"Where Fillmore County News Comes First"
Online Edition
Thursday, October 27th, 2016
Volume ∞ Issue ∞

Beautiful, suspicious, hospitable

Fri, May 16th, 2008
Posted in Commentary

The city of St. Petersburg, Russia, is so unbelievably magnificent it is difficult to describe, and truly a study in contradictions. We were only there for ten days, so these thoughts and observations are far from comprehensive. I do not choose to write a history or a travelogue; those can be pulled up from the internet. The truly meaningful part of the trip was the people.

Just a note about the setting, however, before the more specific memories. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great to be his "Window on the West," the buildings on the primary streets in the historic parts of this city of 4 to 5 million people were built in the 1700's and 1800's. The architecture is the most ornate, Rococo I've ever seen in a large area. We often forget the sufferings, loss of life, and endurance of the city and the country during WW II. Despite being heavily shelled and bombed (read Harrison Salisbury's "900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad" if you have not) the buildings look much as they did before. The palaces, cathedrals, and museums are masterpieces.

The people we met and observed during our mission trip ran a gamut, as they would in New York and other cities. Before we went, we were cautioned not to smile at folks, especially those in official positions, such as customs officers and police. That proved to be true; waiting in line to clear customs, we and the others did not crack jokes, talk loudly, or smile at the agents when our turns came. The officials did not look at us, other than to scan our faces and photos, didn't speak or welcome us. There are many police on the streets and sidewalks, and guards inside the museums and palaces. We did not speak Russian, and it would have been scary to be stopped.

Probably a remnant of the Lenin/Stalin and Cold War era suspicions and regimes from the 1920's to 1990's, people on the street don't look at each other much, smile, or show courtesy on the streets, in stores, or public buildings (again, maybe not so different in our large cities?).

Having said that, many people we met, particularly in the churches we came to support, were lovely, warm, and hospitable. Russian people seem stoic, but they also seem to be emotional underneath when you get below the surface. They greeted us with hugs, and said da sveedaneeya the same way.

I'd like to present a few thumbnail sketches of some of the most memorable folks we met.

Our host, the Superintendent over the eight small churches with whom we came to build relationships was born in Korea, grew up in Russia where he has citizenship, and speaks Russian, Korean, English, and German. He made a constant effort to smooth our entry to sites, get us on transportation: taxi, bus, subway, or boat, and helped us when we went to eat. Otherwise, it is not easy to choose foods when you don't know what they are. Andrei not only helped us and supervised the churches, but drives 10 hours to Moscow and back to teach in our church seminary there three days a week. He and Irina, his wife and also a pastor, had us out to their apartment for dinner one evening.

One of the pastors we met, Rauza Landorf, not only shepherds her church, but runs an after-school program for 30-40 children of drug and alcohol addicts, offering them safety, food and clothing, education and recreation, warmth and love from school time until 9 PM, when they are sent home just to sleep. Her parishioners and the children were eager to meet and welcome us.

In the simple hotel in which we stayed, two of the four desk attendants spoke English, smiled, and were eager to help us.

One of the kitchen women who kept the ample breakfast table full, dishes done, and coffee machine filled, was very cordial after the first day or so, and smiled and laughed with us. We gave her a small gift when we left for making our mornings pleasant.

There were many other people during our stay who were courteous and friendly. There could be a book about those ten days.

We made some observations while walking and riding on the streets. There was a lot of fur and leather. (They are reasonable in Russia.) Russians seem to love beautiful and exotic fabrics, many of which we might probably consider evening and formal wear. One girl I saw on the street had on metallic gold boots over her knees, a gold fabric skirt, and a black jacket trimmed with gold-print. It was very striking, and did not seem out of place in the ornate setting. There are no traffic lanes marked on the streets; driving is challenging and crossing the streets is at your own risk. Drivers do not watch out for you, slow down or stop. If you travel to St. Petersburg, go with a group and a guide who speaks Russian. Having a personal connection there is helpful.

Don't stay home! It's a place worth seeing and appreciating. Go with an open mind to different culture, foods, and customs, with a willingness to accept the extremes of wealth (palaces, art, public buildings) and poverty particularly out in the rural areas. Do some investigating before you go, and also learn to say thank you (spaseeba), Sorry (eezveeneete) and hello (zdrastvooyte). Just like us, Russians appreciate it when a visitor at least makes an attempt to honor their language.

Jeanne Martin lives in Mabel.

No Comments Yet. Be the first to comment!

Your comment submission is also an acknowledgement that this information may be reprinted in other formats such as the newspaper.