May – June 1993

Smolny Cathedral

St. Petersburg, Russia

My second-ever trip outside the United States occurred a mere three months after my week’s sojourn in Paris. While I had taken two years of college Russian (spread out over three years), I hadn’t had a chance to speak it much in South Carolina, where English is considered a foreign language. When my Russian prof organized a trip to St. Petersburg for a month-long program, if I didn’t exactly jump at the chance, I at least strode toward it with firm intent.

It was an unlikely bunch: two International Studies graduate students, two undergrad Government and International Studies majors, a linguist, a prelaw student, and two indecipherables (hadn’t decided). A couple of good ol’ boys, a genuine redneck, one Jewish girl, one extremely big and tall guy, an extremely small and short girl, and a nerd (me). Several of them had never been outside the country before, and a couple had never even flown before. I couldn’t imagine that. However, after some nervousness and my first flight in a 767 (my preferred way of intercontinental travel), we arrived blinking in Frankfurt, and navigated down to the bus for the Delta 727 to take us to St. Petersburg via Warsaw. For some inexplicable reason, we strayed as far south as Hungary (or so the pilot claimed), and I got my first taste of Socialist Construction in the form of huge, circular clearings with buildings in the center–Stalinist collective farms. At Warsaw the clouds parted to reveal tiny, narrow strips of farmland, what I later learned to be the result of the late introduction of land reform in Poland. Over Belarus and Lithuania, the land turned to dark birch and coniferous forests.

Toward late evening, we arrived in St. Petersburg. The airport was quite Soviet: yellow and dingy. As we shuffled through the wooden customs area, I presented my passport to an unsmiling, serious young blue-eyed Russian woman who checked very closely to make sure I matched my passport and visa photos–as if an American would try to sneak in to Russia. Old habits die hard. After picking up our much-inspected and -abused luggage, we were peremptorily ordered out through a door which led us to the parking lot, where we stood, blinking in the late afternoon sun.

We were met by our Russian program coordinator, a bureaucrat at the St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University, who claimed to be a “scientist.” I never observed him have anything to do with scientist, but I observed him taking advantage of the Russian students to enrich himself further from Western money. I would soon begin calling him Lysenko, sometimes within earshot. Without explanation, we were paired with the lanky (and mostly male) Russian students who rode in his rented bus, and sent to sit with them. Already exhausted from the flight and attendant lack of sleep, we were slow to realize that we would be sent off to stay with the families immediately, without so much as a briefing on itinerary.

My host, Dmitry, unfortunately spoke good English–my Russian would suffer for it, but given the lack of information and my disorientation, I was happy enough to be able to understand someone. Dmitry spoke in a low voice, very close to my ear, and muttered things about the places we were passing–names meaningless to me in my increasingly fatigued state. All I could remember was low sun and dingy surroundings. At last it was our turn, on what I learned were the outskirts of St. Petersburg (Dolgoye Ozero). I went up to the ninth floor and met Dmitry’s stepfather and mother. In typical Russian fashion, we talked until 11 or so in the evening, when we ate. Russians tend to eat a meal immediately before they sleep: a remnant of cold-weather living, I suppose. I was shown my room, a beautiful collection of “liberated” German furniture, decorated in the Russian way with a wall hanging and lace curtains.

I had no trouble falling asleep.

The next day, Dmitry showed me the rest of the apartment, to which I kept commenting “Ochen’ krasiyvy” (very beautiful) until it annoyed him. I did it for two reasons: one, it was one phrase I had down pat, and two, I had anticipated a Dostoyevsky-esque scene of desolate poverty and soulful, warm, deep people. My expectations weren’t completely wrong, but nearly so. To me, the high level of everything in the apartment was stunning compared to my rather low expectations. This kept the first week one of continual enjoyment for me. The people, I would learn, are at best just like everywhere else, and at worst, beset with problems deriving from Russian culture. The conditions of life, while not anything I’d choose, were entirely livable, if hard.

After breakfast/lunch, Dmitry took me down to Nevsky Prospect, the Neva river, and the Peter and Paul fortress which highlight the center of St. Petersburg. In a typically bizarre change of St. Pete summer weather, it was extremely hot. In addition to the Soviet-era bottles of Pepsi for sale, the holy of holies, Coke, had arrived–50 cents, just like back home. Pepsi, on the other hand, was on sale for the equivalent of its US introductory price: five cents. The older parts of St. Petersburg (which, by Russian standards, is a very young city) is often covered with the grime of unleaded, barely filtered exhaust fumes and industrial pollution, but bares little of the decaying inhumanness which characterizes the post-1945 parts of the city.

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