Russia, My Russia: The Final Chapter

The previous installment of Husam’s travelogue can be found here.

In the early morning, I took a walk across St. Petersburg that would take me all day, crossing the waters, landing on islands, and visiting both well-known and lesser-know tourist sites, not to mention discovering hidden surprises that the city still had up its sleeve.

I started on Nevsky Prospect and went up over two bridges, each adorned with a different sculptural theme. I saw a lovely church built in a style very similar to that of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow! Hmmm… Wasn’t the original architect killed? – I wondered

I then quickly realized that St. Petersburg didn’t even exist when he was alive. Whatever his destiny was, he and his vibrant style were revived when the St. Petersburg church was built in the late nineteenth century.

This Church On Spilled Blood, as it is called, was built on the spot where on the first of March 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated. His successor commissioned a magnificent church to commemorate his father in the Russian revivalist style.

A park nearby lead me to the Arts Square, where the Russian Museum is located and another weird story of murder was played out in the beginning of the 1800’s. The Mikhaylovskiy Castle was built on orders of Paul I, who was obsessed with the possibility of assassination. The castle was surrounded by moats and draw bridges and supplied with secret underground passages to help in rescue. Alas, all those precautions were futile in the face of destiny, and he was murdered only 40 days after moving into his fortified haven!

At the moat I saw many young Russians throwing coins at small statue under one of the bridges nearby, driven by the belief that their wishes could be granted if their coin balanced itself on the statue without falling into the river Moyka, a tradition that has endured since since long ago. I didn’t try my luck; after all, what more can I wish for?

I crossed a few bridges and passed through a park dedicated to the 1917 revolution up onto a another magnificent bridge and into the other side of town, Petrogradskaya, where the famous Peter and Paul Fortress is. On the way there, a small building hidden between grand empire style ones, stands where the most important house in St Petersburg once stood. This is where the orders to create St. Petersbourg were issued, inside a wooden hut constructed in three days for Peter the Great when he first stayed here. As the city started to grow, Peter ordered that humble wooden hut to be replaced with another stone building to preserve it for the coming generations. Preserving history is one theme the Russians are masterful at.

All along my journey I encountered stories of how they covered a whole palace in sand to protect it during WWII, or how they covered a certain historical statue in huge amounts of concrete for the same reason, and how they faithfully rebuilt everything as it used to be following destruction.

Now. another marvel of preservation is docked just around the corner from Peter’s old house, a testimonial to Russian pride and determination. The Cruiser Aurora entered active service in 1903. On the morning of October 25, 1917 it signaled the storming of the Winter Palace and the beginning of the end of the Revolution. The Soviets preserved it, then deliberately sank it to the bed of the river when the Germans approached to protect it. They rose it again as they rose themselves, reclaiming it as national symbol of not just the revolution, but persistence and determination in the face of danger as well.

After checking out the Aurora, I was approaching the Peter and Paul Fortress when I noticed a big blue dome. A mosque? Couldn’t be. Even if there were Muslims this far north, would there be enough to build a big mosque? Would the capital of the czars have a grand mosque among the hundreds of churches and cathedrals? No way. Curious, I took a detour, and saw a grand blue gate complete with calligraphic verses from the Quran and intricate mosaics and muqarnas. It is as if the genie of the lamp carried this mosque on the palm of his hand from Samarqand or Bukhara and brought it here in the blink of an eye.

st. petersburg mosque

It was not prayer time and that gate was closed, but I wasn’t going to leave without exploring. I found a rear entrance. There was a gathering of solemn people there, a funeral procession was on hand. These people didn’t look any different from the people I encountered on the streets, and they spoke Russian. They were Russian Muslims. As the funeral procession left, I walked towards the back door to find prayer times and the time of Iftar and Suhur and Imsak transliterated in Cyrillic alphabet using Arabic words. I saw a sign proclaiming, in Arabic and Russian, the headquarters of the Muslim community in St Petersburg and Northwest Russia.

I entered, and proudly using my clearly Arabic Asslamau Alaykum, greeted the men inside. Unfortunately, no one spoke Arabic, even though they were able to recite the Quran in its original language. Another language saved the day, it wasn’t Russian, nor the internationally esteemed English, but another important and influential Muslim language: Turkish. I found out that the Imam who answered me was from Turkey. He introduced me to the Tatar Muslim Imams.

