Peter and Paul Fortress St. Petersburg, Russia

Where St. Petersburg Originated

Although yesterday afternoon was  cloudy, it was still good weather. Now on our third and last day, we have drizzling rain and a sky so dark it feels like twilight.  We identify with a favorite St.  Petersburg saying about summer weather: “Nine months of expectation, three months of disappointment.”

Our morning excursion is called the highlights of  St. Petersburg, which includes brief a drive-by of two of the cathedrals we visited yesterday.  Our main interest is the city’s oldest landmark,  the Peter and Paul Fortress constructed in the shaped of a six-pointed star on Rabbit (Hare) Island.

Our guide admits that although St. Petersburg may be a splendid city now, when the Peter and Paul fortress was built– the first structure built here–no Russians wanted to live in the area.  If the low swampy terrain and pesky summer mosquitoes weren’t bad enough, there was the added problem of wolves attacking and eating people. So, she continues, most of the early residents were forced to live here, including the nobility. No wonder many of their  descendants find it difficult to smile.

Peter and Paul Fortress St Petersburg, RussiaPeter and Paul Fortress on a dreary St. Petersburg day

As our bus approaches Peter and Paul Fortress, I scan the sand beach near the fort wall. It’s deserted today but on a sunny day this beach can be packed by those eager to soak up the sun when temperatures  may seem uncomfortably cool. But for those who experience  only 20 hours of sunlight in  December and January and whose daily high temperature  from November through February stays several degrees below freezing , these hardy people have a different understanding of what it means to be cold. There is an obvious irony that the average winter low here is 15 degrees, when in St. Petersburg, FL, it’s 74 degrees.  Florida’s St. Petersburg   was named after this Russian city, in 1888, by Russian railroad builder Piotr Dementyev (Peter Demens) who was born in  frosty St. Petersburg, Russia.

Peter and Paul Cathedral

Peter the Great began construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress   in 1703  to defend the city from attack during the  Russian war with Sweden (1700-1721) . When the stronghold was completed in 1740, the Swedes were long subdued and Peter the Great was dead. However, the fort did not sit idle during this time. As early as 1720, it was the  barracks for the city’s garrison  as well as a place to store political prisoners.

The fort’s main attraction is the Cathedral  of Saints Peter and Paul. The cathedral’s towering 400-foot high golden spire is one of the city’s most noticeable landmarks.  There are other attractions besides the cathedral:  exhibits about St.  Petersburg’s history and Russian space flight and  a tour of the once dreaded prison cells of  Trubetskoy Bastion.  Following a tradition originated by the  Tsars, the fort fires a cannon at noon each day.

Peter and Paul Cathedral interior                                    Interior of Peter and Paul Cathedral

Our tour is limited primarily to the Peter and Paul Cathedral, not that the weather would allow us to spend much time walking around outside. The cathedral alone could consume a good part of a morning but we have half that time.  The cathedral may be several hundred years old but it  obviously was maintained well by Russian nobility and apparently by the Soviet government.

In fact, the radiant  golden iconostasis   with its 43 icons appears so new it could be recently installed.  The paintings have been refurbished regularly, which explains why they are so bright, and deteriorating items such as the church doors were replaced.

An unusual feature of the church is its pulpit, used only a single time. That was to excommunicate the great writer Leo Tolstoy from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy, however, had already openly excommunicated himself from the institution. (In recent years, Tolstoy supporters have requested the church to reconsider the writer’s status. Tolstoy remains excommunicated.)

Crypts of the Tsars

Almost every Russian Tsar from the time of Peter the Great  rests in Peter and Paul Cathedral. It is easy to locate the marble tomb of Peter the Great among those of the other tsars,   A bust of the Tsar is on the fence surrounding his marble tomb. People still place flowers on the grave; some are present today.

The crypt many westerners most want to see is that of  the last tsar, Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate in 1917.  Nicholas II and his family were kept as political prisoners in St. Petersburg, then moved to Yekaterinburg, a major city 900 miles east of Moscow.  On the orders of Vladimir Lenin, the family was executed when it appeared  that Russians rebelling against Bolshevik rule might be able to rescue them.

To make the corpses unrecognizable, they were burned and doused with acid. Then they were buried at a secret location so Romanov supporters would not turn the gravesite into a shrine.  The tragic story of the last tsar captured many people’s imagination, nourished by stories, books and films like 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra  based on the 1967 book of the same name still available from Amazon.

