Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Our Brief Visit to Russia

The second stop on our 50th wedding anniversary Baltic cruise with members of our family was St. Petersburg, Russia. My maternal grandparents came to the US from Russia. My grandfather Louis Leibowitz was from Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, virtually at the current line of demarcation between the Ukrainian-nationalists and Russian-speaking separatists). My grandmother Lena was from Baku, Azerbaijan.

Furthermore, our daughter Lisa has been studying the Russian language at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, where her husband, Jerry, is a member of the faculty, and our 16-year-old granddaughters just completed their second year. Her knowledge of Russian and research into sightseeing and museum highlights in St. Petersburg helped make our visit most effective and enjoyable.

Our visit began with mass confusion at the customs checkpoint. As we debarked the ship we were swept into long lines of our fellow cruise-members who all seemed to have numbered stickers on their shirts denoting the land-tours for which they had signed up. They told us they had obtained the stickers at the theater on the ship, but we had somehow missed that part of the instruction! We attempted to re-board, but could not, so we joined a line and, quite fortunately, ran into our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters who informed us that our particular tour would get our stickers as we boarded the bus.

The lines at customs moved slowly, and, when it was our turn, we discovered why. The customs agents were translating our names and personal information into Cyrillic characters. Thus, my name "IRA GLICKSTEIN" had to be converted to the Cyrillic "ИРА ГЛУКШТЕИN" and so on for all of our information. Although this should have been an easy computer task, the customs agents seemed to be doing it manually, which is why it took so long. So our tour was delayed about an hour.

On to ride into town, our tour leader, who spoke good English, told us that, "in Soviet times" multiple families shared communal state-owned apartments, but that the Khrushchev reforms had changed that, with a goal of separate apartments for each family. Starting in the 1960's, many new concrete-block apartments were erected and, although it took up to ten years, depending upon their position and political connections, most families eventually obtained their own apartments.

Then, in the 1990's under Yeltsin, as the old Soviet Union disintegrated, residents were essentially given ownership of their apartments for free. Now, she said, over 95% of the people had their own apartments. The average apartment was now worth about $40,000 and those who owned more than one, having inherited them from their deceased parents and transferred ownership for a few thousand dollars, would rent them out.

We drove through block after block of massive apartment buildings, some with obvious external deterioration, but generally clean.

The bus took us on a short tour of the major attractions of downtown St. Petersburg. Then, we were dropped off at a souvenir shop, where they had free tea, water, and restrooms, and we were given a few hours "at leisure" to explore the city on our own.

Downtown St. Petersburg is a bustling city, with lots of people hurrying down the streets, many stores of all kinds, and hot dog vendors with carts on the sidewalks. Just as a cat seeks mice*, I focus on fast food. So, I ogled the American fast food franchises, but, alas, was not able to dine there. The main photo above shows the popular golden arches and the inset photos on the right show two other favorites - can you read the Cyrillic characters and identify them?

With the help of daughter Lisa, and my familiarity with some Greek characters from my math and physics education, I got pretty good at sounding out Cyrillic. "Санкт-Петербург, Россия" is "Saint Petersburg, Russia".

Lisa had done her research and intended to walk to the Kunstkamera ("кунсткамера" which means "Cabinet of Curiosities")  Russia's first museum, created by Peter the Great and first opened around 1727.

The long walk was too much for Vi, who was dropped off at a nice park. The rest of us continued the walk. Along the way, as we were crossing a bridge over the Neva River, a Russian man spoke to me in good English, saying that all the bridges would be closed between midnight and 5 AM, a fact our tour leader had earlier conveyed to us, telling us that the bridges had to be raised during those hours to allow large transport ships to pass through.

There was further confusion as our daughter and son-in-law, who had earlier exchanged US dollars for Russian rubles, purchased tickets for the museum. Students and retirees were entitled to an 80% discount on the admission price, but only two of our three granddaughters happened to have their student ID cards, and I did not have my AARP card. However, not to worry. All our granddaughters got student discounts and somebody miscounted, so I got in for free!

Once in, I had to check my large backpack, which I left at the coat-check station in return for a very substantial numbered token. The museum reminded me of the New York Museum of Natural History as it was back when I was in elementary school.

Lisa led us on a beeline to the special section of "Oddities" where photography was prohibited, but, as we were told, there were plenty of images on the Internet (see photos below).

After our all-too-short visit to the Kunstkamera, we returned to the park where we had left Vi and she told us she had made friends with Russian woman who spoke adequate English.

We all walked further through the active streets, stopped to ogle some cathedral, and further tested our ability to sound out Cyrillic characters. ("кафе" is "Cafe", and so on.)  At this point, I too was pretty much "walked out" and Vi and I decided to walk back to the souvenir shop for some free tea and wait in that area until it was time to catch our tour bus back to the ship. Our granddaughter Alexia was nice enough to walk and wait with us.

