Travels to St. Petersburg, Russia: The Hermitage Museum

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

My last day in St. Petersburg. It was a good day to be inside, since a chilly rain misted over the Neva River and penetrated my thin jacket. Once again, I queued in line to board a tourist bus with the requisite guide in tow, and off we went to one of the most famous museums in the world: the Hermitage.

Winter Palace, St. Petersburg aerial view

The Hermitage is housed primarily within the Winter Palace, which has a distinct history all of its own. Before getting to the art, the Winter Palace is a worthy topic. The palace was the official residence of the Russian emperors from 1732 to 1917. It was constructed on a monumental scale that was intended to reflect the might and power of Imperial Russia. It succeeded. Additions, renovations, and rebuilding from fires have continuously taken place since 1732. The storming of the palace in November 1917 by the Bolsheviks is an iconic symbol of the Russian Revolution.

Author, Denise Ames, in the Winter Palace

After queuing among throngs of tourists, I entered the grand staircase of the Winter Palace. Exquisite indeed. The opulence defies description. I imagined myself as a visiting diplomat to one of the tsars and seeing the staircase for the first time, I would have been humbled by my station and beholden to the tsar. I would not have dared to mention that the wealth inequality between royal family and the lowly peasants could possibly cause disruption and revolution in the future, and to address this problem before this would happen. At least I would not have broached the subject if I knew what was in my best interests.    

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna Litta, at the Hermitage

The Hermitage hosts a collection of over three million works, so vast that it defies description. One of the works of art that seemed to be garnering the most attention was a small one in the middle of the room. Our guide chaperoned us to it and indeed it was dramatic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna Litta. I was able to weave my way through the throngs of viewers and snap a picture and get a closer view.

Other works by Rembrandt, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Cezanne swam before my eyes. Actually, viewing the art is such a mind-numbing and visually-demanding task that after a while it overwhelms the senses. Since my eyes were comprised by the swath of color and motion and my hearing was muted by the whispered tones of thousands of visitors milling about, oddly, my smelling sense took over.

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

In every room and nook and corner I could smell the past. Odors seeped through the walls, rugs, woodwork, through the windows, up the staircases, and down from the ceiling towering above. I could smell the tsars, their families, government officials, and servants bustling to and fro across the hardwood parquet floors performing the busy task of operating an empire. And, perhaps, most important to them, maintaining their elevated station in that empire. I wondered how we are similar to them. Perhaps, in more ways than we imagine.

After several hours of in-your-face crowds, deafening sounds of clicking heels on parquet floors, and the greatest artists of the Western world, I needed a break. I headed for a garden that was accessed through a side door. I stepped outside. Ahhh, quiet. I could hear birds and smell fresh rain on green plants, air that was not filtered through some machine. It was just what I needed.

A garden at the Winter Palace

With the help of nature, I took some time recomposing myself. My eyes readjusted from a blur of colors to seeing a bird hovering over a pink blossom on a tree, I heard the birds chirp away, perhaps knowing that fall was lurking around the corner, and I touched a moisture laden flowering plant that was whisking off fallen water drops. The sounds pouring from the garden were from the present, life was going on here despite knowing the complex and tumultuous life from the past or realizing that the works of the most renowned artists in the world were their neighbors.

It was good to sit in the garden on a simple wooden bench for a few moments and absorb all that I experienced in the last several hours. The history and art of the stupendous Winter Palace were showcased on a grand-scale, and visitors from all over the world paid top money to witness them. But, actually, for me, sitting in that garden at that time, juxtaposed against the man-made splendor around me, was the most welcoming.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Spilled Blood and People Watching: Travels to St. Petersburg Russia

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

Next stop on my whirlwind tour visiting a slice of St. Petersburg was the interestingly-named, oddly-colorful Russian Orthodox cathedral—Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood. I wondered: “Whose blood had been spilled”? As our tour bus navigated the broad boulevard and main thoroughfare—Nevsky Prospekt—our guide spilled out the story of the spilled blood mystery.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