I learnt from him that this mosque was built about a hundred years ago by the local Muslims in the capital of the Russian empire, significantly helped in its establishment by the Emir of Bokhara. I also learnt that there are about 800 thousand Muslims in St Petersburg alone, and they have their own local newspaper. By no means are the local Muslims only Tatar, there are Muslims from everywhere, including local converts too.

After that refreshing moment of contemplating the great Islamic civilization, I went back outside and finally arrived at the Peter and Paul Fortress. As soon as I went inside, I was transferred back to Europe after having my unbelievable sojourn to the lands of Islam. Many museums fill its old buildings; some dedicated to daily life in old St Petersburg, to the history of the fort and the navy. There are even torture chambers.

peter and paul fortress spire

The main centerpiece is a little church with a huge golden spire than can be seen from all sides of the city. In this church lie the remains of the Romanovs, including those of the last czar and his family, that were transferred here a few years ago in an official ceremony. A lovely panoramic passage on top of the walls is sure to orientate any visitor to how this city is incredibly arranged around the delta of the Neva. There is a beautiful sandy beach where the people gather, swim, and tan in summer, and even enjoy the freezing waters in winter and New Year celebrations.

I proceeded to Vasilevsky Island. Facing from this side are two huge Rostral columns pierced by protruding boats, following a Roman custom to celebrate Naval victories. Just behind these columns is the Navy Museum, as well as the first and oldest museum in Russia: the Kunstkammer, home to Peter’s original cabin of curiosities and a more recent and very interesting ethnographic museum. And just in front of them are water fountains in the river and, of course, a long line of brides and grooms and their families waiting to take pictures against this national backdrop.

I took the suburban royal railway leading to Tsarskoye Selo, the magnificent palace of Catherine the Great. The palace is in the middle of a large estate, surrounded by rolling wooded hills extending for miles and miles, intercepted by streams and ponds in the middle of which are nice islands you can reach in Gondolas. The sun was shining on the fallen autumn leaves, making the pathways leading to the palace appear to be paved with gold.

Real gold did blind my eyes as soon as I entered this baroque palace. Reconstruction works are still going on since it was destroyed during the Nazi invasion. In every room there are pictures showing the stages of its life before the war, after destruction, and during the ongoing restoration. The most magnificent of all these rooms is the Amber Room, where verything is made of amber of different shades, arranged like a mosaic from the floor to the ceiling.

tsarskoe selo

The next station on the same royal track was Pavlovsk. I didn’t even enter this palace because I lost myself to the charms of its densely forested grounds. I just kept on walking through the fairy tale forest.

The next day I discovered that I didn’t need to leave the city in order to reach the wilderness and enjoy nature. The Kamennyy and Yelagin Islands can easily reached by metro and a short stroll. They are like sanctuaries within the city where no cars are allowed. I spent my day there walking, resting, and marveling at the surroundings, while thinking that I understood why the Russian people are so great at art and music and literature. Such nature is bound to inspire, and the proof is the multitude of peopl who fill these parks: painting in oil, or playing the guitar, or reciting Pushkin love poems to each other.

I showed pictures of Jordan to the people I met; they marveled at my home country, and I marveled at theirs. And with such warm thought of home I started my return journey by taking train back to Moscow.

russian nature

I had one day to spend in Moscow before my flight and had a hard time deciding what to squeeze in on my last day in Russia. To avoid disappointed looks when I arrived home, I decided to get gifts. Ismailovo park is the local flea market where traditional arts and crafts, furs and hand woven woolen scarves, matryoshka dolls and numerous other memorabilia can be bought at a nice price. All of that you can find in middle of an architectural park with huts, palaces, and markets made of wood in the traditional style.

I then took the metro to visit an unfinished palace of Catherine the Great. Tsaritsino was a lovely venue to end my visit. A romantic chateau in the middle of a lovely landscaped park with a huge lake and choreographed water fountains. History, nature, people, tradition and, naturally, many brides and grooms too. A good summary of my visit and what I enjoyed during my stay.

Russia is neither a mystery nor a riddle to me anymore. After being there, meeting its people, understanding its history, acknowledging its huge expanse and variety of cultures, I recognized it as a beautiful mosaic of people. In this, the largest country in the world, ethnicities are woven together to create a collective motherland each individual can be proud of.

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