Our city tour guide, Lenna, teaches English at the university, but she said that she would be living at the poverty level on her university salary. She supplements her salary by teaching private English language classes and working for the hotel as a tour guide. She said that every year she hopes it will be better, but every year it gets worse. People say that under the old regime, they had money, but there was nothing to buy. Now everything is available, but there is no money. I’m worried what will happen after Yeltsin. The man in charge of the president’s security is former KGB.
Oh, yes. Here’s a Lenna story. On our city tour, the car stopped in front of a rather ugly greenish building with an antenna farm and various satellite dishes on the roof. Lenna said, "People say that this is the tallest building in St. Petersburg. Do you believe it?" I looked at the building and shrugged, "I’ve seen taller ones in St. Petersburg." Then Lenna got a mischievous glint in her eye and said, "But people say that from this building, even from the ground floor, you can see Siberia!" She explained that it was formerly the KGB headquarters but now housed the state police security force, but she pointed out that it was the same thing under a different name. Then she showed us two statues of sphinxes along the Neva River. We couldn’t stop because of the traffic, but she said that the other side of the sphinx shows a skeleton. One faces a prison across the river, the other faces KGB headquarters. They are monuments dedicated to dissidents and were created by a former Russian (now an American) sculptor.
These are people of incredible courage. Even when they were starving to death the Nazis couldn’t defeat them. Lenna showed us the Astoria Hotel, where Hitler planned to hold his reception after conquering the city. The invitations were already printed and were found with Third Reich documents. Through it all, they still managed to keep their wit and humor.
Momma and I fell in love with St. Petersburg. Even though the city’s infrastructure is collapsing right and left, she has a grace and dignity that peeling paint and potholes in the road can’t diminish. She is like a lady of noble birth who has slide into poverty. You still see the fine breeding and the elegance in spite of tattered edges. I love cities with big rivers and beautiful bridges. The turn-of-the-century wrought iron is something special on the bridges and balconies of superb craftsmanship. My favorite word in Russian is most, which means bridge. There are the canals with all the gorgeous bridges. A sight not to be missed is the Lion's Bridge. It has winged golden lions at each end. It is too small to drive on and is just for pedestrians, but it is lovely.
Lenna said that in June, the sun sets at 3am, so what we saw was just the tail end of the White Nights. While we were there, the sun set around 10:30pm, and it was still light at 11pm. Momma and I were walking in Mikhajlovskij Park and couldn’t find the way out. I asked a family group if anyone spoke English. A woman immediately came forward and we started talking. We ended up exchanging addresses, and I just received my first letter from her. Her name is Natalia (Natasha), and she teaches English to 7- to 10-year-old children. She loves American films and literature. She reads Huckleberry Finn to her kids in translation and also likes Hemingway. She asked me if we were afraid to visit St. Petersburg. I asked what she meant. "Our crime is very bad," she said. "Oh, is that all? I’m from Los Angeles. Anything you’ve got, we can match!" I said. But you see, we had no problems at all, not even with the infamous gypsy children, who can pick you clean in moments. The only people we met were friendly, open, helpful, and anxious to speak English with us. I was told by an American woman who speaks fluent Russian that they are nicer to foreigners than they are to each other! She gets better treatment when speaking English. I suppose it is because we are still a novelty. It was illegal to talk to Americans only a few years ago.
Lenna took us inside St. Nicholas Cathedral, where we burned candles for St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and travelers. There were a few times when I was starting to wonder if this really worked because I always seemed to have a guardian angel sitting on my shoulder. We saw some exquisite icons with filigree silver covers. We even saw a wedding procession. It was quite dark and smoky inside the Russian cathedrals – very mystical and moody.
Okay, here it comes. I didn’t like the Hermitage Museum! It is not "user friendly" unless you happen to speak Russian. It is extremely crowded, with huge tour groups shoving past you. Even though I had purchased an advance ticket through the concierge, I still had to stand in a long line to buy a photo permit for 15,000 rubles. There is a lot of pushing and shoving – but these were the foreign tourists!
I did, however, get to see the 74 Impressionist paintings of "Hidden Treasures Revealed." Not all of them were first rate, but there were a few gems. There was a Renoir still-life of a vase of roses that delighted me. It looked three-dimensional. You don’t normally associate Renoir with floral still-life paintings.
Lenna told me that if you spend just 1 minute looking at each item in the Hermitage for 24 hours a day, it will take you about 5 years to see it all. All the signs on the displays are in Russian only. It is just too damn big, too overwhelming. It is set inside the famous Winter Palace, which also is too damn big! Some of the inner rooms are rather dark and dreary. Some of the floors are very un-palace-like oak plank (must have been the servants’ areas).
But still, looking out the windows of the adjacent Neva River and the beautiful Palace Square, we do get a rather grand sense of history. The gunboat Aurora still sits in the river. In 1917, it had its guns trained on the Winter Palace and fired a blank shot from its front gun as a signal to storm the Winter Palace.