We were on a 12 day river cruise from July 26 to August 6 to Russia, starting from St. Petersburg, going through the Russian internal waterway, visiting the towns and cities along the way and ending in Moscow.
This is the second time we visited St. Petersburg. The last time was in 1995 when we took the cruise to the Baltics. The city surely looked better. There were less pot holes but more cars on the roads, the public transportation vehicles were less dilapidated, and the number of young vendors selling pins and medals in the streets was much smaller. It did appear that there was a change for the better. Putin no doubt has done a credible job, even though Russia is still poor by comparison. We understand that unemployment rate is 6% but it is not evenly distributed. While there are jobs in the big cities as in St. Petersburg and Moscow, people elsewhere are still hard done by. Wealth is in the hands of a very few. Pension age is 55 for women and 60 for men. The average life span of a Russian man is however only 59. No wonder we did see a lot of elderly women selling small baskets of fruits and flowers from their own back yards to make ends meet.
On the other hand, the palaces tell another story. Anybody who has visited them do not have to dig very deep to get to the causes for the 1917 revolution. We saw three of their most famous palaces, The Hermitage, Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof and had a glimpse into the past glory and decadent life style enjoyed by the Czars and their families. In our minds, the Russian palaces are unrivalled in the world. “Glittering with gold” is to be taken literally as the palaces are plastered with gold leaves everywhere. The numerous paintings and artifacts displayed in the Hermitage which used to be the Romanovs’ winter palace and is now a museum are not only national but world treasures; the amber room in Catherine’s Palace dazzles and boggles the mind and the many glorious and magnificent fountains in Peterhof provide us with an insight into Peter the Great’s vision as an architect of the Russian Empire. We come up short with words to describe with justice the richness of these palaces and hopefully the pictures and videos will do a better job.