Surprise in Russia
by Peter Kravitz
Ever since the mid 1980s, when I contracted a permanent case of wanderlust, I’d hoped to visit Russia. Over 30 years ago, I slipped behind in the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria and explored Yugoslavia as it departed Communism, but it wasn’t until this summer that I finally journeyed to Russia.
My wife and I chose to visit St. Petersburg, the city founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, that famous six-foot, eight-inch czar, because so many friends called it beautiful and engaging. Also, my grandfather hailed from there, where he served in the Imperial Russian Army, though he died long before I was born.
Still, I had many preconceived notions about Russia, stoked of course by its recent violent annexation of the Crimea but also because Russia is one of the deadliest countries in the world for reporters, according to the American-based Committee to Protect Journalists. So I assumed some danger lurked everywhere, that any attempt to talk politics would be tricky, and that even perhaps the SVR (the successor to the KGB) would eavesdrop on my texts and e-mails.
In St. Petersburg, however, we experienced an extremely safe city. I was able to talk freely with locals about Putin, Trump, and even Stalin. The streets and canals were clean. Indeed, we saw no homeless people—not one beggar. We were told they existed, but what happened to them, according to the British tabloid The Sun, was that the Russians cleaned up 2018 World Cup host cities by forcing the homeless into special camps prior to the event, which stretched from June through July. Such “homeless cleansing” or zachistki (mop-up operations) is a Russian tactic during major events, according to several sources. Yet the Russians we saw worked very hard, and many spoke English, though admittedly we were mostly in touristy areas.
While the Wi-Fi was an issue, as many restaurants and public places had rather complex methods for connecting, it worked well in our hotel and in a few restaurants. We Ubered. The restaurant scene was incredible. The restaurant Birch was so spectacular we returned the next night. The appetizers included cornbread and Kamchatka crab. For entrees we feasted on salmon ceviche, an amazing duck dish, and sea bass. And because we had a seat in the kitchen the first night, the pastry chef shared a special dessert of pear sorbet, eggplant, Gorgonzola cheese, and vanilla sauce. Combine a charming ambiance and a battered ruble and you had a meal with wine that’s right there with Nobu, but at a fifth of of the price. I felt a little bad for all of the Russians working so hard for a devalued currency, but it made the city an incredible bargain.
A slight negative about St. Petersburg is that it is overrun by cruise-ship day trippers. Of course we were tourists, too. We jostled and squeezed with the crowds through the Hermitage—a spectacular museum experience. A painting attributed to da Vinci, the Madonna Litta, mesmerized me. There was a Michelangelo statue and works by Rubens and Rembrandt. While I enjoy art, I had never before repeatedly told my wife, “Wait, I just need to look at this a little more.”
Like many European cities, you are overwhelmed by history in St. Petersburg, even though it’s relatively new, since it had to be almost entirely rebuilt after the Nazis destroyed it in World War II. Over three million people died there in the horrific siege of Leningrad, its name in Communist times.
The Communists may have destroyed the power of the czars, but ironically the Russians have spent untold wealth to restore their palaces and churches. The Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral has been completely renovated, and its interior holds the tombs of nearly all czars from Peter the Great forward. Even the remains of Nicholas II, the last czar, and nearly all of his family repose there. And then there is the spectacular Church on Spilled Blood, which the Russians built on the spot Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It took a decade to complete and features an interior of must-see mosaics. Alexander II abolished serfdom and treated the small Jewish population of the city better than most czars had. He even sold Alaska to the US—a really good deal for us!
My brief experience in St. Petersburg has led me to conclude that Russia and the United States, nations that waged a Cold War against each other but never a real war, are remarkably similar—except that St. Petersburg is much cleaner and safer than any large American city as long as you are not homeless or a journalist criticizing the Russian government.
Photos all by Peter Kravitz.