Thursday, October 25, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 3

October 26, 2007

Dear Friends, Family, and Faculty,

I am happy to spread the joyous news that our wireless internet has finally been set up!!! It only took a month, but it's finally up and running, and I am online regularly. I'm still on a very busy schedule, but hopefully, I can start writing a little more often and sending personal emails as well. It was actually hilarious: last night, when the internet suddenly started working at around 12:30am, you could literally feel the atmosphere of the dorm change. From my room, I could hear people shouting with glee and people scampering to their rooms to hop onto Google or Facebook or YouTube as fast as they could.

Last week, our group took an incredible excursion to St. Petersburg, and so, I've decided to devote this installment of my blog to that trip. As per usual, I'll divide it into chapters so it's easier not to read the whole novel at once:


Our trip to St. Petersburg has been planned for quite some time. We had been preparing to take a night train on Thursday, October 18 at 12:30am. On that Wednesday, the 17th of October, after Acting class, our group leaders announced a crucial meeting. We all gathered in our studio, and with an embarassed smile, Colleen, one of our leaders, said: "So...turns out we're going to St. Petersburg tonight!" Apparently, they didn't realize when they booked a 12:30am train for Thursday, it basically meant WEDNESDAY NIGHT. So, we had 5 hours to pack our bags and get ready for our 5-day journey. And so it began...

Later that night, we walked onto the train and found ourselves in a tiny narrow red hallway. My suitcase could hardly fit through it. On the left side, there were doors leading into little cubbyhole compartments. We were each assigned compartments, four to each. The compartments were smaller than a single dorm room and somehow managed to fit four bunk beds. This is one of the few times in my life when I genuinely felt lucky to be really short! The little bed was made of a few-inches of mattress laid on top of metal poles. I think all of the work I've done in Movement class to imrpove my back flexibility was undone in one night of sleep on that bed!

The trip was about 8 hours. Naturally, as we excited college students tend to do, our group stayed up for awhile drinking some wine and causing general mayhem on the train. But eventually, it was time to sleep. least...TRY to sleep. My sleep was so eratic. I'd often wake up to strange pop music playing on the loud-speaker outside my little compartment. The air was so thin, the temperature so stiflingly high, every time I'd wake up throughout the night, I was wearing one less piece of clothing! Here I was, in Russia - one of the most frigid countries on Earth - and I was burning up like I was in the 7th Circle of Hell! But, as I've said time and again, it's all part of the experience!

Finally, we arrived in St. Petersburg at around 8am. For those of you who have ever seen me in the morning, you know I am basically a zombie. Well, imagine that times 10, and that's how I trudged off that train. I was actually happy that we had left a day early, so that I could have an extra day to just be a vegetable before our sight-seeing would begin.

I learned we were staying in a hostel, and after the train experience, I was convinced it was going to be something like "Hostel," the horror film, but it actually turned out quite differently. It turned out to be better than some motels I've seen in the states. There were TVs in the rooms (not that we used them...Russian TV is very strange, by the way), the beds were comfortable, the rooms spacious. It was relieving to have a comfortable sleeping space for the next few days. And oh, how busy those days would be...


Our day began with a few hours bus tour of the city. I immediately notcied a completely different tempo than Moscow. The whole look of the city is entirely different...a much brighter, more peaceful, far less bustling appearance. For one, everything was much cheaper, which was a huge plus. The air seemed much more quiet, smiles were more common among residents, people were friendlier. If you waved at them, they'd actually wave back, and maybe even smile! Generally, a polar opposite momentum to that of Moscow. I guess a good way to describe the difference between the two places would be: "In Moscow it is winter, in St. Petersburg it is autumn." St. Petersburg is known as the "Venice of the North." It is a very European city. It is made up of 42 mini-islands all connected by small bridges. The main river that runs through the city is the Neva, it is kind of their Grand Canal...filthy and beautiful at the same time (which I would learn later is a very prominent characteristic of the city).

