On the road again – studying Russian history to get ready for Moscow

In September 2019 I am on the road to Moscow. To get ready, I update my knowledge about Russian history. Here is, how I understand, how Russia emerged (I am not a historian).

This is my summary of Russian history in a nutshell

  • 9th-11th century: Russia has two roots, the Wikings (founding the Kievan Rus’) and Byzantium (Christianity and dynastic reference).
  • 1132-1598: In 1132, the Kievan Rus’ collapses and disintegrates into many principalities. Novgorod becomes a successful republic of its own. To its east, Moscow, ruled by the Rurikids, rises steadily collecting “the Russian Earth”, though being under Mongolian rule from 1240 to 1480. In 1480, the Rurikids of Moscow adopt the title “Tsar”. After 1480, they expand beyond Russia, to Siberia. The dynasty of the Rurikids ends in 1598, after 700 years.
  • 1598-1612: Troubles (Smuta) – Russia, in search of a Tsar, is about to collapse under foreign pressure, until the army of volunteers from Nizhny Novgorod frees Moscow from Poland.
  • 1613-1762: The new dynasty, the Romanows, consolidate Russia, get Kiev back, expand to the west (Petersburg and Karelia) and continue the expansion to Siberia.
  • 1762-1918: The dynasty of Romanow-Holstein-Gottrop proceed expanding to the west and to the south (Krim and Central Asia), until being stopped in 1905. The autocratic tsars underestimate the power of the uprisings in their country that leads to the revolution of 1917 and to the abdication and death of the last Tsar.
  • 1917-2000 Revolution, Soviet Union and Russian Federation.


9th-11th century: Russia has two roots, the Wikings (founding the Kievan Rus’) and Byzantium (Christianity and dynastic reference).

  • The Wikings and the Kievan Rus’: Wikings settle in Novgorod, which becomes the capital of their empire. The Rurik dynasty emerges. Around 900, the Rurik ruler Oleg unifies 14 Slavic tribes and moves his capital to Kiev. The Kievan Rus’ exists until 1132. Somehow this can be considered to be the craddle of Russia.
  • Byzantium and the Byzantine emperors: From Byzantium, Kyrill and Method bring Christianity to Moravia and Bulgaria and invent the Cyrillic alphabet to teach the Slavs in their language. In 988 Wladimir adopts Christianity for the Kievan Rus’, along with the Cyrillic alphabet. One of his successors, Vsevolod (1078-1196), marries the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, Anastasja Monomaxos. This creates the first dynastic link to Byzantium. This reference will be duplicated by Iwan III (1462-1503) who will marry the niece of the last emperor of Byzantium (after Byzantium has been conquered by the Turks in 1453). The Russian emperors thus see themselves as legal successors of Byzantium and indirectly even of Rome. The monomaxos throne and the momonaxos cap can be seen in Moscow’s Kreml.

The Cathedral of St. Sophia in Novgorod, built in 1045-50. Also Kiev has its Cathedral of St. Sophia. Sophia means “wisdom” and this name is based on the tradition of the Hagia Sophia in Byzantium.


1132-1598: In 1132, the Kievan Rus’ collapses and disintegrates into many principalities. Novgorod becomes a successful republic of its own. To its east, Moscow, ruled by the Rurikids, rises steadily collecting “the Russian Earth”, though being under Mongolian rule from 1240 to 1480. In 1480, the Rurikids of Moscow adopt the title “Tsar”. After 1480, they expand beyond Russia, to Siberia. The dynasty of the Rurikids ends in 1598, after 700 years.

  • In 1132, Kiev loses its primacy and the Kievan Rus’ disintegrates into many principalities.
  • In 1320, the Kiev principality becomes part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. (Kiev will join Russia again in 1654; it is said that they wanted to avoid having to adopt the catholic religion).
  • 1136-1478, the republic of Novgorod is the principality that establishes a success story of its own: It becomes a European Great Power trading successfully with the Hanse. Their educational system is a good foundation for that. In 1240 Alexander Newsky from Novgorod defeats the Teutonic Orden (mostly part of Poland today) and the Swedes. He integrates the Baltic Sea along with Karelia. (In 1478 Moscow will subdue the republic of Novgorod, and around 1700, Peter the Great will refer to Alexander Newsky, when conquering the Baltic Sea and Karelia again, now for Russia; today the Newsky Prospekt is the main business street in Sankt Petersburg, and it ends in front of the Alexander Newsky Lavra, one of the most important monasteries of Russia).
  • In 1147, Juri Dolgoruki founds Moscow. In 1321 the Metropolit of the Orthodox Church moves to Moscow. Moscow will be the nucleus of the “new” Rus’.
  • In 1240, the Mongolians under Batu Khan (the grand-son of Genghis Khan) conquer the Russian principalities and Kiev. Their rule lasts until 1480. In 1480, the Russians fight their last battle for freedom. It is not a battle at all; the two armies are facing each other for several months, until the Golden Horde retreats.
  • Until 1480, while most Russian principalities are under Mongolian rule, Moscow subdues one principality after the other. In 1328, Grand Duke Iwan I calls this “collecting the Russian Earth”. This collection program culminates in subduing Novgorod in 1478. In 1480, Iwan III calls himself Tsar; he has married the niece of the last emperor of Byzantium. Moscow and his dynasty, he deems, is the successor of the Byzantium and hence of the Roman Empire; Moscow is called “third Rome”.
  • 1480-1598, after having freed themselves from the Mongolian rule, the Rurikids continue collecting the Russian Earth.  Iwan IV (the Terrible, 1547-1584) expands further to Siberia (the Stroganoff family have told him that this will pay off, as he will find basic materials and fur there). Iwan IV dies in 1584. His mentally retarded brother becomes Zar, but it is Boris Godunow who reigns for him. Iwan has yet another son, Dmitri; he probably died in 1591 at the age of nine years).

