The twenty-first century is obsessed with concision. One-hundred thirty character tweets, Sparknotes, thumb drives. How do we reconcile a country whose history and dramas are as vast as Russia’s while satiating our appetite for bite-sized pieces? As I learned while reflecting on St. Petersburg at 2 am, sometimes we can’t.
I once read in Frommer’s Guide to Moscow & St. Petersburg that Russia can only be described in superlatives. As a twenty-something with fresh eyes, I describe most of the places I’ve seen that way – Bali, Malaysia, Turkey. A horrible dinner date once chastised me for constantly using superlatives to describe daily situations – the coolest bar, my best friend, the greatest show I’d ever seen – pegging me as naïve. (I have a few adjectives for him, but that’s a whole other post.) Russia chastised me for using them too, but with a gentle and constructive nudge. I was guided to the realization that I had been misusing them, carelessly assigning beautiful things the title of “best” and the qualifier of “most.” Treasurers can be described as treasures without these words, it’s true, and now I am much less generous with them…except in the case of Russia.
The most populous city in Europe, the world’s largest country, the world’s deepest lake. Russia is shrouded in a mysterious, luxurious past that has inspired the longest books and epic poetry still listed on college syllabi. We see Russia through the prism of our choice, ranging from the sumptuous gold ceilings of the Hermitage to the blood-soaked crimson snow left by the siege of Leningrad. With so many of Russia’s leaders qualified with names like “the great” or “the terrible,” you cannot help to think that the country has the same problem I do with distributing superlatives. Russia is a country of bests and worsts—Soviet complexes built next to palaces; both the mildest summers and most horrendous winters. It’s hard to avoid fixation with one part of this fantastical story—for me, it was imperial Russia that locked itself into my brain—and grip with well-meant tenacity. For others, it’s the agent provocateurs living out true 007 missions throughout the Cold War. When you pan out for a macroscopic view of Russia’s history, you are bewildered…the choice is self-preservation.
With so much imagination packed into the voluptuous domes of St. Basil’s and the brick walls of the Kremlin, I couldn’t curb my desire to act out on the notions that had clouded my vision of the place. I wanted to waltz down the Hall of 1812 in the Hermitage with the tsar – preferably Nicholas II or Peter the Great. I wanted to board the Orient Express with James Bond. I wanted to play Lara’s Theme on the balalaika in hopes that Dr. Zhivago would appear. [Note: Do not go to Russia looking for Doctor Zhivago. If the original version of the film is your favorite too, then you will inevitably be looking for a copy of Omar Sharif. He’s Egyptian and you would have way better luck in Cairo.]
As my Lufthansa flight landed to an iPod soundtrack designed for maximum theatricality—most notably the “From Russia With Love” theme—I felt a wave of terror. What if Russia was not what I had imagined it to be? And indeed, it was not. You walk along the corridors of the Winter Palace begging imperial Russia to come
back to you. It won’t. You ride the Soviet space shuttle simulator in Gorky Park and attempt to erase the dark side of life in the USSR. You can’t. I walked the streets of two of Russia’s greatest cities feeling empty – NOT because I was disappointed, but simply because the history I wanted to dive into was exactly that, history. All we have left are its homes and its material remnants, and we must content ourselves with them. In a country haunted with heaping scoops of folklore amidst a labyrinth of historical traumas, I almost feel guilty. How can Russia compete with the Russia we’ve dreamt up, diced, and consumed with discernment?
I think this concept solidified itself as I stood atop Smolny Cathedral on a sunny afternoon. The entirety of Saint Petersburg—Russia’s royal, tumultuous, phoenix city—spread below me like an oyster finally convinced to reveal her pearl. Directly ahead, I could just make out the obelisk of Peter and Paul Cathedral. Enormous, empty streets met the swirling Neva River as she toured the city, making no favorites among the royal palaces and the wounds Communism had left behind. The lawn in which I was previously sitting revealed itself to be carefully and geometrically manicured. Grey Soviet complexes broke up dense trees and smokestacks punctured the sky. St. Petersburg could not hide its troubles from Smolny Cathedral; it could not convince you as you stood in front of the Winter Palace that Imperial Russia was still alive, or that the Soviets had squashed every elegant edifice. You saw them coexisting together reluctantly, beautifully, and at times – confusingly. You were forced to swallow the picture whole.
You can and will most certainly see things in Russia you will never see elsewhere; your dreams will be teased with glimpses of times past and tzars long-gone. There is a character to the country all its own that infuses the present with drama. The Tsars and the Soviet Union might be dead, but the thrill of biting into caviar at Café Pushkin is just as Russian as the desolate views Dostoevsky saw as he glanced out the window one hundred years ago. Russia now and Russia then are not separate entities; you can’t exist in both, but you can look for the common threads and appreciate the Russia you have now. Don’t bother to slice it up; suck up the fear and eat it whole. Someday our Russia will be qualified with superlatives, and you will have the privilege of saying you saw it. *
Gillian Kemmerer is the founder of Ready Set Jet & the site’s main author.