From my last experience I knew the ride from St. Petersburg to Moscow would be long and not fun. Therefore I started off with a stop at Pushkin, about half an hour south of the city, to see the tsar palaces. Again the Catherine palace was closed, so the gardens had to suffice. From the outside already it became clear that this was another jewel like Peterhof, but slightly bigger I felt. Walking through the park, I remembered how some years back, amazed by the beauty of the baroque cities of Lecce, Noto and Scicli in southern Italy, the stark contrast to the poverty of the population was staggering. While southern Italy is a consistently poor region that for centuries has seen its people emigrate to northern Italy, Europe and the Americas due to the dire and hopeless conditions of their home areas, in the midst of all that some people managed to accumulate such an extraordinary wealth that they could afford to build places as beautiful as these I was seeing. Well, here in St. Petersburg, the former capital of imperial Russia, the same thoughts came up over and over again with every palace I crossed. When less than 1% of the population holds so much more wealth that the rest, that even lacks basic freedoms and is held like slaves, it’s somehow understandable that after failing various “soft” uprisings, something like the October revolution must have happened. In hindsight though, what are the places people go to see and admire? The palaces of the 1%? Or the traces of urban, natural and societal disaster created by the “workers and peasant state“? Do we really need the stark social imbalances to create legacies future generations look back to? I’ll spare you the rest of my thoughts, but the beauty of the journeys like this one is that in seeing so many different places, situations, and traces of history right up to the present, thought processes come up that in the everyday routine of work, 24/7 communication and stressful modern life have no space. But these are important questions to ask and topics to reflect on. Especially when we go to the ballot box, and decide on our future, or the destruction of it. See Don T, Brexit and many other such events.
Another two hours over Russian countryside roads leading through small villages of wooden huts, many of them abandoned or crumbling, I reached Veliky Novgorod. This used to be a capital of medieval Russia, battling Moscow and Kiev for dominance. In more modern times it lost that struggle ultimately, and today there is just a big castle with red brick walls and towers standing from that time, as WWII saw systematic destruction of the old city by the Germans. Even the castle looks like most of the walls have been rebuilt in rather recent times. Reading about the last 300 years of Russian history, it’s clear how modernity, enlightenment and European cultural influence won over the dark times of the middle ages. Again I’ll spare you my thoughts on the reasons for that and my feelings about religious dogmas that prevented progress of civilization in Europe for over a thousand years, making Islamic state and the Taliban pale in comparison.
Time to face the last 500 km to Moscow. It was getting late, and there was no other place to escape to along the way. Compared to six years ago, I must say that there has been progress in infrastructure. About half the distance I still had to drive over the arduous countryside roads through the villages, with their spontaneous pedestrian crossings and trucks overtaking all the time. But then there were large stretches of modern toll roads, mostly deserted, that cut things short and made me move fast. At about 20.00 I reached the outskirts of Moscow. Vast roads, wild traffic, and as I remember from past visits the road from A to B is mostly not a straight one, but leads through back roads and shortcuts to avoid the evening traffic. The Mini got parked in the multi-storey garage of the hotel, where the next cheapest car probably costs 4 to 5 times the retail price of mine. St. Petersburg might have been XXL, but Moscow is the capital of showing off how much money you have – or want others believe you have.