The weather changed overnight and in the morning there was a cool breeze but a big blue sky and a welcome freshness had replaced the humidity of the previous day. After breakfast the coach arrived and we began the journey to Peterhof and the Tsar’s Summer Palace and immediately we joined long queues of rush hour traffic all bullying its way towards the city centre.
The driver was in a particularly impatient mood this morning and he constantly switched lanes in a rather pointless objective of finding the quickest running line and although he sometimes temporarily gained a few metres this was always ultimately unsuccessful. It was clear however that he wasn’t prepared to sit around in the traffic jams and he began a quest to find a short-cut through the side streets which fifteen minutes later our guide, Anna, declared to be a stunning success as we crossed the bottle-neck bridge across the River Neva and gradually began to make improved progress as we headed south and west out of the city.
The road to Peterhof was a wide six lane boulevard and looking out of the window it occurred to me just how big everything was, the columns, the monuments, the statues and the buildings. After a few kilometres we drove through massive concrete high rise housing developments in township clusters sprawling away from the road on either side in vast unattractive developments desperately in need of some urgent care and attention.
Saint-Petersburg once had the largest tramway network in the World but much of it has been dismantled now and today, and this surprised me, the longest network is claimed to be Melbourne in Australia. By an alternative measure however the Saint-Petersburg system is the busiest in the World with four-hundred and seventy-six million passengers a year whilst Melbourne only manages around one hundred and eighty million!
By the side of the road there were the steel tracks serving these dormitory communities and every so often a red and cream tram clattered by with a hum of electricity, screaming wheels and honking klaxons. My favourites were certain future museum pieces from the 1960s and 70s that conjured up images of the old days of the Soviet Union. I noticed that as passengers got on board they immediately began to look grey and tired and seemed to become a feature of the tram as though locked permanently into a 1960s Leningrad time warp. The trams whirred and screeched and sounded bells to warn of their approach as they drew up and pulled off, setting down and picking up and clattering away again between the rows of neglected buildings backwards and forwards between the proletarian flats and the city centre.
Eventually we passed out of the grey monolithic suburbs and by a monument which marked the point at which the German army was stopped as it marched on Leningrad in 1941. It was sobering to think about this. I was bought up on tales of the war told to me by my father, but these were always gallant tales about impossibly brave paratroopers and square jawed commandos, about fearless desert rats and valiant fighter pilots, about courageous heroes and stiff upper lips, about medals and honours; I am certain that he never really understood what the war was like in the east.
Beginning on 22nd June 1941, nearly four million troops invaded the USSR – the biggest invasion in the history of warfare and ‘Operation Barbarossa’ was the largest military campaign in human history in both manpower and casualties. Areas affected by the operation became the site of some of the largest battles, deadliest atrocities, highest casualties, and most horrific conditions for Soviets and Germans alike. The Axis forces captured three million Soviet prisoners of war, most of whom never returned alive because they were deliberately starved to death in German camps as part of a Hunger Plan, a cruel and spiteful program to reduce the Eastern European population.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union ultimately resulted in 95% of all German Army casualties from 1941 to 1944 and 65% of all Allied military casualties accumulated throughout the war. Anna rattled out facts, figures and statistics and clearly could not disguise her resentment and hatred of the Nazis which remains deep-rooted in the Saint-Petersburg psyche even today. For Hitler, like Napoleon before him, invading Russia proved to be a massive misjudgment and it seems unlikely that anyone will ever try it again – but who knows?
Beyond this memorial the landscape began to change and open up into fields, beech woods, conifer forests, lakes and small villages with expensive looking properties in contrast to the high rise we had just passed through and eventually we arrived in Peterhof and approached the Palace gardens. The Summer Palace was designed by Peter the Great to be the equal of the Palace of Versailles in France but after the German army occupied it and completely destroyed it during the occupation it has had to be completely rebuilt and as we caught glimpses of it through the surrounding iron railings we could see what a good job they had made of it and we looked forward to our visit.