Friday, May 09, 2008

Soviet Union, 1983, Part III

Part II here.

We traveled back to Tashkent for the flight to Leningrad, which is of course once again St. Petersburg these days. Leningrad/St. Petersburg was then, and probably still is, the most European of Russian cities; both because of its proximity to the rest of Europe and its history as the stomping grounds of the Russian aristocracy. We stayed at a hotel called the Pribaltiskaya (which basically means "on the Baltic", which it is). We had to take a bus or the metro into the city, but it was worth it to stay in a fairly modern hotel.

We did lots of tourist-y stuff in Leningrad. We visited St. Isaac's Cathedral, and the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral where the czars are buried. We spent an entire day at the Hermitage Museum, which was once the Winter Palace of the czars. We took a boat trip to the Summer Palace to walk the grounds and look at the famous fountains and sculptures. To this day the smell of bus exhaust fumes takes me back to that time.

I'd taken my first humanities class during the previous school year, and so the artwork at the Hermitage was of particular interest to me. It was amazing to see paintings by Raphael and Titian and sculpture by Rodin and Michelangelo. However, after about the 30th Rembrandt painting i started paying more attention to the building than the artwork. It amazed me that people lived here. Granted it was more than just a private dwelling, but still. It was pretty good to be czar.

The Summer Palace (aka Peterhof) was equally grand, though more for the grounds than the structure. The building itself was largely destroyed during World War II and appeared to be still under restoration 40 years later. We got into an argument with our tour guide about the fountain on the grounds, because all of the statues surrounding it were of Greek deities, and yet he claimed that the figure in the center of the fountain was the Biblical Samson. I argued that it was more likely a figure of Hercules who, like Samson, was associated with battling lions. At the time i was convinced that they only claimed it was Samson in order to sell replica statues to American tourists, but it turns out i was wrong. In fact, it's often referred to as the Samson Fountain.

My most memorable night in Leningrad was a group dinner that we had at a restaurant in the city. We had several courses, including borscht, which it turns out i really liked. The waiter instructed me in the proper technique for opening a champagne bottle, and we all practiced our Russian. There was a group of Western German tourists at the restaurant and they got pretty boisterous when the Russian traditional dancers started performing. It was like something out of a James Bond movie.

The dinner ended a bit after 9pm and several us of went for a walk along the Neva. It didn't really get dark in Leningrad in May until around 11, so it seemed like late afternoon. St. Petersburg is truly a beautiful city, and this was the first time that we had to really reflect on all that we'd seen during the trip. Many of us had stark differences in political opinion, but we all had come to the same conclusion that it was almost unimaginable that they'd maintained the Soviet system for so long. There was a clear undercurrent of dissatisfaction there, and a not-so-invisible subculture of people trying to exert economic and social freedoms that they technically did not have.

We ended up back at Palace Square and just stood around talking until it got too dark, and then we took the metro back to the hotel. I had grown up with the Cold War and it was difficult for any of us to picture a future where the Soviet Union had dissolved and there was a threat worth worrying about beyond nuclear war. This was before Gorbachev and perestroika, developments that seemed almost inconceivable in 1983. In the moment, i was just an exhausted, jet-lagged teenager, but the trip really changed me. Not only was Soviet Russia a frightening vision of a society that i never wanted to be a part of, but it was also a revealing look at the difference between what i'd been taught and reality.

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