As my 60th birthday approaches (the fireworks go off August 17th!) my present to myself was a 10 day vacation destination anywhere in the world. I chose Russia; I’m a huge history nut and the lure of Russian history alongside architecture and war politics was hard to beat. From the Czars to the Soviet Era, to the tumultuous periods of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (opening) with Gorbachev and Yeltsin and the burst of democracy in the late 1980s: this was my idea of a vacation! Luckily my beloved Fiance would put up with my historical hysterics. That, and St. Petersburg’s White Nights Festival would coincide with our visit. After Moscow and St. Pete’s, we figured we’d stop over in Helsinki, Finland on the way home.
Moscow: Big and bustling city with a strong New York vibe, holding its head high as the first city of this huge nation. Red Square, the Kremlin, Moscow’s art filled subway stations were a treat for native New Yorkers. The Moscow Circus was a boisterous joy. My favorite part of Moscow was visiting Lenin’s Tomb. Seeing Lenin would complete our Frozen Communist Troika! (We saw the preserved Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and Mao Tse Tung in Bejing.) Some might find this fascination a bit macabre, but lemme assure you, a dead historical figure stretched out in a glass casket is as real as history gets.
St Petersburg (formerly Petrograd and then Leningrad,) is considered the Venice of the Baltic, with urban canals, stunning late 18th Century architecture and an old world charm that, had the city been transported to NY, would’ve made every building a city landmark. The Hermitage Museum in the former Winter Palace was wonderful – each room filled with high art, like Picasso, Renoir, & Matisse. The highlight of St. Petersburg was its White Nights, when the sun just dips slightly below the horizon. The resulting all night light makes for revelry, but wrecks your body clock. The best part of the White Nights was the dramatic, majestic opening of the Neva River drawbridges, at 1:30 in the morning, one after the other. The riverbanks were filled with revelers, hundreds of canal boats were filled with tourists like us and private boats of every kinds sailed through the openings.
And yes, the streets of both Moscow and St Petersburg reminded us of NY’s own Little Odessa, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach. Once known as the kingdom of lower middle class Jews (as Neil Simon remembered in it Brighton Beach Memories,) Brighton Beach is now a thoroughly Russian neighborhood, with babushka pushing shopping carts under the El and vodka-fueled restaurants on the Boardwalk. Brighton Beach is one of our destinations on our Edible Ethnic Brooklyn Eats tour, and well justified for its incredible gourmet shops and food stores. And after visiting Moscos and St. Petersburg, and after picking up Russian delicacies in Brighton Beach, I can draw connections between each’s city’s sense of power, energy and history.