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One Woman's Opinion

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Baltic Sea Passage, Part 3

by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— The next morning we arrived in gloomy St. Petersburg. It was not just the continuing pouring rain that made Russia drab. It was the wire fences that enclosed our ship and the yellow plastic boxes where we were shuttled in long lines like cows waiting to be milked, while scowling young women dressed in military uniforms inspected our passports.

Good gracious, how Russians can frown. It was even more startling because the women were so young. It was amazing to see such young people looking so glum; like being on another planet. Our game during the next few days was to try to make a Russian smile. Nothing doing.

We had traveled in and out of each previous country with many welcoming smiles and little or no inspection of passports. Not in Russia. One must either be in possession of a visa (at the cost of $250) or sign up for escorted tours.

“Hurry up,” “Don’t leave the line,” “Where have you been?” were the sorts of expressions our Russian guides used, not exactly oriented to pleasing customers. They never heard of that concept in Russia, where suspicion obviously reigns supreme. No one is trusted and must be watched carefully at all times. One had the feeling of prison.

We were hustled into a bus and driven through St. Petersburg. The city was once a part of Sweden and called “Petrograd,” but when Peter the Great took it he renamed it St. Petersburg. During the Russian Revolution the city’s name was changed to Leningrad.  Later, the name of St. Petersburg was returned.

Our guide seemed thrilled with her nation’s communist past. She pointed proudly to dreary block-sized apartment buildings, calling them “beautiful modern buildings that had been built by Comrade Stalin.”   

Mary and Chip Buxton in Stockholm - Mary holds her trust umbrella in a downpour
The Changing of the Guard ceremony
Jewel Ray on the cobbled streets of quaint island of Marichamn
Jewel Ray standing in front of the “ms Prinsendam”
Catherine’s Summer Palace in nearby Poushkin, a city named after the famous writer, was much more to my liking. Almost totally destroyed by retreating Nazis in 1945, the palace is slowly being restored. The ballroom alone is a 10,000-square-foot room of parquet floors, crystal chandeliers, mural ceiling, mirrored and gilded walls where many illustrious receptions and balls have been held.

Another famous room, the “Amber Room,” was also spectacular, its once semi-precious walls stripped by Nazis, but restored to its former beauty.

We heard a great deal of “anti-Nazi” sentiment expressed by residents or guides of the various countries we visited. But political correctness had arrived in Europe and everyone was careful never to say ”German.”

It rained on. Our tour guide explained that Russian summers were never very good. “We spend the first nine months of the year in anticipation of summer” she said, adding that summer was “three months of the usual disappointment.” Now there’s a positive view. St. Petersburg enjoys only 30 to 40 days of sunshine each year. No wonder Russians are known for their love of vodka.

The next day we were escorted to the Hermitage, or Winter Palace, which housed the greatest collection of art that I have ever seen. We were almost not admitted, suspicious looking people that we must have been. Our guide had to argue our case. “We only have two hours scheduled to enjoy the museum,” she pleaded. Finally, a man of deep scowls came out to look us over. Never have I seen such looks of deep mistrust cast my way. I almost laughed out loud. It was quite comical, actually, as if I had been cast upon the stage in a spoof of spies with all the stereotypical Russian characters.

But what an oaf. What is wrong with these people? Don’t they see how silly their neurotic and chronically-suspicious behavior is to the rest of the world? My advice to Putin, in case he is reading this column, is . . . wake up and join the human race.

What an art collection! Almost as fine a grouping of French Impressionists as is in the Louvre. I saw some Renoirs I had never seen before and always wondered why. One was his famous full-sized portrait of a woman at the opera and the little girl in the garden playing with a stick and ball.

And the splendour of two more Leonardo de Vinci paintings, many more Raphaels, and Rembrandts including the “Return of the Prodigal Son,” which made the trip worthwhile.
It was thrilling to see them and, as always, the balm of great art eased the grief that I carried in my heart.

That evening we were taken in the pouring rain to the Yusupov Palace for an evening of champagne and opera. We were greeted by costumed and bewigged hostesses who looked as if they could have been George Washington and family.

The palace had been where Russian nobles had murdered Rasputin, that dastardly man in history that had held special power over Czarina Alexandra (because of her son’s hemophilia.) He had been invited to the palace, led to the basement for a sumptuous meal in which all the food and drinks had been laced with cyanide—and when that didn’t kill him, he was shot several times, strangled, and finally thrown into the icy river. The murder scene had been reproduced in wax figures.

Surviving that, we were taken to the ballroom for champagne and caviar. Horrors! Hold the caviar, I’m from Ohio! (This last said at the great risk of offending the many sophisticates of the world who read this column.)

Meanwhile, the Yusupovs fled for their lives after the Russian Revolution. They lived in Italy and later died in France never to see their palatial home again. Nobody cared. So much for revolutions and caviar.

The opera came next. We were seated in a splendid red and gold theater within the palace and treated to an intimate evening of orchestra and  Russian opera stars who sang beautiful arias from all the famous operas. It was a most elegant evening never to be forgotten.

How ironic that tourists from the West flock to Russia hungry for the spectacular pre-revolutionary art, architecture, cathedrals, culture and music. But monuments and buildings still standing from the communist era are as inspiring and appealing as a pile of cement blocks. They speak as loudly as to the horrors of communism as the pervasively sour Russian demeanor.

(To be continued) ©2008

posted 09.25.2008

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