The spilled blood belonged to Tsar Alexander II, a noted Russian tsar (r. 1855-1881). Since I am a world history educator, I knew about him and his many reforms to Russian society, although modest by Western standards. Most notably, in my opinion, he freed the serfs (peasants bound to the land) in 1861, right before Lincoln’s (US) Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. And, noteworthy to Americans, he sold us Alaska in 1867, it was a great bargain. He was not kind to Poland, he quashed an uprising there and stripped it of its constitution and incorporated it into Russia. No more Poland. He was assassinated in 1881 as a result of a well-planned anarchist plot.

Ceiling of the Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

In 1883, construction began on a church at the site of Alexander II’s assassination as a memorial. The construction was completed during the reign of Nicholas II in 1907, the last official Russian tsar. The church’s architecture is a reminder of the Russian style seen in many of its cathedrals; this one has nine onion-domed cupolas covered in gold, enamel, and mosaics. The walls and ceilings inside the church are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics that frame biblical scenes and figures. No longer serving as a place of worship, in 1970 it was converted into a secular museum.

With my answer to the spilled blood satisfied, I disembarked from the bus and decided to explore the stimulating street scene surrounding the magnificent structure. It looked like it was a mixture of tourists, locals out for a stroll, and perhaps even some out and about trying to find a “good time.”

I stopped to observe two men who were leaning against the ornate fence surrounding the cathedral. They had continuous scowls are their faces, perhaps not enjoying the street scene as much as others. Or perhaps pining for the “good ole days” of communism, where you didn’t have to think for yourself.

These Russians (to the left) looked like they were enjoying each other’s company. One woman was sporting a Brooklyn t-shirt, one of many I spotted around the city. I guess, Brooklyn is considered a hip scene for young people around the world, probably couched more in illusion though than reality.

This young man (below) didn’t seem very intent on selling these elaborate dresses of years gone by. Nor, were there very many rapt buyers clamoring for one to wear to their next formal event. 

Finally, I ran into two attractive young women on the bridge over a canal (below). They didn’t notice me and my photo-taking since their attention was directed to their phones and looking as good as possible. Those gold heels made my feet hurt just looking at them.

Enough of spilled blood and people watching, I was ready to board the bus and head back to the ship. I still didn’t have to worry about dressing nicely for the evening dinner in the formal dining room since I would be wearing the same clothes I had for the past five days. Our luggage was being held (at least I hoped so) at the airlines until it could be delivered to our next port of call in Helsinki, Finland. Maybe I should have bought one of those period dresses that the young man was selling, or at least trying to sell. It would have made a splash in the formal dining room.

I had one more day in St. Petersburg, and I would be spending it at the world-renowned Hermitage Museum.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Travels to St. Petersburg: The Peter and Paul Fortress

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Next stop on a whirlwind tour of St. Petersburg was the grand Peter and Paul Fortress hugging the Neva River. Tsar Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) commissioned the building of the fortress to protect his newly found city from attack, particularly by the nearby aggressive Swedes.

Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia
Beach in front of Peter and Paul Fortress, photo, Denise Ames

Although the fortress is imposing, as I passed by I saw that the thick walls overlook sandy beaches that are very popular in summertime. Even though it was August and a chill swept in from the river, the beach was crowded and gave a light frivolous spirit juxtaposed with the bleak fortress.

I would have liked to wander around the fortress but our tour guide made a mad dash for the Peter and Paul Cathedral that dominated the center of the fortress. Judging by the long queue of tourists patiently waiting, we weren’t the only people intent on seeing the treasures inside of this somewhat plain-looking cathedral.

The Russian Orthodox cathedral is the first and oldest landmark in St. Petersburg, built between 1712 and 1733 on Hare Island along the Neva River. Although the cathedral is not imposing—by stupendous cathedral standards—it has the distinction of having the world’s tallest Orthodox bell tower. Its gold-painted spire stretches to a height of 404 feet and is crowned at the top by an angel holding a cross, an important symbol of St. Petersburg. I noticed its grandeur when my gaze followed the slender spire tower upward as it disappeared into the gray, overcast sky.

