Why Russia was important

I’m back in Tallinn, after an early morning train. This time I was sharing my little cabin with a woman who was asleep and snoring slightly when I crept in, the Conductrice shhhhing me gently with her fingers. I listened to a podcast about the Romanovs, half asleep, until we got to the Russian border, when the attendant came and woke us up. My cabin mate sprang up, changed out of her pyjamas, put on some lipstick and spoke to me in English. She was a breeder and shower of St. Bernards, on her way to a dog show in Narva. Her five dogs were in a car with a handler. Her sister lives in Houston. She was a builder of apartments the rest of the time.
I was glad for the chance to chat with someone random before I left Russia. Now that I’m officially “on my way home” (I fly back to Canada tomorrow morning), I’ve been musing on what the whirlwind trip to Russia “meant.” Curiosity, mostly, and a chance to see the Famous Things of the World — but also, a bit, engaging with the nervousness I have around certain places. I alluded to this yesterday, and I was trying to articulate the source of it. There are places where I feel a certain kind of confidence, where I know “how to do it” — places that are easy to navigate for Canadians, like Western Europe and SE Asia.  And now, because of familiarity, East Africa. Even when there is real potential “danger,” like in the DRC, I’m still confident about how to navigate them. But there are places that make me more anxious, and Russia is one of them.
Part of it is the uncertainty about how much of the prevailing public temperature about places is genuinely a concern or not — how likely IS It that my devices will be hacked and my identity stolen? That I’ll stumble across some mafia deal gone wrong and end up murdered in a Russian sauna? Not very. But part of it is not knowing what channel of recourse there is if something goes badly, and part of it is simply the risk of difficult interactions because of language.
But even with those things, there’s a huge gulf between genuine alarm and what really happens. I actually get lost a fair bit in cities with different alphabets, but so far, I’ve always found my way home, even that time in Mandalay when no one knew my hotel. (Somehow, magically, in the dark, I ended up on the back of someone’s motorcycle pulling up to my hotel). I used to get very very anxious in foreign cities when we couldn’t find cabs to get home late at night (ask my poor ex about the two spectacular meltdowns in San Francisco and London), but now, I just assume I’ll find my way.  I couldn’t find my pickup from the train at midnight on Wednesday; I just made sure I got rubles from the ATM before I left the station (always have local cash before you leave the airport or station), and found a taxi. I was fine.
I think Russia represented something more than basic travel discomfort, though, something about, in a way, confronting the rise of “otherness” that has emerged in the world. I hinted at this with my jokes on FB about how the gilt-dipped baroque palaces of the Romanovs seemed to be the model for Trump’s decor and his view of the world. It was a joke, but it wasn’t — there really is something nested in the space of venal excess about a worldview where the acquisition of money and power are the end in and of themselves, where displays of that money and power stand in for virtue, where might reigns supreme and the suffering of so many as a result doesn’t matter. Where, in fact, those who suffer deserve to, because they haven’t demonstrated that they are as “deserving” — i.e capable of strong-arming others.

Like so many people I know, when I let myself think about it, I’m absolutely distraught about the current state of the world, the brutality, the misogyny, the homophobia, the privileging of wealth and might.  Learning more about the history of Estonia — 800 years of other powers taking over its land — Sweden, the Danes, Prussians, Germans, Russians, Soviets, more Germans, more Russians — was like nodding along to a long-repeated story. This tiny country continually invaded, seized, for access to its ports and routes to Russia, with no regard for its people. In one of the museums of Estonian history I visited, there was a little video that had little figures of the population of Estonia going up and down as different powers converted them, slaughtered them, made them flee.
I think I partly wanted to visit Russia at this moment in history to confront a little bit all of my unease at the apparently intractable divide that is getting stronger and stronger in our world. It was a welcome coincidence that it was my (late) mentor’s birthday while I was in St. Petersburg; as Linda and I said in text, what would Barnett make of Trump, of the Putin/Trump alliance, of the complete breakdown of cosmopolitan communication, any space for bringing opposing viewpoints about what constitutes good in the world together. I wanted to reduce my personal “othering” of Russia.
I got the gift of the perfect person to help me do this in the guide I hired to take me to Pushkin and Peterhof yesterday. I splurged on a driver and personal guide for the summer palaces at the encouragement of my friend Pamela, thinking it would be really good to actually have someone to talk to about everything I was experiencing. I was lucky enough to end up with a guide (who I won’t name) who was perfect for me — she said how much she appreciated that I could walk, and fast like her, so we covered all of the fountains in the lower park of the Grand Palace, and we talked about how we both love to travel, and don’t get bored with our own company. And later in the day, she opened up about her unhappiness at the regime, and how much her son hates Putin, and how although he is a brilliant student, she is afraid he will be barred from university because he’s actively protesting.

If I lived in St Petersburg, she would become my friend, and we would march briskly through the streets together. She gave me a hug at the end of the tour. But she gave me a lot more than that — she gave me a face, a name, a story, a son, to recognize that the world that feels full of animosity is filled with people I care about.


How to get to Russia

I felt nervous about going to Russia, the same way I felt about Myanmar and China. I’m a relatively intrepid traveler, but the combined force of a different alphabet, not so much English and a regime that feels repressive makes me quiver a bit. But I had the most magical times in Myanmar and China, and being in a place in the flesh among people just living their lives makes all of the warnings about surveillance, data-hacking, personal danger, vague feelings of unease all recede. Going into a place, the Warnings are loud; when I’m in a place, what I notice is the woman trying to pretend her shoes don’t hurt her, a couple telling each other about their days walking home.

