Category Archives: Slideshow

The Grand Choral Synagogue

The Grand Choral Synagogue

The Grand Choral Synagogue

The St. Petersburg Grand Choral Synagogue, at 2 Lermontovsky Prospekt, is one of the largest in Europe. It serves a shrinking and aging Jewish population, in a city and country that have a history of anti-Jewish sentiment.

For about the first hundred years of St. Petersburg’s existence, Jews were officially forbidden from living in the city. Nevertheless, some lived in the city in order to serve Russian leaders, primarily as merchants or doctors.

Toward the beginning of the 19th century, restrictions on Jews were relaxed, though many were still required to live within the Pale of Settlement in Russia’s western region.

Throughout the 19th century, St. Petersburg’s Jewish population grew, and Tsar Alexander II granted the community permission to build a synagogue. However, construction did not begin until 1883, following Alexander II’s assasination, which triggered anti-Semitism and pogroms in the Pales of Settlement, though not in St. Petersburg.

Completed in 1893, the synagogue has witnessed wars and revolutions, but still tenaciously stands today. Having been neglected and looted during the early Communist period, the synagogue was restored between 2001-2003. According to the synagogue’s official history, on which much of this post is based, the synagogue’s various schools currently serve about 500 Jewish children, the future of St. Petersburg’s Jewish community.

Click here for photos from my visit to the Grand Choral Synagogue.

Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

The Second World War—and in Leningrad, the 900-day siege of the city by German forces—was one of the defining events of Russian history (yes, I’ve written about the war a lot lately.).

To better understand the role of the Great Patriotic War and the blockade in St. Petersburg’s history, I went to the most tragic monument to the human cost of World War II: Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Click here for photographs from my visit to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I arrived at the cemetery, a half hour walk down Проспект Непокорённых (Avenue of the Unvanquished) in northern St. Petersburg, expecting rows of neat tomb stones marked with Russian names and tragic end-dates from 1941 to 1945. I expected Hammer and Sickles chiseled into stone monuments to brave soldiers alongside the graves of innocent civilians who perished in the blockade.

My vision of military cemeteries was shaped by places like Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.

But Piskaryovskoye is nothing like Arlington.

I entered the cemetery between two rectangular white-stone buildings. Inscribed on one’s wall: Пискарёвское мемориальное кладбище – Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I approached the eternal flame that burns red just beyond the entrance—it was hardly visible in the bright sunlight—and looked out over the cemetery in the small valley below.

At the far side, about a quarter mile away, stood a dark statue of Mother Motherland (The name of Mother Russia during Soviet times). Between her and me, I saw three parallel pathways, nearly empty of people, lined by grass and rosebushes. I did not see any tombstones, but thought they must be hidden behind the trees to the sides of the paths.

Descending into the cemetery, I suddenly understood the absence of tombstones.

The grass to the left and right of the paths covered rows of identical rectangular mounds, each marked by a stone inscribed with the year 1942, a Hammer and Sickle, and a leaf.

I had found my chiseled Hammer and Sickles.

But they marked mass graves, 186 in all, containing nearly 500,000 people—more deaths than the United States suffered in the entirety of the Second World War, more people than are buried in all the rolling hills of Arlington.

Never before had I seen mass graves. They struck me as somehow more tragic than traditional tombstones; a jumble of former lives, anonymously lying under green grass in the late June sun.

A few plastic flowers stemmed from the fronts of the graves—strange, bright contrasts to the sombre music playing from hidden speakers.

I made my way down the length of the cemetery, slowly passing the still mounds, til I reached the towering Mother Motherland.

On the stone behind her, there is a memorial poem (translation courtesy of my Lonely Planet guidebook):

Here lie the people of Leningrad

Here are the citizens – men, women, and children

And besides them the Red Army soldiers

Who gave their lives

Defending you, Leningrad,

Cradle of the Revolution.

Their noble names we cannot number

So many lie beneath the eternal granite

But of those honored by this stone

Let no one forget

Let nothing be forgotten.

After pausing to make out what I could of the poem in Russian, I began walking through the rest of the cemetery. (I’ll soon have photos online with more detailed information about the cemetery.)

