The Russian Revolution Tour Diary & Gallery - September 2017
The Russian Revolution tour departed in September 2017. The tour was guided by Orlando Figes & tour diary by Tim Pritchard-Barrett
Our tour began at London Heathrow T5 and we had all met by the time we arrived at the departure gate at 07.30. The flight was good and smooth, with the exception of an interesting landing and the attendants were particularly pleasant. The baggage arrived quickly and we met Luba our Russian guide at the exit to the airport and after meeting our coach driver Vassilly we headed towards the city.
The Azimuth hotel was ready for us and we swiftly retired to our rooms to get settled in ahead of our evening briefing of our 9 days in Russia. With so many interesting questions being asked our visit to the bar for the customary Cultural Experience welcome drink was slightly later than planned but well deserved. After a long day of travelling our dinner this evening was fairly short and we headed to our rooms for an early night.
At 10am the following morning our tour really began and we headed for the Kremlin where we spent a most entrancing morning. Luba and Orlando were seamlessly bouncing off one another with an interesting introduction of the revolutionary activities in the Moscow are and the Kremlin in particular.
We moved on to the opera house. On route Luba showed us the office and apartment in the State Senate Building used by Lenin when in Moscow and now the Presidential office of Mr Putin.
Walking to the cathedral square we learned how the various buildings, primarily churches and cathedrals were created and what they were used for. Each one has its own primary role and it is a fascinating difference with our own singularity of ecclesiastical buildings. They are a mixture of the Muscovite style and an Italianate style especially the Faceted Chamber.
This collection of 9 major religious buildings, in a relatively small area called Sobornaya Square (which is a self-contained cantonment within the larger Kremlin complex), includes Ivan the great Bell Tower, the Church of the Twelve Apostles, the Dormition Cathedral, the Church of the Deposition of the Robe, the Church of the Nativity, the Faceted Chamber, the Cathedral of the Annunciation and the Cathedral of the Archangel.
We then moved down towards the Borovitskaya Tower along the apocryphal road with both Luba and Orlando explaining what it meant to the revolution and the more modern era. On our way to a well-earned lunch we walked through the Alexandrovsky Gardens on the west side and past the Soviet Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
After lunch we took a visit to Gorky’s house and the splendid museum. We had a very excited and jolly museum guide, bubbling over with enthusiasm. This was a most welcome change to the programme in as much as the Khodynka Field is now a housing estate.
We returned to the walls of the Kremlin later in the afternoon and walked through the Russian crowds past the ornate St Basil’s Cathedral and into Red Square. Orlando discussed Lenin’s mausoleum and its future, Gum and its past with references to the State Historical Museum over the square.
We enjoyed a lovely dinner but after a long and interesting day most retired to bed early.
This was a day of two halves. The first half, eye-opening and slightly but healthily confrontational and the second was relaxed and impressive.
We set off for the Moscow Historic Museum with Luba in fine form, bubbling with enthusiasm.
The large equestrian statue of Marshall of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov, was a most impressive sight even if the comedic aspect of the feral pigeon perched on the peak of his hat compelled this picture.
Orlando told us a most interesting story that at the victory parade in 1945 a large white and somewhat lively, difficult to control stallion was supposed to be ridden by Stalin but he deferred, clearly fearing an unhorsing in public and Zhukov was told to ride it instead. This he did with great aplomb thereby stealing the limelight as he stood out so clearly to the assembled comrades. Inadvertent? As we went inside through the now familiar security checks we were met by our guide Dimitri.
We set off around this most interesting museum with Dimitri extolling the virtues of Russian culture which, admittedly as displayed here, was most impressive.
Our lunch at the restaurant ‘Glavpivtorg’ was again good, wholesome and served with speed and accuracy. At 14.00 we departed for Leningradsky Station for the 15.30 Sapsan Express to St Petersburg. After further scanning, and security we said goodbye to the splendid Luba on the platform. She had been efficient, firm, relaxed and truly charming.
Our train was very nearly full and well-staffed. We were served a wide variety of excellent comestibles including requests for vodka and orange which surprisingly to us, were generously served We spent the 4 hours chatting, reading and observing the country as it sped past. The predominant vision was of forest with dispersed smallholdings and occasional villages.
It was dusk as we slowed into the outskirts of St Petersburg where we met Olga and Andrei, our driver for the next week. We drove up the Nevsky prospect to the River Neva and onto Vasilevsky Island where our Finish hotel Sokos was situated. After a few drinks in the bar and dinner we retired for the evening after yet another full day.