The Kreml illustrates well the importance of Novgorod. It was the capital of the successful economic power that traded with the Hanse (foto taken by Ursula in 2017).

The Alexander Newsky Lavra in the rain. It is one of the most important monasteries in Russia. Peter the Great dedicated it to the successful leader of Novgorod who was his role model (my photo taken in Saint Petersburg in 2017).


1598-1612: Troubles (Smuta) – Russia, in search of a Tsar, is about to collapse under foreign pressure, until the army of volunteers from Nizhny Novgorod frees Moscow from Poland.

  • 1598-1605: Boris Godunow (who has reigned for the mentally retarded brother of Iwan the Terrible before) is elected Tsar of Russia. He dies in 1605.
  • 1605-1610: The first “False” Dmitri (“false” son of Iwan IV), supported by Poland, reigns, then followed by a nobleman, supported by Sweden.
  • 1610: Poland conquers Moscow and intends to establish their own Tsar. Sweden conquers Novgorod and proposes a different Tsar. Russia is about to collapse.
  • 1612: An army of volunteers from Nizhny Novgorod frees Moscow. The army has been collected by Kusma Minin and lead by Prince Dmitri Pozharsky.  Today their monument in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral reminds us of their achievement.

The family grave of the Godunows in the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius at Sergiyev Posad (my foto taken in 2019).


1613-1762: The new dynasty, the Romanows, consolidate Russia, get Kiev back, expand to the west (Petersburg and Karelia) and continue the expansion to Siberia

  • 1613-1645: The first Romanow Tsar, Michail I, grand-nephew of Iwan IV, consolidates Russia again.
  • 1645-1676: Alexei I accepts the loyalty oath of Kiev and Eastern Ukraine against Poland that has cut back the privileges of the Kosacks and, being Roman Catholic, might threaten the orthodox religion of Kiev (1654).
  • 1682-1725: Until 1687, it is the half-sister Sofia of later Peter I the Great that reigned in Peter’s name (and in the name of his mentally disabled brother Iwan). In 1689, at the age of 17, Peter I intends to take over power, but the Streltsy conspire with his sister and he escapes to the the Lavra in Sergiyev Posad. His mother later reigns for him, until in 1696, aged 24, he becomes the sole ruler of Russia. In 1697/98 he travels to Europe and studies shipbuilding in the Netherlands and city building in England. He tries to travel incognito, but measuring more than 2 meters, he could simply not hide. When back, Peter modernizes Russia, introducing Western life style (clothing, no beards, Julian calendar, promoting the economic development and educational systems and making the church report into government). In addition, he modernizes the army, which includes building up the Russian navy. From the Swedes, Peter I conquers access to the Baltic Sea and founds Saint Petersburg in 1703 (beginning with the Saint Paul and Peter Fortress). In 1708, the Swedes march towards Moscow, are halted by Peter I, and instead invade the Ukraine. Here, south east of Kiev, Peter I defeats the Swedes at the battle of Poltawa in 1709. This marks the end of Sweden’s status as a Great Power. In 1710, Peter I makes Saint Petersburg the capital of Russia. It is his “window to the west”. He marries in 1712. In 1725, he dies without a successor and his wife becomes Tsar Catherine I (until 1727).
  • 1727-1762: After various tsars, it is the daughter of Peter the Great, Elisabeth, that takes over in 1741. The expansion to Central Asia starts, and Russia participates in the War of the Polish Succession.

Above the entrance gate to the Saint Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, a relief shows Petrus throwing the heretic Simon Magus down to earth, after Simon had lifted himself up into the air by sorcery. Peter I the Great has defeated the King of Sweden, Charles XII, as Petrus had defeated Simon Magus before (my photo taken in 2017).

Peter I the Great, statue at Saint Peter and Paul Fortress by Mihail Chemiakin (photo taken by me in 2017).


1762-1918: The dynasty of Romanow-Holstein-Gottrop proceeds expanding westwards and southwards (Crimea and Central Asia), until being stopped in 1905. The autocratic tsars underestimate the power of the uprisings in their country that leads to the revolution of 1917 and to the abdication and death of the last Tsar.

  • 1762-1796: Catherine II the Great is the German born wife of Peter the Great’s grandson. She obtains the crown of Russia and Peter’s grandson is murdered. Catherine the Great follows in the footsteps of Peter the Great. She promotes the economy of Russia and asks foreigners to settle in Russia. She founds schools for basic and higher education and reforms the administration of her country. At the cost of the Turks she obtains access to the Black Sea and conquers the Crimea in 1783. During the partition of Poland she acquires a large share here. She has many lovers, the most famous of them being Potemkin. Her son Paul I reigns for five years, until he is murdered in 1801.
  • 1801-1825: Alexander I fights against Napoleon invading Russia and then participates in the wars that lead to the fall of Napoleon. He is a major influencer at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when Europe is being reshaped. Russia expands its territory acquiring more parts of Poland, Finland, Georgia, Shirvan near the Caspian Sea and Bessarabia (today Moldavia and Ukraine).
  • 1825-1894: The Tsars Nicholas I, Alexander II and Alexander III suppress uprisings in Russia and expand into Central Asia, creating the administrative area Turkestan with the capital Tashkent (they have to demarcate their line of influence from the Britains that are about to colonize India). Alexander II liberates Russia’s serfs and sells Alaska to the US.
  • 1894-1917: Tsar Nicholas II tries to enlarge his empire even more, but is halted in 1905 by Japan (they destroy the Russian Navy almost completely). Furthermore, Austria-Hungary and the Turks prevent him from unifying the Slavs in the Balkans. In the first World War, the Russian Army has no chance and quits in 1917. This is also the year of the October Revolution. The Tsar has to abdicate and is murdered with his family in 1918.

