Russia’s political history

Our second day in Moscow was full of cultural museums. We hopped on the metro (practically a tourist attraction itself) and went to the new Gulag Museum.

Nestled in a quiet neighborhood a few miles from city center, the Gulag Museum documents the lives of Russians who had the ill luck to be on the wrong side of Stalin’s regime. Labor camps began around 1920 as a way to punish monarchists, White Army sympathizers, and anyone not interested in the Bolsheviks in power. The first was housed in a monastery in the northwestern part of Russia, near the sea. At first it was all very hush-hush, and then Stalin took power.

Today Russians are pretty evenly split on their opinions on Stalin—about 46% think he was a sadistic, evil man while about the same number think he was a good leader, albeit flawed. I personally think that if WWII (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War) hadn’t happened during Stalin, people would have a much more unified, negative opinion of him. To many he’s the man who protected the Motherland and beat the Nazis.

Interesting story: not only were Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany allies in the 30s, but Stalin and Hitler were friends (at least, Stalin thought so). When the call came, telling Stalin that the Nazis had invaded and attacked without a declaration of war, he felt so betrayed that he locked himself up in a rural retreat for three days, grieving, until his advisors pulled him out and said he had to address the people and get the counter-attack moving.

In the 30s, under Stalin, the Soviet government became more paranoid, always worried about “enemies of the state” and “foreign influence.” Government agents routinely stalked civilians, then approached them for “questioning.” Once the person was taken in the black car, they didn’t come back.

“My mother went white with shock,” a survivor recounted on a video. “She said, ‘she must have her coat!’ and the agents said, ‘that is not necessary, we are just going to talk and she will be back tonight.’ Well, was I grateful to my mother for the fur coat! During the winter I would tuck my hands and feet inside the coat, and that’s how I stayed alive for the years I was in the gulag.”


We saw different doors used, heard recordings of the common sounds in a gulag, and saw old guard uniforms displayed. The most interesting parts, I think, were the survivors’ accounts streaming on tv screens throughout the museum.

Soviet prisoners would interrogate the suspects for hours or even days at a time. While they were held in cold, concrete prison cells, police would ransack their apartment to find proof they were American spies or disloyal to the party. One teenager had his poems used against him.

A woman said that during her sessions the interrogator would pause to use a phone, calling hospitals and clinics and doctors’ houses to search for penicillin. “My son is sick, he’ll die without the medicine,” he’d demand.

“Let the boy die, oh please, let the boy die,” she wished silently, sometimes bruised and bloody.

Finally, after days of interrogations (and sometimes torture), the guards would shove a piece of paper at them. “Sign this. It says you’re guilty of being disloyal to the party.”

One woman stood in complete shock, throwing the papers in the interrogator’s face. “I won’t sign it! I won’t! I’m not disloyal!” She said later that it hadn’t been on principle, but just in shock.”

Most were sentenced to 20 years of “corrective hard labor” and shipped far away. Russia opened mines, lumber companies, and railroad lines in far, remote corners of the country and forced millions of innocent people to work 13, 14 hours a day with little food. Often camps were over-populated and people had to share their twin beds with another prisoner. Shock therapy was used as a punishment, and mining was probably the worst labor camps. A few of the mines were in search of uranium, so of course their workers died frequently.


As word of the gulags got out to the general public, the government released marketing in support of the camps, claiming it was a cost-effective way to pull the country into modernity. They showed photos of people working while smiling, of promises of extra rations for hard work, and how much money the government was saving. These newssheets also were distributed in the gulags—a nice bit of gaslighting on top of the cruel and inhumane conditions.

Stalin died in 1953, and thousands, perhaps millions, of people silently rejoiced even while their neighbors cried in sadness. The very next day some villages tore down their Stalin statues and some of the gulags opened the gates, the guards allowing the people to walk free. Over the next three years changes in the Soviet government reformed the system, creating more oversight and less harsh punishments.

Unfortunately, not all gulags closed. The last closed in the early 80s. The end of the museum was dedicated to the writers and artists that had been imprisoned. Poetry and moving passages from their books were displayed on the wall and the books sat on a nearby table.

“They always go after the intelligentsia, don’t they?” Jordan asked as we left the building. “Undesirables and tiny ethnic minorities, then the educated.”

“Yeah, it seems so.” We reflected on the different museums we’ve visited. “If you kill the intelligentsia, there are no professors warning the people about what’s going to happen next. No doctors to tell you how inhumane conditions are. No judges or lawyers to tell you how illegal something is. No religious scholars to tell you how unethical the regime is.” It’s what they did in Soviet Russia, Pinochet’s Chile, Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, Eastern Europe and Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Mao’s China.

Jordan looked at me. “Where to next? Something more cheerful, right?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “Pogroms come next.”


