Aaron Bonar ’10 – St. Petersburg, Russia - Winston Churchill once said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Nowhere is this more apparent than St. Petersburg, which is simultaneously the “Capital of the Tsars,” the “Birthplace of the Revolution,” and modern Russia’s cultural capital. A city with hundreds of museums, it is the best place to study Russian history and culture, as well as one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.

After arriving in the city, our group’s first major excursion took us to several sites in St. Petersburg. We stopped at Smolny Cathedral and the bridge linking St. Peter and Paul Fortress to the mainland. Smolny Cathedral is one place that I personally had not heard of, but I’m glad we visited it. It is a beautiful, sky-blue monastery that now serves as a concert hall. Another impressive site, in terms of historical significance, was the battleship Aurora – its cannon fired the first shot of the Russian Revolution.

Two days later, we traveled to the Hermitage, which is partially housed in the Winter Palace of the Tsars. One of the largest museums in the world, it would take one person giving one minute to each piece over nine years to get through each exhibit. I decided I would sign up to volunteer at the museum, and I’m hoping to hear from the Director of the Hermitage soon.

We also started our Russian classes during our first week, which were very interesting. I tested into the highest group, which means that two out of three of my classes are virtually immersion courses – English is spoken as little as possible. Although I thought I would have a great amount of trouble in these classes (I’ve only had one and one half years of Russian), I feel I’m adjusting quite well. I’m understanding more by the day.

On Friday, September 5, our group took a jazz boat cruise on the Neva River. We stayed on until late in the evening, which gave us the great experience of viewing St. Petersburg by night. The entire city is lit up; the bridges put on light shows as the huge fountain dances to traditional Russian music. To top it all off, each night the city shoots off fireworks for the people to enjoy. No matter what each member of our group thought of St. Petersburg beforehand, everyone fell in love with the city that night.

Today, September 6, we took another group excursion to Peterhof, the summer residence of the Tsars. A humongous complex, it is known for its many fountains and cascades. The Grand Cascade is especially beautiful; it is a seven level cascade with a golden statue dedicated to Russia’s victory over Sweden in the 1700s. St. Samson, representing Russia, is defeating a lion, the royal symbol of Sweden, in a rather dramatic fashion. The small palace “Mon Pleasure,” taken from the French language, was the favorite palace of Peter the Great, and it still houses many of his possessions. Peterhof is a beautiful reminder of the proud imperial history of Russia, and would cause the typical vision of Russia as a poorly maintained, gray nation to crumble.

Although this is not my first time traveling to Russia, I must admit that I have found a new enchantment with St. Petersburg. The contrast of imperial grandeur against Soviet architecture provides a charm that one is unlikely to find anywhere else in the world. If St. Petersburg truly is an enigma, I hope I will come close to solving it during my time here.

In photos: Top right, Aaron on the Neva River with St. Petersburg in the background. Center left,  The Grand Cascade at Peterhof. Lower right, The Ambassador Stairs in the Winter Palace, used as a reception area during imperial times, now serves as a main entrance to the Hermitage.