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A Step Back in Time - Journey to St. Petersburg

Originally appeared on www.hali.com

A short travelogue article that originally appeared on hali.com, merely a brief postcard from St. Petersburg written just after returning to the States. I had gone there and set in motion the article about the S.M. Dudin and the collection of photographs in the Russian Ethnographic Museum. Since that time, not much has changed in St Petersburg except Elena Kordik is no longer with that museum nor is Elena Tsareva. But the city is the same, Putin is still in power and life goes as it has for a long time. already..

A statue of Catherine the Great dominates this park just off the Nevsky Prospekt

Though the “Iron Curtain” fell away altogether more than 10 years ago, the prospect of venturing to heart of it all loomed on my horizon with anxious expectation and a real sense of excitement. My only experience with Russians had been a distant and hardly savoury one, observing them stroll the streets of Shar-i-Nau (the new city) in Kabul of the 1980's, watchful soldiers bearing Kalashnikovs escorting excursions into the storied bazaars by women as wide as the very tanks that had ushered the Soviet Army into the Afghan abyss, ultimately leading to the downfall of the entire communist system. Or so the Afghans say, and who am I to disagree. They stood on the front lines, bearing the brunt of that confrontation, just as they do now against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

But St. Petersburg, my destination, is not the seat of present day power, but an historic cultural center of amazingly refined beauty. Oddly enough, the former Leningrad is only acknowledged with that name by the a irline computerized code on baggage tags, otherwise it has successfully shed the Soviet identity. Among those with a sense of history and culture, the ultimate compliment a Russian can pay to his fellow countryman is to inquire if his or her residence is St. Petersburg.

A view across the frozen river looking to the west from the Hermitage.

Still, the Moscow populace generally scorns their counterparts of this city, assuming an air of superiority by citing the decaying state of the historic buildings lining many of the major thoroughfares, and their own famous ballet company (the Bolshoi) renowned throughout the world (mistakenly according to St Petersburg residents who cherish the Mariinski company) as the very best. Sleepy St. Petersburg is a just a provincial outpost on the Baltic Sea in the extreme northwest corner of this sprawling country continent. Or so the Moscovites would have one believe. If cultural relics of unbelievable beauty, numerous canals spanned by lovely arched bridges, stunning architecture of a long past era, and a p olite population of sophistication constitutes the essence of provincialism, I have no quarrel with it.

The city of St. Petersburg lies on the flat and marshy shores of the Neva River at the place where it flows into the Gulf of Finland over a delta of 42 islands. Alternatively compared to Venice and many of the other great continental cities, it is clear that this is truly a European traveler destination rather than a rough provincial outpost of the Russian empire, offering familiar western amenities. The historical center of the city is the Palace Square, where the Winter Palace stands, a large complex of buildings which eventually has come to house a fantastic collection of the world's great art in what is known as The Hermitage.

I had been invited to come to St. Petersburg by Elena Tsareva, ostensibly to view some of the holdings in the Russian Ethnographic Museum with my own eyes and learn. Perhaps, I am reading less into that invitation tha n was intended, as Ms. Tsareva opened my eyes to much more than what was in this particular museum. The pride that ALL residents of St. Petersburg take in their culture, in their museums, in their history is something they seem to enjoy sharing with outsiders, with those who are not familiar with all the trappings of the pomp and ceremony associated with the pinnacle of Russian history and taste.

St. Petersburg of today is not without signs of cosmopolitan modernity. The regal Grand Hotel Europe, situated on fashionable Nevsky Prospekt (Avenue) opposite the historic and
truly grand Kazan Cathedral, dominates the central shopping district, housing a Chinese restaurant which could rival that of any in the world. Down the street is situated an Italian bistro, Federico Fellini, with an exotic interior reflecting the mood and spirit of this master's surreal productions in addition to a viewing room in which one may dine and watch his movies. Other night spots and restaurants dot the aging cityscape. With names which reflect the recent past, such as The Jimi Hendrix Club, Money Honey (a 'rockabilly' club), The New Jazz Club and The Liverpool Club, a restaurant devoted to the Beatles with a live band performing covers of their music. Complete with thinly veiled references to the music amid wishes for me to come “Back to the USSR”, their legacy prevails in the language and thoughts of the people as does the music in the marketplace, offered at many of the various shops in town.

Detail image of one of the felts in the Hermitage, possibly from the Caucasus region originally.

Detail image of the large felt from the Hermitage. Note the fine detailing for the mane and harness.

Nevertheless, suffering and sadness are emotions with which the Russian population are intimately familiar. The prisons of Siberia were not a Soviet creation, but rather an institution well established by the Czars no later than the 19th century. The fort and expansive prison grounds in the very center of St. Petersburg surrounding the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral , now deserted and transformed into a museum, are testimony to the fact that official repression has been practiced long in this great city. Few natives of Russia can claim a family history devoid of persecution, political or otherwise, at the hands of the various despotic rulers who have governed this vast land.

But as it was also explained to me, when a Russian smiles, they smile with much more than just their mouth, but with their
entire face as well as their heart. Such degrees of sadness and suffering are balanced by a genuine warmth and joy for life. Out of this enjoyment for life comes the apprec iation of culture in all its many forms, be it ancient art, sculpture, painting, music or ballet. A sophisticated and learned approach to literature and the fine arts is felt by a much larger percentage of people whom I encountered than many of their counterparts in the States. The warmth and friendliness of the St. Petersburg population in general was evident everywhere I went, from young people assisting me with communication problems in shops to a caviar seller outside a church attempting to persuade me to trade my Afghan “mujahideen” hat (pakhal) for his own traditional Russian headgear, complete with the Soviet hammer and sickle insignia (I declined).

Detail image of a rare and beautiful embroidery excavated from Pazyryk

The chariot unearthed at Pazyryk upon which the king may have been taken to his burial. The famed carpet from Pazyryk may have covered the canopy as they share similar proportions.

No one dwells too much on the passing of the Soviet government, preferring to move through it into the uncharted frontier of a dawning future. Certain securities existed with the Soviets; price controls assured access to bare essentials but with a far greater toll exacted in personal freedoms and humanity. I inquired as to how Lenin is viewed these days in current history books, only to find out that some school children have absolutely no idea who he was or what he did. In the States, we remember with incredulity Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium at the United Nations declaring, “ We will bury you!” while Russians recall it as a spectacular ploy, a tantrum to gain the atten tion of dozing diplomats. Clearly time has borne out that we in the West greatly overestimated the ultimate endurance of the Soviet system, failing to believe in the Orwellian prophecy of its ultimate downfall as foreseen in “Animal Farm”.

Instead, Orwell's hellish vision of the future (“1984”) haunted our dreams, feeding our fear and threatening our hopes. As Winston Smith shared a champagne toast with his supposed conspirator in the forbidden Brotherhood, a salutation and commemoration to the past, the poignancy of the moment is monumental. Perhaps this same celebration of the past which occurs in St. Petersburg, a glorification of humanity through the ages in the numerous museum exhibits, public monuments, the ballet, theatre and opera, has been nourished by previous hardships.