THE FORGOTTEN DEFENDERS OF LENINGRAD

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Canals of St. Petersburg, 2012

PictureLenin commanding, 2012

Square. Harsh. Bleak. Dark. A quickness hoarding resent. Passing facade after facade, lifeless windows. Dilapidation of all we pass. The water even moves forcefully, violently against the boats, against itself. Each wave thrashing without repetition or order. The sky barring down upon the city and its inhabitants. We started the morning rushing past the memorials of a tragic past. Some meant to celebrate victory but instead serve to remind of the trials and tribulations and tiers of oppression. Lenin stands stalwart but windswept in front of Communism’s oath to work, labor. Guns held in the air of those Defenders of Leningrad greet those traveling from the hills into the city on Moskovsky Prospekt. Most statues’ body posture sculpted to impart strength and the supremacy over the common man who he concurrently is and isn’t a representation of.  Over the hills and into Catherine’s Palace, we’re greeted by a second-rate Russian rendition of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The whole Palace was bombed in the War so it has been completely restored- however, poorly.  Groups of look-alike tourists shuffle through with their pantyhose covering their feet to ‘protect’ the floor. It’s a madhouse. Our guide Dyolva tries to give us the history of every object, room, and related relic (it would not be the end of this information overload. However, it is quite impressive the amount of historical knowledge that every Russian civilian possesses in a memorized account.)  

// In St. Petersburg you must experience with a discerning eye.  On the way to Peter & Paul Fortress, we pass a monastery with grand spires and colorful domes- one blue with white stars. Incongruously, in the front along the street is a row of canons. We pass a Byzantine Synagogue (restored), a KGB building with perfectly square concrete windows for a whole city block, buildings of pale yellows and greens- their paint chipping onto the street torn by the wind and rain, bars named for their depravity (‘Sorry Mama’), horrid clothing shops, shadows stooped in windows just behind the drafty curtains. What we pass speaks more about the city than what we are supposed to encounter on our trip as tourists. A man walking out of an undisclosed building carrying one pair of women’s stilettos (one red, one black).  Seemingly suicidal pigeons standing on edge. A Mondrian mural hidden on a side street.


// After much deliberation, we decide to go have lunch downstairs of the Elisseeff Emporium trading house. Founded by St. Petersburg’s first spice merchants, the atmosphere is truly grand. The walls are beautiful windows of ornate glasswork, framing rows of counters displaying tea biscuits, cheeses, meat, and other delicacies. We move downstairs, almost haphazardly, to find a dimly lighted restaurant boasting maritime specialties. The lighting hid its true opulence until we settled. We sat in front of the kitchen at a mosaic table, the top adorned with profiles of local fish, near cabinets of wine. We melted into the seats like royalty- plush sofas with wooden armrests. Starved (it was nearly 4pm), we dined on Carpaccio, fresh poppy seed bread, and massive black olives, calzones, salmon, pizza, creamy mussels, and wild mushroom soup.  // To finish the grand tour, we popped into the student artist co-op and Smolny Cathedral. Still raining, we ran back into the boat from a quick stop before our after hours date with the Hermitage. [Sidenote: Our driver Nikkoli was quick to note that he was born in Leningrad, not St. Peterburg.] 

// The walls of the Hermitage are noticeably cracked; falling in but the guide continues to brag about its flawlessness.  No one seems to notice, even after she reports of the chandelier crashing onto the ground- through the floor- several years prior. We walk in to the Italian Master’s gallery and through Rembrandt’s gallery totally undisturbed, with time to process the brillance of the art. Our guide continues to lead us through the galleries with her left eye half-open into a wing where the St. Petersburg Orchestra has set up to play. Everyone takes their seats (20 per.) and I catch the first smile I’ve received from a Russian thus far. The clarinet player continues to cheerily play the whole duration and look at me after each song in an approving glance. The six scores are performed passionately with utmost precision.  The conductor knows each note with all of his being, he performs and gestures as if to impart each note’s essence.  // Afterwards, as we walk along the canal, the dark city is finally illuminated. The street lamps light the waterway and sparkling spire gleams in the distance.  Finally I understand the splendor of the city and with a Russian-like subdued sign of cheer, I am able to retire peacefully.

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