I took the train because it felt romantic in the literary sense, the right thing for Intrepid Spinster Wandering the Globe. (But I also upgraded, because I can, and I like to lie down whenever I can. Unlike all of the Emperors and Queen and writers like the Brontes who slept sitting up. When did people realize that lying down to sleep wasn’t flirting with death?).

I liked that the Conductrice (there is no other word) for our first class wagon was wearing a skirt and comfortable shoes and a little hat with a red hammer and sickle emblem on it. I liked that the food in the fancy car was delivered by a woman with two reusable shopping bags, one with a snack pack of a bad packaged croissant, a yogurt and an apple juice, and the other a plastic box full of still-warm blintzes.

There is something about a train frontier that’s unique, not the stamp stamp stamp of airport immigration or the oddly intimate interrogration of having a border guard peer into your car. Especially when no one speaks English. The officials come to you, one at a time, in your little personal cave, and observe the nest you’ve made in 3 hours, the half empty haribo bag. First the Estonians, handing you back the papers you’ve filled out and flipping to find your entry stamp in Frankfurt and stamp you out, then a looooooooong wait while they cover the entire train. Then a creaking across a long high river bridge, past the red post marking Russian territory, guarded by one soldier on the river bank. Then the Russians. So many of them. The kind woman who takes your passport away to inspect the visa that cost $600 but will give you freedom to move about without a guide, the man with the broken nose scar who peers into the carriage and looks around, the two men with the sniffer dog who licks your hand (blintzes), then the woman who asks you about anything to declare and looks upward, decides to leave you alone.

And that’s it, after more than 90 minutes. You fall asleep, ish, in your little nest, hoping the Conductrice will wake you up when it’s St. Petersburg. You wake to see the 1030 pm sunset over the fields, and wait as you flow through the edge of a city, then get off the train at midnight in a huge station that has withstood wars and rebuilding and time and deprivation. And a loud anthem spreads through the station, greeting you. A song of St. Petersburg.

And in the station, like at the Great Wall of China, the first recognizable brand is Subway.

St Petersburg 1

I’m only here in St Petersburg for two days, and I booked a driver and guide to go to the palaces outside the city for tomorrow. With one day only, it was a moral imperative to spend most of it at the Hermitage.

Like most people, I suspect, I had this notion that there was “a lot of art” here but I really had no clue of the scale. It’s as if the British museum, the Louvre and the Vatican tossed everything that wasn’t a headline artifact into a slightly crumbling version of Versailles.
I don’t usually spend a ton of time when I travel in the places where clumps of people disgorged from tour busses shuffle along following a person with a held up flag, but sometimes it’s inevitable. And the thing about the Hermitage is? Even with rows and rows of squatting busses waiting in Palace Square, it’s still not crowded.  The museum is in the former Winter Palace, partly in a specially built gallery that was created in the mid 19th c, and partly in the royal apartments. So it’s a squash of Rembrandts and DaVinci madonnas Medieval holy art and all the Italians of the Renaissance, ancient artifacts from all over Asia, along with tiny glittery dresses, suits of armour and walls and walls of portraits of emperors and noblemen and soldiers.
In the great hall crammed ceiling to floor with portraits punctuating enormous — and I mean enormous — images of Peter the Great and his ilk, I was momentarily overwhelmed. I sat down on a bench and read a couple of chapters of Anna Karenina on my phone to right myself, while the Chinese ladies who never take off their wide visors milled around me.

The tour groups were good because I got to pick up some tidbits of info without the strain of shuffling in a claustrophobic clot. This gold peacock clock was commissioned by one of Catherine the Great’s lovers to win her favour. When it chimes, the peacock tail fans out.  They only let it chime once a week now to preserve the mechanism.

I’m surprised Trump hasn’t had a replica made, but bigger.

Even after just two hours, I was glutted in the Hermitage. I felt like a foie gras goose stuffed to the gullet with stimuli. I kept looking until I found the gold encrusted, recently restored golden chapel (a degree of  gilt I’ve only ever seen before in SE Asia). That

That was enough. I took myself off for a simple lunch. More beets — I’m about 14 % beet at this point — then I went in search of tampons, because I keep forgetting I’m the woman menopause forgot.

They keep them behind a little locked cabinet in the tiny pharmacy.  As I was prowling around looking for them, I came across a pretty young woman in a pristine short white dress and high wedges retouching her look. This included sniffing under her arms, applying deodorant and generally reprinting her face.  I was glad when I saw her put the deodorant back into her purse — I thought it was a tester.

I wandered over to the Church on the Spilled Blood (high noon, so the truly astonishing colours of the edifice don’t show up in my photos). Mosaics everywhere. Astonishing centuries of human time handcrafting this church.

As I wandered out again, I came across three wedding parties doing photo shoots. Brittle young brides teetering carefully across cobblestones. One set doing a carefully choreographed dance in front of the Winter Palace with a violinist and three photographers. Faux-aristocracy.

I had read that they had recently moved the French Impressionists to the General Staff building across from the Hermitage. This move is clearly recent since the vast building, which I entered with the same ticket, was almost empty if people. But stuffed with French art. Whole rooms full of Matisses, Picassos, Rosina, Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Gauguin. Along with a few Van Goghs, Kandinsky, late 20th c Russians and galleries full of porcelain I ignored. A feast, still being created.

Tomorrow, Pushkin and Peterhof.