St. Petersburg, Russia, 1994
Our expectations were high when in the Easter of 1994 we (Jonas, Jakob, Vibeke and I) set out for Russia with a group of students from Aalborg University. With us were also my sister-in-law and her husband plus their friends, another married couple. We were to visit St. Petersburg for a week, and the visit included many of the well-known sights (e.g. the Winter Palace) as well as a visit to the Danish Department at the old University of St. Petersburg.
The bus took us across Sweden to Stockholm where we boarded the ferryboat to the former Finnish capital of Turku (Åbo). The ferry was a floating hotel with casinos and swimming pools, and everybody was in a festive mood, and we were ready to go to rest before the final stretch toward Russia when Vibeke thought she heard Titanic-like scraping sounds against the sides of the ferry in our cabin, way below the waterline. (Her anxiety was not all together without reason as the ship Scandinavian Star later sank with several hundred passengers in exactly these waters.) All of this meant that we didn’t get as much rest as we would have preferred, but in the morning it was a thrill to watch the ship maneuver between small islands that we passed so close that we felt that we could pluck the flowers on them.
From Turku we moved on to a short stop in Helsinki before we headed for the great unknown. Due to the conditions during the cold war Russia presented a mystery we wanted to explore, and our expectations of both grandeur as well as bureaucracy were not disappointed:
The feared border controls with inspection pits and mirrors under the vehicles were still there, but no longer in use, in fact, the buildings were dilapidated beyond belief just four years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet, visitors to Russia still had to go through inspection, and it was rather strange to experience how the guarding of the former mighty empire now had shrunk to a couple of tramp-like figures who sat on an empty case of beer bottles and handled our documents at the corner of a table on which machines were laid out as in a repair shop.
But even though the control seemed slack, we were never in doubt that if we didn’t follow commands, we might get stuck there for hours without any explanation.
On our way back toward the Finnish border a week later we were stopped by armed Russian patrols who dryly demanded “Coca-Cola and cigarettes”. This happened twice and the second time we were prepared and had already collected the necessary means to escape these modern day highway robbers disguised as soldiers. Obviously, they were not paid their regular wages, or they just took advantage of their military power over tourists.
When we finally got to the city boundary we thought that we’d soon be at our hotel, but it turned out that St. Petersburg is a very large city. What tourists get to see, especially if they fly in, is just the center. Around it are all the tenement buildings housing the city’s five million people, approximately the population of Denmark crammed into one city, and it took forever getting there we thought.
St. Petersburg (the former Leningrad) – Geography
Positioned in a damp area to the far north St. Petersburg offers little regarding natural beauty, and in the Easter of 1994 snow and ice still covered parts of the river Neva. However, this did not prevent the many daily bathers from hacking their way through the ice to take a bath in the ice cold water near the Peter and Paul Fortress.
The city is full of history, old and more recent, with a blend of old churches, palaces and former government buildings along the Neva; but it made an even greater impression to read some of the signs left over from World War II when the city was surrounded by German troops for a full year: on Nevskij Prospekt, the main street leading to the Winter Palace, there is a sign saying “Don’t stand in this side of the street during bombardments”. The siege eventually got so bad that the citizens started eating “bread” baked from sawdust (that was when they had been eating all the cats and dogs, of course), but as we know they never succumbed. In fact, the Germans succumbed – to the Russian winter.
Our hotel was a former block of apartments now turned into a hotel, well away from the city center. Perhaps the most interesting thing for us was to see a typical modern Russian apartment of two or three bedrooms. Kitchen and bathroom were extremely small, but they were there.
One night a heavy hammering and pounding disturbed our sleep from 3 a.m. Next morning we heard the story: if a patron locks himself out of his room, the desk has no pass key and has to call for – not a locksmith but – a demolition man who takes down the whole door at the patron’s cost (the desk claimed). We saw the open hole in the wall where the door had been, and noticed how it had been taken out by breaking down the cement around the hinges.
Outside the hotel was a small parking lot, but even though it was supposed to be monitored, our bus driver took away with him to bed everything that could be detached from the bus (mirrors, wipers, etc.) – from past experience he knew what to care about.
Our meals we had partly at the hotel, partly at a downtown restaurant with a view of the famous battleship the Aurora , known from the revolution. The food was generally OK, but once I called the waiter as there was a layer of sediment in my bottle of mineral water as if the bottle had not been properly cleaned before it was refilled. The waiter looked disinterested at the bottle, and when I explained the matter to him a second time, he pointed to the label and said, “This is mineral water, and the sediments are the minerals.”
The Winter Palace is by no means the only impressive building in St. Petersburg, but every tourist has got to see it – and so did we. Tickets were sold from two booths, one for domestic Russians (at a very low price), and one for tourists ($30 as far as I recall). Up front the palace doesn’t look that impressive, the ornaments on the walls are painted mock golden and not golden, but the interior is still grand with magnificent stairs and halls. One section of the palace is devoted to the paintings collected by Catherine the Great, the refined and sophisticated empress who also corresponded wittily with French philosopher Voltaire. The collection has later been added to, and today it houses some of the finest works by French impressionist painters.