The day began with us meeting Olga and taking the short drove drive to the other side of the river to the Winter Palace, a truly magnificent building. We stood outside in Palace Square as Orlando described the drama of the 9th January 1905 and in particular the events that happened there. It is obvious now, with the benefit of hindsight, how this was a trigger for the revolution 12 years later and how the Tsar’s intransigence led to his own downfall.
As we continued our artistic journey the arrayed, collected treasures unfolded before us. It must be said the collections are extensive and superb.
Our lunch in the Museum café was perfectly serviceable consisting of a most sensible soup & sandwich. It has to have been the most appropriate option considering our single day in a museum which could easily take a week if time allowed.
We then continued through the now pouring rain across the Palace Square to the Russian Museum of Modern Art. The building itself is now a combination of the old original with wonderful dramatically different modern infilling to create a huge and magnificent space. The combination of the older small rooms and covered open spaces is very effective and only completed in 2014. There are shades of the extensions to the British library.
We progressed from old to new and went through impressionism, cubism to modern. The impressionist collection was astounding, impressive and very well laid out. It goes on and on so inevitably we had to glance at hundreds of paintings rather than to stop and reflect upon them all individually. It was the perfect end to a hugely enjoyable day.
Day 5 had arrived already and it was to be a day of variable weather and fortune. We departed by coach to spend the morning at the fascinating Russian Museum of Art. The short journey across the city was trouble free and we arrived with enough time before our allotted slot to enter to pop across the street and see Pushkin’s statue opposite the museum. There ensued a lively half hour of poetry and literature and its place in the coming revolution. We were then off to the museum itself with Olga leading the way as we embarked on the next leg of the absorption of culture.
The art on show was of very fine quality and message. Olga gave us the background to the Museum and Orlando provided much of the political backdrop, influences and consequences which unlocked the political messages in several of the paintings. As we progressed the art became more and more modern.
As we left the museum we walked up to the Church of the Spilled Blood, past a line of stalls selling souvenirs and ‘nicknacks’ of all types but predominantly Russian dolls and Soviet fur hats of questionable quality.
The church was slightly incongruous in St Petersburg as the whole city had been built by Peter the Great in the Western European style, but the church is a good example of the Muscovite Russian style similar to St Basil's cathedral at the Kremlin.
This was the site of the assassination (mortal wounding) of Alexander II in 1881 and this act was clearly the major draw within the church itself. Again the interior decoration and iconography was very intricate and ornate but the church was a small floor area with very high ceilings.
As we left the church we moved on to the canal bridges between it, the Moyka River and the Field of Mars where Orlando continued his talk on the revolutionary activities during 1917.
We walked on towards the Field of Mars. The history of Field of Mars goes back to the first years of Saint Petersburg. It had been a park of various emphases throughout the history of the city. 184 of 1382 citizens who were killed during the Revolution were buried in the common grave. In 1917-1919 a monument “To Fighters of Revolution” (architect – L. Rudnev) was erected above the graves. In 1918 the square was renamed to “The Place of the Victims of Revolution” but in 1944 it was renamed back. In 1957 in the centre of the Field, an Eternal Flame was lit. It was the first in Russia and this flame lit the Unknown Soldier’s flame outside the Kremlin.
Our lunch at ‘Legran’ was particularly good and after lunch we motored for about an hour along the Severnaya Laktinskaya and into the town of Kronshtadt. There we met our afternoon local guide, Marina.
We then headed to the Naval Cathedral in the town centre. This was interesting in itself as trying to stop, let alone park was not easy. We walked out to the square in front of the cathedral and Marina’s knowledge of the Cathedral and the square was excellent and Marina invited us to go into the cathedral. One difference here to other churches was that women were expected to wear a scarf, even loosely, when entering the interior. There were a large number in a box at the front door of which there were a large number at the front door.
The cathedral was very busy and suddenly a service began. The choir started singing and although there were possibly only 5 or 6 people in the choir, the volume was immense and the quality jaw dropping. In conversation with several members of the tour later many were brought to tears by the beauty of the choir’s singing. Another perfect ending to a day’s touring.
Beginning earlier that previous days we happily pottered off to Shlisselburg Island into the dull overcast morning and significant puddles left by the overnight rain. Having left the city we travelled through many miles of forest, reminding us of this vast land with its humongous expanses of Taiga. Olga and Orlando gave a most lively, amusing and interesting double-act talk about Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and Lenin. Orlando talked about Lenin's origins as an aristocrat and Olga explained her early years in school at that of her family during the early 1980's.
