Thursday – The Train Ride
It was a nice modern train we were taking to St. Petersburg, but my first impressions were marred due to the fact that my travel companion was engaged in a heated argument with a man who’d whisked our bags onto his little cart after we got out of our taxi and led us through the station and onto the train. He had told us no price ahead of time and we had just paid him 1,000 rubles – the equivalent of a little over $15 – when he demanded over 3 times that much. What he was asking for was the salary many Russians earn in a week or two.
At one point he looked at me, clearly hoping that I was the “nicer” one and would give in. I did feel bad for him – he had no top teeth. But he obviously thought he’d ensnared a couple of rich Americans who had money to burn and wouldn’t know any better. Even if I’d wanted to give in to his con, I simply didn’t have that much to spare. I looked away.
Finally, some employees from the train convinced him to leave. Not long after the train departed the station, an attendant came around to take food and drink orders. I chose the fish and salad and paid her. About 10 minutes later I was presented with about 3 bites of barely warmed over salmon, a sprig of lettuce and 2 cherry tomatoes. I looked up at the attendant, as if to say, “This is a joke, right?” Any moment she’ll break out in laughter and pull the real meal from the cart.
No such luck, so I dipped into one of my bags for some supplemental snacks. Fritos and a Trader Joe’s rice crispy treat bar would have to get me through the 4 hours it would take to reach our destination.
After settling in, I looked out the window to watch the scenery. I saw a lot of open land, with birch forests and salt marshes. There was a stretch where dachas dotted the landscape, some so diminutive and colorful they reminded me of dollhouses.
When we finally arrived in St Petersburg, we headed straight for a restaurant. We plowed through the crowds, dragging our luggage, on a mission for real food. After scarfing down a meal of meat, buckwheat and veggies, we continued on to the apartment a friend of mine owns in the city and dealt with a series of logistical challenges, such as getting keys copied, figuring out how to connect to the internet, buying bottled water (you can’t drink the water in the city due to the age of the pipes), etc. We finally checked all of these off by Friday and could begin to enjoy the culture and history of St. Petersburg.
Saturday – Day One of Sightseeing
We originally planned to visit the Hermitage today but since the weather was nice we decided to go sightseeing instead.
My friend and liaison, Mike (Mikhail), a native of the city known as The Venice of the North, drove us around to some key landmarks. One of these was a park that included the Immortal Flame, which commemorates WWII. The Immortal Flame was framed with an abundance of roses that had been recently laid down. An older man on a bike stopped for a moment to pay his respects there, while a pair of young women quietly snapped photos with their phones. I walked around with my camera and saw families on picnics and couples strolling by.
We then stopped at Paul’s Palace (officially called Mikhailovsky Castle) and toured the courtyard which had a black metal statue of Paul at one end. I decided to take a short rest on a set of steps leading up to a large doorway (one of 4 on different sides of the courtyard) to wait for a group of teenagers congregated in front of the statue to move on with their guide so I could get closer and maybe take a picture.
Me on the steps in the courtyard of Paul’s Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia
After a short walk near the Aurora ship on the dock of the Neva river, we stopped for lunch at a Georgian restaurant at the request of my travel companion who had a hankering for Caucasian cuisine. The restaurant was named after a Georgian painter of the primitivist school and the interior was elaborate, with a mural on one wall exemplifying his style, a fountain and fancy furniture. Mike, who has the gift of gab, kept us entertained with anecdotes and jokes. I should also add that he has helped smooth out the rough spots since we’ve gotten here – like how to get a wi-fi connection where we’re staying, showing us where the nearest grocery store and cafes are located, and arranging a few of my interviews.
The big finale for our day’s sightseeing was a river boat ride throughout the Neva, which is surrounded by numerous architectural delights, such as the Winter Palace (aka the Hermitage), the Peter and Paul Fortress where the remains of the last imperial family are interred, the Admiralty building, and numerous other historical buildings. It was cold and windy, especially on the first leg of the ride, but well worth it.
My First Interview
I was tired from the day’s outing but had my first formal interview on the Russian Revolution scheduled with an 86-year old retired engineer who’d worked in the shipping industry. This was part of my project to interview a cross-section of Russians (i.e. any who would be willing to talk to me) to get their views on the 1917 Revolutions since it was the centennial anniversary.
I had formulated a series of questions to ask my interview subjects: were the Revolutions overall positive or negative for Russia and why, what did they think of Nicolas II, Lenin, Stalin, etc.
This gentleman had given interesting answers about the Revolutions, his assessment of Nicolas was typical – he was weak, incompetent and completely ill-equipped to deal with the historical moment he’d been faced with, and he offered some thought-provoking points about Lenin, though he clearly was not a fan of the Bolshevik leader.
However, he lingered a long time on the issue of Stalin, elaborating more on this question than any of the others. At one point, his hands gripped the corners of the table. I was debating whether to ask if anyone in his family had been affected by the mass repressions. I’ve had these kinds of conflicts during interviews before when a potentially difficult issue is being addressed. On the one hand, it is a legitimate question in terms of my research, but another part of me cringes when a question goes beyond discussing something in the abstract and crosses over into personal territory that will dredge up something painful.
As it turns out, my dilemma resolved itself. He began the story on his own about how his father had been taken away in the night when he was 7 years old. His parents had decided not to wake him to say goodbye. When he got up the next morning and went to his parents’ room, his father was simply gone and the bookshelves had been sealed off with wax. The rest of the family was exiled to a city far away from Leningrad. They were originally told that his father had been imprisoned incommunicado, but they found out years later that he’d actually been executed on the charge of conspiring against “Comrade Stalin.”
I was mystified by the sealing off of the bookshelves and asked if there was any explanation for this. He explained that his father was a talented mathematician and geologist, had written several books and had a leadership role in several scientific societies. When an individual was arrested, any items of particular value were confiscated. Since his father was an intellectual and a writer, his books were taken and the bookshelves rendered unusable.
Before I realized it, 2 1/2 hours had gone by since we arrived at his apartment. I recall one moment, after we’d gotten through the worst parts of the interview, looking out the window at the first signs of dusk. The clock beside the window indicated it was 9:30 pm.
As we concluded our discussion, I expressed my condolences for what had happened to his family and my appreciation of his taking the time to talk with me about such a painful subject. He admitted that it was painful but that it needed to be talked about. He wanted to ask me a few questions as well. I realize that many Russians have very few, if any, interactions with Americans and when they do encounter one they are often curious and inquisitive. So I’m no longer surprised when this occurs. He asked me about certain aspects of what happened on 9/11 and what priority Americans currently placed on countering Islamic terrorism.
On the way back to the apartment, Mike and I discussed the interview and the difficult history of Russia in the 20th century. He told me that many Russians expressed shock when the archives were opened up during Glasnost and the ugly truth of the Stalin era started to come out into the open. But he said that he’d known about it because his grandfather had told him of the repressions when he was 15. Mike lamented how crazy it was for the leadership of a country to kill and imprison the most intelligent, educated and talented members of society – the very ones who had the skills to contribute to the nation’s development. The next day, after he’d thought about it some more, he told me: “We have a very complicated history and it becomes hard to love a country when you know about such bad things. But it is still our country and we have to learn to do that.”