December 5, 2012

Long Ago in a Different Place

I have been to Venice, Italy when the high water flooded St. Mark's Square and we could see how precarious the future of this exquisite city really is. This jewel of European culture may not endure.

I have been to Venice Beach, California where time has stopped in some permanently wacky version of the counterculture 1960s. It endures, a skeevy, riotous caricature of a moment in time, forever preserved.

And I have been to The Venice of the North, the city of canals now called St. Petersburg in Russia. It is the definition of endurance, a city that has been named, renamed, governed, re-governed, under siege, freed, economically upended, and through it all it is still there.


It wasn't St. Petersburg when I was there. It was Leningrad.

I was a student in 1969, spending a summer semester at a university in the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War. The Vietnam war was in full force. The space race was on with the Soviet Union, and while I was there that summer Americans made the historic first landing on the moon. 

It was the tensest of times. It was the most exhilarating of times.

Jason of Garden in a City reminded me of that long ago summer with his post on visiting his son in St. Petersburg.  And Nadezda of Nadezda's Northern Garden has rekindled my memories with all of her posts of St. Petersburg that show a beautiful city and gardens.

When I was there it had a remnant of aged greatness, but it was a stark and Communist-gray sort of place. World War II was a memory, but not that distant -- only 25 years earlier, still vivid to middle aged and older people living there -- and the war in Leningrad had been devastating and unimaginable. There were no men visible on the streets of the city, at least no older men of the generation that had been decimated by the war. Babushkas and younger women drove the buses, cleaned the streets, ran the shops. There were no men.

The city is built in an area Peter the Great reclaimed from swamps in 1703, just as the Italian doges built up Venice on islands in a lagoon in the Middle Ages. 

There are hundreds of bridges crossing the river and canals, and in summer, when the sun barely sets in this northern city, the sight of dozens of drawbridges over the Neva River opening up their arms in the softly lit middle of the night to let the boat traffic pass was haunting. Unsettling, though, with sunshine illuminating the emptiness of the sleeping city at 3 in the morning.

In 1969 there was color and beauty in the historic buildings like the Hermitage. But the city itself was a gray, blocky looking place, a Soviet city with functional signs that told you where stores and shops were, but had no need to advertise. There were no brands, no clamor of signage on stores and no competition for your business. There were few goods to buy anyway.

And the people looked the same way, all dressed alike, all somewhat gray looking. But then you struck up a conversation and . . .

. . .  behind their Communist blankness, they were delightful individuals, proud of their city, stoic about their history, welcoming to hopelessly naive strangers like myself, and utterly gracious. I met a man on the tram, and he invited me home to his apartment. 

I was 19. Whose mother lets a 19 year old go to a place like Communist Russia, where an obvious lack of any mature sense would allow her to get picked up on the tram by a strange man? Or worse? What was I thinking then? But I went with him, met his wife and child, had a truly wonderful meal in their tiny apartment, and had an experience that our official student tour guides would never have allowed.

And that was not the only experience -- we all constantly escaped our strict government assigned student group guides and met people, talked with them, exchanged books they couldn't buy, found out more about the world we were visiting, and even argued with them about our way versus their political system, something that would have made our government chaperones apoplectic.  

But we never did get to meet any of the North Vietnamese students living on the dorm floor just below ours. American students were assigned different times in the dining hall, and there were guards at the stairwells to their floor. It was the Soviet Union, after all, and we were at war with our host country's guests.

It was a rewarding several months, and I loved the people we met, the beauty of a historically rich city, and the learning experience at the university. But it was also a claustrophobic and confining experience.

At that time Soviet news was so strictly monitored that I felt not just homesick for my own culture, but cut off from the world. I wanted a Coke so badly. I wanted news of the world, not propaganda.

When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, we knew it was happening, we knew the world was watching but we got no news. The American students in our dorm huddled around a radio and listened to Voice of America broadcasts about it. There was no official news of this historic event. The Soviet Union attempted to jam the VOA broadcasts.

