Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Submarines and Cupolas

About a year ago, about the same time, MV FRAM's reception got anxious phone calls in the early morning hours, people were worried about a very weird sound in the ship, that seemed to come from the hull. Well, they were right: A year ago we had to push through a layer of ice to make our way east to St. Petersburg. Ships were trapped, traffic was only for those who had a reinforced ship. So the ice image is a year old.
Not today. Under another blue sky we are ploughing through open water, past the famous fortress of Kronstadt, built by Peter I. as defense against the Suedes, later the refuge of revolting seaman during the Revolution; past military compounds, harboring submarines and ancient war ships. All vessels are decorated to the brim with colorful banners, and this is an image that will follow us all day long. The 9th of May is Victory Day in Russia, celebrating the end of the 2nd World War.
Around 10am we welcome the Russian pilot on board. His task is more complicated than the one yesterday, since there are a lot of shallows, there is a lot more to navigate in-between until we finally reach the Neva River. We are in Russia.
The scenario to both sides of our ship is spectacular, the mixture of decaying industrial complexes, shiny palaces, ships that are about to go down right on their pier and extended Hummer limousines parked nearby, rusty ice breakers that billow smoke of incredible blackness from their stacks, submarines that look ready for battle and the immense richness of orthodox churches are competing for our attention. You can not arrange this, this has grown over decades.
Our pier is directly on the embankment, just before the first bridge across the Neva River. In the distance the slim golden spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress aims for the clouds as if to spear them.
The port authorities are fast and rather unbeaurocratic, so we can start with the shore excursions even earlier than expected. During the Canal Cruise you get a very characteristic overview of the strange contrast between splendor and workers life. The rich are superrich here, the others are not rich at all and struggle daily for their income. After the channel tour, which was rich in information, there is also the visit of the Peter and Paul fortress. Others go and see the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and the Smolny Cathedral.
In the evening we have a performance of great beauty: The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra is playing on board of FRAM in the observation lounge, of course mainly the well-known works of Russsian composers.
And then it is time to go outside - as if we had ordered for it, there are huge fireworks on the embankment, honoring the Victory Day. A tremendous finale for a wonderful day.