“We’re off to the Jewish Heritage and Cultural Center.”

“Pogroms?” Jordan cocked his head.

“Think Fiddler on the Roof.

“This isn’t going to be a happy day, is it?” Jordan pulled out the map and we started walking.

“Probably not,” I agreed.

It ended up being a bit happier than we expected—mainly because the Jewish Center’s exhibits were so well done. It definitely ranks up in the Top Five Museums we’ve been to.

After an 8-minute 4D movie on the beginnings of Judaism and Jewish culture, we wandered through exhibits beginning with and overview of the Jewish Diaspora and timeline—this was so helpful for me. I’d heard the terms Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, but was never quite sure what they meant. Primarily, they’re geographic terms. The Sephardic immigrated to Spain (and got hit with Ferdinand and Isabel’s Inquisition in the 15th century), the Ashkenazim immigrated to Eastern Europe, though mostly Poland. We even discovered a tiny sect of Jews in China! The museum mostly centered around the Ashkenazim.

As Jews moved across Europe to the west, Europe responded with strong anti-Semiticism. Many retreated back to Poland and surrounding countries, where they were more-or-less accepted into society in the 13th century. However, after the War of 1812 against Napoleon, Emperor Alexander I of Russia took control of the majority of modern-day Poland. Suddenly Russia had a pretty sizable Jewish population it didn’t know what to do with. Although the Ashkenazim had been considered more of a religious group rather than an ethnic group, that changed under Russia. They mostly tried to live as they always had, slightly separate on religious terms, but still involved in village business (towns with sizeable Jewish populations were called shetls, in a region the empire restricted Jews to, called “Pale of the Settlement”). However, laws were passed limiting their right to travel, abolishing their right to go to university, and more. Every so often a pogrom rolled through town. Soldiers encouraged anti-Jewish riots that usually ended with the destruction of Jewish property and the death of Jewish men. Restrictions grew tighter, and then suddenly Jewish boys were drafted into the military alongside Russian boys. In the later half of the 19th century there were all-Jewish platoons, Jewish military social groups, and more as the Jews struggled to retain their heritage while appeasing the ever-demanding empire.

By the turn of the 20th century Russia was spiraling downward. After WWI, which ravaged the Jewish homeland, anti-Semeticism exploded. Jewish reaction was varied—the older generation said that they had to keep their lifestyle, keep their heritage, and ignore the looting and burning (think Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof). The young villagers were tired of being poor, being looked-down on, and just wanted to make a living. A few looked to large cities, like Kiev (think Motel the tailor). And a few young people were revolutionaries, ready to bring political change across the empire, ready to protest and demand the right to attend university as full-fledged Russians (think Perchik). With much of Russia in an economic downturn after WWI, Russians were ready to blame anyone they could—anyone that appeared “other” and therefore suspect. Pogroms erupted again, more deadly than ever. With entire villages pushed out of their homes, a few emigrated west to Germany or Hungary, looking for land. The lucky emigrated to America.


When the Bolsheviks took power, Lenin expressly invited the Jews to join their cause, while the White monarchists tended to favor anti-Semeticism. Eventually, Jews that hadn’t left joined the Socialist cause. It didn’t really protect them, and in 1938 the Nazis attacked Poland.

From there the museum widened it’s scope, showing the Great Patriotic War from a general Russian history view, not just the Jewish angle (we were quite grateful, as we had little frame of reference for special angles of history).

We worked with a Russian girl in Argentina, and she had explained to us that WWII is as just a big deal to Russians as it is to Americans, perhaps more so. “Plenty of Russians are still angry with Germany,” she told us. “It’s a deep, deep scar.”

And as we watched old newsreels, warning citizens of air raids and sieges and how not to freeze through winter, we understood.  massive amounts of Jews were murdered, their bodies thrown into rivers, or they were made to dig their own mass grave, crawl down into it, and wait for a bullet to the skull. And then there was the Siege of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), one of the bloodiest sieges in all of the war. The battle was waged for months house to house, street to street, while civilians ducked and tried to avoid tank shells. Few survived.

“The snow was red that winter,” a Russian veteran recounted.

“We had no heat. We had no food. We melted snow, and that’s how we stayed alive,” another survivor remembered. “I remember a little girl, my age, coming up to me one morning and saying, ‘I have good news!’ And I said, ‘what is it?’ and she said, ‘My mother died last night!’ And I remember staring at her saying, ‘that’s good news?’ ‘Yes,’ she told me. ‘Now I have double the bread rations.’” The man shook his head. “That’s how warped our minds became.”

Through sheer determination and massive amounts of civilian manpower, the Russians pushed against the Nazis and took back their Motherland. It was a fight for their very survival, in ways that it wasn’t for the U.S. or even England, and the memory runs deep, perhaps even deeper than Americans’ collective memories.

