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Cathedral of Spilled BloodSept 27-29 St. Petersburg, Russia

As we roll into Russia, it seems the whole group of us (it happens that there are mostly Americans with the exception of one young Irishman in our particular rail car) are slightly apprehensive about actually visiting this strange place we have heard so much, but know so little, about. Our images and ideas of this peculiar land and its different people come mostly from old spy novels and movies. Those whose writers’ motives centered more around melodrama than accuracy. The ever popular James Bond, for instance, was in constant effort to save the entire free world from a simply hideous fate at the hands of some terrible madman with horrible delusions of power via obliteration. To recall, more times than not, this madman had communist backing a HEAVY Russian accent.

The same message was even our constant theme of the less serious, but more widely viewed, TV sitcoms. We rooted for good ol’ Agent 99 and the bumbling, fumbling Maxwell Smart to always save the day, and us, from our arch enemies – those blasted Russians. It was always us against them. Good vs. evil. Capitalism vs. Communism.   And here we were, going deep behind ‘enemy’ lines. Beyond our realm of knowing, beyond our level of understanding, and most definitely, beyond our zone of comfort. As we sat there exchanging "I heard this . . . I heard that . . ." type stories with one another, three guards, I’m sorry, ARMED guards came through the door from the other car and began asking for our documents. Everyone, of course, complied with the nice men with guns, and in turn, produced their passport and visa.

Bilboards in RussianOur turn came. Laura handed them our documents. Two of the guards then looked at me, looked at my passport, exchanged a few words in Russian, looked at my passport again, and then once more at me. Laura seems sure that they were trying to decide if the passport was really mine. I assert that the discussion was probably something much more simple, such as "Hmmm, look at this. So, do you think he looks better with, or without a beard?" Either way, they seemed satisfied with their answer, and continued their work with the others in the car. Oh, there was one other, teeny, tiny, little detail – they not only checked, but also kept, our passports!

As we all waited eagerly to get these magical little blue booklets back, our attention turned to the changing scenery outside our windows. It was a cold, overcast Fall day. And while Mother Nature hadn’t changed her offering too much, mankind certainly had. Our scenes went from charming countryside with an occasional cute, tidy, little summer cottage here and there, to charming countryside with an occasional dilapidated, seemingly unkempt, little house here and there. The roads that intersected with the tracks, went from paved country lanes, to rut-filled dirt roads. Things just seemed, seemed, well - different. Suddenly unfamiliar and uncomfortable. About that time, we were instructed, via loud speaker, not to move, but to stay in our seats until our passports were returned to us. Bad news – we can’t wander down to the dining car. Good news – at least we’re getting our passports back.

Old, worn out, and unkemptThe scenery from the van for the ride from the train station to the river boat dock was even more of the same. Everything around us seemed old, worn out, unkempt, and sometimes, even deserted. Rather sharp contrast to our last four weeks in Scandinavia. So far, Russia (at least this part of it) seems to be like an old patchwork quilt. Fifty years ago, it won a prize for the best looking one in the entire fair. One of the best in all the land. Now, fifty years later, it has become worn with use and neglect. Its colors are muted, its fabric thin and torn. The seems are splitting, its edges frayed. What had been a fine example of handy-work and toilsome labor, is now more an eyesore and just barely still useful.

Frayed and tattered - but still lived inIn its time, it was arguably one of the best of its kind. Now, all that is left are the memory of those days – of what ‘used to be’. Yet, all is not lost. For there are still a few of those many patches with their colors still bright, with fabric still strong. A few of the craftsmen with skills still intact, with memories long. Ready to restore the quilt to its original glory. St. Petersburg, more than any other Russian city, claims more than its share of these still shimmering patches.

St. Issac’s CathedralThis metropolis of over five million people (the second largest of Russia’s cities) shares the country’s problems, yet still retains its own sense of pride. The source of this pride is clearly its museums and historical structures.

The Winter Palace building of the Hermitage MuseumThese 100 windows into the city’s (and the country’s) rich heritage include the Hermitage, the world’s fifth best collection of fine art.  Our tour of this magnificent Palace of the Tzars and all of the national treasures and works of art Katherine the Great began to collect, was one of many stops of our daily excursions into the heart of the city.

Smalney ConventOthers included Smalney Convent, St. Issac’s Cathedral (the world’s richest with over 400 kilos of gold) and its square complete with a tribute to one of Russia’s great leaders, Nicholas I. The Summer Palace, City Hall, December Square, and the Cathedral of Mother of God of Kazan (smack-dab in the middle of town) rounded out the list.

Peter the GreatThe afternoon that Laura and I spent exploring on our own started off with a blessing-out by one of the Russian ladies that we made the mistake of sharing a park bench with. Her dissertation of displeasure began when I stood to shoo away a begging dog that had planted itself right in front of us to watch us eat our picnic lunch. Our somewhat ragged, heavy set, and rather imposing, benchmate proceeded to blast us in Russian tongue for a solid 10 minutes without, it seemed, taking a single breath.

The Summer PalaceShe was, in fact, so dissatisfied with our behavior, that following our dressing, she got up and left our company. We continued to eat, and when we were full, found that we had some fruit and yogurt left over. Convinced that our new ‘friend’ most likely lived on the street, we decided to share our snack with her. After numerous tries to make eye contact with her from across the park (she found a new bench and would look away each time I looked her direction), I finally caught her eye and motioned her over. She was very surprised and somewhat suspicious until she realized our intentions. With a huge, nearly toothless grin, she gathered her tattered belongings and slowly made her way over to us. I have to assume that that accepting our small peace offering was her way of forgiving us for whatever practice, custom, or unwritten rule, we so carelessly transgressed before.

Cathedral of Mother of God of KazanWith a grateful nod from our new friend, we’re off to explore the rest of Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main boulevard. As we walked the street, I definitely got the feeling of change in the air. Everything seemed in flux. Out with the old, and in with the new. There seemed to be few, if any ‘rules’ for the new capitalists. Everyone was simply learning as they went. You were free to set up shop anywhere you had traffic and possibly permission. At major intersections and subway stations, there were always 4-5 street vendors selling everything from gloves to art. We passed by women with little kittens popping out of their coats. Very cute, and yes, very for sale. One young girl was hawking cigarettes with an open pack of Marlboros in an outstretched hand, and a sleeping infant in a stroller in the other (this was the closest thing to a cigarette machine we saw all day). There were tables and tables of locals selling what looked like Russian lottery tickets. Upon stopping to ask one of these vendors about the origin of her merchandise, all that we could communicate was a scratch-off motion.

Clinton nesting dolls for American touristsThere were, of course, large department stores. Although not department stores the way that we think of them, their function was still the same. They were stocked with the latest merchandise, all priced about the same as in the states. These large stores, although housed in older structures that were clearly originally built for other purposes, seemed to be shining examples of free enterprise. The only exception being the pricing policies possibly being determined by the state, owner of these stores. There were also other instances of the free market in action.

Dcp00265.jpg (165420 bytes)A large souvenir market just behind the magnificently majestic Cathedral of Spilled Blood offered the perfect chance to both browse for mementos of our visit, but also chat with some of the many vendors. This, so far, was the highlight of the city. While Laura got an in-depth education on the aspects of high quality nested dolls (matryoshka) and painted boxes, I exchanged photography techniques with a very outgoing (and talented) artist. The way he saw both his city, and his country were captured in, and reflected by, his photos. He was happy. He was alive. He held close his sense of humor for making light of his surroundings and his situation. The way he chose to see his world was a spirited one. His wife and two little girls also shared his attitudes on life. His pictures of them showed an inner strength and contentedness that I'm afraid most American families will never, ever know.

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Last modified: August 19, 1999    Photographs and text 1998 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.

 

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