Dozens of Russian diplomats posted to the United States declared persona non grata and sent home. Thousands of American troops marching into Poland in the largest U.S. military reinforcement of Europe in decades. An entire world on the edge of its seat awaiting the inauguration of a new U.S. head of state. It was in this dramatic and turbulent political climate earlier this month that one hopeful American diplomat went on holiday to the Russian Federation.
I half-expected my holiday to Saint Petersburg, planned last November, to come crashing down around me. I boarded my flight in Tashkent on the evening of Friday the thirteenth, exhausted after working frantically all day. I had fallen down the marble front steps of my residence two weeks prior on the way to work and seriously re-injured an already hurt back. But I had with me a Russian visa in my blue passport, tickets to two ballets, a two day pass to visit the Hermitage, confirmations of various personal appointments, and a receipt for a room at the Four Seasons. I had money on this. And snow was in the forecast!
You see, I heard there were beautiful things. And I just needed to see them. Saint Petersburg is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, rich with history, grace, culture, and dignity. And because the last time I attended a ballet in Tashkent, the thermostat was turned up to 89 degrees Fahrenheit and two small children seated behind me repeatedly pulled my hair with no parental intervention save my husband’s.
And because the last time I attended a concert in Tashkent, numerous members of the audience repeatedly joined the Italian tenor on stage despite being warned not to by security, crassly and obnoxiously spoiling the performance and causing my husband and I to walk out early.
And because the last time I attended an organ concert in Tashkent, the woman sitting next to me smelled like urine and I finally had to bolt when a beetle crawled out of her sweater and came towards me. (True story.)
And because in a few months from now, I will be living so far from Russia that it won’t make sense to come for a long time. Please, I thought, as I sat on the plane, Don’t turn me down because my visa says “guest of diplomat”. I need a break.
As it turned out, my passport was stamped with a loud bang. My suitcase arrived. In front of me stood a smiling blonde woman in a long fur coat, and she was holding a sign on which my name was written.
After midnight I gratefully sat in the back of a black sedan as it glided effortlessly through the sleeping streets of Saint Petersburg. Refrains from the Nutcracker danced through my head. Outside the car the snow fell softly, thick and silent. The historical buildings and monuments of Saint Petersburg stood tall, gaily lit for Orthodox Old New Year. I made it, I thought jubilantly. And thus began my lucky week of Russian cultural, musical and historical appreciation that I will remember even if I live to be 100 years old.
While I was in Saint Petersburg, my goals were few. To walk outside in the snow; to see the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (Церковь Спаса на Крови), the site of the 1881 assassination of the Emperor Alexander II; to see the Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets; to visit the Hermitage and the Fabergé museum; and to eat plenty of fresh and local seafood. I am happy that I did manage to do these things, and a few more. However, because of my back injury which impacted my mobility more with each passing day, the freezing weather, and having less than eight hours of winter daylight, I had to pace myself and rest more than I’m used to. Although in such fabulous surroundings, I kept smiling and did not complain.
Saint Petersburg is situated on the Gulf of Finland. I initially toyed with the idea of taking the fast train to Helsinki for an overnight, then a day ferry across to Tallinn, Estonia for an overnight, and then one of the old Soviet era trains back. However, one entry into Russia was enough for me, and there was certainly enough to see in Saint Petersburg without breaking up the trip. My prior travel in the Baltics is limited to one night in Riga six summers ago, and so at some future (warmer) point I will try to do a longer tour through the area.
The only thing that would have made Saint Petersburg more enjoyable would have been my husband there to share it with. But suffice it to say that Mr. Postcard does not share my enthusiasm for winter. I was elated to see the frosty forecast, and as I packed my fur coat and gloves, he was packing for a trip to the Carolinas. Last month we celebrated our tenth anniversary together, and we have a long-established pattern of traveling domestically and abroad both together and separately. I do love solo travel anyway, and despite the admonishments from the embassy expediter who took me to the airport that it wouldn’t be any fun alone, unsurprisingly in the end I know myself better than anyone else. It was more than fun. It was a Russian winter fairy tale!
The first full day I was in Saint Petersburg, I went out for a walk to get my bearings. The snow had been falling all night, all morning, and most of the afternoon beforehand. The sidewalks were covered by layers of treacherous ice and crust. Walking was a bit slow going, but fortunately my new waterproof winter boots had arrived through the pouch before the trip, and had a big enough toe box that I could wear them comfortably even on my left foot. Without those boots, in retrospect, I would have been toast on this trip. They somehow never got wet, and I soon discovered the difference when I went out in my snow moccasins or regular Uggs.