All of the architecture is in the 19th Century Art Noveau style, so it was all very beautiful to look at. All of the facades on the buildings were very decadent and impressive, and all were painted in soft pastel colors. The main color of the city is yellow, which was chosen in order to keep the city bright through the harsh, gray winters. Peter the Great created St. Petersburg as his Dream City back in the 18th Century. And the city truly does feel dream-like at times. There are dozens of parks and gardens scattered throughout the city. There are statues and monuments decorating the town...some of them frightening, like the huge busts of Lenin that still stand proud, and some of them mind-blowing, like the pair of actualy sphinxes from Ancient Egypt, over 4,000 years old, that Peter the Great placed adjacent to the enormous Neva River.

We saw many important and historic sites on our tour. We visited the Church of St. Nicholas, one of the many Orthodox churches in St. Petersburg, and we happened to walk in while a service was taking place. The Church was incredibly lavish, shimmering in gold and red inside. In Russian Orthodox churches, there are no pews, so all of the churchgoers were standing up. There was a choir in the corner singing in rich, 4-part harmony, and everything inside just felt like a different world, completely removed from everything outside of it. We also saw the Yusupov Palace, where the infamous Rasputin was murdered. While driving along the Neva, we saw many amazing sites, including the Romanov's palace, now known as the Hermitage (which I will get to soon), a huge 19th Century ship, which looked like the Flying Dutchman from "Pirates of the Carribbean" and has been strangely converted into a gym. While the city isn't relatively old, it is filled with history, and being surrounded by so much history is a feeling that can't be described.

After the tour, we had a few hours before evening, so a friend and I decided we would visit the world-famous Hermitage Art Museum, considered the number one must-see in St. Petersburg. Our journey there actually spawned a funny encounter which deserves mention: On the way there, we passed through a kitschy tourist market, and suddenly two young guys, one of them a taller blonde, the other short and stout with a crew-cut, recognized our English and approached us. They were Americans, and it was refreshing to hear English. We asked them if they knew where the Hermitage was, and they offered to show us the way. As we got acquainted, we learned they were missionaries with their Church. All through our walk to the museum, the pair kept talking about their Church, the number of missionaries in Russia, how many Churches they have set up in the city, etc. etc. etc.....etc. We asked them where they were from, and they said: "Colorado and Utah." That's when I realized they were Mormons with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They seemed confused that we were studying theatre in Russia, and continued to ramble on about their Church. Finally, they pointed us in the right direction, and just before parting ways, I realized we hadn't learned their names, so I asked them. The blonde responded with: "Salisbury...Elder Salisbury," and the other, wide-eyed, said: "Elder Gaeling." We said goodbye and walked along, feeling a slightly uncomfortable, but happy that we now knew the way.

The Hermitage has become one of my favorite places in the world. If I had to describe it in one word, it would be: "breathtaking." Built by Catherine the Great, and formerly the palace of the Romanov Czars, it is the second largest collection of art in the to the Louvre, and it's often considered the most glorious museum in the world. It holds over 3 million pieces of art, only some of which is actually on display at a time. The museum is unbelievably's been calculated that if one were to look at each piece of art on display for one minute without food or sleep, it would take 7 years to see everything. It is easy to get lost, which was actually my favorite part...walking alone through some of the rooms is a spiritual experience. Not only are you surrounded by art - Renoir, DaVinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Michaelangelo - but the entire building is a work of art. Everything is so gloriously literally gasp as you enter some of the rooms. Most of them are vibrantly colorful. Elegant staircases adorned with red carpets. Classical sculptures lining the hallways. Golden lining and trinkets along the walls. Huge wall-sized paintings. Everything inside is a feast for the eyes. Sensory overload. It's like a holy shrine of art. Everything is one point, my hand brushed against a door to one of the rooms, and suddenly I heard an old babushka (one of the "guards" of the art in the museum) shouting at me in Russian. While it is an art museum, it also feels like a history museum. This is literally the palace where the Royal Family of Russia resided. I can't imagine getting lost in my own home! I got to see the lavish throne room, many ballrooms, family rooms, places were the Romanovs themselves lived and roamed. The museum is quite begin to feel faint and light-headed...every corner you turn, each threshold you cross, each magnificent room you enter, your lungs seem to stop for a moment and your soul is struck.


The next day, maybe one of our best days in Russia thus far, we took an excursion about 45 minutes outside of the hub of St. Petersburg to a small town called Pushkin. The town is named after the famous poet, who is embedded so deeply within the Russian national consciousness (children are obliged to learn many of his poems by heart). Pushkin spent most of his time in this town, formerly called Tsarskoe Selo, and his statue sits in the middle of one of the parks, surrounded by fresh bouquets of flowers. The respect for him is monumental.

