From Russia, With Luge

Courtesy AP

“I want to go to Sochi!” was the proclaimed our seven-year old in the midst of the Olympic hype that grips this country, even when the games happen on the other side of the world (or in this year’s example, our teams are not very good.) Children of the Cold War may still call Russia “the Soviet Union” or believe it is still us versus them in world affairs. The children of today look at Russia with a much different lens than the Cold War generations. Russia might as well be any other European country, the adversarial threat of nuclear armageddon  between the US and the Soviet Union has been replaced by a new world order that the Cold War generations find uneasy.

I am not going to fill this post with ponderings of the post-9/11 world order, no today’s Russia on full display in Sochi is much different than the Russia I visited in 1995. When my group of fellow trainees stationed in Helsinki, Finland visited St. Petersburg in the Summer of 1995,  the country was firmly mired in the malaise following the fall of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin was president, it’s colonial empire had been disbanded, the nation’s infrastructure was badly neglected and to add insult to injury to this proud country,  the US $100 Bill was the preferred tender for any sort of transaction above buying a liter of vodka. Our group traveled as tourists in a pleasant modern motor coach for the five or six hour bus ride to St. Petersburg from Helsinki. Additionally there was a sense of danger for a group of foreigners traveling to this large and seemingly down on its luck city that was not present in any of our other stops in the region. Therefore our visit lacked the full cultural experience that many of  our other adventures in 1995 possessed. We wanted to be good ambassadors, but we wanted to travel smart. I had my trusty 35mm point and shoot camera along for the ride and was able to capture a few grainy images that told a bit of the story of our visit.

St Petersburg Canal The flowing canals ushering the Neva River through St. Petersburg is remind many of Paris.
St Petersburg Bridge One of the bridges over the Neva includes a monument to Russia’s victory over Napolean’s France. The sculptors of this bridge are said to have carved Napoleon’s image into a unflattering part of the horse’s anatomy.
St Petersburg St Peter Paul The St. Petersburg port to the Baltic sea sits on the Gulf of Finland. The St. Peter & Paul Cathedral is featured in the distance on this photo.
St Petersburg Waterfront A Russian navy ship can be seen in this photo of the opposite side of the water front.
The Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a classic 16th and 17th century Russian church with the ornate onion domes and exquisite details on the outside of the building. The church was built on the site of where Alexander II was fatally wounded by early forces opposed to the imperial family.The locals call it “Church on the Spilled Blood.” St Petersburg Church of the Resurrection
St. Isaac’s Cathedral is a most impressive and massive cathedral. Far up by the dome you can see tourists whom look like ants enjoying the view of the city. St Petersburg Cathedral of St Isaac
The Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God is yet another of the massive orthodox cathedrals in St. Petersburg. The large columns enclosing a plaza give the cathedral a Romanesque feel. St Petersburg Mother of God
St Petersburg Pushkin Front St. Petersburg was the imperial city where the Russian czars (or is it tsars?) lived. Like every European monarchy, the Romanovs had a Summer place to enjoy all 10 days of sun enjoyed by those of us in the far northern hemisphere. Pushkin was the Summer home to the czars and was just outside of St. Petersburg.
St Petersburg Pushkin Garden If the gardens of Pushkin could talk, they would no doubt include stories of Catherine the Great and her many ‘friends’ who frequently enjoyed their mutual company.
St Petersburg Hermitage The Hermitage is considered one of the great museums of the world, in the same conversation as the Louvre and the Prado. Like the Louvre, the Hermitage was converted from a palace following the deposing of a imperial regime. The collections of French impressionist art in the Hermitage were amazing. I fondly remember sitting in the Monet room (yes there was a full room of only Monet’s) and being overwhelmed with amazement and emotion from the most amazing artwork I had ever witnessed with my own eyes.
The World War II monument in St. Petersburg remembers the 10 million military members killed during the war. St Petersburg WWII Memorial Front
The Soviet Union lost the most life of any country during World War II, losing another 26 million civilian lives throughout the war. St Petersburg WWII Memorial Side
St Petersburg Lenin A few relics from the Soviet Union remained in 1995, including this statue of Lenin located in a government plaza. No account of St. Petersburg’s history could be complete with out mentioning that St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd, then Leningrad, before reclaiming the original name of St. Petersburg in 1991.
St Petersburg Rubles In 1995 the Russian Ruble was trading at between 4,000 and 6,000 to 1 against the US dollar. Meaning that this 10,000 note was worth a cool $2USD. Russians gladly accepted US dollars in storefronts as they had lost confidence in their own currency.
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