St. Petersburg, Russia: General Information

Russia, formerly the largest country in the Soviet Union, occupies 6,592,800 square miles of land mass, making it twice the size of the United States. The Ural Mountains mark the boundary between what has traditionally been known as European Russia and Asian Russia. St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, lies in the Northwest corner of Russia on the Gulf of Finland, a mere 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle. St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703, about the same time as the founding of Detroit. The city is built on 44 islands, woven with water from the Neva River, and nicknamed the Venice of the North. Peter the Great created the city from the marshes and then compelled his friends to move from Moscow by building them fine palaces, designed by noted European architects of the day. St. Petersburg was to be Russia's window to the west and, indeed, to this day has a reputation for being a very European Russian city. There is somewhat of rivalry between Moscow (the largest city) and St. Petersburg (a mere 4 million). Muscovites firmly believe that one can only see the true Russia by coming to their city and citizens of St. Petersburg dismiss Moscow as drab, monolithic, and uninteresting.

St. Petersburg is a fascinating city. The people are warm and hospitable. Global Hopemakers is happy to continue the seventh exchange in 1998 with a Lansing Sister City delegation visit planned for the summer of 1999.

Cultural

St. Petersburg is a city of great beauty with ornate palaces, picturesque canals, "White Nights", churches, and an overwhelming sense of pride in it's history. Some of the greatest artists, writers, composers, and dancers the world has ever produced have come from Russia, many from St. Petersburg. This impressive list includes: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Borodin, Balacnhine, Nureyev, and Stanislowski. Citizens of St. Petersburg are intensely interested in and extremely knowledgeable about the arts and culture. Although inflated prices for tickets have made it difficult for the average person to go to the Mariinski and Maly Theaters, there are many fine libraries and museums which are still within reach, including one of the finest museums in the world, The Hermitage, with over a thousand rooms or precious artworks.

Language

Russian is the principle language, although many educated Russians understand and speak some English. They always appreciate it when visitors try to speak Russian, even if it is a very poor attempt. English is taught in schools beginning at age 7 or 8. Depending on what type of high school one goes to, one can receive further language training.

Travel

Traveling to St. Petersburg has become much easier during the past seven years in which Global Hopemakers has been facilitating the Sister City Exchange project. Many major airlines fly into St. Petersburg, including KLM, SAS, Finnair, and Czech Air. The city itself has an efficient metro and bus system, which makes it possible to get around easily, particularly if you have some knowledge of Russian language. Taxis are available, but not considered safe by the locals. Many Russians hail passing cars and negotiate a price after they have talked with the driver and determined if he or she is "okay." Bring comfortable walking shoes, because your Russian guide will probably prefer to walk, "It's just a short walk" might mean up to thirty minutes or more, a bit much for some of us out-of-shape Americans.

Weather

The weather in St. Petersburg in similar to Michigan, although the summers are even shorter (hard to believe) and the winters are longer with harsher temperatures. Temperatures average in the 70s in summer and the 20s in the winter. In summer the residents of St. Petersburg are rewarded for their endurance and survival of the winter with legendary White Nights. White Nights describe the twenty-two hours of daylight which bathes the city between June 12 and July 7. The city doesn't sleep during this period. Parties are held along the Neva and the highlight of the celebration is at 2 am when the bridges are raised for the night. It is said that many a philandering husband or wife will utilize this inability to get around the city and get home to their advantage during this time.

Currency

The ruble is the currency of Russia. In January, 2001, one dollar could be exchanged for about 30 rubles. Some stores prefer to take dollars over their own currency, but they are not supposed to do so. Money and traveler's checks (only use American Express or a well-known brand) can be easily exchanged at banks, which are open during normal business hours. There is an American Express office across from the Hotel Europa where you might get a better exchange rate. Outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow, traveler's checks and credits are rarely accepted.

Political

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has emerged as a large, somewhat chaotically-governed country. The city government has many layers. We relate to the Central District of St. Petersburg governmental division, which not only has its own Mayor and Vice Mayor, but all of the major institutions, including education, health, social services, and public service. Like the country as a whole, many aspects of city life are still managed centrally.

The St. Petersburg Times is an English-language newspaper which gives current news and developments in society and culture.

Education

The education system of Russia, although lacking funds, is something that the people of St. Petersburg can be proud of. Education is a much more solemn affair than in the US, with teachers and students focusing on serious learning. Private preschools have sprung up to fill the void left by the demise of communist preschools. In some cases the school districts have taken over the schools, with good results. At age 7, St. Petersburg children begin "regular" school and by age 14 they are tested and placed in high schools which correspond to their areas of interest and ability. For example, there are language and literature schools, and science and math schools. Students graduate at 17 and endure rigorous testing to place in universities in such as St. Petersburg State University. There are some technical schools in St. Petersburg also, the most well-known being St. Petersburg Technical University.