With All Due Respect: Russia Revisited

Nov 4, 2013

Have you traveled somewhere with expectations of what you would find only to discover that you were off base? First Coast Connect contributor Jay Solomon has just returned from a trip like that, and has these thoughts.

Raised with newsreels, many of my memories of contemporary history are colored grey. So, my expectations were of Soviet era drab as my wife Joanie and I landed in St. Petersburg, Russia, earlier this Fall. The city's tired old airport definitely supported that notion

The Catherine Palace in Pushkin, Russia.
Credit Jay Solomon

Things brightened once away from the airport. We were quickly in the midst of a bustling, international city. But among frequent sightings of compelling and colorful architecture – some new, some hundreds of years old – we also found rundown commercial and industrial buildings and ugly public housing units. That’s really a snapshot of Russia: gems from the past, a bold face to the future and a hangover of problems needing attention.

Why visit Russia? For one, it provides a glimpse into their view of a story we’ve always heard from a Western perspective. Like France, Italy or Germany, there’s great art, food and fun. But having visited China and now Russia, both much removed from our roots and comfort zone, the two of us find ourselves challenged more and learning more. It’s more a matter of gaining perspective – looking at both differences and commonalities. 

That brings me back to St. Petersburg, which was renamed Leningrad for a period after the 1917 revolution. Like me, you may have read about the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II. But my understanding was more visceral after viewing where the siege line held, and hearing the horrific stories from a Russian, whose voice, 70 years later, still crackled with emotion. 

Nearly 900 days long with escalating bombardments, the siege claimed 1.5 million lives – half civilians, including women and children – due to no water supply, no heat, and winter temperatures of -20°. Daily rations at one point were limited to a quarter pound of bread, made mostly of saw dust. However, the Russians never surrendered, and were finally able to push the Germans back.

That’s just one World War II story. Think of the horrors for people across Russia during that war, plus the Bolshevik revolution, and serfdom under the tsars well into the 19th century.  Don’t forget World War I, the Crimean War, the battles with Napoleon and of course the Cossack and Mongol invasions. And post-World War II? Remember Stalin?  He perfected killing political opponents, real or imagined, including 200,000 who died working as forced laborers building the Moscow Canal alone. Then the Cold War arrived with decades of deprivation, stagnation and governmental tyranny. 

Finally, with Boris Yeltsen, the Russian political system started to open up and everyday people got a taste of freedom. Unfortunately, accompanying economic reforms wiped out the personal holdings of millions of those people. So, yes, there are many millionaires now, but everyday people aren’t seeing much of the action, and – we were told in our trip – political and media freedoms are fading. The bottom line: 1,200 years or so or autocratic leadership will leave marks. 

Consider an individual, and then extrapolate the nationwide impact in world-view, trust, relationships, aspirations, values, courage, veracity… even the amount of vodka consumed.  

That’s not a judgment on Russians; it is a frame of reference worth remembering in understanding them.

Joanie and I have many things worth remembering in traveling from St. Petersburg to Moscow with many small town stops in between:

  • Russia is huge! It covers nine time zones, and much of what we saw was stunningly beautiful. 
  • Also stunning were the Russian Orthodox churches, their large onion domes often decorated in gold or intricate designs in tile. 
  • Religion doesn’t seem to be main stream, but it is certainly available. We saw churches under construction, and services for most denominations could be found, even in English. 
  • On the educational side, we found out that teachers who take assignments in less desirable locales get significant government bonuses. We also learned that free vocational education is available for those not college-inclined.
  • The wealth of different ingredients and spicing made for many interesting meals. Borscht may just be beet soup, but they take it to an extraordinary level.
  • Moscow has a field of lapsed heroes – salvaged sculptures of the likes of Stalin, saved as reminders of terrible times. Then there’s a cemetery of achievers: composers, ballerinas, poets and humanitarians among them.
  • Surprisingly, security isn’t as obvious as in, for example, Italy where police are most everywhere carrying automatic weapons. But in sensitive areas we found a presence of tall, well-tailored men, vigilant and somehow more menacing than uniformed officers.
  • We liked the locals. Our interactions were warm and helpful once the ice was broken.
  • Russian humor, often sarcastic, includes on-going jokes about their many firsts, like the invention of the traffic jam. Seriously, though, Russian traffic jams are no joke. 
  • A final memory: in her cozy home, a retired baker toasted us with homemade vodka and the observation that, people to people, we’re all the same.

With all due respect, I’m Jay Solomon.

Jay Solomon is a retired broadcast executive and an occasional contributor to First Coast Connect.