After the war, during Soviet Russia, Jews were finally allowed to be true citizens. All racial restrictions were lifted off them, but it came at a high price—Judaism, the Torah, and synagogues were all outlawed. A few Bible stories were preserved by being recounted as fables in books printed by rabbis and Christian priests together.

And today, while the Jews have retained their rights they received in the Soviet era, there is still some anti-Semeticism they must deal with.


Jordan and I left the museum impressed with the sheer size and cutting edge exhibits. Videos played flawlessly, recording of folk music played whenever we walked past, and there were lots of interactive displays showing original 19th-century newspaper articles and government decrees. We highly recommend a visit to this museum.

Jordan and I had one last stop to make—the Novodevichy Convent. Hopping back on the metro, we crossed under the river and went south. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the massive clock tower chimed five o’clock, right when the museums closed. The complex is still a working convent, founded in 1524 by a Grand Prince of Moscow to celebrate taking Smolensk from Lithuania. According to the Lonely Plant guide, “From early on, the ‘New Maidens’ Convent’ was a place for women from noble families to retire—some more willingly than others.”


Our time in Russia was over, and we had to catch a plane that night. Russia was amazing, beautiful, complex, and enigmatic as we expected it to be.

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Kremlin Red

Day one in Moscow!

Jordan and I had heard that the Red Square and/or the Kremlin might be closed over the weekend for an event, so we hurried down to the Kremlin to spend the day.


It snowed pretty much all day long, dusting the Alexander Gardens in a fine white layer. The Kremlin walls rose behind, the towers shooting into the sky. Moscow was founded a little before 1147 by a Slavic prince who’s ancestors came from modern-day Ukraine (it seems most Russians are Slavs originating from modern-day Eastern Europe). “Kremlin” is basically an ancient Russian word that means “fortress.” As the Slavs moved into modern-day Russia, pushing the natives, Finn-Ugric tribes, further east to the Ural mountain range, they built the fortress, or Kremlin. At first it was probably just earthen walls. After the Mongols (think Chenggis Khaan’s great-grandsons of the Golden Horde), the walls were rebuilt out of oak. In 1366-68 the wooden walls became limestone, and later in 1485-95 red brick resurfaced the walls. Although the Kremlin walls have seen far more exciting history since then, the walls at least retain their red brick appearance today.


Although guidebooks typically say that tickets for the Armoury is a bit complicated and time slots must be strictly followed, we had no problems. I assume it’s because it was winter and not many tourists were around.

Inside the Armoury, which we couldn’t take photos in, we saw Faberge eggs (famously given by Romanovs to one another on Easter), Ivan the III’s helmet from the 13th century, a famous double-seated throne for Peter the Great (at age 10) and his older, sickly brother (Ivan, age 16). Ridiculously ornate carriages filled one room, and we gaped at the empresses’ wedding gowns.

“Look at that waist! I can fit both hands around that!” Jordan pointed to a lovely silver-and-ivory gown with long sleeves, long train, and impossibly thin middle. “I could fit one hand around it!”

“Well, she looks petite,” I reasoned, trying to measure the woman’s shoulder with based on the size of the dress. I glanced down. “Ah, it’s Catherine the Great’s wedding dress. She was 16. A few years later she murdered her husband and had passionate love affairs while educating Russians about poetry and theater.” (There’s not a lot of proof that she actually had her husband assassinated, but it was a wild rumor at the time).


Once finished with the Armoury (which was definitely the highlight of the Kremlin complex for us), we strolled back outside and marveled at the Kremlin Palace building. Do the way were all the famous, fabulous churches.


The Dormition Cathedral, technically founded in 1326, wasn’t constructed until 1472. Russian architects weren’t that great at the time, and the domed cathedral collapsed. Italian architects came in and finished in in 1479. It was here that the first of the Romanov dynasty was crowned in 1613, and the last emperor, Nicholas II, in 1896.

Inside, amid the beautiful frescos and mosaics, lie metropolitans, heads of Russian Orthodoxy, and their relics.


Nestled right beside the Dormition Cathedral is a much smaller, more intimate affair: the Deposition of the Robe of the Holy Virgin chapel. All of these churches are now museums (thanks to Soviet Russia), and this one houses lovely ancient wooden sculptures and carvings. All saints and historical figures are depicted in traditional Russian dress and hats. This church was founded in 1451 as celebration of deliverance against the Tatar invasion of Moscow (ironically, perhaps, Russia later invaded their lands, and now Tatars are the largest ethnic minority in the Russian Federation).


The Archangel Cathedral, unfortunately, was closed. I’ve been told it’s the most spectacular of them all.