There was a very comfortable park near the souvenir shop dedicated to the famous Russian writer Pushkin, and we happily waited there.

As we waited in the park, I noticed the pigeons had an unusual fondness for the famous Russian writer, see photos above. I tested my ability to sound out Cyrillic characters by reading the inscription on the Pushkin statue, "Алекса́ндр Серге́евич ПУШКИНУ" is "Alexander Sergevitch PUSHKIN". Hooray!


Our second day in St. Petersburg was a half-day tour to the impressive Hermitage museum. This time, we passed through customs rapidly.

As we waited to enter the Hermitage, street vendors plied us with novelties, such as Russian nested dolls and souvenir books, and so on. I was pleased that one vendor was selling anti-Communist t-shirts for $10 US currency (similar to the example shown in the lower left inset of the first image in this posting):

  • On the front of the t-shirt, the old Communist hammer and sickle on a field of red is replaced by "McLenin's" - the face of Vladimir Lenin, the (once) highly respected Communist revolutionary, politician and political theorist who served as the leader of the USSR 1917 through his death in 1922, surrounded by the now-universal symbol of western capitalism, the golden arches of McDonalds.
  • The back of the t-shirt shows the defeated hammer and sickle in a red star with the legend "The (Communist) Party is Over".

Indeed, Communism is over. The only people who still believe in it seem to be academics, teaching in western universities!

Our tour leader was a young woman who spoke excellent English. She guided us through the impressive exhibits and explained them to us. Our special tour included a visit to the "Gold Room" where an expert guide explained the exhibits in the Russian language which was translated and repeated by our guide.


Of course a bare two-day visit to one city in Russia is not a basis for any deep political analysis. First of all, St. Petersburg (Leningrad in Soviet times) has, even in the days of Peter the Great, been more western-oriented than the rest of Russia, and is probably far more prosperous than average. Furthermore, the only contact we had with Russian people was the customs agents, who said not a word to us; the tour guides, who spoke disparagingly of "Soviet times" but said nothing about the current situation or their leader Vladimir Putin, who happens to be a native of St. Petersburg, which I guess is understandable; and the guy on the street who told me about the bridges closing at night.

Never-the-less, I got the distinct impression that the policies and customs of the old "Soviet times" had deep roots that affected the current situation. My wife Vi thinks the long delay at customs was likely due to a need to increase employment of people in government jobs. It seems to me that security at their customs checkpoints and museums was more officious than effective.

The customs agents were behind high barriers such that we could see their hands only when they took our passports and gave them back. We could not see whether they transliterated our names to Cyrillic characters manually or with the aid of a computer, but I believe it was the former because of how long it took.

A slip of paper with our transliterated information was tucked into our passports when we left. When we returned from the tour, we had to go through a security checkpoint to get into the customs building. That included an x-ray screening for my backpack and passing through a metal detector. When my belt buckle caused the metal detector to beep, I took my belt off and tried to hand it to the guard, but he just waved me through as it beeped again. We again had to wait at customs, but all they seemed to do was remove that slip of paper from our passports and pass us on. (Upon entering the ship, we had to put our sea card into a machine that instantly brought up a stored photo so the attendant could confirm our identity, and then we had to go through some real security that included an x-ray scan of our belongings and a metal detector where we had to remove our belts.)

On the first day, at the Kunstkamera ("Odditiies") museum, they made me check my backpack, but they did not use a metal detector or inspect the contents of my pockets or jacket or purse-size containers, etc.

On the second day, at the Hermitage museum we were warned not to take any bottled water or other liquids because of an incident not long ago where a mentally disturbed man threw acid on a valuable painting and used a knife to slash it. Thus, I was not surprised to see a metal detector at the entrance. However, it was totally unmanned and beeped merrily as we walked through! I could have easily carried a bottle of acid and a knife without any serious chance of detection.

On the second day, we again had to go through the customs checkpoints, both leaving and returning. This time, however, they passed us through both ways without giving us that slip of paper or demanding it upon our return. Perhaps the customs agents scanned our passports with a computer, but it was hard to tell.

Once aboard the ship I looked more closely at a Russian language advertising leaflet I had picked up and was proud to recognize that "Эрмитаж магазин" sounded out as "Hermitage Magazine" and meant "Hermitage Store".
Ira Glickstein

*As a cat is genetically drawn to see mice, I am ineffably drawn to focus on fast food joints. Recall the childhood poem:

"Pussy cat, pussy cat / where have you been? / 
I've been to London to visit the Queen. / 
Pussy cat, pussy cat / what saw you there? / 
I saw a little mouse, under a chair!"

Yes, the cat missed all the finery and luxury of the Queen's palace in favor of that lowly mouse under the chair! Perhaps we all miss some majestic sights as we are drawn to the familiar? 

No comments: