Russia was not at all what I expected though I didn't realise I had expectations. Subconsciously I must have thought of it as an eastern bloc country because I was surprised to find how much Moscow and St Petersburg are thriving, cosmopolitan, capitalist cities with a very European feel to them, though there wasn't much public evidence of diverse cultures. Cathedrals and palaces were ostentatiously rich with marvellous frescoes and heavily laden gold hangings and decoration. The wealth of the Romanovs was on display everywhere and it was easy to see how this and an autocratic approach to the majority of the populations kept in servitude and treated like slaves would lead to revolution. But the wealth we were looking at was not the Romanov's. That had been destroyed during the war if not in communist times. What we were looking at was new wealth - the recent restoration of all the magnificence of Imperial times. One cathedral had been totally restored in something like 100 days by 35 artists working day and night. The famous amber room in Catherine the Great's Palace at Peterhof has been totally rebuilt with money provided by President Putin - so much money spent on gold and ostentation. No doubt the cost will be recouped through tourism - 5 million Chinese alone last year and 8 million expected this year but would the money have been better spent on infrastructure and social services. I actually found it all a bit intimidating. Russia is asserting its place in the world, reclaiming a history and power that goes beyond Soviet and communist times. It's almost as though those days are a hiccup in Russia's history as it show cases itself to the world with a wealth that no longer belongs to one family but to the nation. The display of wealth was to me as menacing as the display of the powerful weapons which will make up the processions on May 9th as Russians celebrate the end of the Second World War.
Russia of course is the home of the Bolshoi, of culture and art and one of the joys of the trip was the visit to the Hermitage. Particularly thrilling for me were the Rembrandts, especially the Return of the Prodigal Son. This is a picture I have loved for a long time and used oftern in reflection days and prayers. To see the original was a great joy and I was able to sit with it for sometime. While doing this a group of thse 8 million Chinese tourists were being shown round. The guide was obviously telling them the story of the Prodigal Son. I couldn't understand a word of course but he entered so much into the story that it was easy to follow and he got a good applause when he finished. I'm sure such good story telling would brighten up many a Church service. One disappointment was not seeing Rublev's ikon of the Trinity, another favourite painting of mine. Unfortunately I took it for granted it was in the Hermitage, only to discover it was in fact in Moscow and I had missed it! Perhaps a reason for returning?