Final resting place of Tsar Nicholas II and family (killed by Bolsheviks)

The cathedral is dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, the patron saints of the fortress (Saint Peter is the patron saint of the city). Whatever architectural features the cathedral lacked on the outside, planners made up for it by designing a lavish interior. The cathedral is a fitting burial place for the remains of almost all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicolas II and his family, the last tsar of Russia killed by the Bolsheviks. Nicolas II was finally laid to rest in July 1998. Even the tomb of the famous Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia for 34 years is found here. It gave me a chill as I realized I was witnessing the timeline of Russia’s tumultuous history in this very spot.

Inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral, photo, Denise Ames

I was mesmerized by the gleaming marble, the exquisitely designed lighting, and ornate gold-gild splashing the room with wealth and splendor. The bluish/greenish lighting from the opulent chandeliers cast me under their spell. It was soothing, eerie, and ephemeral all at the same time. I wondered what was the point of this very expensive lighting display. 

The autocratic Russian czars were known through history for their harsh treatment of the peasants, who made up the bulk of their empire’s population and provided the elites with their vast wealth. Here I was standing in the cathedral with dead czars and their families but instead of feeling contempt and disgust towards them, the comforting light soothed away my ill feelings to that of calm, wonder, and even reverence.

Cathedral interior, photo, Denise Ames

I wasn’t the only one that the lights affected. I looked around and people walked around in states of veneration and awe, a few even wiped away tears. Quite an accomplishment for just a few well-designed lights.

But on a deeper note, the respect to Russia’s rulers displayed in the cathedral, I imagine, must have been a source of comfort and meaning to the Russian people who have borne the brunt of their country’s violent history and rulers’ indifference. As I saw it, the cathedral was a visible reminder to the Russian people and foreign visitors that all in the past was not violent and debauched, there is also a sense of grandeur. As Russia struggles to enter the globalized world, a portrayal of a glorified past is a way to give hope and well-being to its people. I thought the cathedral had done this job well.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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St. Petersburg, Russia: A Stroll through the City

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

St. Petersburg is a fascinating city, full of history, intrigue, and paradoxes. Although I could spend weeks in this city, I only have 3 days. I am eager to venture out on day 2 of my Baltic Cruise in St. Petersburg, and I chose a tour of the city. I hadn’t seen the city since my two-day visit here in 1998 and it would be interesting to compare the city at these different times in its history. 

Russian newlyweds, photo Denise Ames

After a bus drive through certain parts of the city, our first stop was a park along the Neva River, viewing St. Peter and Paul Fortress across the waterway. The cool, damp air did not deter a new bride from shedding her coat for wedding photos, framed against the dramatic river backdrop. Food trucks offering Russian treats and children playing emitted an atmosphere of gaiety, lightness, and freedom that had been missing in my 1998 visit that released a glum, fearful atmosphere.

We boarded the bus and it wove its way through narrow streets to a store specifically designed for tourists. Tour companies seem to like these stops since they combine shopping and a bathroom (always welcomed). I quickly got at the head of the line for the women’s bathroom and since I was not in the market for touristy items, I decided to venture out into the streets. As I usually do when I am in this situation, I ask the guide and bus driver for the departure time then enjoy time on my own. I decided to take my chances on my mini excursion, since St. Petersburg has strict rules that tourists cannot wander the city without the accompaniment of an official guide. I was on my own.

photo Denise Ames

One of my first clues that St. Petersburg was a “hip” city that followed Western pop culture was a poster for a café that appeared to be named after the hit American TV series at the time: “Breaking Bad” (filmed in my hometown of Albuquerque, NM I might add).

