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.
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.
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.
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