The Annunciation Cathedral, founded in 1484, was one of Moscow’s (and Russia’s) crowning achievements at the time. While the largest of the cathedrals in the square were used for official court ceremonies, this was used for family ceremonies.


Jordan didn’t see the “NO PHOTOS” sign and snapped a couple.


This iconostasis was painted in the 1560s. Almost all frescos and images are from the 1560s or earlier.


Ivan the Great Belltower is the tallest of structures in the Kremlin complex; unfortunately it’s been closed for the past few years and we couldn’t go inside. It has 22 bells, and I wished I’d been there to hear it go off!


Cast in bronze in 1586, the tsar cannon was built as a monument to Russian military, and “tsar” doesn’t refer to a specific monarch, but probably the size of the cannon. Jordan thought it was pretty cool.


Across the Senate Square sits a current government building–I think it’s their senate, but I’m not sure.


After thoroughly stomping around the Kremlin complex, we left out of the Spasskaya Gate. Built in 1491, it overlooks the Red Square. It was once the main entrance to the Kremlin, and anyone who walked through had to dismount and remove their hat. That ended in Soviet days.


And on the other side was the bustling Red Square, with St. Basil’s Cathedral at one end and the State Historical Museum at the other! The cobblestones sloped across the square, worn from hundreds of years of use. When it was first built, the Red Square was the marketplace for Moscow. Today it’s still a cultural and social center. In fact, when we walked out Christmas fair music hit us as people hurried to and fro, heading for the GUM department store.


I laughed and laughed, just so pleased to be surprised by a children’s Christmas fair set up in the Red Square. Inside the fence was a little ice skating rink, a stage for folk music, and a couple of little rides. On the other side of the square GUM glowed with Christmas lights and holiday bustle.


We strolled around the interior of GUM (Russian for Main Department Store) just oohing and awwing at all the Christmas decor._mg_3152

Outside, at St. Basil’s, is a statue commemorating Minin and Pozharsky. Russia had been a collection of city-states, more or less, until Ivan the Great (also Ivan III) united all of the Rus under his rule, Moscow as the capital, in 1502 after driving the Golden Horde back east, across the Ural mountains. Unfortunately, after his descendant, Ivan IV (also known as Ivan the Terrible) died without heir, it sent Russia into it’s Time of Troubles with petty bickering among nobility. The Polish, never one to miss an opportunity, swooped in and seized Moscow and most of Russia. Prince Pozharsky (hailing from the city of Novgorod) and Kuzma Minin (a butcher) created an all-volunteer army to oust the Polish in 1612. Lauded as heroes, churches and statues were built in their honor.


The Kazan Cathedral, also on the Red Square, was consecrated in 1625 in honor of the prince and the butcher taking back Russia’s independence.


And in the middle of the square is Lenin’s mausoleum. As far as Soviet architecture goes, I thought it looked pretty nice. Many Russians today think it’s a bit weird to have an embalmed man inside a shrine in the Red Square. Lenin would think it pretty weird, too. He wanted to be buried next to his mother, not have a steady stream of tourists and patriotic Russians gawk at him every morning from 10 am to 2 pm. Stalin, not nearly as liked as his predecessor, is buried in the Kremlin wall with other Communist leaders.


The Moscow Historical Museum is a lovely piece of architecture with some great exhibits–provided you speak Russian or already know a lot about Russian history. We were kind of flying blind in there, but the building was amazing.


I particularly enjoyed the domed ceiling with all the Russian tsars and spouses painted on the ceiling. Pretty cool, right? Find Peter the Great–he’s the tall one wearing European clothes and a mustache.


We ended our long walking day by passing by the Bolshoi theater. I would’ve loved to get ballet tickets, but that was a bit out of our price range. Opened in 1825, it’s one of the most famous theaters in all of Europe. Ballet was created and perfected in the theater. Although Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake premiered in the Mariinsky theater of St. Petersburg, they quickly found homes here.

After over 10 miles of walking, our feet hurt and we decided to call it a day. After walking past a few more glistening Christmas decorations in the shopping district, we went back to our hostel, pulled off our snow boots, and crashed in bed.





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Saint Petersburg (aka, More Lovely Buildings)

I’m still not over the beautiful buildings. Get used to it, because I’m going to be referencing them a lot. Sorry.


Saint Petersburg is known for being a city of canals and bridges. The reason, as I’ve previously mentioned, is because this area near the Baltic Sea was originally marshland and swamp in the 1600s. Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg in 1703 (you can tell by the name how humble of a guy he was). Boisterous, six-and-a-half feet tall, colorful, which a penchant for “oddities” and all things European, Peter became king of Russia when his older brother died in 1682. Peter was obsessed with Europe and the grand enlightenment age. He returned to Russia with new ideas, such as building beautiful baroque buildings, shaving off beards, wear trousers instead of tunics, create a navy, and create a culture of art and music that could rival even Vienna.