And yet the next day, and for days after, walking down a street in Leningrad we were greeted by passersby with shouts of congratulations, Поздравляю!!  People knew all about it, they could easily tell by our dress that we were Americans, and they were genuinely excited for us. They congratulated us! That has always been one of the most moving memories of my time in that strange and different place.

How glad I am that a couple of the gardening blogs I follow have brought back those memories from 43 years ago. And now, reading those posts, St. Petersburg does not seem so strange or different at all.

It is not going to disappear as its watery sister Venice in Italy may do. It is not frozen in an artificial era like hippy Venice Beach. The Venice of the North has changed dramatically, but it has endured with grace.




I have no pictures from my trip so long ago. The pictures here are from Wikipedia. We did not compulsively take pictures in those pre-digital days, and besides, I was young and thought I was way too cool to go around looking like a tourist. Traveling light, with no money for a good camera or film or photo prints, my whole trip was unrecorded. I regret that.

27 comments:

  1. You are lucky to have had such an experience. Truly being a world away. It is great that you can remember so much. Thank you for sharing this.

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    1. Lisa, Thanks for going on my memory tour!

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  2. I don't know if you should regret not having taken pictures way back then, you have kept the pictures alive in your mind so well. What a wonderful story and experience. I do hope Venice, Italy does not disappear into the ocean, it is far too beautiful.

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    1. Rosemary, Thanks! I agree about Venice, Italy... I hope it survives, but the pictures from this fall's flooding were pretty bad.

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  3. Not so completely unrecorded, as your words certainly helped me formulate pictures in my mind. You obviously still have them too. How lucky you were to go on such an adventure!

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    1. Loree, it really was an incredible adventure and to this day I don't know how my mother let me go to such a place at such a time. Yikes.

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  4. Laurrie, I am glad you remember your stay at my city Saint Petersburg!
    Many changes passed since that 80th, we all got older and wiser, and now can see these years in another way. I've read the Jason's post too and I love how he described his trip to S.Petersburg, especially how he obtained his Russian visa.
    Thank very much for sharing your memories!

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    1. Nadezda, I will be looking forward to more of your posts that show us what St. Petersburg (and its gardens) look like now!

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  5. You were reminded of wonderful, memorable times, and you in turn trigger memories so similar, including those of a boy soldier in Amsterdam, meeting young Germans who spontaneously invited me to join them in their small hometown to spend the remainder of my holiday. The sights, sounds, food, drink. Like yesterday. Thanks for the memories, Laurrie.

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    1. Lee, now I need to picture a you in a uniform! How wonderful to find gracious people in so many different parts of the world. Glad to have jogged your memory of that time.

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  6. I desperately wanted to study abroad when I was in college but just couldn't afford it. I'm hoping both of my kids will have that opportunity, instead. Do you speak Russian? What an incredible experience! My husband has been to Russia 28 times for work but I've never been able to go. :(

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    1. Tammy, he's been to Russia 28 times? What changes he must have seen! I spoke Russian in those days, but I was told I sounded like a character in a 19th century novel (I read Russian literature). Now, more than 40 years later I no longer can, but I did enjoy the new Anna Karenina with Keira Knightley, since they were all speaking British English!

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  7. What beautiful memories to have, Laurrie. Thanks for taking the time to share them.

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    1. Sue, Thanks! I'm glad you came along for the little memory trip.

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  8. I didn't do anything nearly as interesting in my college days. What an experience!

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    1. Sweetbay, thanks! Sometimes I can't believe I did this at all!

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  9. Very interesting....From a weekend spent in Budapest 30 years ago and a album full of postcards, books and magazines from a Russian penpal, I too have mostly images of the Soviet Union as uniformly gray, blocky and ugly. Apartment houses are built on a massive scale, dwarfing the humans who live there.

    i love the look of your new blog!

