Streetcar: A Russian Landing


A woman I know tells the story of a day when she, as a young girl, was riding her bicycle. Right at noon there was a loud blast in the otherwise quiet summer day. She was so startled by the sudden noise that she fell from the bike and scraped herself in several places.

Blame it on the Russians.

There is a generation that remembers the days of the “Cold War” when we were taught to be prepared for nuclear attack by the evil Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian Premier, had given the world a warning when he infamously yelled “We will bury you!” Fallout shelters, in which we were supposed to survive the nuclear aftermath, if we were lucky, were built throughout the country. Civil defense sirens that spooked not only little girls, but also everyone else, were tested periodically. They were the sound of doom.

For several years the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, had bombers prepared to be in the air at all times. They were loaded with nuclear missiles. If Russia ever sent anything our way it would be annihilated.

In all aspects of our lives, fact and fiction, the Russians were the enemy. Good and evil were easy to distinguish.

I thought about that as I walked from the cruise boat to the tour bus in St. Petersburg. Take away the past and the town looks like most other grandiose but slightly bruised European cities. Its new generation, which knows Khrushchev only from the history books, is part of the backpack-toting, smartphone-obsessed, headphone-wearing global nation.

Communism? Ha! Two days earlier in Estonia, a free nation that was once part of the Soviet empire, a tour guide half-joked that there are two religions there, capitalism and basketball. The gospel of the former is certainly prevalent in Russia. A hot item, especially in the tourist areas, is those Matryoshka dolls, the roly-poly figures in which several versions of the same doll are packed in descending order inside. They come big, elegant and expensive, and also thimble sized for souvenirs. At one store some of the dolls were made to the likeness of Vladimir Putin and to Donald Trump. The proletariat is dictating.

Rather than ruling the world, the “Communist Party of the Russian Federation,” the successor to the original communist party, is a distant second in membership in its own country, far behind the more flexible United Russia party.

Nevertheless, I occasionally reminded myself that, to my astonishment, I was in Russia. On the first day, getting off the boat was the most demanding, as no- nonsense stern-faced authorities closely checked and computerized our identities. On subsequent days the process was less stringent. By the third day, instead of handing the inspector my passport that was in one hand, I absentmindedly handed him my cup of coffee from the other. We laughed. I offered to him a cookie. He declined.

After stepping on Russian soil for the first time, a military helicopter happened to fly over. I thought that for the first time in my life I am under the protection of the soviet armed forces. Only now there are no sirens.

There is love in some places. Several times I would see a girl in a white dress, usually escorted by a guy in a coat and tie, and maybe a few family members or friends, walking by. As is common in much of Europe, weddings are made official by going to some government office where papers are officially signed. The couple has the option to follow up with a ceremony in a church or public place, but the real marrying is done by a bureaucrat rather than a priest.

One couple was doing photo-ops on the lawn of Peter the Great’s fountain-rich palace. It was Peter whose idea it was to, in 1703, found the city. Located at the western top of Russia, he wanted a city on the Nivea River that would lead to the Baltic Sea where his country could gain contact with the rest of the world. As a young man he travelled through the other great cities of Europe. Like New Orleans, St. Petersburg was built on a river with designs influenced by Paris. Moscow would be cold and gray; St. Petersburg would be colorful and enlightened.

It would also eventually be  battered both physically and spiritually by Nazis and the internal politics of the cold war. In Peter’s day he needed an outlet to fight the Swedish Navy. Now there is a different seaborne invasion — tour boats bringing several thousand visitors each day.

“I know someone I would like for you to meet,” a tourist told a particularly effervescent Russian female tour guide. “He lives in California.”

“I love California,” the tour guide answered enthusiastically. The old Russia was looking for an ideology. The new Russia is looking for a life.


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