Unfortunately for him, Sweden had control of the Baltic Sea. Thus, the Great Northern War began and didn’t end for 21 years until Peter had wrested control of the land and Neva River and sea into Russian control.

During the war, the Peter and Paul fortress was built.


Formerly a Swedish settlement on a small island, Peter turned the outpost into a military garrison and then eventually the cornerstone for his grand European city in 1703.

Unfortunately for Russian aristocracy, they weren’t excited about shedding their robes and beards. They especially weren’t excited about being forced to move up north and pay to cart all the stone from Moscow to the new city. Even worse, however, was the Swedish prisoners, Russian peasants, and any other criminals. Around 100,000 laborers died building his magnificent city due to harsh conditions and malnutrition.


Today, the fortress houses multiples museums, former prison, and a cathedral.


Inside the cathedral, all of Russia’s monarchs after Peter the Great are buried there, as well as a few stray cousins of the ruling Romanovs.


Near the iconostatis are the graves of Peter the Great and his wife.


Nearby, in the back, Nicholas II and his family were buried in 1998. After most of the family’s bodies were discovered in the 1970s, they were hidden by the Soviet regime. However, in 1998 a grand state funeral was given, and the relatives of the family attended._mg_2932

On our way out of the fortress we admired the cityscape.


The Admiralty building, built in the early 19th century, overlooks the Alexander Gardens. It is still the head of the Russian navy.


Just across the street is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in the city. Turned into a museum after the Soviets took over, today tourists can go to the top of the tower and overlook the city.


We weren’t able to go in because of the time we stopped by, but we enjoyed the view.


We strolled along the canals and came across the Stroganov Palace, near one of the main streets in town. It was here that a chef prepared a beef, potatoes, and gravy dish that was a huge hit and became known as as Beef Stroganoff.


Our last stop at the end of the day was the Kazan Cathedral. Its style is neoclassical, very different than the rest of the cathedrals we’d seen so far in Russia.


And they’re setting up the Christmas tree! We were so happy to see it take shape. The cathedral was built from 1801-1811, just in time for the War of 1812 against Napoleon. Portraits of many war generals were displayed on the walls. Designed in part after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, it was closed by the Soviets and reopened as a museum to “Religion and Atheism.” We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so we just strolled around and looked at the icons.


After that, we had to grab our bags and jump on our last train headed to Moscow.


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Venice of the North

After a somewhat grueling 36-hour journey in 3rd class train car, we arrived in Saint Petersburg.

And oh, what an amazing place it is!


Seriously, that was my face all through our two days there. I just swooned over the buildings, the architecture, the art, the colors, the European-ness of it all. Mongolia doesn’t really have architecture–and that’s okay, because buildings and cities aren’t why anyone visits. We didn’t stay long enough in Beijing to form an impression (beyond “the Forbidden City is huge“). And Korean architecture is…well…lacking. Their temples (and buildings in Seoul) are lovely and ornate and interesting and colorful. But everything else is boxy, flat, and fully functional. I honestly got very tired of walking around Korean cities because nothing pleased my Western-conditioned aesthetics.

But Saint Petersburg! I don’t think I blinked once, so intent was I to see the mansions and gilded gates and Orthodox cathedrals. Jordan and I walked 10 miles the first day we were there because we didn’t want to take the metro and miss out on seeing beautiful buildings.


For anyone interested in seeing how Cyrillic looks:


Guess what coffee chain that is!


Saint Petersburg, founded in 1703, is built on marshland. To combat the sinking earth, architects and reluctant nobility formed canals that cut through the city. A few have been filled in, but even today the city is famous for its bridges and canals. In the summer tourists usually take a canal tour to see the mansions lining the water. Most of the canals when we visited were already frozen over, but we still enjoyed the beautiful sights.

Our first stop was to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.


It cost quite a few rubles to get in (300, I think per person?), and we hemmed and hawed, not wanting to pay the cost. Jordan decided we should just do it, and we paid the money and walked in.


And this is what we saw!


The church is now a museum (hence the cost to get in) and dress code and hats aren’t enforced. This Russian Orthodox church was built on the grounds where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. He came to power in 1855 and rolled out massive reforms across the entire country. Most of them were (in our modern, democratic opinions) excellent. He abolished serfdom and made education for the poor easier to attain. Although he made dubious decisions in his personal life (like his mistress), he showed a real passion for helping orphans throughout the country. He was killed by radical liberals who wanted a democratic parliament to check his power.

After Alexander II died from the terrorist attack, his heir, Alexander III decided to build a church in his honor–specifically in the “Russian style,” as he thought St. Petersburg had too much of a Western influence already. Unfortunately, Alexander III also erased many of his father’s reforms and doubled-down on anti-Semitic oppression._mg_2540

The Soviets closed the church in 1932, and it was further damaged in the Siege of Leningrad and WWII (we saw a few scars across the building, despite it being recently renovated). In 1996 the church opened again, and underwent massive renovations and reconstructions.

After reveling in the gold and beautiful colors, we walked on to the Hermitage.  One of the largest art museums in the world, the Hermitage is considered to be founded in 1764, when Empress Catherine the Great acquired many of the paintings now on exhibit. The complex is made up of five main buildings–the Winter Palace being the most iconic. Other branches of the museums are in other aristocratic homes across the city. They have so many artifacts that one of their storage facilities has been opened for touring. I’ve never been to the Louvre, but surely this rivals that museum.


We went down a side street and came to the formal entry-way to the Winter Palace, where the Romanovs used to live. The yellow arch is a part of the General Staff building, where Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings are displayed. During imperial Russia (pre-1918), ministries of the government had their offices there.


And once passing through the arch, we came onto the palace square, complete with the Alexander Column. Raised in triumph after winning against Napoleon (their “War of 1812”), it is named after Emperor Alexander I, who led Russia during the war.


The focus point, of course, was the Winter Palace. From 1737 to 1917 it was the official residence of the Romanovs, the Russian tsars. The last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II and Alexandra, had their primary residence away, at a summer retreat. But this was still used as the official residence. The provisional government took it over as their headquarters  in 1917, and it is here the Bolsheviks stormed the government. Further damaged in the Sieg of Leningrad, the Hermitage was declared a museum. Extensive renovations did not occur until the 90s, though.


Jordan on the “Jordan Staircase,” so named for a religious ritual the Romanov family did once a year.


A wider image of the Jordan Staircase.


A grand stateroom, part of the Great Enfilade suites. Called an armorial hall, the chandeliers have the coat of arm of all Russian provinces engraved on them.


The formal “throne room,” named St. George’s Hall.


This was a small sitting room in the private suites of the last Romanovs. The furniture is a display of 19th century styles.


Probably one of my favorite rooms in the whole palace–the library. Nicholas II spent a lot of time here. Many of the books are from his personal collection.


We wound our way upstairs, downstairs, through the annexes connecting the different buildings, and oohed and awed at the amazing artwork.


“Lady in Blue” from the British collection.


They had a few da Vinci pieces!


Jordan and I particularly enjoyed the Rembrandt Room.


Jordan especially liked this painting, which he “recreated” from a college assignment to learn about light and shadows.


The first floor of one of the buildings showed artifacts from the ancient world.



Nicholas I (I think) collected armor, and there’s an entire exhibit on knight-and-steed armor. We both really liked those. Best part? We went on Thursday, the museum’s free day!

By the time we left the museum, the sun had set (it was about 4:30 in the afternoon) and we had walked for three hours straight. We took a bus back to our hostel, located in an old aristocrat’s house (I thought of Anna Karenina the entire time we were there!) and collapsed, eager to see more tomorrow.

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Yekaterinburg and the Romanovs

I read a lot about the tragic end of the Romanov dynasty when I was a teenager–not sure exactly why, perhaps it was because the grand duchesses seemed so real, so accessible in the modern 20th century photos and the idea of Russian princesses always seemed magical.

Anyway, if you’re curious about how the Bolshevik uprising led to the 1917 revolution, then to the execution of the Romanov family, you can read more about it there.

Nicholas II and Alexandra, his German tsarina, had a love that destroyed the nation, as the books call it, and four lovely daughters and one hemophilic son. After Nicholas abdicated the throne in 1917 and the family was imprisoned at one of their palaces, the Bolsheviks didn’t really know what to do with them. The White Army, a faction of the military and government that was pro-monarchy, was fighting hard to free the Romanov family when they were shipped off to Yekaterinburg, a city on the edge of Siberia.

After several months there, the White Army advanced and was near taking back the land and the family. The Communist leaders panicked a bit, and in the middle of the night brought the family, their doctor, and a couple of servants down to the basement. There, a group of soldiers opened fire on them. Because the girls had sewn jewels into their underclothing (they knew a chance of escape was slight, and they wanted to be prepared. The girls also stayed dressed at all times because their mother, the empress, worried about what the soldiers might do to her daughters if caught showering), the princesses had to be bayoneted multiple times before dying. The bodies were dumped in a field near a mine shaft and not discovered until 1979. Two other bodies (probably Alexi and Maria) were discovered in 2007. This, unfortunately, is the sanitized version. It was utterly horrific.