Catherine the Great, monument at the Newsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg (photo taken by me in 2017)

Source: Diercke Westermann: Russlands Aufstieg zur Grossmacht – Russia’s rise to Great-Power status.


1917-2000 Revolution, Soviet Union and Russian Federation.

  • 1917: Lenin returns to Russia and leads the October Revolution that ends with the Bolschewiki and Lenin at power.
  • 1922: The Soviet Union is founded as the community of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian Republics.
  • 1924-1953: After the death of Lenin, Stalin takes over power. He enforces collectivization and promotes industrialization to catch up with the West. In 1933-36, the Great Terror eliminates 20% of his military cadre. The War against the Germans begins in summer 1941 and ends in May 1945. In 1950, the Cold War starts and the Iron Curtain divides Europe. The first surrogate war takes place in North Korea (1950-53).
  • 1953-1964: Khrushchev follows, after Stalin has died. He starts to reform agriculture and economy, he builds 4 storey houses for the people (called Khrushchevki), gives the Crimea to the Ukraine (1954) and suppresses uprisings in Europe (Hungary 1956, German Democratic Republic 1953). In 1961, Khrushchev “allows” Ulbricht to build the wall in Berlin. The Soviet space program is very successful with Sputnik I in earth orbit in 1957, followed by the first man, Gagarin, in 1961.
  • 1964-1982: Brezhnev takes over, first governing together with Kossygin and Podgorny, then alone. His regime is again stricter than Khrushchev’s. He suppresses the “spring” in Prague (1968) and he gets into fighting in Afghanistan (1979-89).
  • 1985-1991 After the short reign of Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev takes over. He introduces reforms that are called Perestroika and Glasnost. He did not succeed in renovating the Soviet Union, but instead the Soviet Union disintegrated after the coup of the communists in 1991.
  • 1991 The Russian Federation takes over the Soviet Union’s rights and duties based on international law. Most of the former Soviet Republics join the Commonwealth of Independent States that later loses of importance. Yeltsin has the economy privatized to the benefit of the oligarchs.
  • 2000 The era Putin starts.


The rocket flies high into the air and into the earth orbit at the VDNKh (ВДНХ) in Moscow (photo taken by me in 2019). In 1957, the Soviets are ahead with their Sputnik, and I remember, how my dad told me, this is the start of a new area, and you will see more of this in your life. At the VDNKh, the Soviets showed the success of their economy and the exhibition area remains until today.

When very young, in 1968, I read the Karamazov Brothers by Dostoevsky. I was impressed and decided to learn Russian, based on the TV program “Russian for you/русский язык для Вас”. I continued in August 1968, despite the suppressed “spring” in Prague, and I have enjoyed Russian culture and the beauty of the Russian language ever since. I visited Staraya Russa in 2012, where the novel of the Karamazov Brothers plays (photo taken by me in 2012).

Sources: Christine Hamel: “Russland – von der Wolga bis zur Newa”, Dumont Kunstführer 1998. Hubert Faensen: “Siehe die Stadt, die leuchtet”, Koehler und Amelang, 1989. “Der Grosse Plötz, Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet, 2008 and various Wiki-entries.

A Swiss in Petersburg – more Russian grammar

The aspects –  I keep on confusing them and my Russian partners

Oh yes, I have been working at controling the aspects for many years, but I keep on confusing them, despite the fact that they are so crucial to understanding Russian. Here are some samples:

  • With Larissa I attended the opera “the flying Dutchmen”. I liked the opera, and I later said to Tatjana, my Russian teacher, that I liked it very much: “спектакль “Летучий Голландец” мне нравилась.” Tatjana rises her eye brows: “oh… so  what happened? You do no longer like it?” – Hm, no-no, I liked it and I still like it. “Well, she says, so… you have to say:  спектакль понравилась. Otherwise every Russian would think that you do no longer like it.”  Okay, I understand, I have used the imperfect aspect and should have used the perfect aspect to make it all clear that I still like it and that the result has not been “canceled”.
  • Tatjana and I sit at the table at home and practice the aspects. The door bell rings. I open the door. The neighbor looks for Elena, but as Elena is not at home, she leaves. Shortly afterwards Elena comes home. “Elena”, I say, “your neighbor came and looked for you…  соседка пришла и искала тебя”‘. Tatjana frowns. “Where is the neighbor? Is she waiting in the kitchen?” – Hm, no-no, she is no longer here, she went away  – она ушла. Conclusion: Result canceled, she left again, hence I have to say  “она приходила”. Will I ever get this right?
  • Tatjana and I practice the words “dress” and “put on”. Another trap here. I put on my trousers in the imperfect aspect means a scandal, if I left the house now. Because “надевала брюки” means that I put them on and then took them off again. I have to say “надела брюки”  in the perfect aspect to express that I put them on and I am still wearing them. Did I make this clear? I think you have to be a native slawic speaker to understand this.

The “canceled result”

Tatjana calls this concept “the canceled result” or “аннилурованный результат”. For Russians this is all easy, they just ask themselves: делал или сделал? (perhaps to translate like this: Did he process this or did he complete it”), but for me, this is still not straightforward. Larissa and my Russian friends are always puzzled, when I hesitate about using the correct aspect. Larissa remembers that she heard about the aspects at school a long time ago… and now corrects me as well.