I visited the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (Церковь Спаса на Крови) on three separate occasions over the course of the week, and managed to collect some stunning compositions. Similar to my awe of St. Basil’s during my Moscow trip, I was dumbstruck and fascinated by this beautiful space.
My evening at the Nutcracker (Щелкунчик) was also truly something amazing. My love for the Nutcracker goes back many years ago to my childhood. When I was probably seven or eight years old, my mom took my younger brother and I to see the Nutcracker in San Francisco, about three hours away from where I grew up. It was the holidays, we were in our nicest clothes, and on our best behavior. It was a treat. The unfamiliarity of the big-city luxury stunned us into silence. I still remember the thick crush of the burgundy curtains, and how it felt to sit in the chair awaiting the start of the show. From the moment I saw the ballerinas, I was absolutely awed by their costumes and movements. It has been thirty years and I still remember that night, and that music. I still remember following the story and wishing to be Clara. Maybe my mom in her wisdom intended that this beautiful thing leave such an impression.
To set the mood for that evening, I had opted to walk through the snowy night to get there. I was wearing snow moccasins and a cocktail gown, with my heavy wool and fur coat over the top. After I arrived and went through coat check, I slipped into the shoes I wore on my wedding day. It was nearly the first time in 11 months I had put a real shoe on my left foot, but as I was going to be sitting down, and it was the Mariinsky, I simply felt the need. Most people were dressed in evening gowns as well, so I was relieved when I got approving sideways glances from beautiful Russian women.
The Mariinsky Theatre (Мариинский театр) opened in 1860, and it’s where many Russian masterpieces have debuted since. As I sat similarly transfixed by the ballerinas, I asked myself, is there anything more graceful, more lovely than a classically trained Russian ballerina? I am not ashamed to say that I had to hold back the tears during this stunning performance. I know every piece of music to this ballet, every scene by heart.
My second ballet later in the week was also a Tchaikovsky composition: Swan Lake (Лебединое озеро) at the Mikhailovsky Theatre (Михайловский театр). This theatre, founded in 1833 on the decree of Tsar Nicholas I, is one of Russia’s oldest ballet and theatre houses. I know this story and music much less well, but I enjoyed the show and the talent of the performers was what I had hoped for and expected. If anything surprised me about attending these performances it was the fact that each had not one, but two intermissions of more than twenty minutes each. Having no interest in milling around and sipping cocktails with strangers, I always sat impatiently waiting for the dancers to come back. I probably should have also gone to see Sleeping Beauty and made it a Tchaikovsky triple header!
My renewed admiration of Tchaikovsky after enjoying these two ballets prompted me later in the week to undergo a mini-pilgrimage to pay my respects at his burial place.
Behind the monastery, which was founded in 1710 by Peter the I, is Nikolskoye Cemetery (Никольское Кладбище). In front of the cathedral is a small graveyard, where I strolled around looking at graves of Russian World War II-era soldiers.
The complex also contains the Tikhvin Cemetery (Тихвинское кладбище) where, for a small entrance fee, I found the graves of famous Russian composers Mikhail Glinka and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, along with the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and many others.
On another day I took a long walk across the Spit of Vasilievsky Island (Стрелка Васильевского Острова) to check out the Peter and Paul Fortress (Петропавловская крепость), founded in 1703 by Peter the Great. Saint Petersburg’s original citadel, it was used as a prison during the Bolshevik era. I had some troubles getting there – not in the sense that I needed to call the police from the box shown below, but just as others had told me, what looks like a few blocks becomes a 45 minute ordeal in this weather. I petulantly walked for almost an hour looking for a cafe open at the “early” hour of 10:00, and when I finally arrived at the fortress the ticket booth was so far away I didn’t bother, wandering the grounds and looking at just what interested me.
I exited the complex and walked around the outside of its walls along the River Neva, noting the delineation between where pedestrians were walking and where ice fisherman were actually out on the frozen water. “Life-threatening danger from possible falling concrete,” warned a Russian sign posted high above me. Three old ladies walked arm-in-arm, looking unfazed, so I followed their lead, rounding a corner only to encounter a man about my age in swim underwear rushing into a rectangular pool cut into the ice, headed by a cross. Again the ladies continued their stroll seemingly oblivious, but I almost stopped in my tracks with surprise. An old man stood at a distance watching, half-grinning, wearing a thick fur hat, arms locked behind his back. I silently stood next to him for a while, he in his schadenfreude (harm-joy) and me in my badassery-revelry. (If the Germans have an awesome word for that, which they probably do, I don’t know it.)