The house where the Romanovs were imprisoned and killed was owned by a local engingeer, Nokolay Ipatyev, and the house became known as Dom Ipatyeva. During the Soviet period the house became a museum for atheism, but it was demolished in 1977 in fear it would attract monarchist sympathizers. For many years, it was just a vacant lot with a small wooden chapel to another Romanov, a nun, Grand Princess Yelizaveta Fyodorovna.


Most of the Romanovs (except Alexi and Maria) were buried in a state funeral in 1998, then  canonized as martyrs and saints in the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000.

The Church of All Saints, more commonly known as Church upon the Blood, was built in 2000-2003.


Out front are huge informal photos of the royal family, many shot on private cameras by friends or family members.


In a back room was lots of photos and memorabilia, unfortunately all in Russian. I could recognize people’s faces in the photos (Nicholas II is pretty recognizable in his beard and military uniform), but that was about it.


The church itself is dark, heavily incensed, and quiet–it’s a functioning church, not a museum. The Romanovs aren’t buried here, but in Moscow, where their ancestors were buried.


A photo from one of the sides, to capture the blue sky.

Inside the Church upon the Blood (and in many Orthodox churches around the country) this image of the family is prominently displayed on several walls:


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Border city of Asia and Europe

Yekaterinburg is settled at the base of the Ural Mountains, the border between Europe (and western Russia) and Asia (and Siberia).

Before we stopped, I didn’t know anything about Yekaterinburg except that it was the death site of the Romanovs, the last royal family of Russia, murdered in 1918. I read a lot about Anastasia and her sisters in middle school and high school, so I recognized the name of the town as soon as we learned that the Trans-Siberian railroad passed through the city.


Jordan had considered going straight through Russia, from Ulaan Baatar to Saint Petersburg, but I kinda put my foot down and said if we were passing through, I needed to stop and see. In the end, he decided that crossing all of Russian (and half of Mongolia) without a single stop would be a bit draining, so a 30-hour stopover was perfect.

Yekaterinburg is a thriving metropolis with over a million inhabitants today, the city filled with great eateries, shopping and anything you’d consider a modern city to have. It might be in Siberia, but it’s not the middle of nowhere.


Founded in 1723 by Vasily Tatishchev and Georg Wilhelm de Gennin, the city has a history of mining semi-precious gems. Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president after the Soviet Union dissolved, is from Yekaterinburg.


A statue of the founders overlooks the river that cuts through town. I enjoyed walking through the downtown and seeing the mix of architecture–rustic cabins, baroque mansions from Imperial Russia, drab buildings from Soviet-era, and a few sleek and shiny modern buildings.


Some of the older buildings were from the early 1800s. Much of the oldest parts of the city overlook the river.


The chapel of St. Catherine is tucked away just off the river, on Lenin Ave.


My favorite, though, was all the baroque from the Imperial-era Russia.


The oldest Orthodox church in town is the Ascension Church, built in the late 1700s and restored a few times since then. It’s not a museum, but a functioning church. We slipped in, admired the Orthodox iconostastis and painted panels and pillars. I kept my hat on and Jordan took his off, as per Orthodox customs.


By the end of the day we’d walked all over Yekaterinburg’s city center and were pretty tired. The first half of the day it snowed, but near the end (As you can see in this photo) it had cleared, and we got a few lovely images of the Ascension church. The only thing left in Yekaterinburg to see was the Romanovs’ death site.

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Trans-Siberian railroad photo essay















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How to survive the Trans-Mongolian Railroad

From Beijing to Moscow, the trip is about 6 and a half days. That’s a long time to be on a train—but no one recommends you stay on it the whole time. Lonely Planet has a great guide for the most popular stops on-and-off the trip. Although the most popular time to go is summer (for obvious reasons), winter has its attractions, too.