Another challenge – how to form the aspects?

When I have decided which aspect to use, there is the next challenge… how is it formed? Often the verb is “stronger” in the perfect aspect, e.g. the conjugation is irregular and it is more regular in the imperfect aspect:

  • плавать – плыть, понимать – понять, давать – дать, начинать – начать

Often I can just add  the prefixes “по” or “с” to derive the perfect aspect:

  • просить -попросить, делать – сделать, желать – пожелать, петь – спеть

but then there is покупать – купить which I always confuse. Then there are many irregular verbs in the perfect aspect and often the Russians use two totally different verbs:

  • брать – взять, ловить – поймать, сказать – говорить

To remember that брать is incomplete I needed a ladder… My brother is not perfect. I do not have a brother and hence I am not offending anyone.

Well, I try hard to get these aspects under better control, and I hope that my Russian friends forgive me and understand nevertheless, what I am trying to say.

A Swiss in Petersburg – visiting some more museums

Yes, sooo many museums

So many museums in Petersburg, and so far I have only talked about three of them: The two “musts” which are the Ermitage and the Russian museum and then the enticing zoology museum – an eldorado for biology teachers and families on Vasiliyevsky Island. I visited three more museums that are not the main target of tourists: The Vodka Museum, the Museum of Communication and the Museum of Political History.

The Vodka Museum (Музей русской водки)

The Vodka Museum is a very Russian institution and it is only a ten minutes’ walk away from Raskolnikow’s house. It is close to the Admiralty. The Lonely Planet promises to me that “this private museum tells the story of Russia’s national tipple in an interesting and fun way from the first production of “bread wine” to the phenomen of the modern international wodka industry…”

Whether I want a vodka tasting, I am asked at the entrance, this would cost another 300 Rubles. I am not so sure, what a “vodka tasting” is… it must be somewhat different from a wine tasting, and I decide not to buy the tasting.

I follow the vitrines from how bread wine is brewed at home, then learn that the vodka we now know of has been invented in the middle of the 19th century (not such an old tradition) where they normed the alcohol content. Vodka became cult with small Vodka glasses (стопки) and pretty bottles.



The museum also documents, how government and social organizations tried to fight the alcohol problems and how vodka was present in the Sowjet times.

There is a vitrine where visitors can buy a t-shirt (футболка) with the Russian proverb “водка без пиво – бросишь денги на ветер” or “vodka without beer- you throw money into the wind” (Larissa, I hope I got this proverb right this time. When I heard it the first time, I got it all wrong, something like “beer without vodka, you through money out of the window”, and this must sound so strange to Russian ears that you and your friends laughed to tears at our rybalka (рыбалка) in Finland).

While I am smiling to myself about the t-shirt, a dynamic lady directs her way to the bar for the vodka tastings and shouts at the waitor: “we have no time, we have no time, where are the glasses and the snacks”. Then she shouts at her group of four men in English: “Come here, no time, no time, this is your vodka tasting… clink your glasses… no,no… all together in the middle… then exhalate, then drink the shot, then take a snack – and now again… no time, no time… clink your glasses, exhalate, drink, eat… come on, we have to leave, no time, no time…” And off they rush and it is quiet in this room.

Again I smile for myself: I am happy that I am not part of this group. The waitor had prepared very nice plates with snacks and would have deserved more attention. Vodka drinking needs more time, as I experienced last year with Juri on our bike tour and this year at the Rybalka with Larissa’s friends, enjoying the vodka with white-white bacon and some dark bread – and everyone accepted that I drank the vodka the Swiss way – sipping it – because I am Swiss and not Russian. I find that this white bacon and the vodka are a good match and the bacon reminds me of my father who prefered white-white bacon to the bacon with meat strips in it. Enjoying vodka somewhat less in a hurry makes a good time with friends.

Popov’s museum of communication (Музей связи Попова)

I am always astonished, how well the Russians succeed to hide away their excellent museums, and how inventive the potential visitors are in finding them… I knew the address of the museum of communication is in Potschamtsky pereulok 4 (Почтамтский переулок. I see number 6… then I stand at the end of this pereulok, I walk back to number 6, again to the end of this pereulok, again towards number 6… ah, what is this? I saw someone disappear behind this wooden door with the transparent signboards and the blue letters. Yes! This IS the Popov museum of communication, named after the inventor of the radio in Russia. Well, so far this has looked like another office building to me.


The museum starts with mail being delivered by coaches and sledges, and it ends with mobile communication. This must be an eldorado for teachers of physics, as there are many interactive hands-on experiments to understand electricity, the propagation of waves, telegraphy, radio (first samples, transistor radios etc), telephony (from old switching systems to mobile phones) … impressive also how communication  worked in the war and during the long blockade of Leningrad. A nice toy is the tube post: Grand-pa and his grand-son love to send the entrance ticket back and forth through the transparent tubes. I regret that I did not spend more time at school or later to study physics. Yes, Ernst, you are right, a few Latin lessons less and a few physics lessons more would have been useful.

Unfortunately, fotos are not allowed in this wonderful museum. I say hello to the civil communications satellite LUCH 15 in the large atrium and leave this wonderful place to tackle another Russian lesson.

The museum of political history (Музей политической истории России)

The museum of Russian politicial history is in the beautiful modern style Kshensinskaja palace not far from the Peter and Paul Fortress. My Lonely Planet tells me that Lenin gave speeches from the balcony of this palace. I agree with my guidebook – this museum is well curated and tells history from the Zars over the revolution, the Soviet times and the disintegration of the Soviet Union up to  Jelzin, proving an objective attitude. I read about the Zars, watch Lenin’s revolution, then follow Stalin, study the five year plans and the advertisement of a kolchos (proudly announcing that they have electricity and radio – with huge loud speakers), the second world war, then Chruschtschow with the thawing period, followed by Breschnew (the Russians called him the Eyebrow Carrier or Бровеносиц). The museum also shows, how the people lived in the kommunalkas (коммуналки) – here is a sample of a kitchen shared by several families.