As I wandered through the maze of streets, I came across men working on street repairs with modern looking tools and machinery. The JCB backhoe (the company started in 1949 in the UK) was not like the worn-out, broken-down Soviet machinery of the past. I was surprised when the backhoe operator even willingly smiled for my photo of him. 

nested dolls

I arrived at the tourist store on time but we were “given” more time to shop. Helping myself to their delicious complimentary tea, I decided to look over their extensive collection of matryosha dolls, a traditional symbol of Russia.

The word matryosha literally “little matron,” the diminutive form of the Russian female first name Matryona. A set of matryoshas consist of a wooden figure which separates, top from bottom, to reveal a smaller figure of the same sort inside, which has, in turn, another figure inside of it, and so on. The number of nested figures is traditionally at least five, but can be much more, up to several dozen for the finely-skilled craftsman to master. The prices ranged from over 5 figures in $ to a couple of dollars. I opted for the lower end (very lower end) as a gift for my granddaughter, adorned in the traditional red and yellow colors.

A set from 1892

Finally, the avid shoppers were corralled and loaded onto the bus. We then motored across the Neva bridge to the imposing Peter and Paul Fortress. It looked so intriguing!  

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Peterhof Palace, Luxury Beyond Imagination

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

I am traveling to the Baltic Sea as a cruise ship lecturer aboard the Nautica, part of the Oceania Cruise Line. As part of my lecturer gig, I am accompanying a tour to Peterhof Palace, located about 21 miles from St. Petersburg. It is often referred to as the Russian Versailles, and as I approached the entrance of the estate I can see why, another stupendous Russian palace.

Peter the Great, a famous Russian tsar who “opened up” Russia to the West, built the palace and designed the surrounding estate. After a trip to Paris and the Versailles Palace in 1717, Peter imagined that his new palace in St. Petersburg as a rival. Throughout the early 18th century, Peter supervised the design, construction, and additions to his palace and gardens.

Poseidon, photo Denise Ames

I amble along towards the grand entrance to the palace, taken in by the all the architectural splendor. I statue of Poseidon, god of the sea, is the first to greet me, straddling atop the ocean world. The maritime theme is apt, since the palace rests only 300 meters from the Gulf of Finland.

I make my way to the palace for a tour of the interior but an absorbed gardener raking debris from the immaculate lawn catches my eye. I stop and ponder a moment. I wonder what his life is like.

Does he think about his country’s past in which the tsar and his family appropriated so much of the country’s wealth for their own personal pleasure and prestige? Does it bother him that the concentration of Russia’s vast wealth in so few hands blunted the country’s modern development and prevented its citizens for gaining a higher standard of living. A price he is paying for today. Perhaps, not. He seems intent on his job and exudes a demeanor of pride in his work and life. It probably is just my own projections.

I often am disturbed when I see such opulence, as was standing before me, and know from historical accounts the way the serfs (unfree peasants) lived and were treated in Russia’s past. Although not slaves, they could not leave the land, and were forced to contribute part of their harvest to the royal family. 

Interior, Peterhof Palace

The feeling continues as I tour the palace interior. Furniture, finished in a shimmering gold leaf veneer, radiates pomp and prestige, a visual tribute to the royal families. The décor makes a statement to the world that Russia has finally arrived. No longer a European misfit, but a powerful force on the world stage. Peter the Great led the way.

I am glad to escape the oppressive chambers of the palace and breath the fresh, salty air outside. I have ample time to explore the lush gardens and venture to the sea to view Peters summer retreat (he had a separate summer palace, guess you can never have too many palaces).

The gardens of Peterhof are known for their fountains, all 150 of them. I am surprised to learn that they are fed by natural springs, not pumps, which adds to their charm and timely effusions.

I vigorously walk while exploring the vast garden complex. It feels good to have an unrestrained place to walk, I was getting bored making laps around the ship’s deck. I take in the smell and feel of nature, although manicured by dozens of gardeners, it still feels effervescent. I feel bubbly and outgoing, like the fountains spewing from the landscape. I nod to visitors passing by, and smile when children dodge through the trees.