On route we passed two 2nd World War museums close to the island and after an hour or so we arrived at the edge of the lake and the source of the River Neva.
Unlike any other ordinary river it does not start as a spring or trickle joining many others en-route to its mouth but as a 400m wide torrent. Olga briskly had us onto the ferry to the island fortress which sits in the entrance to the Neva as it flows toward St Petersburg. It has clearly been an operationally important feature for centuries and conflict between Vikings/Swedes and Russia has raged around this water/ice way particularly in the early 18th century. The river flow or current was very apparent as we made our way upstream some kilometre or so.
As we landed we were met by our Oreshek fortress guide, Margaritte. She proved to be a good story teller translated very effectively by Olga. As the tour continued we discovered so many aspects of the fortress as both Tzarist and revolutionary prisons and that Lenin's own brother had both been imprisoned and executed there, for an attempt to kill Tsar Alexander III.
The evidence of the severity of the battle for the fortress during the 2nd World War is still there and is clear that the holding of the island was a hinge to the success of the supply chain across the frozen lake to the North. Only by maintaining this link were the Soviets able to hold Leningrad and to later raise the siege from the south.
Margaritte talked about the small Red Army garrison of about 500 men undertook the fortress’s defence during the Second World War. What was not quite clear was the level of decorations given to the soldiers who fought here as they withstood a siege of 500 days.
Oreshek was hit by almost 50 thousand shells and by a large number of bombs. The defenders not only held the fortress, but also inflicted heavy losses on the enemy in personnel and ammunition. In January 1943 the garrison of the fortress participated in breaking through the siege of Leningrad.
Orlando added so much colour to the individual prisoners whose tiny biographies there were expanded and contextualised by his commentary. He was able to highlight so much of the individuals characters incarcerated there.
On our return journey Olga told us about the 900 day siege of Leningrad from 1941-43. This was quite possibly the grimmest element of an aspect of war on the Eastern Front which we in the West could only imagine. She held nothing back about the nature of survival including the courage of those who strove to keep the city supplied during the siege. Later, once that had sunk in, she told us a little about the Soviet/Finnish War, the winter war of 1941. All of us were gripped as she delivered her talk and it again was most definitely worth listening attentively to.
After lunch we walked around the corner to the Cruiser Aurora. This ship had a fundamental role in the commencement of the coup that is described as ‘The October Revolution’. It was required to fire a blank round from its most forward gun. There we were met by a member of the crew who has served in the Russian navy for many years and he led us around both the open top or main deck explaining aspects of the weaponry, ammunition supply, sleeping arrangements (even at sea) and command and control systems.
Later we went below to the main museum on the next deck which was full of fascinating paintings photographs, models and other items including the shell hole through the hull which had mortally wounded the Captain in 1905 during the Russo/Japanese War.
As we arrived in the fortress Orlando spoke at length about the relevance of the Peter and Paul Fortress to both the Tsarist regimes and later the revolutionary period. We wandered full of conversation towards the Trubetskoy Bastion where the political prisoners had been housed primarily through the Tsarist era. There were far fewer people here or maybe just more space but interestingly no-one else followed us into the bastion.
Orlando’s immense knowledge of the many individuals who had been incarcerated over the years had us all completely captivated and we learnt that inmates communicated through the walls with a knocking code.
We then walked to the church to discover that many of the Tsars and Tsarinas had been buried in the sarcophagi which abounded across the floor. As we left and wandered towards the coach we passed this statue in the gardens which intrigued all of us.
As we left the complex and drove the short distance back to the hotel we passed an old barracks opposite the Peter and Paul Fortress which now contains a military museum full of artillery pieces and tracked vehicles.
In a similar manner to the previous night we again had an excellent talk about the commemoration of the events of 1917. The interpretation of the photographs that Orlando shared was able to convey so much and filled many a knowledge hole.
After the relatively long day on Sunday there seemed to be general happiness that Monday was to be a much shorter day, allied to a long lunch followed by opportunities to explore. The intensity of the tour has provided much to think about and time to reflect on what we have seen and learnt, is welcome.
At the leisurely hour of 10.15 we took a journey south out of the city to Tsarskoye Selo the Catherine Palace and Park. Olga with her excellent local knowledge explained that Soviet forces had had to hold the high ground several miles ahead to prevent the Germans completing their investment of the city in 1941-43. As we rose onto the ridge she pointed to a civilian cemetery with artillery pieces beside, which marked the static Russian defensive siege front lines. Moments later we arrived in the town and moved through to the palaces.