Also the singers and poets have a place… I find my favorites, Boulat Okudjava and Vladimir Vissotsky. Whenever I am on one of those long long escalators to the metro, I have to think of Okudjava’s song: Stay on the right, walk on the left… this is like in real life (in Soviet times). And in the fitness center I think of Vissotsky: What a great thing is the morning sports, all are moving and no one stays behind.


On the top flloor, I find the late 80’s and the 90’s. I am impressed, how the collapse of the Soviet Union is illustrated. There are caricatures and samples of Western newspapers like the Spiegel or the Economist, describing the events with critical headlines such as “a man without a country” or Jelzin at the chasm (Abgrund). And I find the allusion to Ilja Repin’s Wolga trawlers: Союз нерушимый or the union that cannot be broken.






Back at the entrance, I buy a small brochure about the exhibition “the collapse of the USSR: historical inevitability or criminal conspiracy?” This is an excerpt of their analysis: “As long as the Communist Party which served as the ideological and politcal backbone of the Soviet Union, had absolute power, the nationalities problems were subdued and depressed… also by the use of force or threats to use it… In the context of glasnost and democratization initiated in 1985…, the accumulated controversies grew into open conflicts.” The brochure tells the events in August 1991 where the State Committee of the State of Emergency tried to save the Union, but were perceived as a coup d’etat by the democratic forces. The Communist party was then dissolved, and as these were the ties that cemented the Soviet Union, the Union also collapsed… this is the basic reasoning of this brochure.

I now take the metro to Sennaja Ploschtschadj, buy some cherries (черешню) and tackle my next Russian lesson, sharing the cherries with Tatjana.

A Swiss in Petersburg – sooo many museums

Petersburg has museums for everything, and most of them are well curated

The gems of all museums are the Ermitage and the Russian Museum. These are the first attractions for tourists. And there are many more museums – more hidden gems – like the zoological museum, the vodka museum, the museum of communication, the museum of political history, the railway museum, the museum of ethnology, and each poet from Puschkin over Dostojewsky to Achmatova has his/her museum – just to mention a few of them. Time did not suffice to visit them all. I did the Ermitage and the four exhibitions of the Russian museum, the zoological museum  and I also checked out the museums for vodka, communication and political history.

Today I plan to visit the Russian museum that is spread over four places. On Thursdays, the museum only opens at 1 PM, but for that it is open until 9PM. I plan on a long museum day starting with the central building.

The central Russian museum – in the Michailovsky palace

Enjoying the original Russian “standard ice cream” (it comes in a softish waffle), I wait in the Michailovsky garden on one of the artists’ banks (a special open exhibiton) until the Russian museum opens.


At the entrance I buy a ticket for all four museums. My first target are the Russian icons. I say hello to Boris and Gleb (yes, Ernst, I remember that you always recognized the two martyreds that are related to the origins of the orthodox religion in the Kiewer Rus – The Russians prefered Christianity to the religion that forbids alcohol). I also look for Andrey Rublow’s Peter and Paul and for the good mother that successfully defended Novgorod against Susdal. Here are my favorites  – it is great that taking fotos is allowed in this museum.




Then I  find some luxurios palace rooms and paintings of zars, nobles and battles as well as scenes from the Greek and Roman mythology… and my next target are the Peredwischniki that documented the social problems on mobile exhibitions in the the 19th century. Great, Ilja Repin’s Wolga trawlers area here  (they often travel).


This museum is a maze – I hardly find the exit. I go back home for my Russian lesson at 4 PM, and after the lesson, I walk back to the Newsky Prospekt to continue my marathon through all the palaces of the Russian museum.

The Stroganov Palace

The Stroganow Palace is located where the Newsky Prospekt crosses the Moika channel. I know that pink building. But, where is the entrance to the Russian museum? In the courtyard I ask. Again this very Russian experience – the official lady at the entrance to another museum does not know! I find someone who directs me to the Moika. But then I still  oscillate back and forth, until I decide that it must be this absolutely unostentatious wooden door at the corner. Yes, right! My ticket is valid and I enter a vast and luxurious palace. The first hall is “separated” by a mirror. The mirror doubles the lustres and the columns – in reality there are only half-lustres and half-columns.


A lady jumps at me – fotos forbidden in here. Well, the lustres are in my camera and remain there, but Stroganovs remaining rooms are no longer in my camera. This is a great palace, as is his boeuf Stroganov. I have shared this dish at many Christmas Eves with Ernst.

The Marble Palace

The next palace on my ticket for the four Russian  museums is the Marble Palace. It is in Millionaja Street, and I start to walk. And I walk and I walk – more than I expected – about half an hour. Eventually I enter a courtyard. No, what is this? Such an ugly monument? Quite a strong  man on quite a strong horse? Alexander III? Who died early and then Nicolas II , the last Zar, took over from his father?


In my Lonely Planet I read that Nikolaus wanted to send his father to Sibiria, as he did not like this monument. Rumors then emerged that he wanted to ban his father to Sibiria… and hence the monument remained in Piteri. The sculpturer said that the he is not interested in politics and just modeled one animal on another animal.  Larissa and Tamara told me this rhyme for this monument:

Стоит коммод / на коммоде – бегемот / на ъегемоте – оъормот /  на обормоте – шапка.