Monplaisir Palace, Tsar Peter’s summer retreat

I finally reach Monplaisir Palace, Peter’s summer retreat, gazing out over the misty Gulf of Finland. I heave a grateful sigh of relief. This “modest” structure was personally designed by Peter the Great and you could feel he loved being here. It feels more like a contemplative and creative place, as opposed to the pretentious facade of the palace.

I stroll around the exterior of the building (I cannot go inside) and my imagination goes wild. This magic place must have given inspiration to Peter to make St. Petersburg a “window to the West.” I sit and contemplate the historical meaning of Peter’s ideas on Russia and the West.

A sudden chill drifts in from the Gulf, reminding me that by the end of August summer starts to wind down in this area and s preview of winter’s icy potential peeks out behind the clouds. It is also time for me to head back to the tour group and depart for St. Petersburg.

I sprint back to the palace, taking in more and more fountains and admiring the dedication of the ever-present gardeners still raking and trimming to create an even more perfect garden. I turn over in my mind my earlier thoughts about how they may view the past—with contempt, indifference, or pride. Perhaps, they don’t think about the past and live in the present. They may be just grateful that they have a good job, the economy is reviving, and President Putin has at least some of their interests at heart. Maybe, this is good enough.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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St. Petersburg, Russia: A New Outlook with Old Trappings

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

I am looking forward to St. Petersburg, our second stop on a Baltic Sea cruise on board the Nautica, a small cruise ship that is part of the Oceania Line. I am the cruise ship lecturer, but with my lectures carefully prepared ahead of time I have free time to explore all the destinations. We will be staying three days in St. Petersburg, so enough time to get a little taste of the city, the second largest in Russia.

Nautica cruise ship on the Neva River, photo Denise Ames

The morning dawns as the Nautica nimbly maneuvers through endless miles of channels along the Neva River, after all St. Petersburg has for many years been a major port at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. Many of the factories lining the channels look worn and in disuse, a testament to the once industrial might of the former Soviet Union during World War II and into the 1970s.

The ship docks along Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment, a place specifically for cruise ships that line its banks. I am eager to disembark and start exploring the city before the “official” tour begins, but I am told that cruise ship visitors cannot just stroll the city at their leisure, they must be accompanied by a guide. This restriction reminded me of the endless and nonsensical “rules” I encountered during a 1989 trip to the former Soviet Union. I forego my morning explorations and read my notes about Russia.

Old factories along the Neva River, St. Petersburg, photo Denise Ames

Even though reform-minded Premier Mikael Gorbachev instituted greater glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an effort to revive the flagging Soviet Union in the 1980s, it was not enough to stem the tide of corruption and inefficiencies rotting the Soviet system within. The Soviet Union unceremoniously ended in 1991, at which time it broke into 15 independent republics. The largest in size and population is Russia. In a show of independence from its communist past, St. Petersburg changed its name from Leningrad shortly afterwards.  

It was not an easy transition from a communist command economy to capitalism and from an authoritarian state to a democratic (liberal) form of government. In fact, I would argue that there was never a full transition, and vestiges of the Soviet state remain, as evidenced by my walking about restrictions.

Another vestige of communism and a corrupt system affects me on my first day in St. Petersburg. I take some time to visit the ship’s concierge and enquire about my lost luggage that had been missing since I arrived in Stockholm, the departing port for the cruise. He informs me that the luggage will not be delivered to St. Petersburg, but instead to Helsinki, Finland, our next stop. I ask why. He candidly replies that luggage delivered to the St. Petersburg airport destined for the cruise ship often goes missing. I nod my understanding. Three more days in the same clothes! I profusely thank him for the laundry service they are providing and prepare for the day’s excursion.

Peterhof Palace, built by Peter the Great, photo Denise Ames

As a cruise ship lecturer, I may also accompany certain tours that need a “helper” to check on stragglers and answer questions. I can’t complain about the price (free). I am lucky to accompany a tour to Peterhof Palace, located about 21 miles from St. Petersburg. It is often referred to as the Russian Versailles, and as I approached the entrance of the estate I can see why, another stupendous Russian palace.

