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From Zoology to History

In the entrance hall, stands a giant blue whale skeleton.

The boys diligently followed us through the endless galleries of the Hermitage yesterday, even though the art on display did not thrill them. To repay their patience, we decided to reward them with a visit to the funky and kid-friendly Museum of Zoology this morning.

Adjacent to its more famous sister museum, the Kunstkamera, Peter the Great founded it in the early 18th century with a similar purpose: hosting the rich and diverse collection of items gathered during his own explorations and the many scientific missions he sponsored.

Though he owes his nickname to his height – he stood at 2 m 03 – Peter was nonetheless great in many other regards as well, not least of which his thirst for knowledge, his intense curiosity and his desire to modernize Russia. He sought to enlighten his compatriots and fulfilled that quest in large part by bringing to Saint Petersburg, for all to see, the curiosities of the wider globe.

The Kunstkamera, whose full name is actually the Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology, exhibits a far-reaching range of cultural curiosities, as well as a famed collection of ‘monstrosities’ (malformed fetuses, odd body parts, etc.). As the name suggests, the museum of zoology focuses rather more classically on displaying animals from all over the world, many of which were unknown to most in Peter the Great’s time.

To Guy & Max though, the animal kingdom holds few secrets, courtesy of an early passion that they have never stopped feeding. Though explanations are few and all labels are all in Russian, the boys could name and even describe many of the species with ease. Leanne and I were literally flabbergasted – and secretly thrilled that we caved in to their Pick’n’Pay whims back when collecting animal cards to fill their album seemed the most important thing on earth. Who would have guessed that such a venal piece of abject marketing would provide such scientific rewards? They were not only able to identify mammals. They categorized birds, mollusks, reptiles and other beasts by species and even subspecies with astonishing precision.

So vast is the museum’s collection that, of course, there were also many they did not know. However, that became the greatest part of the morning’s entertainment: discovering new creatures (and asking papa to google their proper names). The key items that give the museum its fame did not disappoint either. They loved the gigantic blue whale skeleton hanging from the roof in the entrance hall and shrieked with delight when they finally caught a glimpse of the embalmed, 44,000 years old woolly mammoth – thawed out of Siberian ice in 1902 – at its far end. It is fair to say that this ‘pièce de resistance’ is what kept their little legs going through the kilometric halls of this superb and delightfully old school museum. By the time they had spotted ‘Manny’ though, the adrenaline dropped, almost instantly giving way to hunger and exhaustion. Without noticing it, we had spent nearly three hours roaming through the displays!

Conveniently, the guidebook recommended a restaurant serving authentic Russian cuisine just around the corner. We treated ourselves to refined delicacies, which I washed down with the smoothest of homemade, flavored vodkas to complete the experience.

Re-energized, I decided to carry on to the Liteyny district to visit the Museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad while Leanne, Guy and Max ubered their way back to the hotel. It is one thing to be a history buff and quite another to drag your tired family through a third museum, particularly one focusing on such a grim subject as the nearly 900-day long siege of the city by Nazi troops. Indeed, it is not a joyous museum. Even without the help of an English audio guide (they had run out of charged ones by the time I got there), it did a fine job of conveying the horror the population experienced when their town was entirely cut off from the rest of Russia and ceaselessly bombarded.

Even if the WWII nerd in me would love to describe all the different offensives and counteroffensives that took place between September 1941 and January 1944, I will spare you the military aspects of the blockade. What really matters is how much the city suffered.

The terrain occupied by Axis forces (Finns to the North, Germans to the South) is brown. To the West of Leningrad is the blockaded Gulf of Finland and to the East, Lake Ladoga. On its frozen waters, in spite of constant Nazi shelling, ran the 'road of death', the only way to supply the besieged city.

Though roughly 1,400,000 civilians managed to evacuate Leningrad, either just before the encirclement was complete or via the 'road of death' on the frozen ice of Lake Ladoga (with many dying in the process), historians estimate that a further 1,500,000 lost their lives to extreme famine, to cold or to shelling. To put it into perspective, this is a greater human toll than the battle of Stalingrad, that of Moscow or the bombing of Tokyo, Hiroshima or Nagasaki. In the first winter of the siege, between December 1941 and February 1942, when temperatures dipped below -30 ̊C, rations consisted of 125 grams of 'bread' – of which 50 to 60% was sawdust – per person per day. As a result, civilian deaths peaked at nearly 100,000 per month.

The museum does not gloss over any of the darkest aspects of the siege, such as the many incidents of cannibalism that occurred. The war left the city in ruins, its monuments destroyed, its population more than halved. The museum records all this but also pays stirring homage to the spirit of resilience of Leningraders, their courage and strength in the face of unimaginable adversity. To emerge from it in such an energetic, vibrant and beautiful city as modern Saint Petersburg is almost surreal. For added drama, a rainbow decided to peek through the clouds just as I exited the museum, as if to further emphasize the capacity of humans to reinvent themselves after a storm...

A rainbow over the streets of St. Petersburg.

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