There is a commode / on the commode there is a hippo / on the hippo there is a fool/ on the fool there is a cap.

Elena made it all clear to me that she thinks Alexander was a good Zar – he did not fight big wars, but tried to bring order to the country and to develop it – his time was too short, she says, and bringing peace is not valued as being “great”. Well, I think he would have deserved a more handsome monument.

From one window in the palace  I hear music. There is a concert going on in the Lapislazulli room. A young man enthusiastically sings poems, accompanied by a fortepiano and a cello. This group has no name – they might just be students from the music acadamy that also Anna graduated from.


I walk through the luxury of this palace that also hosts exhibitions – the Ludwig museum of Cologne has displays. There is a temporary exhibition of Mihail Chemiakin, called “sidewalks of Paris“. The artist took photos of things thrown away in the streets of Paris and transformed the photos into drawings by adding colored lines with a pen that can be erased again (if I understand this right). There is also a hands-on room, where visitors can do their own drawings and erase them again, if they wish.  This is an interesting concept: Take, what you find in the street and add your phantasy to it.  I think that one of my favorite writers, Pascal Janovjak (son of a good friend of mine), would like this, as he is working at a literary project based on interviews with people in the streets of Rome.


Michailovsy castle

This is the fourth palace that belongs to the Russian museum. From the marble palace I have to walk past the Mars field and follow the first block of the Sadowaja street to find it. Yes, my ticket is valid, And, yet another palace that does not allow to take pictures. There is an exhibition of the Romanows that 400 centuries ago took over after the turmoils with the Polish and the false Dimitrij… until 1917 (almost a hundred years ago). I am always impressed by the portraits of Peter the Great… he was a leader with a vision and at the same time he was so cruel – he killed his son.


It is now 9 PM and the museums close. I walk back to my home and take a rest – my head is exploding from all the new impressions and my feet are tired-tired.

A Swiss in Petersburg – at the ballet Пламя Парижа or The Flame of Paris

 The French revolution illustrated with Russian classical ballet and music

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October revolution, a spectacle was needed that showed a collective hero, the people that are fighting the despot. This is why, based on the work of  Nikolaj Wolkow, Vladimir Dmitriew and Boris Acafew created this ballet “The Flame of Paris”. The story comes in three acts:

1. In a suburb of Marseille, Gaspar and his children, 18 year old Jeanne and 9 year old Jacques, pull a cart with firewood, lose a wheel, come across Marquis de Beauregard who throws over the cart and beats Gaspar, and receives then support from the revolutionary squad led by Philippe. Then there is a ball in the palace of Louis xvi – he signs an order to call the Prussians for support against the revolutionary uprisings. A couple, Mireille and Antoine, dance for the court, Antoine is shot, Mireille gets ahold of the signed order and carries it away.

2. In Paris the squads from various regions of France come together, see the order to call the Prussians, and storm the palace successfully.

3. The people celebrate the victory and the marriage of Philippe and Jeanne.

Getting ready at the Michailovsky Teatr

Larissa picks me up, and we soon find a parking slot directly in front of the Michailovsky Theatre. This theatre is a place full of atmosphere with red carpets, and the Russians dress up nicely for it. I enjoy this very much. We buy a program brochure and order a table and champaign for the entr’act to avoid the queue at the buffet. Larissa is well organized, as always. Our seats are in the parkett.

This ballet is a surprise for me

In the first act, the dancing in the palace is very long. In the pause, we share our glass of champaign and read about the background of the ballet. Larissa laughs. Look, when they played this ballet in the 30-ies, a man sat next to the director Nemirovitsch-Dantschenko. The man was in the theatre for the first time in his life and he asked  the director: “Why are they just running around, will they soon start to sing?” The director explained to him that this is a ballet and not an opera.” But now the choir started to sing, as planned in the ballet. The man kindly looked at the director and said:” Well, so – this also your first time in the theater…”

We go back to watch the second act, where the revolutionary troops capture the palace. And the third act, where the victory and the marriage are celebrated. The dancers show all their skills, spnning and spinning elegantly on their toes. jumping and then landing perfectly, Philippe carrying Joanne on his hands, while the music matches the dancing nicely. But I start to feel, it is almost too perfect and too virtuous dancing demonstrating all skills of the classical ballet. Why was the classical ballet brought to perfection used to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October revolution? Is such a ballet not a pre-revolution thing? Well, I agree  that Russia can really not be understood with rational thinking, as even the Russians say about themselves. Yes, Russia has its special character.

A Swiss in Petersburg – enjoying the hospitality at the datscha


The gate opens, and I am in a small paradise

On weekends, I am now a regular guest at the small and cosy datscha of Larissa, tucked away in the forest. The garden is taken care of by mum. There are hydrangea and lillies, and there are herbs, salad, red currant, black currant, strawberries, cucumbers and more.  A great Karma to own this paradise, and this is also the name of the cat.


This village is also a skiing resort

Larissa loves skiing, and many of her friends are alpine skiers (горнолыжники). Skiing here, where I can see no mountains? I can hardly believe this. But Larissa’s favorite photo shows her as an excellent carver. It must have been possible to acquire these skills here somewhere. And, true, there is a valley nearby with ski lifts that are open until May. Alexander has founded the golden valley  and managed it for many years. Now his daughter has taken over.