Blog series continues, Monday, December 21.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Estonia: A Small Country but Big in Culture, History, and Natural Beauty pt. 3

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

My one day stop in Estonia is not nearly enough time to see everything I want, but at least I am able to visit the Old Town section of Tallinn, the capital and largest city of Estonia.

The country’s past is visible not only in some of the architecture, but also in its festivals. Estonians take great pride in their indigenous heritage. Because of its history and geography, Estonia’s culture has been influenced by the traditions of the adjacent areas, as well as the former dominant powers of Sweden and Russia.

Estonian checking his phone, photo, Denise Ames

They celebrate a host of seasonal festivals throughout the year. Unfortunately, my one day stay did not allow me to partake in any of these but I satisfied my curiosity by reading and imagining about them. These festivals encompass everything from religion, culture, and handicrafts to art, music, dance, and theater, making the festival calendar both colorful and remarkable.

Folk culture is central to Estonia’s national identity. One of the principal expressions of its folk culture is the All-Estonian Song Festival, which was first held in 1869 and has since taken place every five years in July on the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. It is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world; the joint choir consists of more than 30,000 singers performing to an audience of 80,000 people.

The Estonian Song Festival has been designated by UNESCO, the UN Education and Cultural Organization, as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Estonian folk songs have been extensively recorded and studied, especially those sung by women. The songs include work songs, ballads, and epic legends. The Song Festival remains a significant icon for the nation, affirming Estonian identity.

Ring Dance

Along with the song festival the Estonian Dance Festival is held at the same time.

At the end of our sightseeing day, my friend and I limped back to the ship, thoroughly satisfied with our day’s excursion. We expected to see our luggage awaiting us in our room as was promised. However, luggage was nowhere to be found. At least the concierge pitied us enough to give us free laundry service. We had to wait until the next stop, Helsinki, Finland, when surely the luggage would arrive.

Tallinn Walls, photo Denise Ames

Half starving after traipsing around the city center all day, my friend and I decided an early dinner would be the best way to avoid later crowds at the dining room that we were sure would frown upon our pedestrian attire (we had only the clothes on our back to wear). I fluffed my hair, washed the tourist grime off my face, and hoped that our lost luggage story would get us past the maître d and the ship’s dress requirements for the formal dining room and seated for a relaxing dinner.

The dress requirement displayed at the dining room entrance had put a big X through all the clothes that we were wearing: sneakers, blue jeans, and wrinkled T-shirts. At least I had an acceptable sweater to mask the T-shirt, somewhat. The maître d scowled even before I could launch into my luggage story. She did not swallow it, at least not right away. It took some wrangling to convince her that we should be seated and served, I even touted my importance as the ship’s lecturer, she did not seem to be impressed, and then I promised to tuck my sneakers under the table (only shoes I had) and out of sight After exhausting my arguments for why we should be served, she finally relented and brusquely escorted us to an out of the way table.

My friend and I sat back and toasted our first day’s excursion, the delights of Tallinn, and our ability to score a seat in the dining room. As our ship sailed out of the Tallinn harbor, I fondly looked out over the ancient city that has made a big splash in a globally sophisticated world. It was a memorable day all around.    

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 



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Estonia: A Small Country but Big in Culture, History, and Natural Beauty, pt. 2

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

My one day stop in Estonia is not nearly enough time to see everything I want, but at least I am able to visit the Old Town section of Tallinn, the capital and largest city of Estonia. Tallinn is a treasure trove of well-preserved medieval buildings just waiting to be explored and, despite my jet lag and lost luggage, explore I did.

A patchwork of brick-laid streets testify to a medieval past, when most commerce took place in stalls and stores bordering its roadways. Now quaint shops serve tourists arts and crafts replicating Estonia’s traditional culture, all tucked away in corners of centuries old buildings.

