What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too
— Russians by Sting, 1985
Oh shut up Sting. I know, it was a rhetorical rather than literal “what if,” but even 15 year old me, fearing the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction, thought it was trite. (To be clear I loved him and still kinda do, though there’s even more I have to ignore now in order to maintain that love.)
I didn’t exactly choose to go to Russia, but I did choose to do a quick trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburg before heading home from the weird bubble that was Sochi in my six-week stint in January and February. That Stingian refrain was my earworm as I battled the cognitive dissonance of the dispairingly ugly news around me and the fascinating beauty in front of me.
Saint Petersburg with its canals and architecture eminded me of Venice, though people who have actually been to Venice are likely to vehemently disagree. It felt European — it is, in fact, European — with reminders of the Russian empire everywhere, while Moscow was decidedly Russian with reminders of the Soviet Union everywhere.
We wandered through the vast Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, founded by Catherine the Great and including the empire’s opulent Winter Palace, and I was struck by the thought: “No wonder the working class revolted.”
Our guide was both proud of the history and culture on display, and proud of the fact that it now belonged to the state for all to enjoy. As she said, during Soviet times the tenor of the tour would have been much different. I wouldn’t have been able to write the first part of that sentence. Well, actually, I wouldn’t have been allowed to be there. Now, there seems an odd mix of shame at what the Soviets destroyed and what they tried to suppress, and nostalgia for some of the lost ideals.
We visited the Summer Palace in the countryside and as we heard more and more tales of each subsequent tsar or emporer erecting grand buildings to mark their legacy, I was struck by the thought: “Sochi was Putin’s Winter and Summer Palace.”
Seven of us walked into Red Square in Moscow and burst into a cacophony of wows, oooohs, and look at thats … all pointed in a different direction. “It’s like Disneyland!” one Brit exclaimed of the colourful spectacle.
The GUM department store still sells Soviet-era baked goods, ice cream (your choice of vanilla or vanilla) and sodas (your choice of carbonated lemonade or carbonated lemonade). Our guide remembers birthdays as a young girl, her entire class wearing the same uniform, bringing the same mushroom-looking pastry for the class on your birthday.
The way we’d have 50s diners they have Soviet diners, selling the same wares at, we were told, the same prices, with cheeky “vintage” signs.
Over the wall peeks the Kremlin, including the palatial yellow building bearing Putin’s office: Disnelyand’s dictator, whose tendency to trample on human rights went largely unnoticed until some of it got Facebook friendly. We were trailed by a special “Kremlin guide” inside the walls, who did no guiding but a lot of peering at us from a distance.
We saw the church where Pussy Riot was arrested — the largest orthodox church which had been literally blown up by Stalin, replaced with a swimming pool, and faithfully ressurected after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without agreeing with the band’s punishment, I wondered how Catholics would have reacted to an anti-Catholic protest in the Vatican, never mind after decades of religion being illegal and a couple of decades of rebuilding the suppressed faith and destroyed buildings. “We can say what we want here,” said our guide, dismissing concerns of censorship. “They went too far.” I neither agree nor disagree, but I note the sentiment, which is widespread.
Later we visited a cold war bunker, now a museum where they show visitors how close we came to mass destruction, and we could sit in the consoles where the launch codes would have been entered, and they showed a film of what the ensuing strikes would have looked like. Another film they showed on the history of the cold war was no more propaganda than anything I saw in school, but from the Russian view: this was a dark period in the world’s history, we hope we’ve learned from it, and without explicit finger-pointing there’s the message that the United States started the nuclear arms race and are the only country to have used a nuclear bomb in war.
At the end of the bunker tour the museum let us have photo opps with some props — Kalashnikov rifles, Soviet army uniforms — but I couldn’t play after the sombre reminder of what could have been.
And then the Crimean peninsula situation was in the news just before I l left the country, and the West was outraged and the Muscovites were scared. In the Soviet era, our guide’s teacher parents had been rewarded with family trips to Sochi for the summer, but after the collapse they, like many Russians, went to the Crimean instead, where they had family and friends, and which used to be part of their homeland.
During the week in the two capitals, we heard stories of a history I’d largely forgotten since grade nine, and literary figures I’ve loved without really understanding where they came from, and I sat in awe in the packed Bolshoi and Mariinsky (aka Kirov) theatres watching ballet and opera. with Russians of every age. It was ironic hearing Westerners talk about the barbarism of Russians while hearing Russians speak passionately of history and culture and philosophical ideas to foreigners who couldn’t reciprocate.
I’ve heard that one of the difficulties the US is facing now as Putin expands his palace is that there are few Russian experts to advise. That career path didn’t seem to have a bright future much after 1991. I can’t pretend to have an understanding of the Russian mind or Putin’s mind, but I know everyone’s the hero of their own story, and Russians do love their children too, and I can only hope there’s enough understanding and wisdom on both sides so the world doesn’t go MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) once again.