Cosy evenings with excellent Russian food 

Larissa and her mum make sure that I can enjoy all the specialties that Russian cooking offers, be it сырники (hot cheese), пироги (pies with blueberries or mushrooms), marinated  mushrooms, вареники (dumplings with blueberries) and more. I particularly liked the blueberry dumplings, and on my plate there was one without blueberries… “this will bring you luck”, Larissa says. This empty вареника is called  пустышка (it is “empty” or пустая). Later I hear that sometimes there was not enough filling for all the dumplings, and this is why the Russians invented the empty dumplings that bring luck –  a nice idea!

One evening, Larissa prepared a lovely шашлик (Schaschlik) barbecued in the garden, while it was pouring with rain. With this Schaschlik, we shared a tasty, dense Zinfandel from California (The Prisoner 2011) that reminded me of dried plums. A Russian-American marriage that I enjoyed much.


Стихи or poems, a Russian tradition

One evening, Larissa and her mum surprise me with Russian poems. I am just always surprised, how many poems Russians can cite by heart, without having to stop and think. I already admired my Russian teacher and friend Anna that had grown up in former Leningrad, when she shared poems with friends at her parties. And here the same, Larissa and her mum do not stop… this is a short example – it is more a fun poem, but there were many, many longer poems starting with Puschkin and ending with modern poetists.

чижик пыжик
где ты был
на фонтанке вод(к)у пил
выпил рюмку, выпил две
закружилось в голове.
Fluffy siskin (in German: Zeisig)
where have you been.
At the Fontanka you drank water (or wodka),
you drank one glass, you drank two,
everything now turns in your head.
(This siskin is actually a tiny statue that brings luck to those that throw a coin at it).
Yes, thank you, Larissa and Tamara, for your hospitality, and I hope that I can soon give back this hospitality in Switzerland.

A Swiss in Petersburg: To Peterhof or Петергов

The meteor flies under dark clouds

Just in front of the Ермитаж or Ermitage the meteor boats leave to take tourists to Peterhof within half an hour. I find a seat next to a young mum with her about 7 year old son who says that he is hungry. The mum unpacks apples and bananas for him. Very reasonable. He takes his mobile phone and makes a picture of a helicopter. “What do you need this helicopter for”, she asks in a friendly tone, “it will look like a small bee on your photo”, and she supports him to use the zoom to make it look like a small bird at least. “Oh, look at that black cloud, and we have no umbrella,” she sighs. Yes THAT cloud north of Piteri is very black. And as we arrive at Peterhof, it rains heavily and there is a strong wind. The tourists fight their way from the peer to the park and join the visitors there that have already bought a plastic coat or an umbrella at one of the kiosks.


A longlong queue or очередь to the castle (museum)

As it is pouring with rain, I immediately head to the castle to be inside. I wanted to see the castle’s luxury this time; eleven years ago, I happened to visit Peterhof with Ernst on the санитарный день or sanitary day. This is a Russian institution. Once per month, each museum is closed for cleaning (as I understand this with my Swiss background) and this one day is different for each museum. Well, the museum sells tickets until two pm, now it is shortly before one pm, and the length of the queue is at least one hour. Be the castle open or not, visiting it needs more planning or the courage of Elena who just goes in and says that she has missed her group or has to buy a ticket for the group she is to guide through the museum. Here is about half the queue…


Strolling through the wonderful нижний парк or lower park

No, the museum is nothing for me. There are also caves to visit, but they sell 800 tickets per day and the queue is about that long… Hence I decide to just stroll through this wonderful park that Peter the Great has conceived and, in some parts, even engineered himself.  The great fountain with the golden statues, Adam and Eva, the fish pond, the fun fountains jumping up unexpectedly for the joy of children and the sore of their parents, the little Montbijou Palace at the sea shore which somehow reminds me of Sanssouci in Potsdam… and so forth – this is one of the most beautiful parks I know, and I just miss Ernst, as he has enjoyed this gem so much with me eleven years ago. In the small restaurant Бель Вю or Belle Vue I eat an уху or fishsoup. and around five pm I head for the peer to take he meteor back to Piteri.


Back to Piter on the windy sea and Newa

At the peer I join a long queue of tourists who are freezing under the cold wind. The meteor only approaches the peer quickly, fighting against the waves, to load the passengers all at once and then head off back to the Ermitage on a bumpy journey. I walk back along busy Newsky Prospekt (where I get some Nespresso capsulas for Elena’s coffee machine) and then along Griboedova to the house that is my home for four weeks. Elena and I chat until midnight – the white nights make us forget the time.

A Swiss in Petersburg: Spending a great Sunday in the Datscha


Arriving at the datscha at sunset (and at midnight)

We leave Petersburg after the opera performance of the Flying Dutchman, at 10:30 PM. The sky is still bright and the sun shines. First we drive north on the large road to Finland, then we turn towards Ladozhskoje Ozero. The streets are now narrower, then bumpy, and at midnight Larissa’s mother welcomes us in the Datscha nicely tucked away close to the forest. The sun is slowly setting and we share some strawberries from the forest nearby (земляника) and from the garden (глубника).

Into the woods looking for berries and mushrooms

On Sunday I join the Russian tradition to stroll through the woods and look for berries and mushrooms. Larissa explains the difference between “look for” (искать) and collect (собирать) mushrooms (грибы). While I find just two red mushrooms (красный гриб), Larissa and her mum find about 10 red mushrooms, 10 chanterelles (лисичка) and 2 сыроежка (Russula in English or Täubling in German). We had to look for the mushrooms, we could not just harvest or collect them.

On the way we also eat and collect strawberries and blueberries. The fluffy dog Raily loves blueberries and chews them away from the bushes.

Our menus: Beljaschi or Ъеляши and a risotto

For lunch Larissa’s mother prepares Beljaschi. This is beef and lamb meet packed into little sacks made from white paste, and they taste great. Larissa prepares a fresh limonade with lemon and ginger. The Wodka is spiced with juniper berries – I will have to remember this.

