After negotiating the souvenir shop stop and skilfully avoiding any wallet damage it was back to the bus time to be driven to Nevsky Prospekt where there was free time for lunch. On the way we passed the Palace where the monk and favourite of Tsarina Alexandria, Rasputin was murdered and the guide told us the story of his grisly death. It was hot and there was a blue sky so we decided that we didn’t want to waste time queuing up for food and sitting at a table eating lunch that we didn’t really need so as most of the coach party made for the shops we returned to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and behind it we came across a tourist market selling Matryoshka dolls and other souvenirs and we compared the merchandise on all of the stalls.
Before the holiday Kim had said that she wanted one of these traditional dolls as a souvenir and as the prices were a fraction of the Red October store I was ready to flash the cash but after twenty minutes or so Kim was still undecided about what to buy and kept examining the alternatives and handing them back one by one without a flicker or purchasing intention. All of this indecision is not my preferred style of shopping so at about the twentieth stall (all selling the same things for similar prices) I intervened and said yes to one of the market stall holders and as he wrapped it for me Kim looked at me as though I had gone half mad!
There was a nice street bar just outside the Church so we sat there for a while and admired my impulsive purchase, I tried to justify it and Kim tried to like it while we waited for the appointed time to return to the coach for the next leg of the tour to the Peter and Paul Fortress back across the river.
The Peter and Paul Fortress was the first structure to be built in Peter the Great’s new city of Saint-Petersburg in May, 1703. Located on one of the city’s forty-two islands, the fortress has six bastions named after some of the prominent individuals who supervised their construction, including one dedicated to Tsar Peter himself. The original walls were built of clay and the present-day brick walls were added later between 1706 and 1740. All construction work on the fortress was carried out under the close supervision of Peter himself and work on the Peter and Paul Cathedral began in 1712, but was only completed twenty-one years later in 1733, eight years after Peter the Great’s death.
The Cathedral is the burial place of all Russian Tsars from Peter I to Alexander III, with the exception of Peter II who for some reason is buried in Moscow at the Kremlin. Inside the Cathedral we wandered through the rows of marble burial monuments and listened to details of their lives. These Russian (or to be strictly accurate, German) autocrats were amongst the richest people that have ever lived and at the time of his murder in 1918 the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was worth (in today’s money) an estimated $300billion and the personal owner of 10% of all the World’s landmass, which is an amount of money so huge it is impossible to imagine; for comparison, the richest Head of State today is the King of Thailand who is worth only 10% of this grotesque amount, $30billion, and the wealth of the Queen of England is estimated at only $500million; in 2005 the biggest ever winner of the Euro millions lottery was Dolores McNamara from Ireland who won €77million which would have been no more than mere pocket money to Tsar Nicholas so no wonder they could afford to spend $10million on a Faberge Easter Egg while most Russian peasants had to paint a hen’s egg!
It was all well and good being fabulously wealthy but being a Romanov Tsar was quite a dangerous job and this vast wealth was no help at all against political intrigue and murder and dying of natural causes was a luxury. Of the fourteen Tsars or Tsarinas from Peter I to Nicholas II five were assassinated or murdered and one died in suspicious circumstances so, it’s safe to say that this job carried significant risk! The last Tsar, Nicholas I and his entire family, were brutally murdered in a cellar by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918. This was an especially callous and cold blooded act and I have often wondered about the people who carried out the order. Were they compelled to do it? Did they do it willingly? Were they bribed to do it? Did they have to get drunk before they did it? (by all accounts they made a cack-handed job of it). How did they feel after the event? What happened to them?
Apparently it was a fairly shambolic affair. First the Royals were shot and this took some time because the family had diamonds and precious stones sewn into their clothing which acted rather like a bullet proof vest so when this failed to do the job they were then bayoneted to death. Their bodies were dissolved in acid to get rid of the flesh and the organs and finally their bones cremated to destroy all trace of them. But disposing of human bodies is difficult of course (as both Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Radovan Karadžić and others were to find out later) and years after the murders their bodies were exhumed and scientific DNA analysis was able to prove who they were. As communism began to fail and slip away into history the remains of Nicholas II and his family and entourage were also interred in the Cathedral, in St. Catherine’s Chapel, on the eightieth anniversary of their deaths, July 17th 1998.
After the Cathedral we spent some time in the grounds of the fortress and visited a recently restored prison block where up until only frighteningly recently those condemned as enemies of the state were incarcerated, tortured and in most cases eventually died of disease or were executed. Reluctant guests of the State imprisoned here included Dostoyevsky, Trotsky, Gorkiy, and Lenin’s older brother Alexander.
The tour ended in the late afternoon and the coach driver nudged the bus through rush hour traffic back to the Prybaltiyskaya. I visited the supermarket again and we rested for a while and drank Russian beer before it was time to go for more school dinners in the hotel and dining room and we did this early because our plan now was to return to the city for an early evening stroll.