Two countries of incredible contrasts: Adam Sloan travels around Russia and Ukraine
The immigration officer looked at me, puzzled, before somewhat reluctantly stamping my visa and allowing me into Russia. It was only later that I realised that where it asked for my visa number on the Russian immigration card, I had written my passport number and my date of departure where I should have my date of arrival. I crossed the border by bus, excited that after so many years of dreaming, I had finally made it here.
I admit that I was quite nervous stepping off the coach in St. Petersburg. I have never travelled anywhere that gives quite as much of a cultural blast as soon as you step onto its soil. I was alone, armed solely with my Lonely Planet guide and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to direct me.
Picking up my senselessly overloaded backpack, I made my way to the metro, and my nerves quickly gave way to a sense of amazement as I stepped into one of the incredibly grand stations.
To fall asleep leaving St. Petersburg and wake up on the way to Moscow is like travelling between different worlds.
Both the St. Petersburg and Moscow metro systems were built as part of Stalin’s grand modernisation plans for the Soviet Union. As well as being arguably one of the most efficient metros in the world, the St. Petersburg system is also filled with socialist-realist art. The walls are adorned with huge murals, and statues linger between platforms. Elegant chandeliers hang from ceilings so high that they look like they could stretch back up to the surface.
Despite its beauty, St. Petersburg was originally built on a swamp by Peter the Great in the 18th century. He had in mind an aristocratic capital resembling a European city, a step away from the heavily Russified medieval capital of Moscow. The architecture is grand and elaborate, and the city is criss-crossed with canals, earning it the nickname “the Venice of the North”.
The hugely eminent Winter Palace is the epicenter of the city, and houses the main collection of the State Hermitage Museum. First founded by Catherine the Great, it was established with the aim of showing off her art to visiting European aristocrats. Students get in free with an ISIC card.
Close to the Palace is the onion- domed and dramatically named “Church Built on Spilled Blood”, erected by Alexander III on the site of his father’s assassination. The church’s outside is ornately decorated with painted depictions of the gospels, as well as bright, multi-coloured minuets.
Like many of Russia’s Orthodox churches that were given more “practical” uses during Soviet times, the “Church on Spilled Blood” spent the Stalin period being a potato and vegetable warehouse.
My next destination was the ancient capital of Moscow. I travelled there in style on train number 001, the historic “Red Arrow”, and the same train that famously carried the first Soviet government from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
To fall asleep leaving St. Petersburg and wake up on the way to Moscow is like travelling between different worlds; the two cities are almost complete polar opposites. Whereas St. Petersburg is calm and regal, Moscow is fast paced and brutish. Tourists are replaced with businessmen (and their glamorous wives), and the enormous wealth of the city, which is home to more dollar billionaires than any other in the world, hits you slap-bang in the face. This impression of wealth is quickly followed by one of poverty, as grandmothers accost you for change on arrival.
I could not come to Moscow without visiting Lenin’s mausoleum where he lies proudly on display to the gawking public. The queue to see the resting place of Russia’s first communist leader is permanently swollen, and made up of an interesting mix of elderly, moustachioed Russians, and tourists in “CCCP” T-shirts. The walk around the coffin is lined with armed guards, and when someone later asked me, “Do you know why there are so many armed guards in Lenin’s mausoleum?” and I shook my head, they replied, “It’s in case he moves…then they can shoot the bastard.”
I walked from the mausoleum out into Red Square, where I was greeted by the incredibly colourful domes and red-bricked architecture of St. Basil’s cathedral. The building of St. Basil’s was commissioned in the 16th century by Tsar Ivan “The Terrible”. As a child, Ivan’s hobby was to go to the top of the tallest tower of the Kremlin and drop live cats down onto the ground below. After the completion of St. Basil’s, he blinded the architect, to ensure that nothing of comparable beauty could ever again be built.
Moscow grew on me. Although I’m not sure if I could put up with the fast paced, cut-throat attitude for long, I hardly even scratched the surface. To get under the skin of a city as huge as Moscow would take weeks, possibly months.
My next train was the brand new “Moscow-Kiev Express” which took just nine hours to travel the 765km between the two countries’ capital cities. I knew almost immediately that I was going to like Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, or Kyiv in Ukrainian. It was a big city without being overbearing, and dotted with hills and beautiful golden domed monasteries. I made my way almost immediately to the central ‘Independence Square’, which is permanently bustling with activity.
The most beautiful place in Kiev must be the hilltop monasteries of Pechersk-Lavra. This is a complex with huge golden and green domed monastaries glittering in the sun. A cradle of orthodoxy rising above the right bank of the Dniepr river, I found it incredible that such a beautiful place could exist in the middle of such a bustling city. Pilgrims wandered throughout, and I spent many happy hours strolling through the cobbled streets and well kept gardens, admiring the magnificent churches and enjoying the serenity.
Packing my bag again I took a train West across the country to Lviv. The capital of Ukrainian nationalism, it was one of the country’s few cities that wasn’t bombed during World War Two, meaning it still has a fantastically preserved medieval old town.
One of the reasons I ended up liking Lviv so much was because, despite being so well preserved, the Old Town wasn’t “museum like”, and still operated as a working city, instead of being simply a slave to tourism, into which many of Europe’s finest Old Towns seem to have been transformed. Old men in flat caps played chess in the central square, and workers attended city centre churches at the end of the day.
There was a slight air of decrepidness: holes in the streets, buildings that looked like they were ready to collapse in on themselves. A couple of kids were playing football and when the ball hit the wall and bouced back off, it was followed by a large chunk of plaster and a cloud of dust.
One of the best indicators as a traveller of how you feel about a place is whether you can see yourself returning. The Ukraine is such a huge country, with so much to see: cities, mountains, quaint villages, and more. I would definately go back, but for now, I had to move on: I had another train to catch.