In the evening we have a risotto spiced with the mushrooms we found today. A white wine from Tuscany accompanied the meal (La Pioggia). A salad caprese is the entry and strawberries from the forest are our dessert.

I learn that in Russia the mushrooms are first cooked in boiling water. This is what I watch Larissa’s mum do and this is what Elena confirms, when I was back in town. Only the сыроежка is not cooked in water, and this is where the name comes from (eat them raw).

The village is also a skiing resort

The village is a skiing resort; Larissa says that here you ski on hills rather than mountains. But the hill looks nice, there are several ski lifts and several ski resorts here.  The lifts start at 9 AM, when it is still dark  in winter; the sun  rises around 10 AM. Well, we are quite far north here.

A Swiss in Petersburg: Looking for a hidden bookshop

image image

Златоуст – Slatoust: A governmental institute for the Russian language

Every day I take lessons with Tatjana. She works me through Russian grammar: Gerundium, participle, difficulties of Russian verbs etc.

Today I decided to buy more grammar books, some of them Tatjana has written herself. I take the metro to Gorskaja, and I stroll down Kammennoostroveskij prospekt to find the address 24/24. It is easy to locate the house 24.

Through the подъезд (passage) I enter a messy courtyard surrounded by several buildings, some under reconstruction. There is only one office with a business sign to the right. I go in and ask the direction to Slatoust. “We do not know,” a lady tells me angrily, not looking at me.

What now? There is another door to a building wrapped up in blue metal. Obviously a serious ремонт (reconstruction) going on here. Eventually I notice a very small piece of paper in a plastic bag hanging on the blue metal wall, with Slatoust on it. I follow the arrow, find a hidden door and behind it there is an office with book shelves. Here it is. Why did the neighbor just across in the same courtyard not know?

Slatoust has a wonderful selection of books that support learning Russian. With a heavy plastic bag I leave this friendly place to return to the Graschdanskaja and continue with my studies.

A Swiss speaking Russian in Petersburg – Швейцарка говорящая по-русски в Питере

Дом Расколника or the House of Raskolnikow

As I leave the house that is my home for 4 weeks, I see a large group of tourists around the small monument of Dostojewsky at the edge of Graschdanskaja Uliza. Raskolnikow, one of the heroes of Dostojewsky, lived under the roof in “my” house, and a guide explains the story standing in front of a plate with the number “4”. As she waits for the next group, I ask her in Russian, what this is about. She is confused, aswers in English, hands out a flyer to me that shows all the posts that tourist groups are looking for today and turns to the next group. There seems to be a special Dostojewsky day,  but neither his birthday nor his day of death. I also heard that the code to enter “my” house had been published in tourists’ guidebooks and the house switched to an electronic contact system later.


Они все читают карты, я зто делать не умею – they all read maps, I cannot do that

Now at Sennaja Ploschtschadj, I am looking for the metro line that would take me to Ploschtschadj Alexandrogo Newskogo. I intend to visit the convent that Peter the Great built for this hero of the 13th century who conquered Karelia for the Republic of Novgorod (which in the 15th century became part of Russia).  I hear a voice say in Russian that they all read maps here and that she cannot do that. It is the woman selling ice cream. I answer that reading maps is not so difficult She opens her eyes wide: Do you speak Russian? Oh, I am sorry… where are you from?…

Вы Русская? Вы проваславная? Ну, входите! – Are you Russian? Are you Orthodox? Well, enter!

At the gate to the Newskij Monastyr or Convent, tourists now have to pay an entrance fee. I approach the cashier and ask: Сколько стоит (how much does it cost)? He looks at me and asks, whether I am Russian. No,  I answer, я просто  Швейцарка говорящая по-русски (I am just a Swiss speaking Russian). He asks me: Вы праваславная (are you orthodox)? No, I am not, I answer to him. He looks at me… and says: Ну, входите (well, enter). So I enter this convent without paying, as the Russians do, and, in the church, I light a candle, before visiting the cemetaries.


Tam – вам – фото or there –  you – foto

My next stop is the Kusnetschij Rynok, a nice fruit, vegetable, meat and fish market. Between cherries and abricots, there is a young chap selling his fruit. He approaches me in some sort of pigeon Russian: “There – you – foto”. I do not understand him. He repeats his words. “You can speak normally”, I respond in Russian.  Now he explains clearly that he wants to take a foto of me with his cherries… and for the foto, I also buy some cherries from him.


Дом Быта – Dom Beat

To round off the afternoon, I try the Dom Beat. The waitor serves a tasty Cappuccino with cinnamon. I look for Anna that I had met in the plane. She has her free day and is not there. The charming manager already knows and Anna. We arrange to meet next week.

Летучий Голландец or the Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner

Larrissa has acquired tickets for the Flying Dutchman in the Michailovskij Teatr. A great setting for this tragic opera. The actors sing in German, and I follow the Russian subtitles to better understand the German words. Young artists, a young stage director and a young conductor have set up this opera with a lot of creativity, placing it into our times with rolling suit cases and mobile phones. The singers were excellent, especially the flying Dutchman and Senta, his angel who saved him.

Why do they call the Flying Dutchman “летучий”and not “летающий”? Tatjana explains to me that it is a characteristic of the Dutchman that he flies – he permanently flies (letutschij) and he does not just happen to fly right now (letajuschij). Well, Russian has a lot of nuances, and I know, I still have to learn a lot.

На дачу or to the Datscha

After the opera, Larissa takes me to her Datscha north of Petersburg. Another Russian experience ahead of me.