The Mystery and Intrigue of St. Petersburg, Russia

by Mona Ehrenreich, Senior Vice President and General Counsel

One of the many fountains at the Peterhof Palace
One of the many fountains at the Peterhof Palace

Traveling with a family group can always be a challenge on vacation, and I usually travel not only with my own family, but with several other family groups.  It offers a great opportunity for my kids to have friends along as companions, but it also means finding activities to please not one young traveler, but several.  I have always loved to study history, so one of my travel goals is to share with my children places that have been important to the world’s social and political development – sometimes to their dismay.  I’m convinced they’ll thank me someday.

A few years ago I joined with three other families to sail on a European Cruise, which took us on a voyage to Scandinavia & Russia.  Among our entourage were two 12-year-old girls, including my daughter, Andie, and four (yes, four!) 14-year-old boys, including my son, Matt, and nephew, Brandon.  As you may have guessed, the boys were our toughest crowd, as it can sometimes be an exercise in ingenuity to keep a group of video-game-playing teens focused on the culture of Europe.  That is, until we arrived in St. Petersburg.

Here in this flash point of the Russian Revolution we found the answer: death and destruction.
Of course St. Petersburg, often called the “Venice of the North,” is a beautiful city and we all thoroughly enjoyed our two-day visit there, each for our own reasons.  

Although the city is relatively young, it was loaded with history spanning the extravagance of the tsars (or “czars”) and their royal families, the Russian Revolution and even the 1991 fall of communism.  Throughout all of these periods, the city seems to have embodied a level of intrigue and mystery that sets it apart from others.

And it’s this tumultuous history that offered a number of attractions to send adolescent minds racing.

Even before we got there I bribed the boys to attend the cruise director’s excellent port talk on the city.  Only the promise of ice cream sundaes got them in the theater seats, but once he started telling the story of St. Petersburg, they were glued to those chairs in rapt attention.

They learned that Tsar Peter the Great first built a fort here in 1703 on what was essentially swampland to protect the country from attack by Sweden.  By 1712 it was Russia’s new capital, and for the next 200 years it served as the primary site of the royal court, and as such became home to spectacular royal residences.  When tsarist Russia abruptly ended in the Russian Revolution, the city became known as “Petrograd” and then “Leningrad,” a name it would hold throughout the Soviet era.  But in 1991 a referendum returned the city to its original name, so it was St. Petersburg we would visit.

As we were a group of 12, we decided to take advantage of a private guide and van so we could tour the city at our own pace and make the most of our two days.  Our guide, Alla, had spent her life in St. Petersburg and was full of history and stories to share with us.  We saw the palaces of the tsars, experienced world class art and culture, tasted vodka and caviar, and most importantly for the teenage set, visited sites of murders, revolution and wartime destruction.

One of the must-see destinations in St. Petersburg is the Hermitage, formerly the Winter Palace, but now one of the world’s preeminent art museums.  We found something for everyone here among the more than 2 million exhibits.   Priceless works of art from Michelangelo, Renoir and Van Gogh; artifacts from ancient Egypt; jewels; grand carriages, and … an arsenal.  Here suddenly the boys sprang to attention as right in front of them appeared real-life examples of the armor and weapons they recognized … from their video games. I was amazed that my son knew the names of almost every piece of weaponry – and I didn’t know any!

St. Petersburg’s tsarist palaces are truly amazing places to visit. I think everyone in our group was wowed by these opulent compounds that also showcased the excesses of royalty.  The multitude of gilded fountains on the grounds of the Peterhof Palace was a breathtaking sight as they glistened in the sunlight, but I couldn’t help but realize, while looking at this level of indulgence, that I wasn’t surprised that the royal Romanov family was eventually overthrown by a revolution.

At the Catherine Palace, the grounds are slightly simpler, but inside the rooms defy the imagination.  I’m not usually much of a picture-taker when I travel, but I was literally so “floored” by the intricate inlaid work found on the floors of the grand ballroom that I found myself taking photo after photo of the different colors and patterns beneath my feet.  My husband, who wasn’t able to join us on this cruise vacation, has a great appreciation for woodworking, so I knew he would be impressed by this artistry … and that my description alone would never do it justice.

