A Window to the West - Page 2

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Winter Palace
ALL AGLOW : The façade of St. Petersburg's Winter Palace  (Digital Visions)

I tell people interested in Russia that they should visit Moscow to learn what communism was like and visit St. Petersburg to learn why communism occurred. And in the latter city the only place to start is the Winter Palace.  The former imperial home to the czars dominates Dvortsovaya Place, the massive square in the heart of St. Petersburg's historical district.

I've seen the Winter Palace in winter and in summer, and during a steady snowfall its bright-white exterior trimmed in lime green and gold always makes you think Peter the Great will stroll past at any minute. But in the summer, the palace explodes in light. Today it is home to the Hermitage art collection and, as museum buildings go, the Winter Palace is more beautiful than the Louvre, more grandiose than the Uffizi.

Here you see the true heart of Russian history. St. Petersburg has been the nation's capital twice. The first time came in 1712 when Peter worked peasants to death, through disease and exhaustion, to build the city. After a brief detour to Moscow in 1730, the capital returned 300 miles north 11 years later and flourished under the czars as a cosmopolitan capital. Vladimir Lenin ordered it returned to Moscow in 1917.

Inside the palace, you won't just see three million pieces of art, ranging from ancient Rome to Egypt, from Michelangelo to Rembrandt. You'll see how the czars lived. You pass elaborately ordained ballrooms, a Gothic-style library and throne room, a Moorish dining room...  It quickly becomes clear that the czars spared no expense—on themselves.

To see how the czars played, I decided to take a 30-minute ferry ride to Petrodvorets, one of a half dozen summer palaces ringing the city. Walking across the street from the Winter Palace to the ferry dock, I immediately advanced three centuries from the museum's antiquity. Russian rock music played over a loud speaker as a Russian teen in a punk rock haircut rode a skateboard.

At Petrodvorets, however, there are no 21st-century trappings—unless you count the larcenous 30 rubles ($1.25) charged for the public toilet. Petrodvorets, known as the "Russian Versailles," makes the French version look like a log cabin in the wilderness. This sprawling butter yellow estate is adorned with blinding-white columns and windows. The long approach from the dock is lined with beautifully decorated fountains, ending in the Grand Cascade, a collection of 140 fountains allegedly engineered by Peter the Great himself.

Today the Grand Palace is a massive museum positioned next to Monplaisir, a relatively smaller mansion that was always Peter's favorite little villa. The grounds also feature three man-made lakes, a lush, huge garden behind the Grand Palace and one building used only for dining.

Not bad digs for one family.

As I toured the grounds, I couldn't help recalling Dostoevsky, a local who chronicled the massive poverty during that time. Noticing that it's about a $5 cab ride from the Grand Palace to the dining hall, I could see why angry populists blew up Alexander II in 1881.  The Russian Revolution would begin 24 years later.

Later, I asked Olga if today's Russian has any of that revolutionary spirit left.

"Russians are the most patient people in the world," she said. "You can do anything to them and they won't complain. They don't rebel anymore."

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