I chose to spend the recent New Year (Nor Tari in Armenian) in St. Petersburg, Russia. What was initially a decision made mostly on personal economics (I couldn’t afford to go anywhere both warm and safe) then became a choice based on favorable research into what the celebration might be like there, and now has become a pleasant memory of seven days spent bundled up in a crystalline world of snowflakes spiraling onto romantically globe lit frozen canals running between beautiful and colorfully lit streets bulging with the festivity of both New Year’s and Christmas holidays (the latter celebrated on January 7th in Russia, in keeping with the Julian calendar, though on January 6 in Armenia).
Perhaps as a child of the 1950s in the U.S. and the frightening displays of anti-Communism, or because of my later seen images of immense and drab stone buildings in major Russian cities representing the overlord of Soviet government, I had first imagined St. Petersburg to be an oppressive place. While its buildings are certainly immense and stand imposingly on long street blocks, they are pastel colored and of a variety of architectural styles, according to the desire of Peter the Great to bring a European influence to the city he built on a swamp.
Many residential streets offer no reprise from the striking, but barren-faced buildings where there is no commerce offered of any consumer or tourist interest. I walked miles on these streets to reach a host of destinations, though favoring the canal route, the best stretch being where four griffins hold up the canal bridge, their teeth gripping the suspension cables. They say if you pat their feet you will have good fortune. I should be in great shape, then, having done so repeatedly over the course of my stay. (Thank you for the griffin photo, Lars Christiansen, my having lost my smartphone camera a while back so I have no photos of my own to share.)
My week of course included a round of visits to major tourist attractions including the Winter Palace, Hermitage, The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood (you know, colorful onion domes), St. Issacs Cathedral, the Nutcracker ballet on Sunday afternoon at the Mariinsky Theatre (where I had a front row seat!) and, of course, Palace Square on New Year’s Eve.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed these historic offerings, my keener interest was in touring the Russian Museum and Ethnography Museum, walking along the River Neva with its painting-like vistas of Petrograde on the opposite shore. and seeking out the haunts of famous writers (I was reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot), artists and dissidents such as the Stray Dogs Cafe where the revolution was brewed. For me, these sites attracted my interest in the non-imperial Russia, the one experienced by most Russians, the 99% of their time. The museum paintings and culture displays brought my attention to the rough details of life in the immense landscape of that huge country.
On one afternoon, having walked for hours dressed like a martryoshka doll, nestled in layers of clothing almost to the point of preventing mobility, I crossed the Ploshchad Lomonosova where I happened upon a labyrinth of small streets lined with tiny shops, their goods spilling out onto racks in the street, loud hawkers announcing deals, children milling underfoot, big men smoking glowing butts and heavy-hatted women angling for a sale, their steely eyes finding mine. I was back in Armenia. This was the poor people’s shopping area much unlike the gorgeous architectural triumphs on, I believe, Bolshya Konyushennaya where Cartier and top designer shops reside. This was my glimpse into the other Russia — the one that ruled Armenia for 70 years and the one that centralized and dumbed Armenian thought into a bland passivity from which the people are struggling to emerge. This was where I felt oddly comfortable as it was so familiar. Visit any Armenian town outside of the capital of Yerevan and you’ll find a central location full of shops just like these selling low price clothing, household goods, fabrics, pillows, linens, toys, cheap electronics and appliances, odds and ends and, for the season, streams of gaudy Christmas decorations, sparkly red, green, blue and silver tinseled things rising on posts above the bustling crowd. Home, for me. All it lacked were the stalls of hanging meat, bins of fruit and vegetables, and vendor boxes of breads and sweets.
Earlier in the day I’d shopped for some New Year’s gifts for Armenian friends at the magnificent Kupetz Ellseevs, a “food mall” on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main shopping and dining street. The facade of this food emporium is an amazing assembly of statuary, the playful store window decor quite a New Year delight, and the cafe inside the store a place to savor specialty coffees and chocolate treats made right there in the store’s kitchen. I bought a large sampling of gingered and spiced dark chocolate and a box of pastel colored candies. I’d eyed the shelves of delicate oils, spicy sauces, dried and sugared fruits and jars of muraba, but wisely turned away, sliding my thinning wallet back in my pocket.
Now, with a worn-faced old woman, probably my own age, gently waving what I assumed to be handmade thick wool socks at me, her eyes inquiring mine, I felt suddenly very sad and apologetic. If I could have, I’d have swooped her up and taken her in a horse-drawn carriage ride through the now more heavily falling snow around Palace Square, stopping for tea at the Hermitage in the Winter Palace before going to that night’s Russian Ballet Theatre performance. Or would I? How depressing for her. As ultimately was pacing my way through the Winter Palace myself, gawking at the dark wood parquet floors, red or blue or gold fabric walls, gilded mirrors, brilliant crystal chandeliers, beautifully hand painted murals and all the wonders of the Czar’s residence — including the glorious, but monstrous mechanical clock of a gold peacock (click for video) fanning its, perhaps, eight foot tail span at the wide-eyed tourists, including me, just a step away from the tour group. My mind had flashed to the end scene of Russian Ark, filmed in one take by director Alexander Sokurov, when the party-goers descend the grand staircase of the palace. A revolution had been needed — yes, by all means. By the end of my tour I had to get out into the crisp air and brilliant sun of the late afternoon, heady from all I’d seen.
I was sad when I had to leave the novel-worthy canals of the city, having to say goodbye to the griffins, packing my bag and heading for the airport. Back in Armenia I did my usual shopping in the small stores and with outdoor vendors braving the cold to restock my kitchen for the week ahead. Back in Armenia, but partly still in the labyrinth of the Ploshchad Lomonosova, browsing among its wares. Wondering. Thinking about Armenia as a country “in transition,” as we community developers say. It can’t transition back to the powerful center of progressive and intellectual thought it once was, the burgeoning merchant economy that so riled the Turks so envious of Armenian progress that it was worth all the brutality, raping and killing in the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Armenia became a country so broken it relished being saved by the Soviets, its surviving citizenry herded into compliance and dependency. And now? How long will it remain its own labyrinth of small mindedness, a puzzling maze of circuitous thought, a tiresome struggle to find its way out to a self-determined future. But, returning to Armenia after St. Petersburg I also noticed some interesting signs. A couple of brightly lit and larger new stores freshly opened, the renovation of an old Soviet building, and now they are digging up the old Soviet amusement park – the multi-level Cascades Park — backhoes wrenching the rusted whirl-a-gig out of a mass of weeds and vines, along with the broken swings and toppled slides. What will come it its place I wonder? …. I will have to wait and see.