Catherine Palace is also home to one of the most lavish rooms anywhere in the world – the Amber Room.  The Amber Room is literally that – an array of brilliant amber stones covering nearly every surface, and it’s a stunning sight.  I had researched the Amber Room in advance of our trip, so I knew what we were seeing was really a recreation of the room as it existed before World War II.  Even my restless teens were intrigued to learn that what actually happened to the real Amber Room is one of the art world’s great mysteries.  During the war, it was covered in an attempt to protect it from being stolen.  At some point, however, the amber was taken away to Konigsberg Castle and briefly displayed.  After that, it disappeared.  Whether it was hidden by Nazis, lost at sea, or destroyed, no one knows.  But that didn’t stop the kids from speculating: Did it melt in an explosion? Could Indiana Jones find it? And why hasn’t any of it shown up on eBay?

I think it sobered all of us to discover that virtually all of the royal palaces had been looted and burned by Nazis during World War II, and that much of what we were seeing were elaborate restorations.  The “before” pictures in many places gave the younger members of our group a very graphic lesson on the ravages of war, much better than any textbook could.

One of the most breathtaking sites in St. Petersburg is the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood.  By the name you could guess that there is a gruesome history here, as it was the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.  But a few years later an impressive church opened on the spot of this attack, decorated inside and out with incredibly detailed mosaics.  From outside, the building looks quintessentially Russian, with colorful onion-shaped domes, but inside it is covered with a dazzling display of mosaic skill from the most prominent artist of the day.  The boys, naturally, were more fascinated by the history of bloodshed, while the girls marveled at its beauty.

But the site that most captured the imagination of our young tribe of teens was the Yusupov Palace.  Not really a palace but an elaborate family home, it was here that several men, including Prince Felix Yusupov, who was married to the tsar’s niece, plotted the murder of controversial mystic Rasputin in 1916.  He was considered a danger to the country because of his influence over the royal family, particularly the tsarina, Alexandra, who believed he could cure her son of hemophilia.  Many different stories surround his death.  I had read Prince Yusupov’s autobiography, and as he tells it, Rasputin was poisoned and, when that had no effect, he was shot.  When they mistakenly thought he was dead, Rasputin managed to run out of the house, was chased and then shot two more times and beaten with a rubber club.  When he still didn’t die, he was finally drowned in the Neva River.  The palace display showed life-size figures, including Rasputin sitting for his final meal.  It sounds like it would be a dark and foreboding place, but I remember it as a very beautiful home with rich gilded details.  The boys unanimously declared it one of the coolest places they’d ever been, and talked about it for the rest of our trip.

You could not learn the story of Rasputin without also learning the story of Nicholas II and Alexandra and their family.  After Rasputin was killed and the Russian Revolution started, the entire Romanov family was taken prisoner, and finally murdered by revolutionaries in 1918.  To add to the spine-tingling intrigue of the story, Rasputin had prophesied in a letter that “if it was one of your relations who have wrought my death, then no one in the family … none of your relations will remain alive for more than two years.”  The Romanovs were killed 19 months after Rasputin’s death.   After that chilling revelation it was no wonder we had the boys’ attention! Andie had a different focus as she couldn’t stop thinking about the tsar’s young daughters, not much older than she was at the time.

St. Petersburg is filled with these kinds of stories.  It’s a city steeped in drama that, as it turns out, is a great way to capture the attention and imagination of younger travelers.   During our two days in St. Petersburg, we learned about revolution, assassination, war and political intrigue.  Of course we also experienced priceless works of art, breathtaking palaces, and the beauty and grace of the Russian Ballet.

But the true value of what we absorbed became more apparent when we returned home and all our students were back in school.  During a history class discussion, Brandon surprised even himself by raising his hand and volunteering an answer to a teacher’s question about the origins of the Russian Revolution – an answer he knew because of what he learned on his summer cruise vacation to one of Russia’s most intriguing cities.