Russian Glimpses – Part 3 – St. Petersburg
(Editor's Note: Columnist Kelly recently toured Russia. This is her third of three parts recounting her adventure.)
Our senior guide in St. Petersburg, Masha, was the daughter of intellectuals. During Soviet times, her parents traded their historic, central apartment for a Khrushchev apartment farther out, so that they could send Masha to kindergarten without a 6-year wait. Apartment developments are named after the leader of the time they were built. Stalin’s were the best.
The Khrushchev apartment, with its’ crude style, small rooms and low ceilings, was intended by the government to last about 20 years. It was to be replaced when full communism came about, projected to occur in about 1980. It was a lovely home to Masha, in spite of its' architecture and poor construction.
Her mother decorated it carefully, including beautiful objects from their former apartment. It was cozy. You could sit at the kitchen table and nearly touch both walls.
Their building was a community, full of intellectual associates of her parents, with frequent visits by famous authors and poets, and lots of reading material unapproved by the Soviet government. By the time she was 10, Masha was aware that things were not perfect with her government.
Our alternate guide, Catherine, the college-educated daughter of a worker, just recently began learning of the evils of Soviet times as new writings have been published. A lovely, lithe, athletic woman with china blue eyes, she is one of many St. Petersburg residents still living in a communal apartment. She and her husband have raised their three boys in two rooms plus a windowless storage closet converted into a dining room, complete with microwave and refrigerator. “She only needs the communal kitchen for cooking on the stove.”
While I was practicing kneeling under my desk with my face down and arms over my head, protection in case of nuclear attack by the evil communists, Catherine was marching in a neat line in her uniform, going to school, keeping the sidewalks clean, following the rules and being taken care of by the state. She and her peers were told they were the happiest children in the world. She believed it.
Now that the government is privatizing, turning state-owned apartments into condominiums, and city flat prices have soared to $4,000 U.S. per square meter, Catherine has no idea how she will ever get her own apartment. She simply can‘t afford one.
Masha and Catherine grew up in Leningrad. They have trouble sharing our jubilation at the return of the name St. Petersburg. The change leaves them, and many others, with very mixed emotions.
Both of their families were affected by the incredible World War II siege, during which the city was surrounded by the Nazis for 900 days. Marsha’s grandmother stayed, although she was eligible for a pass to leave via the one small road out, because her parents wanted to stay. After her parents died, she did escape, along with her four-year-old daughter, Marsha’s mother, who was near death from starvation by then.
Catherine’s grandfather was an officer who was captured by the Nazis. Upon his return, he was immediately sent to Siberia by Stalin, fearful that he, and others behind enemy lines during the war, would be contaminated by exposure to the West. Her grandfather survived, and returned home after several years. He did not speak about his experience, but once, when pressed, he commented: “The Nazis fed us.”
Many have heard the story of the siege of Leningrad, and of the legendary character of the people of the city. They endured bombardment, hid their art treasures in the basement of centrally located St Isaac’s Cathedral, and worked steadfastly, on less than a piece of bread per day, to maintain not just their lives, but their civilization.
On their off days, soldiers were invited to the Hermitage for tours. The picture frames were empty, but guides took them around and described to them the missing paintings.
There was a beloved hippopotamus in the zoo. He lived, as starving people carried buckets of river water every day to sustain him. In the ministry of agriculture, there was a collection of thousands of exotic seeds. Treasures, they remained uneaten.
One and a half million people died. Their bodies were carried to crematoria set up in throughout the city. The streets were swept, the bombs defused. Life went on. The Russian spirit reigned.
Stalin was not prepared for Hitler to attack. He had, a year after killing most of his senior military officers in one of his purges, signed the Non Aggression Pact in 1939 with the Nazis. There were only two months to prepare for the assault on Leningrad, maybe a similar time for Moscow. A sculpture of enlarged anti-tank tacks marks the spot in Moscow where the Nazis were stopped. The Nazi line of the Leningrad siege lies a few miles outside the city.
Total losses for Russia were 25,000,000 people. Demonstrating unbelievable tenacity, the army pressed on, and made its way to Berlin.
The most perplexing story, though, is that of the monuments outside St. Petersburg.
The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is the Winter Palace of the Czars, designed and built during the rein of Elizabeth, illegitimate daughter of Peter the Great, in the very early 18th century. She also built the Summer Palace, about an hour away. There are others, most notably the palace of Paul I, son of Catherine the Great. Maria Fedorovna, Paul’s widow, lived there for about 25 years in the early 19th century, after Paul was assassinated. It’s magnificent.
As the Nazis approached, the curators gathered 1,000 treasures from each important site, more when they could, and transported them to Siberia for safekeeping. The Nazis occupied the area outside of the city, and these palaces. They robbed them of any extant treasures, and then blew them up, some say just to demonstrate their contempt for the “inferior” Slavic people. For the most part, all that was left was walls.
For the past 60 years, the Russian government, even during Soviet times, has been paying for restoration of these buildings. Every molding is being replicated, with wood or plaster, glue from sturgeon bones and gold leaf applied with squirrel tail brushes, just as in the 18th century.
Why would the Soviet government do this?
Maybe I’ll find out on my next trip.