Trip to the Baltics, Part VII (St. Petersburg, part 1)

The only other time I was in Russia (actually, the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, then a constituent part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was in 1974, when I spent a cold winter week or so, divided between Moscow and St Petersburg (then Leningrad). I didn’t come as a neophyte; I had studied Russian language and history in college, and had a general feel for the then current situation. I also didn’t know what to expect; I think I thought that I would be visiting two European cities, albeit Communist cities, not too different from the many others I had visited over the past decade or so. But it turned out not to be the case.

Moscow and Leningrad were not European cities. They were, to my mind, as different from European cities as American cities were. I was not in Europe. I was in a different world. I was on a different planet.

Remember, it was deepest winter, late January in fact. In Leningrad, it didn’t seem like morning until about ten o’clock, and by three in the afternoon, it was already dark. But there were other differences as well. Moscow, with its heavy Stalinist architecture, reminded me more than anything else of Chicago, two cities that, to me, looked equally serious as they faced the world. Leningrad, although primarily designed by Italian architects, with its large buildings, unbroken by space between them, and its frozen canals and rivers, was a singular city, unique, not replicated anywhere I had been.

And there was more. Winter weather did not keep the citizenry inside, like in America. The streets were packed. And everywhere you could by food from open air kiosks, not only food by ice cream (morozhenoe), which Russians seemed to love in spite of the cold weather. Everyone had warm coats, not fur but wool, and absolutely everyone wore a hat (not like in the US, where there were many bare heads in winter). When you went into any establishment, be it a theater, a museum, or a restaurant, your first stop was the check room; you could not keep your coat on, you could not drape it on the back of your chair, you had to hang it up. That meant, when the show was over (if a theater), you had to stand in line to get your coat back. Of course, the coat check girls (average age 75) were not to be tipped in the socialist paradise.

The subways were remarkable, but not only were they attractive and efficient, they were continually crowded, and the escalators (none of whom were malfunctioning) operated at what appeared to be twice the speed of American escalators. The people looked prosperous enough (although they weren’t), but they were very serious – you didn’t see many smiles on the street, and there was apparently to be no casual chatter.

There weren’t many stores, other than the large GUM state department score on Red Square and small grocery shops and the like located below street level in some of the brick buildings. The smaller stores were convenient and seemed well stocked (they had soap and toothpaste), but the clerks had no cash registers, figuring out the tabs on an abacus. Not so the beriozka stores, for foreigners only,

There were many restaurants, including sit-down restaurants, ethnic restaurants (Soviet ethnicities only, like Armenian and Georgian), and cafeterias. If you were a party of two, you were likely to be seated at a table for four with two strangers. The menus were limited, but nothing like the food in the hotel restaurants, where only non-chewable beef, cabbage and boiled potatoes were available. (You could see how the kiosk ice cream and pirogies were so popular.)

The cities were impeccably clean – no wonder, old women (even older than the coat check ladies) were out there every morning, moving the snow and collecting the trash. The hotels left a lot to be desired, of course. There weren’t many of them, they were very large and somewhat shabby, and on each floor there was another lady (this time a little younger than the coat checkers, but not young), who was called a concierge but whose job seemed to be to spy on the guests and make sure she knew what was going on. Of course, we were told, and assumed, that all of the rooms were bugged anyway.

The only guides worked for Intourist, the state tourist agency, and they all knew what they could, and what they could not, say. You were able to wander about on your own and if you could understand or read the Russian, that was fine; if not, you probably wouldn’t try. Virtually no one seemed to know any English.

Oh, yes, the sites were there, the Hermitage, the Kazan Cathedral Museum of Atheism (more on that to come), the Hermitage, the Kremlin, the Tretyakov Gallery, the outdoor winter swimming pools, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Zoological Museum. At least, that’s what I remember. And everyone was very polite. It was a fine place to be a tourist, but it was not a normal place. It was Planet Russia.

This year, as we embarked on the new high speed train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, I wondered how much I would recognize, how much was the same, and how much had changed.

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