As the ship docked in St. Petersburg, the cruise director reminded us that Russia was going to be different. To exit the ship, we would have to show the guards not only our cruise ship ID card but our passport.
Routinely I would display my ID with my left hand and then flash the passport with the other. But then one day my mind must have been on something else: After flashing the ID, my right hand followed showing…my cup of coffee. I am not sure if any alarms went off at KGB headquarters signifying an alien trying to pass off a false document. International tension cooled quickly once I awkwardly displayed the passport that was also in the same hand. I smiled, the guard smiled and I walked onto the streets of St. Petersburg while being spared the gulag.
It was along the Neva River that young Peter (who would one day be known as “The Great”) sailed from the city he would found to other European towns, where he marveled at the architecture. He incorporated those ideas into St. Petersburg, which today looks like the best of European cities with the addition of scattered byzantine towers.
People go about their daily lives playing and working just like anywhere else, but one thought kept reoccurring to me and I took it seriously – “You’re in Russia.” This was the land responsible for a half-century of Americans living in fear of nuclear war and Nikita Khrushchev pounding his fists and exclaiming, “we will bury you.” Now we are just worried about having to show our passport.
I stared for a moment at a Russian military jet streaking across the sky. We were in the hands of another authority far from the umbilical cord of Mother U.S.A.
There was a local connection nearby… The Hermitage, a series of grand buildings constructed during the reign of Catherine the Great. Most of it now serves as part of the world›s largest art museum, all of it is lush with history, including the building known as The Winter Palace. It was there that on January 14, 1850 Alexi Alexandrovich was born to Alexander II and Maria Alexandrovana. What was big news at the Winter Palace that day would be trumped 22 years later at Gallier Hall in New Orleans on February 13, 1872 when Alexi (known in America as the Grand Duke Alexis) would be in attendance to add prestige to the first Rex parade.
On the green space near the palace, I saw several small wedding parties. As is common throughout Europe, the legal wedding takes place in a government office where documents are signed and then there is a small outside gathering. Our ship was anchored in such a place where we could see across the dock inside an upstairs riverfront apartment building. The bride, dressed in white, was cutting a cake. One guest was pulling drinks out of an ice chest. It was a simple yet festive, feel-good, moment. And then, from down on the street, a work crew suddenly began static fire of a jackhammer tearing into the street. All countries can be united in the belief that there are few uglier sounds than concrete cracking, particularly below a wedding. I could sense that the wedding party was crest-fallen. May the couple’s life together be smoother.
We were standing on the deck on the afternoon when the ship sailed away heading toward Sweden. At first, we passed through an industrial area with docks and workboats, and then the land became marshier. There were lots of people ending their day at the waterfront. Some were swimming, a few were grilling, others were just boat watching and perhaps wondering, like Peter, what was beyond the Neva’s downriver bends. In the distance was the St. Petersburg skyline where the occasional byzantine towers stood out like sentinels
For the moment Russia seemed like a content place peacefully going about its life, hoping the best for its future, though one could have wondered: What can possibly go wrong?