I have to admit, I was a bit nervous to enter this giant country. We’ve heard so much for so many generations about Russia and the sleeping bear she is that I was a bit fearful of entering her borders and the unknown. I woke up the morning we were getting off the boat with bizarre dreams of nuclear war which only amped up my anxiety. After the last election and all the talk of Russian interference in our democratic process (who knew what and when), it was strange to enter a place that we’ve heard so many negative things about pretty much our entire lives.
St. Petersburg is a jewel on the Baltic Sea and 6 million people call it home. When we opened our curtains to see the city the morning we pulled into port, there were hundreds of apartment buildings out on the horizon- so sand colored on land so flat that it reminded me of the Middle East.
In Russia, if you’re on a cruise ship, you cannot just get off the boat as we have been able to do in every other port- you must be with a tour the entire time or get a visa. We took a private tour to avoid the pricy visa cost which is over $500/person. We met our guide, Lisa and drove 30 minutes into the heart of the city. The fairly short buildings were a rainbow of pastel hues. We went on a boat ride through golden domes adorning churches and statues and monumental buildings all over the place. This city reminded me of Istanbul or Paris, and had canals like Venice- yet I’d never really seen a picture of it and knew little about the people. Surely, St. Petersburg is a bit dirty- it could use a good scrubbing, but I’d expected Russia to be desolate, poor, dirty, fearful and falling apart. There are elements of that, but there is far more, too.
Russia has had a really tough past- particularly St. Petersburg during WW2. The city lost 1 million of it’s 2 million inhabitants to famine, disease and cold during the siege when the Germans blocked all food from coming into the city for over 7 months during the winter. People ate wallpaper and whatever else they could and watched as their loved ones died. After the war, Communism was in place for years and the people continued suffering. I anticipated with the rough history St. Petersburg had seen, the pain would be the most predominant aspect of the city, yet that was far from true.
We visited the Hermitage Museum, painted mint chocolate chip green, walked through the gilded palace with red velvet thrones where Catherine the Great and many Tsars ruled Russia throughout the centuries before upheaval and Communism. The royals were very excessive – one queen had 15,000 dresses and 62,000 pairs of shoes! The Russians went from one extreme to the other during their history, and it makes sense for a people to try something else if something isn’t working. It’s just a shame that neither option was ideal for the people.
We saw the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This church’s exterior looks like the castle in Candy Land with colorful spires reaching up to the clouds, and the interior was completely covered with intricate mosaics. It was breathtakingly beautiful. As I looked around and saw the light pouring in through the windows and the pure art- it was stunning. Long after the church was originally built, it was used as a morgue in WW2. When the Communists came into power, they took away religion and the church was repurposed as a storehouse for potatoes and carrots, and then later used to store theater props. It took 20 years to fix it from the wartime damage when it was finally deemed a church once again.
We went to the Vodka Museum, where we learned that although Russians have historically loved vodka, they too had a prohibition very close to the same time as our’s, and their leaders tried multiple times to discourage people from drinking at all. The tour guide said that people are a lot more into jogging today than vodka. The leaders of Russia were so against drunkenness that they devised torture devises for people who drank too much (heavy 20 pound iron rings to be hung from the neck of drunkards). After our tour, we of course had to try some of the vodka (had to, rules are rules). Super fun and burned going down. Russians snack with their vodka so we had fish, salted pickles (apparently vinegar increases hangover, but salty foods lessen headache), and lard. Lisa asked my mom why she wasn’t eating any lard and she said that she didn’t eat pig. Lisa exclaimed, “oh, because it’s too fatty? To salty?” My mom replied that no, she just didn’t eat pork. The look on Lisa’s face was one of confusion. It was clear that you ate whatever you could in her world.
In Russia, the average person makes $11,000 per year, which is up dramatically over the last ten years. I’m sharing all of this because I didn’t know, and it really helped me frame my viewpoint so I could try to understand the people I was seeing and the lives they are living.
At the end of our day, we walked down Nevsky Prospekt, the Rodeo Drive of St. Petersburg. Think matryoshka doll shops, H&M and caviar stores. People were happy here – outdoor musicians played, children splashed in fountains. Our guide had to go into every store with us which was a bit awkward because of the visa thing- who wants to try on clothes with someone right outside the door? It was comical and strange. So during this time on Nevsky Prospekt, we went to a British Pub, watched hockey and had a beer. We took this break with Lisa to ask her some really honest questions about life in Russia now.
Did she like Putin? No, not really. Were things better than they had been when he first came into power? Yes. Did she ever think that he was going to be out of power? Well, maybe not. She told us she even had friends who were using their voices in online forums and although nothing had happened yet, the friend worries something might because they were speaking up about their government. Was she religious? No. Was she divorced? Yes. Is there free health care in Russia? Yes- but the base level isn’t good and if you go to the hospital, you only get the medications on your list, rather than the ones you might actually need. Is abortion legal? Yes. What does she know about Trump? Not much- they don’t really hear about him that much. Was she fearful of the USA as a child (she’s 42 and grew up during the cold war)? She was afraid of spies when she was a child and was told to never eat the candy they found because it might be poisoned. How are schools? Way better than when she was a child- her children are learning and there has been a lot of progress in the educational system. Today, her main priorities are her children and having a happy well-fed family.
In Russia, Lisa referred to all of those big buildings on the edge of town as sleeping quarters- not homes. We saw almost no single family homes in the entire city. The Russian people have been required to give so much of themselves throughout their history, for governments that conflicted with the betterment of their families and the people, which left them in shambles. So now they are trying to pick up the pieces, find their own ideas and create a better world. Our guide Lisa’s little piece of paradise is her balcony, where she is growing herbs with her children so they can feel ownership of something they’ve chosen to create.
Russia was fascinating because in the US we hear a lot about the Russian government and not much about Russians. What we found was what we have found everywhere we have travelled over the years – good people doing their best to live good lives Governments, from lavish monarchies to communist regimes to our own American experiment might be excellent views of nation states and how they’re governed but they’re not always good representation of the people who make up those nations.
Grateful for travel.