The mass graves are numbered—I wanted find the last one, number 186.

This goal brought me to the far back corner, far from Mother Motherland, surrounded by trees and grassy mounds of dead.

After some wandering, I found the 186th mass grave. I stopped there a moment, and wondered. How many people were buried under the rectangular mound?

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

As I thought, I picked up a small stone and placed it atop the grave marker.

Over 2000, I figured. And then I made my way back, up, and out of the cemetery.

Click here for my photos from Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

A visit to the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Entirely by accident, I visited the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad on June 21, 68 years to the day after Nazi troops poured across the length of the Soviet Union’s western border in Operation Barbarossa, starting four years of blood-soaked conflict on the Eastern Front.

By the time Soviet troops reached Berlin in early May of 1945, about 27 million Soviet citizens (about half soldiers, half civilians) had died, just over 15 percent of the USSR’s pre-war population.

Over a million of those deaths occurred during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, widely considered the most deadly siege in world history.

So that the deaths of the siege (among civilians, largely of starvation, disease, and cold) will never be forgotten, monuments to and reminders of the siege stand throughout St. Petersburg, as I wrote about when I visisted The State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad.

Since that visit, I’ve run into many more of these constant reminders.

Near the Hermitage, a marker affixed to a wall during the the siege advises Leningraders that the other side of the street is safer when German shells rain down. Fresh flowers always lay beneath it.

At Isaaki Cathedral, a giant chunk of stone is missing from one of the 100-ton pillars that support the building. Near the wound, a plaque state it’s cause: Nazi bomb. Another similar piece of damage, on a bridge over the Fontanka Canal, is also marked by a plaque.

But the most visible, impressive reminder of the war is the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, located on Moskovsky Prospekt, the main road into St. Petersburg from the south.

Centered around a 48 meter high obelisk, the gray monument pays tribute to both the soldiers and civilians who contributed to the city’s defense and ultimate salvation.

Behind the large obelisk, one can descend into the center of the monument. Here, a smaller monument to civilians lies at the center of a large broken circle, symbolizing the breaking of the siege.

The center of the monument.

The center of the monument.

Music, quiet and somber, plays in this part of the monument, setting the tone.

A small museum of the siege is located beneath the monument. Electronic candles line the tops of the walls. Flags from the many groups of defenders hang from the ceiling. Artifacts from the war fill display cases. The only sound is the ticking of a metronome, played over the radio throughout the siege to let Leningraders know that the heart of the city was still beating.

The museum beneath the monument.

The museum beneath the monument.

Click here for more photographs from the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad.

The St. Petersburg Palace of Soviets

Lenin stands before the Palace of Soviets in St. Petersburg.

Lenin stands before the Palace of Soviets in St. Petersburg.

The Saint Petersburg Palace of Soviets was built by Josef Stalin in an attempt to relocate the city center away from the bourgeois downtown area. Stalin also hoped to have a magnificent building of his own to counterbalance all the Tsarist palaces in and around the city, such as The Hermitage and Tsarskoye Selo.

However, World War II stalled Stalin’s relocation plans, and the center of St. Petersburg remains in its bourgeois location. But even the area around the Palace of Soviets, on Moskovski Prospekt, is looking pretty upscale these days.

The massive statue of Lenin now glares at a Nike store and a Sberbank. Just down the road, hungry former party members can pick up a Big Mac and fries at McDonalds, and contemplate the massive hammer and sickle atop the palace while eating the best of American capitalism.

Even the palace fountains add to the upscale atmosphere. I mean, who ever heard of proletarian fountains?

Click here for more photos from the Palace of Soviets.

Photos: Boat Trip Down the Neva

The Cruiser Aurora next to billboards on the Neva.

The Cruiser Aurora next to billboards on the Neva.

Click here for more photos from our cruise on the Neva River.

Photos: Churches and Monasteries around Vologda

A monastery about 130 kilometers north of the city of Vologda.

A monastery about 130 kilometers north of the city of Vologda.