  1. Make sure to bring your own food. Although there is a restaurant car, the menu isn’t always tasty and the food is rather expensive for a backpacker’s budget. Each car has a hot water heater, a samovar and sometimes the provodnista, car attendant, hands out packets of instant coffee and tea. For two people and three days (between Ulaan Baatar to Yekaterinburg, we packed:
    1. Four instant ramen noodles
    2. 5 liter of water
    3. 5 liter of coke
    4. orange juice
    5. snacks (Welch’s fruit snacks and Snickers)
    6. black tea
    7. sugar
    8. salt
    9. two pears and two apples
    10. bread
    11. instant oatmeal
    12. cheese
    13. lunch meat
    14. butter
    15. strawberry jam
    16. two small squeeze boxes of milk
    17. small thermos
    18. two pairs of plastic forks/spoons
    19. two Tupperware containers
    20. insulated bag for cold items _mg_2095
  2. The border crossing between Mongolia and Russia will take a minimum of four hours, but usually six to 11. This usually takes place around 10 pm – 3 am if you’re coming from UB and heading to Moscow. There’s lots of customs agents and officers checking, shining a flashlight in your car, but you don’t have to get off the train if you don’t want to. So you can stay in your pajamas. _mg_2034
  3. Winter travel is probably a pretty different experience than summer. The days get darker sooner, so it’s easier to sleep (no White Nights) but you may not see as much of the countryside. Still, the snowy birch forests and choppy water of Lake Baikal are incredible. Secondly, there won’t be as many people. Jordan and I booked two berths in a four-person compartment (known as kupe in Russian) but for the two days of our three-day leg, we were the only two in it—talk about wonderful! In summer, the train can get stuffy and feel claustrophobic, but in the winter it’s warm and cozy.
  4. If you’re not planning on a lot of stops (like us), consider filling the couple of days before the start of your train journey with nonstop movement and action. That way, your days on the train will be a relaxing time where you can sleep in, rest, and enjoy the landscape as it whizzes past. Otherwise, if you have a few restful days before the train, you can get pretty restless by your second day on the train. 20161125_202701
  5. The train has power outlets in 2nd class kupes, but not wifi. Make sure you have books, tv shows, and anything else downloaded before the trip.
  6. Each car has hot water, of course, but some also have room-temperature fresh water as well. 20161125_202650
  7. If you plan on shooting a lot of photos, consider bringing a polarizer lens to minimize glare out the train windows. _mg_1959
  8. Consider bringing your own toilet paper. The bathrooms have rough, scratchy toilet paper that sometimes runs out before the end of your journey. 20161125_202645
  9. For third class, where the car has 54 open berths in a “dorm style,” make sure to avoid bunks by the bathrooms.
  10. Third class also doesn’t have outlets by the beds, only the bathrooms and samovar at the end of the cars. It’s doable for one night, possibly two, but I really wouldn’t recommend it for longer than that (unless you’re a solo female traveler and like safety in numbers).


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How to miss and catch a train in Mongolia

By Jordan Karasek

(Not that we have any personal experience in this or anything)

The Trans-Mongolian train bound for Moscow left UB’s station at 3:22pm, and we ended up arriving at 3:30. Fortunately, the train people were very accommodating. Here’s step-by-step what to do:

1) Miss your train and have a minor freak-out moment

2) Ask the ticket people and hear you have to wait for the next train that comes six days later.

3) Have another minor freak-out when you remember your Russian visa was only for specific dates, and we had to catch the train we just missed today.

4) Be led us over to the information office where the Mongolian train officials discuss amongst themselves what to do, stamp our tickets, and look at passports.

5) Gesture driving to catch up to another station, and then have about 3 or 4 taxi guys willing to drive us to the next station for a small fee, of course.

6) The station people call some numbers and looked up some charts to find out that it would arrive in Darkhan at 8:14 pm, where we could pick the train up.

7) Find out the trip will take 3 or 4 hours by taxi and cost $90.

8) Have another minor freak-out moment when realizing how much money that is but how you don’t have any choice.

9) Because you have only 4,000 tugrik in your pocket (about $1.75 USD), hunt for an ATM.

10) All 5 of the ATMs at the train station will probably be out of money, so jog about half a mile to a bank and pull out the cash.

11) Return to find the station police putting your bags in a taxi while your wife looks around frantically for you.

12) Thank everyone profusely in a terrible accent, hand over the cash, hop in the taxi, and wait for the other two seats to be filled.

13) Have another minor freak-out moment when you realize it’s 4 pm, the train arrives at 8:14, and it’s a 4 hour drive on icy, remote roads. Mime that you need to go fast.

14) Pick up two other people, start out across traffic-congested, icy Ulaan Baatar, and just pray.

15) At about 5 or 5:15 you’ll hit the edge of the city and keep going through the countryside.

16) Thank your driver when he picks up speed and passes slow-moving trucks on the steppes.

17) Arrive in Darkhan with at 7:15, lug our bags through the snow, up the icy steps, and inside the train station where everyone stares at us.

18) Show our tickets to the station agents, get them stamped again, and wait.

19) Train pulls into the station 20 minutes early at 7:53

20) Show passport and tickets to the provodnitsa, the car attendant, and find your compartment.

21) Once on the train, the guilty spouse apologizes to the aggrieved spouse for being the reason you missed the train in the first place.

22) Because you reach the train and all is well (besides missing 90 USD), the aggrieved spouse relaxes and stops thinking about murder.


In summary: If you miss your train,

  • Go to the station, talk to officials at the information desk, show tickets and passports
  • Get a taxi to the nearest station they think you can catch (in our case, it was Darkhan)
  • Speed like wild tahki horses
  • Jump on the train when it shows up in the station, hand tickets off to your provodnitsa.
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