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Experiences of a Dutch Journalist





Saint Petersburg, 6-21 July 2007

What do you do for a holiday as a single woman? So I thought: what the heck, I'm going to make myself useful and do some voluntary work in Russia. A nice way to brush up my Russian at the same time. Through SIW (a Dutch organization for international volunteer projects) I found an interesting project in the St Petersburg region: improving the park of a country house. I had little expectations, but even those expectations weren't fulfilled!


First we got the chance to see a bit of St Petersburg during the pre-camp from 6-9 July. In the middle Luba from the Russian NGO 'Mir Tesen', that organized the project.


Then we had a Russian welcome party at the Mir Tesen office (where we slept) with lots of vodka and food...


After which we went to see the opening of the bridges at 01.45. The bridges are open at night to allow ships to get through. Most people in Europe watched the Live Earth concert on 7 July 2007, Russians go out on the street and get married. The bridges only close at around 5am. You better decide on what side of St P you want to be before they open or otherwise... you're stuck. There are plans for a tunnel but it might take a few years before it's ready for use.


Then it was time to move to Gostilitsi, a town at 70km from St Petersburg. That's where we were going to work for two weeks. We had expected to be living on the country side, with plenty of these houses...


Instead, we were deported to a run-down Soviet style town, where Lenin's statue still stands... The only place of interest was a huge war monument. This was one of the three shops. As the shops offered the same selection of products, one would have been enough, really.


Accommodation was in a school. This is the whole group, except for me taking the picture, but you know what I look like anyway. Still smiling, cause we hadn't seen the interior yet... From left to right: Nera from Serbia (who put herself in charge of keeping the place tidy, a hell of a job..), loud and boisterous Zagorka from Montenegro, would-be politician Zo from France, crazy Francois from Quebec, punk Wanya from Russia, always smiling camp leader Katya from Russia and the second punk Alec, also from Russia (who made me listen to the sex pistols!).


No, this is not a close up of a bed in a Russian state prison. It is a close up of my bed. Actually they were fine. Sleeping on this spring compares most to sleeping in a hammock.


It is no coincidence that some people were in bed, in the middle of the day, when this picture was taken. Some of us (I won't mention any names) were more in bed than that they were out of bed... Needles to say there was no shower and no hot water available in the school.


We had two rusty electric hot plates to cook on in this lovely kitchen. In the back the oven with on top one of the two pans we had available for cooking. A real challenge when you have to cook for a group of eight people. That's when you get inventive. For example, we used old water bottles for whipping egg white... Another challenge was that we only had 25 Euros per day available for food for the whole group. We took turns, preparing a meal typical for our home country. We sort of managed to make sort of tasty meals.


We were promised a Russian banya (sauna) as a replacement for the shower. It existed but only worked once a week. So we didn't even go there in the end. The only way to freshen up was to make a 1,5km walk to this small lake with cold but very clean water.


Enough complaining about the accommodation. After all, we had come to work here, as camp leader Katya indicates here....


We had to improve the park of the palace built by Kirill Razumovsky in 1745, whose brother Alexey was the lover of empress Elizabeth. This is what it looked like in the middle of the 19th century.


This is what it looked like in the beginning of the 20th century.


And this is what it looks like now. It was heavily damaged in the Second World War, as many other palaces.


That is to say: this is what it looked like before we started working.


This is during the work.


And after the work. Just kidding. This is Peterhof, the palace Peter the Great built. But it was in similar shape as the palace where we were working before it was restored. We got to make a lot of trips in the region as the promised tools to work with never came. All we did was remove rubbish for a few hours every day. We went to Peterhof on July 13, which happened to be the birthday of the place... Therefore it was very crowded with Russians, who all wanted the same shot...


We also got to see the beautiful palace of Catherina the Great in Pushkin. It was only a ruin before it was restored. The Russians do an amazing job in restoring.


And the more classical palace in Pavlovks, just 5km from Pushkin. There is a whole ring of palaces around St Petersburg, built by rulers who didn't want to be in the city all the time, but chose to relax on the country side.


The palace in Lomonosov is already ten years under reconstruction. The main building is still closed.


Part of the palace buildings in Lomonosov is already restored. I guess I shouldn't hold my breath to wait until the main building is restored.


After an overdose of palaces I needed something else: the Nikolai circus. Really impressive. Lot's of work to be done for the Dutch Party for the Animals, that was recently founded. In a Russian circus, half of the acts are with animals: camels, bears (ever seen a bear on a motor cycle?), parrots, sea lions, etc.


OK, one last palace then... The Hermitage. Quicker seen from the water than from the inside... Bye bye St Petersburg, see you next time!