Crossing No Man's Land: A Journey from Finland to Russia

The end of the Cold War in the early 90's ushered in a lot of positive changes for Europe: military deescalation, the emergence of democracy in the former Soviet Bloc countries, a more relaxed atmosphere across the continent, and the opening of tourism. Finally, Western tourists found themselves being able to take a peek behind the Iron Curtain and actually visit Russia itself. 

From Finland's capital, Helsinki, we drove past the densely wooded countryside of Finland, into the no man's land that signified the neutral zone between the former adversaries of the Soviet and Western powers, and finally into Russia.

* Unlike border control procedures within the European Union, the experience of entering Russia is an adventure in itself! Entry can take over a couple of hours with immigration officials having the discretion to take as much time as they wish.

* Luckily for us that day, our entry procedure was relatively quick and painless. What's amazing is this was despite the fact that there was only ONE immigration officer processing all entries that day. 

* Welcome to the Russian Federation! One will immediately notice a significant increase of military hardware and personnel on this side compared to the last European Union checkpoint in Finland.

* And after over 6 hours of driving, border checks, and immigration procedures, we finally arrived at our destination, the grand Russian city of St. Petersburg.

* St. Petersburg is Russia's second largest city (after Moscow), Russia's cultural capital, and the most European of all the cities within the Russian Federation.

* Founded by Tsar Peter the Great, St. Petersburg was, for the longest time, capital of Imperial Russia and home of the Tsars and Tsarinas.

* The story goes that Peter the Great was impressed with how his contemporary European neighbors had such rich and varied cultures, and saw how grand their cities were.

* So he ordered the Westernization of Russian social, political, and cultural institutions, the modernization of Russia's army and navy, and the building of a city that would be even more majestic than the cities of Paris, Vienna, London and others; a city which became St. Petersburg.

* And of course, everything leveled up.. including the Vodka!

* Citizens, peasants, and slaves built this grand city with their hands.

*  The city's main street is the EXTREMELY wide (over four lanes per side with a dedicated lane for trams) Nevsky Prospect.

* Most of the city's landmarks, shopping centers, and cultural galleries can be found along this main street.

* And the thoroughfare is so integral that over seven metro stations service the entirety of the road.

* Great Poseidon's Ghost!

* Hipster cafes, a must in every modern European city.

* Dad and I appreciating our time in Mother Russia.

* Souvenir stalls feature authentic Russian gifts likes babushka dolls, Faberge eggs, and Soviet-era paraphernalia.

* Shirts featuring President Putin and local football teams are popular too!

* While on Nevsky Prospect, check out the Kazan Cathedral, one of the more eye-catching and enormous structures along the road.

* Dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, one of the most venerated icons in Russia, the Cathedral was modeled after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. (Remember when I mentioned that Tsar Peter wanted the city to be a better version of his neighboring European cities?) 

* Another picturesque spot along the main street is that of Griboyedov Canal with the Church of Spilled Blood dramatically in the distance (more on the church in a future post).

* "I'm a much better version of my cousins: Paris and Vienna!" said the grand city.

* To walk the whole Nevsky Prospekt is to walk 4.5 kilometers. Though with these surroundings, I wouldn't mind at all!

* And like everything in this fantastic city, the Galeria Shopping Mall is enormous, grandiose, and opulent! Perfect for relaxing after a long day.


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