The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 30, 2003


Reflections on St. Petersburg, Russia

This past week a close friend and I returned from a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, which is celebrating its 300th birthday. About 50 world leaders, including President Bush, will be joining President Putin this week to commemorate this anniversary. This city, also known as the "Venice of the North" because of its many canals, leaves a strong impression on a visitor. By any measure it is a beautiful and impressive city with its many ornate palaces and churches and world-class museums and orchestras. Despite having grown up under the strong influence of the Cold War, I must confess that it didn't take long for me to take a real liking to the city and its people.

First and foremost, St. Petersburg is characterized by how big everything is. The city's many buildings and palaces are of gargantuan size, often encompassing long blocks. Its subway system is the deepest in the world, with some of the escalators to the metros extending over 900 feet below. The famous Hermitage art museum contains over three million items. The contrasts themselves are extreme as well when, for example, you compare the incredibly rich colors and architecture of their lavish palaces and mosaic-tiled, onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches with the extremely depressing, drab appearance of Stalin-era buildings. You get the idea.

The Church on Spilled Blood. (photo by Jay Luby)
St. Petersburg is much younger and very different from other European cities and considerably more challenging to navigate. Of course, this is one aspect that makes travel so enticing. Among other things, English is not widely spoken. Their Cyrillic alphabet consists of 33 letters, of which only five correspond exactly to their English equivalents. This can lead to some interesting challenges when trying to decipher metro stops, street signs, etc. Another very obvious difference is that the military (which still maintains a draft for all men) and police are ubiquitous.

The people

I think that it is a fair generalization to say that the people of St. Petersburg are very different from other Europeans as well. Having arrived there following visits to Prague and Vienna, we observed stark differences. Our strong impression was that the people are more passive, patient and even submissive than their European counterparts. The contrast with Americans is even more pronounced. As just one example, on three different occasions, I visited the local post office. Each time there was a line of from 15 to 25 people seeking customer service. Despite the fact that there were a number of other postal workers seemingly available, only one employee interacted with the public. Given the rate at which each customer was being served, it was obvious that it was going to take well over an hour to get through this line. Even though Kevin and Rick would never allow that to happen in the Carlisle Post Office, I was amazed at how uncomplaining and resigned to the wait everyone seemed to be. (You probably won't be surprised to learn that I didn't feel compelled to demonstrate similar patience.) In any case, we observed this patience time and again in places ranging from metros to museums.

Fortunately, because I had already established a good relationship and some level of trust with a few native St. Petersburgers via many Internet exchanges prior to my arrival, my friend and I were able to have some honest, in-depth discussions in which we shared our initial observations and asked for their feedback. In virtually all respects my contacts agreed with our assessments and attributed a large degree of their approach to life as a function of three factors: their harsh weather (often well below zero with little light during a good part of their long winter); their difficult history (they remain a very patriotic people with a lot of pride at how they were able to withstand the 900-day siege by the Nazis at the outskirts of their city during World War II); and their current tough living conditions (the average wage is about $200 USD per month which, even on a relative basis given their lower costs, etc., represents a very meager income).

It is apparent that Russia continues to undergo a major transformation following the break-up of the Soviet system just over a decade ago. Russians are still learning how to operate in an increasingly capitalist economy. For example, while they certainly utilize advertising, it is still quite tame and, thankfully, does not yet dominate their skylines, buildings and airwaves. While their financial straits dictate how and where they can travel, an increasing number of their citizens are, for the first time, able to venture out and visit parts of Europe. However, it is still very difficult for Russians to visit the US, both because they can't afford the airfare but also because of a number of constraints that our government imposes, such as a non-refundable $100 USD application fee that is collected regardless of whether they are granted a visa.

Sprucing up the city

Despite increasing western influence, particularly evident in the glittering shops on the city's vibrant main street, Nevsky Prospekt, one also sees vestiges of the secretive and autocratic former Soviet Union at work. Not surprisingly, President Putin wants to make a good impression on all the visiting foreign leaders and so has allocated a lot of money, soldiers and other resources to help spruce up the city. In one case, we even saw where the government had erected a false facade along the procession route in order to overcome their lack of time to refurbish a prominent building. But, in a troubling development hearkening back to an earlier era, we read that the government had brazenly leveled many homes deemed unsightly, tore up many pensioners' beloved gardens and boarded up large stretches of roadway, all without providing any advance notice to the inhabitants who were so severely impacted. However, despite a few critical letters in the newspaper, it was clear that citizen resignation would be the only ramification. In a different vein, when I asked a few people about the Russian experience in Afghanistan (always being careful to introduce the topic with a reference to American failures in Vietnam), the people with whom I spoke were uniform in saying that the government had never publicized anything about this tragic war and so, as a result, the average Russian was still ignorant about virtually all matters relating to their country's involvement there despite all the casualties we know that they suffered.

White nights

My close friend, who was first my high school teacher and since then a frequent traveling companion, and I feel that we have the best chance of getting to know a city when we walk whenever possible (we averaged at least 10 miles a day), wander off the beaten track, utilize local transportation, eat in local establishments and, in short, interact with the locals whenever possible. (Of course it was a lot easier to do this at this time of year, as it stayed light past 11 p.m. and remained dark only until about 4 a.m.) Due to this firsthand experience, we increasingly felt that the many travel guides we had consulted prior to our trip had done St. Petersburg a grave injustice in how they characterize the city as being rife with petty crime, etc. While we were only there for a relatively short time (eight days), I feel confident in saying that St. Petersburg is 10 times safer than New York City and far cleaner too. As an example, we always felt extremely safe on their subways and we couldn't help noticing that their metro stations are immaculate with absolutely no graffiti or trash in evidence. We were never hassled by anyone; indeed, any solicitor immediately backed off almost deferentially as soon as we indicated that we weren't interested in their wares.

In contrast to their hotels and museums, where Russia imposes special western-level charges, we were able to obtain great seats at two concerts featuring one of St. Petersburg's excellent symphony orchestras at a cost equating to $3 USD each. On a different musical note, one of the real treats of our trip was happening upon services in a few different Russian Orthodox churches. Many aspects of these ceremonies were fascinating but none left a stronger impression than how beautifully their choirs sang in each case.

One of the most pleasant parts of our trip was our interaction with complete strangers. As I am not hesitant about asking for help with directions or initiating conversations, we met many Russians during our visit. While we couldn't interact with many of them because they didn't speak English or German, those who could communicate with us almost always went out of their way to be helpful and friendly. This was especially so once they learned that we were Americans. Indeed, while many Russians often appeared a little glum at first sight, we found that once we engaged them in conversation, their warmth and friendliness readily emerged.

At the end of the day, literally, there was one thing that immediately reminded me of Carlisle. Because Peter the Great had built this planned city on swampland, it is host to many mosquitoes. So, I wasn't totally surprised when one of these critters visited us in our hotel room and beckoned me home. Regardless, I would jump at the chance to return to beautiful and captivating St. Petersburg

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito