St. Petersburg: Visiting the Red Planet
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It is a 100 years this October since Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik Party stormed the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg and overthrew the Russian Monarchy, an event which later became known as the Russian Revolution. Believing the violent change of government would bring about a more prosperous, equal country where the workers called the shots, few anticipated that 1917 was not the end of an old nightmare but the beginning of a new, more terrifying one. Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries were in many ways worse than the despots they usurped. The imperious leader of the Bolsheviks refused to give anyone else a hearing in his ugly new utopia, although even he was a small fish compared to his successor Joseph Stalin, the second greatest monster in human history (Hitler always gets the top spot). Saint Petersburg is inextricably associated with the events of that Red October. At one end is the railway station at which Lenin returned from exile to begin the revolution, while further west is the building in which he evicted the monarchy, just across the Neva river from where the deposed royals, later to be executed, were laid to rest in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. The Winter Palace itself is now no longer a seat of government but one of the most incredible museums I have ever seen, housing works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo and others in its many elaborately decorated rooms. When Lenin died in 1924, the city saw another of its many name changes. It had been called Saint Petersburg after the Czar Peter the Great, but the name was changed to Petrograd during the First World War in order to sound less German. Soon after, it lost its status as the capital city to Moscow, but remained an important city - a key target for the Nazis during the 20th Century's second great conflict. It was during the legendary Siege of Leningrad that the city was cut off from the rest of the country, leading to horrendous food shortages, with Peterburgers reduced to eating animals and clothes (and allegedly each other) while Hitler selected the restaurant in which he wished to dine when the city inevitably fell into his hands. Arrogance was one of his many shortcomings. The Führer's rival for history's most odious man, Joseph Stalin, was in many ways the gravedigger of the Soviet Union. Many wannabe despots followed him after he bit the dust in 1953, but none were nearly as maniacal, and the regime began to crumble. Watching its death at the end of the 1980s was a young KGB officer posted at the East German border, Vladimir Putin, who stared morosely at his country's decline and promised himself, just as Hitler had done in 1918, that never again would the Motherland be humiliated in such a way. Putin's rise has ensured a new democratic Russia would not be allowed to flourish in the 21st Century, and that the bad old days of entrenched corruption and the silencing of critics would continue unabated. Vladimir Putin's wolfish face adorns many mugs and t-shirts sold in tourist stands around the city, along with the equally ugly visages of his predecessors Lenin and Stalin. I was almost tempted to buy one, as something of a sick joke, after visiting what was Saint Petersburg's most impressive building, a cathedral with the stirring name of Church of the Saviour on Blood. Built on the banks of the Griboedov Canal, it is, with its legendary onion dome roof, a building you could only find in Russia. Inside is even more impressive, with every surface papered with religious paintings in which the haunted faces of many a biblical figure stare down at the tourists from the roof.
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