Click here for more photographs of churches and monasteries near Vologda.

Photos: Scenes around Vologda

A small town about 130km north of Vologda.

A small town about 130km north of Vologda.

Click here for more photos from the area around Vologda.

Proletarian lace

Victory to the USSR

Lace: Victory to the USSR

Vologda is known for a few things, namely monasteries, dairy products, and lace.

Come October 1918, being an agricultural center famed for making such a bourgeois thing as lace wasn’t a mark in favor of Vologda in the minds of the Bolsheviks. Neither, of course, was Vologda’s pro-White (that’s Anti-Bolshevik) political orientation during the Russian Civil War.

Indeed, Vologda suffered heavily during Lenin’s Red Terror, and later during the collectivization imposed by Stalin (Not so much for making lace, but more because the area was largely populated by farmers).

In any event, the lace-makers of Vologda faced a challenge: how to reconcile their decidedly upper-class product with the Soviet Union’s proletarian ideals.

The solution: Lace glorifying industry, agriculture, and the Soviet Union, as we saw at the Vologda Lace Museum. Click here to see a few pieces of Soviet lace.

The overnight train to Vologda

My apologies for not putting up a post for the last week. It’s been busy since we returned from Vologda Monday morning. But I’ll be publishing lots of photos from Vologda over the next few weeks to try and make up for it.

A countryside scene on the way to Vologda.

A countryside scene on the way to Vologda.

It takes about 12 hours by overnight train to cover the 600 kilometers from St. Petersburg straight east to Vologda, a small, “authentic,” Russian town. We, the whole Duke in St. Petersburg group, left for Vologda last Friday evening, spent two full days there, and returned to St. Petersburg early Monday morning.

Vologda is several times larger than Rockville, or for you Dukies, around the size of Durham, but it retains a small-town feel, perhaps because it’s population is spread over such a large area. Few tourists venture to Vologda, and just about zero Americans. It’s a pity, because Vologda and the surrounding area is beautiful, full of old Russian (15th-16th century) churches and monasteries, open countryside, and fresh air.

I’ll be writing more about Vologda as I sort through and post photos from my trip, but for now, click here to view photographs shot from the windows of our leisurely train ride.

A steel plant near Vologda.

A steel plant near Vologda.

Kirov’s Apartment and the perils of Communism

Sergei Kirov's desk.

Sergei Kirov's desk.

Sergei Kirov’s apartment now stands as a memorial to the slain Leningrad Party Boss and as a reminder of the worst features of Stalinism.

At first though, the apartment, reconstructed to early 1930s form from photographs, seems to commemorate the early achievements of the Soviet system.

Click here for more photos from Kirov’s apartment.

Kirov’s desk is filled with reports on industrial output from factories in the Leningrad region, highlighting the impressive industrialization achieved under the first Five Year Plan and part of the second. Trinkets from these plants show off their successes—Kirov’s apartment contains the first typewriter made in the Soviet Union and models of many other industrial products, ranging from a steel bar to a tank. Photos show the construction of river dams and massive factories, and note Kirov’s inspection visits to some of these behemoths.

The explanatory text boasts of Kirov’s popularity among Leningrad workers and his closeness to other Soviet leaders. Stalin, it says, ate in Kirov’s dining room.

But Kirov’s dinner guest ultimately became his killer. And that same killer—after orchestrating Kirov’s assassination—embarked on a rampage of repression that resulted in the imprisonment and execution of millions.

The 1934 assassination of Kirov, likely on Josef Stalin’s orders, is generally considered to have signaled the beginning of these purges. During the purge period, several million people were killed (estimates vary widely, but many sources cite NKVD records stating that about 700,000 were executed in 1937-38 alone, at the height of the purges) and millions more were sent to labor camps, called gulags, where some died from starvation, disease, or cold.

I’ve written before about the conflict over Stalin’s legacy, which owes to the fact that the same Soviet leader who executed so many of his own also led his country to victory in the Second World War. But Kirov’s apartment is ultimately a memorial—not a monument—for a system that executed its most promising leaders and struck fear into the hearts of its citizens.