The rule of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762-1796, included Russkaya Amerika, outposts in California, Alaska, and Hawai‘i.

I’m back in the USSR, as the Beatles song goes (these days it’s actually called Russia).

Years ago, I visited Moscow, finding it cold with Moscovites huddled in gray stone buildings, all the better to avoid clutches of the ever-voracious mafia and kleptos.

But today I’m in the Paris of Russia, St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad, and Petrograd — for Peter the Great, not oil — before that). I’m here to explore the sprawling Hermitage, a 360-room art museum jammed with three million items, including paintings by Van Gogh, da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio.

“Why go to Russia?” Santa Barbara friends asked me. The answer is that I have a secret impulsive side. I was just sitting on the living room sofa, and the idea just struck me. The Hermitage, fat with art and sitting along the Neva River, has long tickled my fancy. I impulsively emailed my son Barclay and daughter Wendy about the idea, and they impulsively signed on. What a family. Right off the bat, Barclay started learning Russian tourist phrases (“Where is the bathroom?”) and decoding Cyrillic.

Had I dreamed what a costly trip this was, involving countless bureaucratic hurdles I had to surmount, I think I would have instead gone to Hawai‘i and spent a week on the sand we stole from the Hawaiians.

Still, St. Petersburg has an allure Waikiki Beach can’t match, especially during the current White Nights, when the sun hardly puts in an appearance and evenings are hazy and mysterious. The town puts on White Night festivals, and lovers take romantic strolls along the Neva. It sits at 59 degrees north latitude, about the same as Anchorage but a lot more interesting.

St. Petersburg is a survivor. During World War II, Hitler swore he’d level it. He didn’t manage that, but his troops blockaded the city for 872 days. About a million people died from shelling, starvation, and disease, but St. Petersburg held out to the end. Hitler never conquered it.

There are boat rides along the river. Around 1:30 a.m. the drawbridges, all aglow with lights, are raised to permit ships to pass. Peter the Great is the one who defeated the Swedes and built the town, but it was Catherine the Great (1729-1796) who became the superwoman art shopper, scouring Europe for paintings to stuff in her palaces. Peasants, keep out!

Russia has spent many a ruble in the past two decades restoring churches like the ornate Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, commemorating the death of Alexander II, victim of a terrorist’s bomb in 1881.

It’s just down the street from our hotel. It opened in 1907 but was closed by Stalin in the 1930s and suffered damage over the years. Looks great now. St. Petersburg, supposedly built over a swamp, is veined with Venice-like canals where you can take boat rides.

Tips: If you’re coming, give yourself plenty of lead time to apply for a visa and make sure your passport is up to date. Barclay’s wasn’t, so we paid $$$ for a quickie. You can avoid long lines at the Hermitage by buying a permit online. Once you get here, whatever you do, don’t drink the icky water or dunk ice cubes in your beverage.

There are excellent hotels here, including the Four Seasons (where we’re not staying), and fine restaurants, but bring plenty of rubles. They’re expensive. But there are plenty of affordable places.

Taxis that cluster around museums, top restaurants, and major hotels are infamous for overcharging hapless tourists, so beware. Better to have the manager call.

Beef stroganov is a popular dish named, according to legend, for Count Alexander Grigoriyevich Stroganov, a big gun in Russia in the mid-1800s. He was childless and often invited folks in to dine, where his chef fed them the dish that became world-famous.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, incidentally, was born in St. Petersburg and started in politics here after retiring from a foreign intelligence career with the KGB. He calls communism a “blind alley.”

To make the 5,694-mile trip, we flew almost 11 hours (ouch!) from LAX to Stockholm, and then after a pit stop, a couple more before landing at Pulkova Airport in St. Petersburg. Was it worth it? I’ll tell you in my next column.


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