The Shining Moments came fast and furious on day two in Russia. I literally gasped at the incredible mosaics of the Church on Spilled Blood (which made Olga smile at me) – not Church OF Spilled Blood, as I originally thought. And there’s a reason for that.
One would be forgiven for thinking that the Church on Spilled Blood would have this name because a) it’s a church and b) it’s dedicated to the blood shed by Jesus Christ.
One would be wrong. On both counts. This place, now a museum, has never been a place of worship, but was instead a very elaborate memorial to Tsar Alexander II, who was assassinated on the spot on March 1, 1881.
On that day, Tsar Alexander II was riding alongside the canal in his carriage, when a person of strongly held political opinions hurled a grenade at him. The grenade exploded and damaged the carriage, but the Tsar was unhurt. Tsar Alex, seemingly a man who took things into his own hands, immediately jumped out of his carriage, inspected the damage, and started to give the grenade-hurler a good dressing-down. At that point, another fellow of strong opinions, seeing his chance, threw a second grenade at the Tsar, killing himself and blowing the Tsar’s legs off. He died a few hours later too. There’s probably a moral in this somewhere, don’t you think?
Tsar Alex II was known as “The Good Tsar” by the Finns, to differentiate him from all the other ones. He was responsible for freeing 23 million serfs in 1861, allowing them to own property and businesses and marry whomever they wanted, but is mostly remembered in North America for selling Alaska to the USA, as he didn’t want it to fall into British hands. (Those evil Canadians again!)
So the Finns and Russian aristocracy loved him, but the peasants threw grenades at him. Why? Well, it turned out Alex didn’t do those serfs any favour. Yes, he freed them and granted them land, but the landowners kept all the good land for themselves, so the peasants were land-starved, and the other kind of starving soon followed. Maybe the moral here is that no good deed goes unpunished.
A shrine with roof and columns stands inside the church to mark the exact spot where Tsar Alex II was wounded, although for a long period under Communist rule, the much-loved building was used to store vegetables – yes, potatoes and beets and turnips. It’s a miracle it survived at all.
The Communists, who hated not being the centre of all worsip themselves, outlawed all religion. Of course they didn’t turn all churches into oversized cabbage crates – some were turned into indoor skating rinks or public swimming pools instead. They were not improved by the change. Some churches have now been restored, and many Russians once again openly embrace their faith, but many places of art and beauty are lost forever. Thankfully many remain.
For instance, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with its impressive dome and colourful green columns of malachite.
We had just enough time left over to visit Yusupov palace, famous for being the place where a group of conspirators plotted to kill Rasputin.
I apologize that I have no photos of the Yusupov palace. Russia has this thing called a “photo license” and if you haven’t paid for the license, you don’t get to take photos, and to tell you the truth, by the end of day two in Russia, I figured I already had enough photos! Luckily we have a little thing called the internet, and I have borrowed two photographs from there. They “may be subject to copyright,” but I couldn’t find out what to do about that – so I hope not.
Prince Yusupov wanted Rasputin dead to end his influence over the royal family. Olga (remember our extraordinary tour guide?) believes the Romanovs thought so highly of Rasputin because he seemed to heal their hemophiliac son. Well, wouldn’t you do just about anything for the man who helped your sick child? But this wasn’t public knowledge, so all the Yusupov gang knew was that the Romanovs had gone gaga for this spiritualist weirdo.
Prince Yusupov and friends invited Rasputin over for a nice evening of music and poisoned snacks in the basement. But while they waited for him to quietly keel over, Rasputin just kept on eating and enjoying himself, and it became obvious the poison wasn’t going to work. So after waiting as long as they could stand it, and starting to sweat, they shot him. Twice, just to make sure. Well, like some bad horror film, didn’t he revive after a few minutes, and manage to escape by runing up a spiral stone staircase and out of the building. Once they were over the shock, the conspirators caught up with him in the yard, shot him again (in the forehead this time) and beat him up badly. Still Rasputin was alive. Thoroughly spooked and panicked by this time, the conspirators tied him up and threw him into a hole in the ice in the river. The only reason we know any of this is because Yusupov wrote a memoir. Which makes you wonder exactly how reliable it is, but hey, it’s all we have.
The Yusupov palace has stately rooms, chandeliers and staircases, even a theatre which is still in occasional use, but the most visited area is the cramped basement room where Rasputin ate his poison, and the twisty tiny staircase he used to escape. No one lives there now but wax figures of Rasputin and his murderers. Creepy? You bet.
I think the Russians don’t understand our fascination with Rasputin, but they’re happy to play up this part of their history for our sakes.
TOILET TALK: Because I’m always interested in where to go when you have to go. SPB, surprisingly, does not have nearly as many bathrooms as you would think. Not even in their churches and historic buildings.
BUT fret not, the “official” tourist stores do! Clean, and well-maintained, and no charge for using the facilities, and you don’t have to buy your own toilet paper either. Because, believe me, that happened to me in Moscow once before. The official tourist stores really make a strong effort to be welcoming. They also provide free candies, crackers, coffee and hot strong tea. All at no charge.
For goodness’ sake, at least buy a fridge magnet!