In addition, from the time of the tsar’s death, rumors persisted that one of the tsar’s children had survived.  It was an international sensation when a new mass grave was uncovered near Yekaterinburg and DNA tests identified the bodies of Nicholas II, his wife but only three of the children.  In 1998, those  remains were brought to Peter and Paul Cathedral and  buried in the small Chapel of St. Catherine there.

In 2007, yet another grave near Yekaterinburg yielded the DNA-verified remains of the missing two children. The bodies of Crown Prince Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria were transported here to join their family.  But they have no marble tomb like the other tsars, only ones of imitation marble.  Supposedly because there isn’t enough money for real marble.

After viewing the royal crypts, it’s time to return to the Oceania Marina. The gloomy day outside corresponds to my mood after this regal display of death. It seems so contradictory that Nicholas II and his family would be brutally exterminated, yet the numerous tombs of  Romanov royalty in the cathedral apparently were never violated. Churches were plundered but never demolished  during the godless days of communism.

Where did all the Bolshevik violence lead? Nicholas II and his family are considered saints by the Russian Orthodox church, an honor about as high as any mortal can attain.  Lenin, too, became a sort of saint of Russian communism.  Lenin was embalmed after his death in 1924 and put on public display in a glass casket under Red Square. He’s still there on display, like some deceased holy man. (Photo of Lenin under glass)

According to Lenin’s widow, the revolutionary wanted to be buried next to his mother in a simple cemetery plot. She made this request of Russian authorities: “Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name.”

Weather Forecasting Upcoming Ports

Our final St.  Petersburg tour  scheduled for the afternoon is a canal cruise along the Moika and Fontanka Rivers to view the historic architecture. The weather turns so foul we decide not to bother. It’s a disappointing end  for our last hours in St. Petersburg.

Yet we’ve been fortunate to enjoy good weather until today. The concierge advises me that rain is frequent in the Baltic after August 15. He says numerous ports were washouts the previous week.  So there could be more bad days ahead.

I decide to check the weather forecast for tomorrow’s stop at Tallinn, Estonia, a place we’d like very much to see. I go to the only  weather site that gets it right most of the time:   Americans unfamiliar with  should keep it in mind for any European travel. It is a Norwegian website provided by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. The forecasts combine Norway’s  weather information with data from other meteorological organizations around the world, allowing to provide forecasts for an astounding seven million locations.

I discovered last year while touring Ireland, where weather needs constant checking. was superior to any of my usual sources, Weather Channel, Weather Underground and the like. The only drawback of using  is converting the temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit. But the site is hard to beat for overall forecasting accuracy in Europe and sometimes back home.

The wireless speed on the Oceania Marina is surprisingly good. But’s  next day forecast for Tallinn is miserable: significant rain for the entire day. This is one time I’d like to be wrong.

Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. Petersburg

A Night of Russian Entertainment and Patriotism

This evening we attend what the Oceania Marina describes as “a private performance of Russian song and dance” by a large troupe of talented singers, dancers and musicians. That’s a vague description, which means it could be really good or terribly bad.  If happens to be a play performed in Russian, it would be incomprehensibly bad. On the other hand, if it’s a folkloric song and dance show, it should be pretty good. Russia is known as the land of the triangular-shaped instrument known as the balalaika, the well-known folk song “Kalinka” and Cossack sword dancing.

We have another new guide, who explains that the men and women performing for us are in the Russian military. She says they were given the choice to sing and dance or be sent to the Russian front (that would be the Ukraine). So I expect they will be singing and dancing their hearts out.

We caravan to the theater in three Oceania tour buses, the largest tour group I’ve seen to date. After we’re parked in a restricted area in the middle of an intersection, our guide says the bus will remain here and easy to find after the show: the theater is just down the street and right around the corner, less than 10 minutes away. And we must remember our bus number when returning: No. 1.

At the theater, we discover getting to the auditorium requires a bit of effort. Just inside the entrance door is a long ornate staircase leading to an open landing. From there, we must climb two more sets of lengthy stairways to reach the auditorium.  It’s quite a climb: 123 stairs in all according to someone’s count.

The large auditorium easily absorbs our three busloads, with hundreds of empty seats still left. As the first here, we sit wherever we want. (During the performance, a Royal Caribbean group quietly files into seats behind us.  We don’t realize they’re present until the intermission.)

Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St PetersburgRed  Army soloist sings a patriotic song

The show is better than most of us probably expected. We finally learn the performers are called the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. Petersburg. The core performers are the male chorus and orchestra, whose roots trace back  to the first official Russian armed forces choir–the Red Army Choir– created early in World War II to help inspire the country’s morale. Although a dance ensemble was added to the choir, the chorus remains the essential component.

The Red Army Choir

The Red Army Choir has an impressive history. It was formed and led by the legendary Alexander Alexandrov, who during World War II also composed the official Russian national anthem . (Hear the Red Army Choir sing it,)

Today the Red Army Choir performs all over the world and is considered the world’s most famous military choir.  Within just the past month, the Red Army Choir had a viral video shown on most U.S. network news shows: see “Happy” featuring a dancing Russian traffic cop on the streets of Moscow.  In 1994, the choir appeared with the cult Finnish rock group Leningrad Cowboys at the 11th annual MTV Music Awards singing “Sweet Home Alabama.” They also stole the opening night of the 2014 Sochi Olympics singing Sex Bomb.

Although St. Petersburg’s Russian army song and dance ensemble may be the minor leagues compared to the Red Army Choir, they’re still very good. The choir’s powerful, patriotic songs, especially those by soloists, draw genuine applause, not polite clapping. Understandable since I think many Americans enjoy an honest display of patriotism since at home we keep ours hidden until something like 9/11.

Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St PetersburgThe dancers in traditional  costumes add color and flair

The real entertainment comes from the men and women of the dance ensemble who perform a series of entertaining folk dances while dressed in the traditional costumes of different Russian nationalities. Several male dancers perform a series of amazing acrobatic dance feats. Most memorable is the Cossack Calvary dancer who crossed the stage in nine rapid dance splits, an achievement that still hurts to think about. The brightly costumed women were standouts in the traditional Russian dances that are much livelier and more amusing than their names: such as the  Soldier’s Dance and the  Sailor’s Dance, in which the women take the lead.

For me, the energetic song and dance ensemble performance is the most enjoyable part of our St. Petersburg visit. Best of all, Linda now understands why occasionally I like to listen to Russian songs even if I don’t understand a word . Not surprised to see she’s enjoying this as much as I am.

Russian Champagne Tasting

During the intermission, I make the trek to a lower floor to use the facilities. Few other passengers make the descent, unfortunate since a refreshment room was set up for us there.  To fortify myself for the trek back upstairs, I visit the refreshment room and a table with small glasses of Russian champagne. I’m curious to see if it tastes the way I remember it. Hmmm…first glass doesn’t hold enough to tell. I need another sip or two to decide. Hmmm…think Russian Champagne really has improved. Trying the champagne is an unexpectedly uplifting experience, as someone directs me to a hidden elevator to the auditorium.

After the show, outside the theater we find the human equivalent of bread crumbs–          tour guides spaced along the sidewalk with their arms pointed left to direct us back to the buses. Each of the three buses has a number next to its entrance. We find bus No. 1 where we left it and settle in for the ride back.

Our guide pops through the door and asks, “Is anyone missing?”  How would anyone know?

“Are you sure you’re on the bus you came on?” she queries.  We’re all sure. She takes a passenger count. Darting off the bus, she announces, “Well, someone is missing!”

We wait as the other the other buses take census. Our guide climbs back on the bus, with a huge grin. “Can you believe it?” she says, laughing. “They’ve lost a tourist!”  She shakes her head in disbelief, wondering how this could happen.

Linda and I look at each other. Yeah, we believe “they” can lose a tourist. It’s eerily familiar. But tonight it’s not me! This time, they make a real effort to sort it all out. Our bus starts up and we head back to the Oceania Marina. Seems that tourist still is MIA but since it’s not anyone from our bus, not of our concern.

I suspect the missing person may have used the first floor restroom, took too long and the guides were no longer in place. Or perhaps he discovered the champagne room and lingered.

With three busloads of theater goers and some of us still believing a passenger went astray at night somewhere in St. Petersburg, I expect that at some time there will be an announcement of the person’s return. No need to give their name, of course. Have heard them on other cruise lines under similar circumstances . Possibly there is such an announcement that we don’t hear.

There are few announcements ever on the Oceania Marina, which I usually appreciate.  Still, the Marina seems an unusually silent, impersonal ship. That could be one of the reasons we’re feeling so little attachment to the Marina, the last thing we ever expected. We’ve  treasured Oceania for so many years.