. Peter had a summer home here which is nice but not much -- only 14 rooms.  TRT could even not bother to take a picture. But this monument!

The figure on the top could be anyone; it's the figures and images around the base that are so fascinating.

TRT was immediately reminded of customs at Chicago's O'Hare airport; and of airport security in general.

After a bit of research it was discovered that this monument is dedicated to a celebrated Russian writer of fables: Ivan Krylov.

The statue, cast in bronze, was crafted by Peter Clodt. Here are a few of the scenes depicted on this brilliant piece, extracted from these photos.

Morton's Toe

Astute readers of previous blogs may recall this picture. 

These statues are BIG. You can't help but notice the toes on the feet of these guys.

TRT also noticed that the second toe was longer than the BIG toe, a curious genetic variation known as a Morton's Toe (MT).

TRT has a an MT (actually he has two, one on each foot). TRT first heard of Morton's Toe from a shoe salesman, so it must be true.

After seeing these big toes, TRT then started to note that many of the classic sculptures in the Hermitage and Russian Museum also had the very same MT foot configuration. There was a pattern here.

TRT felt this strange Russian connection, like somehow this land might be the home of his ancestors.

So that is how TRT found himself studying a white marble sculpture of two naked men wrestling; fascinated by their toes. 

Almost all other sculptures viewed that day had a pair of MT's.

TRT's MT was inherited from his mom (Marjorie the Great). 

TRT discovered this only a few years ago, when he was sitting on the summer deck on a sunny afternoon with his brother and mother, having a beer, while making fun of each others feet.

TRT can now prove that he does not have weird feet, he has classic feet.

Russia is an interesting place, if it's anything like St. Petersburg. TRT was there for just a week and it has taken a whole month to explain what he saw.

Obtaining a visa just to visit the country was expensive. It costs the same whether it is for one day or one month. The cruise ships cut a special deal, but then special deals in Russia are part of the landscape. It's like building a road in Quebec, except way more expensive.

The state attitude about tourists remains a mystery. It is as difficult to leave the country as it is to enter the it but once there, the ordinary people of Russia are just fine, like you and me, enjoying the sunshine when it's there.

St. Petersburg is tough. Napoleon failed to take the city; so did Hitler. The city was called Leningrad for a while, named after the guy who led the Occupy St. Petersburg of 1917.

It is Paris in need of a coat of paint. There are grand buildings on wide avenues. It was the capital of Russia for a time because it has access to the sea. But so does Moscow (see the wiki page on Peter the Great). There are 14 day river cruises available between the two cities.

We clicked almost 360 pictures pictures, most of them are quite forgettable.

This is TRT's favorite. It's a tourist shot, snapped at a moment between the bus and the subway. It looked interesting at the time.

One lad is marveling at the WW II machine gun; another at the sidecar on an old motorcycle. The soldier is oblivious to it all, happily talking on his cell phone. It's a metaphor, or maybe an allegory; it's about all that is Russia.

Anachronism on Nevskiy prospekt.