The main sight we visited in Pushkin was Catherine the Great's Summer Palace and Gardens, which literally looks like something out of a fantasy. The palace itself, huge and astounding, is colored blue and white and (as usual) lined with gold. But the real joy came in exploring the surrounding park and gardens. We strolled through the park for over 2 hours. The whole place was ethereal, truly a fantasy, like a dream vision of autumn. Glimmering lakes and ponds. Crystal reflections of orange, yellow, and red trees, the sun creeping out behind them. Families of ducks, seagulls, sparrows, and pigeons. Lush, green fields. Ornate gardens decorated with Roman statues. Gravel pathways enclosed by trees. Crisp, dry, clean, open air. Bare trees against the backdrop of blue skies and white clouds. People fishing in the ponds. Horse chariots driving families through the park. An enveloping feeling of euphoria and serenity. Feelings ecstatic and delicate at the same time. It's hard to try to describe this place without waxing poetic. I could have spent an entire day wandering that estate. After a month of the intense hustle and bustle of life in Moscow, it was invigorating to be able to spend time in a peaceful fantasy land for awhile.

That night, we were taken to the Maarinsky Theatre to see the Kirov Ballet Company perform SWAN LAKE. The Kirov is known as one of the best ballet companies in the entire world. Mikhail Baryshnikov himself came out of this company. I have never seen dancing like this in my life. The artists on stage were performing some of the most intense physical feats and made them look effortless. The lead dancer, Ulyana Lopatkina, is world famous and has been dancing the role for years. We had seen SWAN LAKE at the Bolshoi in Moscow, so it was interesting to compare and contrast. Basically, it's putting two of the best ballet companies in the world up against each other. Still, to me, the Kirov blew the Bolshoi out of the water. The choreography was more creative, the dancers were more impressive, and the piece was captivating from start to finish. I've never considered ballet one of my favorite artforms, but I've really begun to appreciate it in a new light. This whole experience has given me a new appreciation for all art...and I feel like it's all under the same umbrella...ballet, visual art, theatre, musical theatre. It was also refreshing to feel such a strong energy in the audience at the ballet. There were people of all ages, and the crowd would often break into applause in the middle of the performance, with vigorous shouts of "Bravo!" At the end, audience members brought bouquets of flowers on-stage and handed them to the dancers. The curtain call went on for about 20 minutes. A truly phenomenal artistic experience.


Rarely does anything work out completely as planned, but my final day in St. Petersburg was pretty much perfect. We had a free day to do whatever we liked, and my friends Sami and David I planned out a specific schedule - not expecting it to work out, but we managed to do everything we planned and more...and we managed to have an incredibly disturbing experience along the way, so fitting for Russia!

The day began with another visit to the Hermitage. It was so breathtaking, I had to go back a second time. It was even more beautiful this time around. I was able to notice much more detail and absorb the art a little more deeply.

Then came the dreaded Kunstkamera. We had heard about this museum from our tour guide, who told us it housed Peter the Great's personal collection of oddities. We were intrigued by that, so we decided to check it out. We searched and searched for it, and finally found it under the sign of "Anthropological Museum." We went in looking for the oddities, but all we could see were kitschy displays of cultures from around the world. Tools. China. Eskimos. African Masks. Your standard museum fair. We were convinced that we were in the wrong museum, but then found one little area on the museum map titled "The First Scientific Collection of the Kunstkamera." It was the only area in which you were not allowed to take photos, and we knew this was what we had been looking for. So, we skipped all of the cultural anthropological exhibits and unfortunately reached the oddities display. It was not a pretty sight. Apparently, Peter the Great was very progressive: he wanted to convince the public that "monsters" - meaning deformed people (that's what they called them in those days) - were not supernatural beings tied with the devil, but rather human beings. As he had extreme interest in science, he collected "monstrous" animals, fetuses, children, babies, put them in jars on display and opened Russia's first museum. I saw some of the most terrifying things: jars of dead fetuses with hideous deformities...brain hernias, siamese twins, extraneous limbs, undeveloped limbs, fused legs, cycloptic eyes. Then there were jars of childrens' heads and arms and feet. Rows and rows of these horrors on shelves. And it was all real. I nearly gagged at times. An even more horrifying characteristic: When Peter the Great opened the museum, he didn't want to scare too many people away, so he decorated the oddities in little trinkets to make the public more comfortable. So, some of the "monsters" were decorated with bonnets, ribbons, and doilies...making them even more disturbing. Needless to say, we spent only about 30 minutes in this exhibit before we couldn't handle any more. While the experience was very unnerving, I'm glad I went because it really colored the cultural differences between Russia and America. A museum like this would never ever stand in America. It's interesting to think about what value a museum like this has, and why Russians aren't protesting it to the ground. I guess it's one of those cultural differences that we just can't understand. The experience left me quite shaken.

