St. Petersburg Stories and Tips

A Night in Leningrad

I've been twice to Leningrad but never to St. Petersburg. "So what?", you may think, "I've been to many places twice and to others not at all." That may well be the case, but here we're talking about the same Russian city. Its first name was Saint Petersburg, this was changed to Petrograd in 1914, to Leningrad in 1924 and back to St. Petersburg in 1991.

Every year in the middle of June I remember a special night in Leningrad. I used to teach Russian at a secondary grammar school in Germany and went to Moscow and Leningrad twice on a one-week school trip with a group of students. We flew to Moscow and stayed there for half a week, then took the night train to Leningrad for the other half and returned to Germany from there.

It wasn't possible then to organise individual trips. Adults had to go with Intourist, the state-run tourist office. We had to go with Sputnik, the sub-organisation for youngsters. Before leaving the group leader (me) had to send a list of wishes, what we wanted to do and what we wanted to see, as well as a list of all names, addresses and passport numbers in twenty copies. (Wherever we went in Moscow and Leningrad, we would find someone waiting for us with a copy of this list in their hands. Spooky).

At the airport groups were welcomed by an interpreter/chaperon/watchdog who accompanied them all the time, no matter if they knew the language or not. In our case she (it was usually a woman) had our wish list which had transmogrified into a strict programme with some of our wishes but also items we hadn't dreamed of like visiting a summer camp on the Baltic Sea for the children of a textile factory in Leningrad (which turned out to be quite enjoyable) or a discussion with a group of Young Pioneers, the youth organisation of the Communist Party (we didn't go).

For my second trip I had asked a friend to accompany me with whom I had studied Russian at university. The group consisted of fifteen well-behaved 17-year-old girls. I knew they wouldn't be trouble, but one can't do such trips alone. If a teacher has to accompany someone to hospital, for example, there must be someone who can stay with the group.

When we arrived at Moscow airport, we found a woman waiting for us, crumpled, crinkled and dead-tired. For some reason the Moscovite interpreters/chaperons/watchdogs were all occupied and Sputnik had called someone from Kiev. Ludmilla had been on the train longer than we had been on the plane which explained the way she looked. She turned out to be the best possible choice! She had been in Moscow and Leningrad many times, wasn't interested in making us 'work off' the items on our programme and, above all, wasn't afraid of any reprehensions. We studied the list together, she asked us if we wanted to go to wherever we were meant to go. When we declined, she called the people and simply said that we wouldn't come. She was a real treasure. She often stayed in her hotel room having seen the sights innumerable times and embroidered blouses with folkloristic motives. (She later made a beautiful one for my mother). We did what we wanted to do which was mainly walk around and inhale the atmosphere.

When we were in Leningrad my friend and I decided to thank Ludmilla by inviting her big-style to one of the best restaurants, the one on the ground floor of the 5-star Grand Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospekt in the centre of the city. Nowadays we couldn't afford a night out there any more, but then, in the Soviet Union, we were rich with our Deutsche Mark against the Ruble. There were several other groups of people dining together, many from Western Europe. I'm not especially impressed by caviar, but we had it there, red one and black one, together with blinis (a type of thin pancake) and other specialities up and down the menu, accompanied by champagne from Crimea and a shot of vodka in the end. There was a small orchestra with a very good singer, a tenor, who specialised in Italian arias. No idea why he didn't sing Russian songs. Maybe the musicians thought that foreigners feel good when things aren't too foreign for them. (Which is indeed often the case). When midnight came, the festive evening ended rather abruptly. A grim, elderly charwoman appeared with a bucket full of water and a floor mop and began cleaning the floor between the tables.

So we left. We went to the nearest underground station, not drunk but tipsy enough to take the wrong underground train. Our hotel was far away from the centre somewhere in the periphery. When we noticed that we didn't recognise any of the names of the stations we passed, we got off. It was after midnight then, but not dark. The days in the middle of June are called the White Nights in this northern city. This is a period when many great cultural events take place. The sun shines until 10 / 10.30 pm and starts shining again at around 5 am. In between the sky is light grey.

We had no idea where we were, our interpreter had never been to the outskirts before. Understandably, as all sights are in the centre. The good thing for my friend and me was, of course, that we had someone with us who could speak the language perfectly. But this didn't help much as at that time of night the streets were empty. We didn't feel too good as you can imagine. After some time the door of a high rise building opened and a young couple, dressed normally, and a young woman in a long nightie came out together with a dog which they wanted to walk. When they heard that we were lost, they decided that the dog wouldn't mind where it was walked. We were already near our hotel but approaching it from a different side, so we hadn't recognised the area. When we saw our hotel, we parted thanking our three saviours profusely.

Our students had also enjoyed the light night and walked around at a time when it was already pitch dark at home but none had such a nice story to tell. You can imagine that I have fond thoughts when thinking of this city and its people!

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