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    1. Thanks! Budapest 30 years ago was very different place I'm sure. What fun if you could go back now : )

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  10. Laurrie, I have been enjoying your passion for gardening for a year. Your posts are always informative and entertaining. I was very interested in your post about visiting the Soviet Union because I am a 7th grade Social Studies teacher. We have been talking about the culture, history and government of Russia this week. I was surprised that you were able to study in the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. Was this type of exchange common? I am going to use your blog in class. Thank you for your perspective. Laura

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  11. Laura, thanks! I went with a college student group from the University of Pittsburgh under an exchange program with the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute. In 1969 this was not common, but it wasn't unheard of either. We spent two months there and it was tightly chaperoned -- we had Soviet-assigned guides who took us on formal tours around the city and to Kiev and Moscow as well, and they watched us pretty closely to make sure we did not spend much time with "unauthorized" people. But we were students and we escaped their oversight all the time!

    The Soviet people "on the street" that we met were desperately hungry for any kind of Western culture, and they were relentless about their hatred of the Nazis --- remember this was 25 years after the war, but we heard it constantly. There is no way for us to fully understand how deeply WWII affected Leningrad. They idolized President Kennedy, and a Kennedy half dollar was a gift beyond measure. They begged for popular books (in English!), they would buy our jeans off our bodies, right on the street. Young Soviets were inquisitive, and almost everyone knew enough English to say something to us. Older people (in their 50s and up) crossed the street to avoid us when they saw us, however. The older generation seemed very suspicious, or maybe frightened. They remembered Stalin.

    Some darker stereotypes were confirmed -- they were hard drinkers, and even official sponsored student gatherings involved a long table with dozens of open bottles of vodka that had to be swigged till the bottle was empty. "Kvass" was sold on the street from large tanker trucks for a few kopeks -- it is a heavy dark beer.

    Government pervaded everything and people had a resigned sense of having no recourse, no rights. When we passed customs, the customs officials simply took what they wanted to keep out of our luggage (books, clothing) as we watched them rifle thru our stuff.

    Food was awful, simply awful. We were students, so we never got to any restaurants, but I don't think there were any. There was a government store where only Americans could shop with American dollars and we could buy Russian made toys and gifts there (I bought a balalaika). But Russians could not go in. In their own department stores there was one shade of gray raincoat to buy and two types of brown shoes. No luxury goods at all, and the brown-gray clothing was so pervasive and such a contrast to the bright color of the cathedrals and old buildings.

    They hungered for American culture, but the people idolized their own icons -- the line to see Lenin's tomb was hours long, and it was not tourists, it was Russians waiting to get in. We saw a Bolshoi Ballet performance and it was sold out -- again in a time long before tourists went to Russia.

    If you leave your students with one impression it is that even then, when the Soviet system was in full force with no hint of collapsing, it was clear even to a 19 year old that the desperate curiosity and bubbling inquisitiveness of the young people would not be suppressed by censorship or government restrictions.

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    1. Outstanding information! Thank you so much for your help. :) Laura

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  12. You were so very brave to go to Russia in '69. I loved reading about your experience there and it just shows that people are people the world over. There is nothing as valuable as the experience of travel and cultural immersion.

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    1. Layanee, thanks! The part about people being the same everywhere was an eye opener to my young self back then.

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  13. Your trip to Leningrad/St. Petersburg sounds much more adventurous than mine! I was lucky to have my son, who speaks almost-fluent Russian and had gotten to know his way around, as a guide. We didn't have to worry about government minders. Pickpockets were another story - my wallet was stolen at one point. There was a kind of wild west atmosphere to some extent, especially with the taxis. One cab driver tried to sell us bootleg Lady Gaga CDs, then offered to take us to a brothel. But the main thing I remember was the beauty of the city. There's so much I didn't get to see, including Peterhof. Thanks for sharing your experiences - And for linking to my blog.

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    1. Jason, your pickpockets and brothel tour offers sound pretty adventurous to me! The wild west indeed. I have often wondered what it would be like to go back now under such different circumstances. I think it's great you have a son who speaks near fluent Russian (I used to, but not now after 40 years.)

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  14. Laurrie, I loved Jason's post as I have always wanted to visit Russia and was delighted to see you posted about Russia as well. how very very lucky you are to have visited and in that time frame. Despite the lack of photos it's evident you carry that trip in your heart.

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    1. Marguerite, I remember a lot about that special trip, but I have forgotten so much too. It was so very long ago now. I do wish I had pictures!

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