Streets in Old Town Tallinn, Estonia, photo Denise Ames

From its communist past, Estonia has emerged as a parliamentary, representative, democratic republic in which the Prime Minister is head of a multi-party, stable government. Quite an accomplishment. The seat of the Parliament is in Toompea Castle, an ancient stronghold in use since at least the 9th century. A colorful Baroque addition to the castle in the 18th century that is under renovation.

One of the grandest sites in Old Town is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Cathedral built in typical Russian style between 1894 and 1900, when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. I love the “onion” shaped domes that distinguish Russian architecture, often covered in a thin gold leaf that gives it added elegance. This cathedral is particularly popular as large crowds make their way through, even though it is also undergoing restoration.

If you are ever afraid of not being connected while visiting Estonia, rest assured that the country is sometimes called e-Estonia due to its reputation for technological innovation. It has almost complete Wi-Fi coverage and one of the highest rates of mobile phone usage in the world. In fact, the software for Skype was invented by Estonians. 

Estonia prides itself in its conservation of nature. And what a perfect place for nature lovers. Once again, I wasn’t able to venture outside of Tallinn but if you love nature it appears that it is a wonderful destination. More than 18% of the country’s land and 30% of the sea territory is made up of protected areas, which include five national parks, nature reserves, landscape reserves, and other smaller areas.

Eco-tourism is a big industry in Estonia, and they have all the ingredients to be successful. Bogs, meadows, forests, and little lakes give each visitor an opportunity to enjoy the silence and peaceful nature.

Tourism has been instrumental in transforming Estonia from a former Soviet state into a thriving nation. Presenting a heady mix of medieval heritage and technological advancement, along with its rich historic architecture, natural landscapes, and dynamic culture, the country makes a significant impression on the ever-growing number of visitors that it attracts. Estonia has grown into a major travel destination. Towns throughout the country have seen a steady increase in tourism related investment. Tourism has stimulated a social renaissance.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Estonia: A Small Country but Big in Culture, History, and Natural Beauty, pt. 1

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

I peek out my window and see the gray light of dawn enveloping the calm harbor of Tallinn, Estonia. It is a good sign. After a night of some turbulence at sea, feeling stationary is a welcome relief to my slightly upset stomach. I smile, knowing that it will be a good day to explore Tallinn, Estonia. It is my first destination with the Oceania Cruise Line’s 10 days Baltic cruise, part of my gig as a cruise ship lecturer.

I quickly dress for the morning activities, since my choice of clothing amount to a rumpled “outfit” (jeans and T-shirt) that had been stashed in my carry on. The ship sailed out of Stockholm with my luggage hidden away somewhere within the huge suitcase-sorting apparatus of the KLM baggage department in Amsterdam. The ship’s helpful concierge assures me and my friend that our luggage will arrive in the next couple of days. At least, I had the presence of mind to pack all my notes and computer for the lectures in my carry-on.

Estonia, coat of arms

Estonia is a small, charming, European country that many of us may know very little about. That is too bad, since it offers a lot of culture, history, and natural beauty in one small package. It borders the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea situated in northern Europe. For centuries it has held a tactical geographic position as a crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe. Russia dominates its eastern border, Scandinavia to the north and west and the other two Baltic States (Latvia and Lithuania) to its south. Estonia was considered a prize strategic-asset among the regional powers through the centuries.

Soviet army entering Estonia in 1939

Estonia may be best known for its forced inclusion into the former empire of the Soviet Union in 1939 and its subsequent dramatic road to independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Despite its torturous and tumultuous history, in the 20th century it has now rebuilt itself into a distinct cultural identity in a globalized world. In fact, during its long slog towards NATO and EU (European Union) membership throughout the 1990s, Estonia was often held up by Eastern Europe as an example of how to rapidly modernize while preserving its national heritage and improving living conditions. Looking back at my visit and research, I would say it accomplished its goal.

My one day stop in Estonia is not nearly enough time to see everything I want, but at least I am able to visit the Old Town section of Tallinn, the capital and largest city of Estonia. Tallinn is a treasure trove of well-preserved medieval buildings just waiting to be explored and, despite my jet lag and lost luggage, explore I did.