We entered the front garden of the palace and gasped at both the size and splendour of the palace and its surrounding outbuildings, whose tasks remain unknown. There was relative silence as we began to take in the immensity of this palace and the surroundings. As we progressed along the interconnecting doors between the main rooms all decorated with gold leaf/paint they became very opulent & overwhelmingly similar.
The beautifully painted Dutch tiles hiding the heating system and the story of Catherine the Great and her forebears and successors was really very interesting.
After lunch we returned to St Petersburg and were back by about 16.30. The majority then, despite the rain, ventured out to shop or sightsee in the hotel’s vicinity.
Today in some respects was always to be the tensest, in terms of security at least. We had strict time appointments at the Taurida Palace and most importantly the Smolny Institute.
At the Smolny Institute we were shown the offices that Lenin used and their austerity was striking. Our local guide here had a good, wry, dry sense of humour and clearly had been here for some time. At the end of the first half of the morning we were efficiently moved from one of the timed visits to the other by Andrei Coach.
At the Taurida Palace we were met by Karina one of the Palace guides with Orlando and Olga taking over periodically. We were shown this magnificent building including the largest ballroom in Europe.
The Taurida was, for the purposes of our tour, the focus on the failed democratic processes which in a way allowed the vacuum into which the Bolsheviks walked. As our visits came to an end we gathered and bussed off to lunch. We had another good, well-served, tasty, lunch at Tsentral’Nyi after which we travelled on to the SE end of Nevsky prospect.
Being such an important up-market long straight street, wide and impressive leading directly to the Winter Palace this was always a likely rallying point for unrest of any type. Orlando brought the episodes of 1905 and 1917 to life with his descriptions of the activities. The drama of 1905 was poignantly drawn out and the sense that this amongst other massacres and killings lit the touch paper of the revolution finally.
We walked past the Marinsky Palace and not quite as far as the Kazan Theatre. Due to the great amount of information delivered by Orlando and the comment/questions that it engendered we fell a little behind schedule and we ended our walk at the statue to Catherine the Great and her primary functionaries arrayed underneath her.
Our final destination for the day was the Yusopov Palace and we mounted up from behind Catherine’s statue. This was to tell the story of Rasputin’s murder in December 1916. He had initially been seen as a benevolent figure to aid the Tsarina in coming to terms with and to aid the curing of Alexis, their haemophiliac son.
Again the drama of the event was well played out by Orlando with the poisoning and subsequent multiple shootings being seen as death by natural causes when his body was removed from the River Neva two or three days after the event. The removal of Rasputin of course had no long term bearing on the impending doom of the royal family but it was yet another odd & maybe tragic moment in a steady but inexorable crumbling of the Romanov rule and rulers.
We followed the trail through the basement rooms of the palace and into the spot at which the murder commenced.
We continued through the full basement museum and then along to the private theatre. As this family was the richest (or at least amongst them) family in Russia they were clearly able to afford this and it would have been a very important place to have been seen for a social point of view.
On return to the Hotel we had a further fascinating talk on the Commemoration of the Revolution with pictures from 1917 and onwards.
We departed on our final day at 09:30 to the Kshesinskaya Mansion (built 1904) now the Museum of Political History, which had been the HQ for the Bolsheviks in spring and summer of 1917. When we arrived at the location just to the north east of the Peter and Paul Fortress, Orlando gave another ‘tour de force’ about the unsteady summer months of 1917 and we viewed the balcony from which Lenin had produced a nervous speech against the provisional government in July before escaping to Finland.
We had a most interesting tour of the museum but sadly at 11.30 we had to head off for an early lunch at the close by at Demyonanova Ukha and had an interesting collection of salad and fish dishes. Olga, briskly efficient as ever, had us back on the coach at 13.30 and we said our goodbyes to Rod Walton and Richard Saul who were staying on for the Peter the Great tour extension along with Bill and Monica Oliver who were staying on in St Petersburg for a couple of days to meet with a friendly guide they knew. Suddenly the sense that it was coming to the end seemed to pervade the group.
On arrival at the airport we were efficiently de-bussed and the luggage porters had our big bags away quickly. We went through external airport security which is similar to the majority of the buildings we had entered during our week here.
We said goodbye to the inestimable Olga who was superb throughout the entire St Petersburg leg of the tour. I am sure I can speak for all to say that she was unimpeachable and cannot praise her highly enough.
View details of this tour - The Russian Revolution