I knew that had my mom been in St. Petersburg with me, we wouldn’t have missed the Fabergé Museum, dedicated to Russian jeweler and artist Carl Fabergé. So of course I had to go over there too. Located in the Shuvalov Palace set along the Fontanka River embankment, the museum contains, among other things, nine Easter eggs created for the last two Romanov emperors, Alexander III and Nicholas II.
I took the once-daily English tour, which was much better than I’d expected, especially since there were only four of us and the guide spoke English so nicely I had to tell her I wished my Russian were as beautiful as her English.
And as if all of this gorgeousness weren’t enough, behold…the State Hermitage Museum (Государственный Эрмитаж). I’m not even going to try and summarize the art here, provide any context for it, or explain why I am so apparently fascinated with taking pictures of beautiful ceilings and chandeliers! I am not an art expert by any stretch. Just know that if you love beautiful things, and want to understand the scale of luxury enjoyed by generations of the Russian imperial family, you should try and visit here someday. It is overwhelming, devastating, a stunning triumph for beauty.
The Hermitage was founded in 1754 by Catherine the Great, and remains one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. The majority of the collection was accumulated at her tireless urging. It’s like the Smithsonian in that it is actually a complex of buildings: the Winter Palace, the Old, New, and Small Hermitages, and the Hermitage Theatre. I limped through the Winter Palace for hours, for as long as I could, but in the end bought a huge book in the gift shop because I knew I wouldn’t endure long enough to satisfy my curiosity. Only about five percent of its three million piece collection is on display at any given point. I learned that if you were to pause in front of each item in the Hermitage collection to admire it for one minute, it would take you more than eleven years to move through the complex.
As of the time that I’m writing this, the Hermitage is closed on Mondays, but free to the public on the first Thursday of every month.
I have to say also that on this trip, I was fortunate to meet up with one of my colleagues B who is a second tour officer posted to the U.S. Consulate in Saint Petersburg. We enjoyed a great brunch and a spectacular dinner, as well as a walk through the snowy city as we compared notes about our consular tours. We were put in Russian class together for the last week of our study as our other classmates tested out before us, but we hadn’t really seen each other since. Like me, B is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in eastern Europe around the same time. We learned in 2015 that we know some people in common, through a variety of connections both expected and unexpected. It is true what they say: the Foreign Service is a small world. I haven’t really had visitors in Tashkent, which isn’t surprising for a lot of reasons, but I’m hoping that in my future some of my friends and colleagues will swing through my way so I can repay the hospitality I have been shown: in Bosnia, Turkey, India, Thailand, and in Russia during this tour.
Before I departed for the Pulkovo airport, I had a few spare hours. I’d already completed my gift shopping along Nevsky Prospekt and at the famous “things market” at Apraksin Dvor, packed, and checked out of my beautiful hotel. But I had two more 45 ruble (75 cent) metro tokens, so I decided to take one last little jaunt to see something beautiful before the black sedan swept me back towards my hardship tour.
In honor of my dad, a lifelong wildlife and marine enthusiast, I paid a little visit to the Saint Petersburg Aquarium. I knew how much he would have enjoyed this trip and visiting the peaceful aquarium was the perfect way to cap it off. By this time I was limping very badly. My sciatica had turned my whole left leg numb. Not numb like pins and needles, but numb like the wooden feeling before pins and needles. I took frequent breaks to sit down as I moved through the aquarium, drowning out the noise around me with classical music on my headphones. I wasn’t going to let anything interfere with my last hours of beautiful things. No regrets that I didn’t shop in the mall, visit Pushkin, or the Peterhof Palace. It was enough. It was enough, and so beautiful, and just what I needed.
I arrived at my boarding gate with one last Starbucks (alas, there is no Starbucks in the whole of Uzbekistan) and a carry-on full of sweets and gifts. Nothing…not the pushing and shoving, not the prospect of a 5+ hour flight with no entertainment, not bad food, not my back pain, nothing, nothing could erase the beautiful things I had seen. They were mine, and I was bringing them all home to Tashkent with me.