Dr. Denise Ames at gate tower in Tallinn, Estonia

Old Town Tallinn was once surrounded by walls, gates, and towers to keep marauding bands of bandits and others at bay. Many still stand as sentinels to the past. Instead of keeping people out, the walls now beckon tourists, artists, and musicians to see what the Old Town has to offer.

Friday, December 11, Estonia pt. 2

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Rio Grande Nature Center: Lessons from Nature

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Old Cottonwood at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park

One of my favorite places to visit in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my hometown, is the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park. Comfortably nestled alongside the Rio Grande that slices its way through the center of the city, the park is a 38-acre urban wildlife preserve established in 1982. About two-thirds of the grounds of the Park are set aside as habitat for wildlife.

I remember when it first opened in 1982. My mother moved to Albuquerque in 1979 and during frequent visits to see her my family would always take in the park and explore its labyrinth of footpaths. My young kids at the time would love to see the scurrying lizards dart about in the wooded understory or skip rocks into the mild-mannered Rio Grande. Now my three grandchildren during their visits, love to scamper through the park picking up leaves, cones, and weird looking seeds to take to school for a “show and tell” about their magical experience in the woods.  

The remaining acreage of Rio Grande Nature Center State Park contains a visitors’ center, two gardens, several wildlife viewing areas, an education building, and a building housing the non-profit Wildlife Rescue Center. A shaded area provides an ideal place to picnic after a long morning hike; thus, prolonging the calming ambience enjoyed with nature a little bit longer.

A view of the Sandia Mountains from a pond at the Rio Grande Nature Center

My favorite wildlife viewing areas at the park are four constructed ponds which provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. The wetlands mimic the natural historical flood plain of the Rio Grande that has endured for centuries. It takes one’s breath away gazing out over one of the ponds near the visitors center, teaming with a variety of birds and turtles while taking in the beauty of the Sandia Mountains standing statuesque in the background framed against a azure-blue sky.

Bald eagle in a cottonwood at the Nature Park

The park is home to many species of flora and fauna, in particular showcasing the magnificent Rio Grande Cottonwood. Dwarfing park goers, these sentries of the woods whisper to us through fluttering leaves that nature is not just here but everywhere. Birdwatchers are in heaven as they can scout out over 300 species of birds. I have been lucky enough to observe coyote, owls, beaver, porcupine, turtles, eagles, and many other wild species. But I am not so lucky to smell the pungent odor of the occasional skunk passing through.

Nature Center volunteers are happily engaged in several different projects: restoration and gardening for wildlife, monitoring for aquatic insect and bird species, monthly water quality monitoring, and educational work about the bosque ecosystem.

I never tire of expressing my gratitude that I am able to enjoy a slice of the natural world smack in the middle of my hurried hometown. It is a perfect place to slow down, enjoy the silence, and reflect upon the rich bounty and timeless lessons that nature has to share with us. Listening to nature’s lessons is the hard part for us as humans, since we think of ourselves as separate from nature and beyond its enduring lessons. But at least, strolling through the Nature Center on a crisp morning is a gentle reminder to me that humans may have a big brain but there is still very much for us to learn. And nature is the very best teacher. 

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Divided: Five Colliding Worldviews and How to Navigate Them has just been released!

Divided, Dr. Ames’ latest book,addresses the question on the lips of every American: why can’t we get along? The cultural divide is threatening our democracy and destabilizing our country. Divided looks at the deep cultural divide through the lens of five colliding worldviews—indigenous, traditional, progressive, globalized, and transformative. This approach helps us make sense of our deep divisions and suggests ways of bridging them.

It is urgent that we understand and bridge the cultural divide. Bridging the divide is dependent upon first understanding it. Gaining an understanding of the five worldviews enhances our success of arriving at sensible solutions and increasing civil conversations. If not, rancor and intractability ensue.

Divided is one of nine books written by Dr. Ames and the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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