Outside the palace peddlers sell Communist paraphernalia: navy watches, complete army uniforms down to ribbons, stripes and medals. I bought a couple of cheap but new watches, standard government issue to sailors, but after the sudden downfall of the Soviet Union when civil servants and other people in the administration weren’t paid regularly, some of them took matters in their own hands and helped themselves to whatever could be taken and sold.
Not far from the Winter Palace is the huge Museum of Natural History which is visited by a great number of school children. What impressed me the most apart from the great number of exhibits was a baby mammoth found in perfect frozen condition. The entrance fee was very low, undoubtedly to ensure access for everybody. Even for tourists the fee was low. All Communist countries seem to have stressed the importance of facts (Math, Physics, and Chemistry) over the humanities, which is no surprise as most of the countries had to educate people to build the country, and any interest in literature might result in a discussion of politics.
(This little historical fact serves as a good example: To make absolutely sure that nobody would look back to the “good old days” before Communism, Stalin ordered that not only should all old cookbooks be burned (the recipes might contain ingredients that were hard to get during his reign), he also demanded that all the old village storytellers (the griots who preserved the district’s history in their heads), be killed.)
One of our most interesting visits was paid to the Danish Department at the University of St. Petersburg. The building itself is very old, but it was nice to feel the academic life around you in the corridors that were stuffed with busy students. The professor was eloquent and spoke perfect Danish, and afterwards we had the opportunity to talk to some of the students at the department. All were fluent in Danish, even down to the young junior student, but in the course of the conversation it turned out that the department has a yearly intake of only three-four students who are handpicked among the millions of Russians who seek admission to the university.
From various sources the department has inherited all kinds of books and magazines in Danish, and the professor took great pride in telling us that to keep up with modern Danish they study many new texts and not only the classics. As an example he mentioned several videos with programs that had been broadcast recently on Danish TV. Only thing was that the department didn’t have a VCR of its own, but had to share one with all the other departments in the language faculty.
Immediately I thought of passing the hat around among the Danish visitors, but one of them suggested that we let his Rotary club in Denmark take care of the problem which he later did. Incidentally, he and the Russian professor exchanged quite a few letters afterwards and became friends.
One night we went to the famous Russian State Circus and witnessed that it is, in fact, a first class show with quite a few performers of international standing. But the circus of the street was equally interesting: Police would stop people in the street or in their cars for no apparent reason other than to check their papers, and rather often it seemed to pay off. Still, one from our group was robbed of his camera in broad daylight on Nevskij Prospekt, and there was nothing the police could do about it.
A certain circus is held at the main shopping malls or at the subway stations or bus stops (where everybody goes due to the size of the city): when first we saw it we thought that the women holding up clothes, shoes and what not were proudly displaying what they had bought. Later we found out that they were, in fact, peddling their belongings to survive. Whole sets of silverware were for sale. (In Moscow in 95 I bought myself a cheap trumpet in a second hand shop. On it is the inscription “Leningrad 1941”, so I think of it as my “battle bugle”.)
But perhaps the most interesting circus of all takes place inside the shops where many of them operate with three lines: in the first line you wait to pick out what you want; you are then issued a slip of paper with the price indicated, and you go to the second line to pay. When you have paid and received your receipt, you go to the third line to pick up what you have paid for. In my notes on our trip to Moscow and the town of Vladimir (see Moscow 1995) I have described this phenomenon which takes place even in shops where but one article is sold: loaves of bread. When the article is paid for, the clerk (or two clerks) at the delivery counter will add up your bill by means of an Asian bead frame as well as on paper.
The night before we left some of the students bought a bottle of vodka to celebrate the end of the trip, but no matter how much they drank they stayed sober – the bottle was pure (or impure?) water! Although the top of the bottle had been closed with stamped revenue labels in the regular fashion and showed no outer signs of being a “fake”, the contents were proof that somebody had tampered with it. We later learned that the Russian Mafia controls the factories that bottle the vodka, and the whole procedure is thus a fake right from the beginning. The students made the mistake of buying a brand name vodka (to be presented later as a gift) instead of the regular, cheap stuff consumed by the common Russian. Incidentally, the regular bottles of 1 liter vodka have a disposable, non-replaceable top which indicates that the contents are supposed to be consumed at once without stopping. George Orwell must have had this in mind when he wrote his novel "1984".
Nevertheless, looking back at our experiences in St. Petersburg, Russia, we felt in no way cheated – it was a truly rewarding experience which made us understand yet a little more of what is going on in this fallen empire. In the very early 1990s we saw the bewilderment in the eyes of the Russian soldiers that used to be stationed around Berlin, Germany. They had fallen from being conquerors with absolute power to becoming frightened, anonymous survivors in their ruined barracks.
But Russians are tough survivors, not only in the past, but also today. And the Russians of St. Petersburg even seem to have that surplus energy and willpower that enables them to stand out from other Russians. We didn't see it at the time, but when we visited Moscow a year later, we could tell the difference: however bleak the prospects, the people of St. Petersburg, the old gate to the West, feel sophisticated and try to show a certain savoir vivre comparable to the city's sophisticated buildings.