After lunch at the "Greenwich Pub," a restaurant that was basically an unintentional parody of American culture ("My Heart Will Go On" from TITANIC was playing in the background), we went on an hour-long boat trip along the Neva River. The weather was perfect; the wind was chilly but comfortable, the sun was shining, and the sky looked like a Monet painting. Then, we walked along Nevsky Prospect, the main street of St. Petersburg, sat in a park for awhile, and made our way back to our hostel. A very satisfying and busy day. That night, we returned to Moscow on that infamous train.


There is no doubt that St. Petersburg is one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. It's the sort of city I could see myself living in. However, all of the beauty and grandeur also has a dark underbelly. The city is illustrated well by the fact that you can't drink the tap's contaminated. That seems to be a recurring theme in the city. While i'ts beautiful, it can also be quite poisonous. The buildings are gorgeous, but they were built almost entirely by slaves. Many say that the city was "built upon bones." The Kunstkamera museum, a glamorous, bright green building, seems tame and cheerful until you find the horrors lying inside. All of the buildings have incredible facades...and the keyword is "facade." There are indeed some very shady characters. On one of the stops on our bus tour, we saw an older man with two bear cubs tied to straps. He was charging money for tourists to take photographs with the bear cubs. We could see he wasn't treating the bears in any sort of humane way. It was offensive and saddening. While the days are bright and pretty, St. Petersburg by night is considered even more dangerous than Moscow. One of my friends was walking back to the hostel at night and saw a man slamming a car door on a woman's arm, who was wailing for help. The man was clearly dangerous so my friend couldn't help. Gruesome, I know, but it's reality.

Still, with all of the dark undercurrents, the city's beauty cannot be denied. Whether it was built upon bones or not, one cannot help feeling at peace in this city. It's amazing to think how different the city was just 20 years ago, back when it was called Leningrad. Our bus tour-guide, who was only 28 or so, explained to us how radically the city changed in her lifetime. She told us that just two decades ago, there were no stores, restaurants, or advertisements at all, and now the city is filled to the brim with them. People had to wait over three hours in line just for a small chicken. It's unfathomable what the change in government did for this country and for the world. The excursion to St. Petersburg was truly enlightening, and it's experiences like this that feed my soul and enrich my art.

Thank you for reading this email, even if some of it was a bit more gruesome than the previous ones. I'm so happy to be able to share this experience with all of you. Now that I have internet, I'll be able to write you personally (though it still may take a little while). So, feel free to email me to say hi, or catch me on Instant Messenger, or shoot me a Facebook message. Also, for those of you with Facebook, I have posted some of my photos, so please check them out! I will try to send photos to you all via email ASAP.

Anyway, it's now almost 2 am, and I'm literally collapsing on the keyboard. I wish you all the best and hope to hear from you soon.

With love,

Etai Benshlomo


Mikko Vedru - Editor-in-Chief of Russian MMA said...

Hermitage is actually THE BIGGEST museum in the world. By far.

Talli said...

Where are you?!!!!! I just started reading this blog, but i noticed that your last entry was in December 2007. I hope your email is subscribed to this blog so you can see this comment.

I'm a native of Saint Petersburg, but I've been living in the states for the past 11 years. I've recently fell in love with acting and am studying it right now.

I'm curious to find out what happened with you since you left the moscow art theater....are you still studying? did you find work? did you move back to the states? or do you live in "Peter" now??!!!!