Standing on the platform at the Helsinki train station, a fellow walked up to me and asked in Finnish, “Tämä on junan Pieksämäelle?” I replied in English, “No, this is the train to Saint Petersburg.” He sat on the bench next to me, placing his newspaper between us. In a few minutes, he got up and left his newspaper behind. When my train arrived, I picked up the paper and boarded the train. Thus began my journey to the land of my ancestors, with the remaining instructions for my short stay in Saint Petersburg…
Being an American, I am unfamiliar with riding the rails. The closest we come to that, outside of train enthusiasts, is taking the subway in the local city. Not all American cities have subways, so many Americans never experience train travel at all. I’ve been in a lot of cities with subways, so I’m a bit of an outlier, but this sort of train travel is still foreign to me. The train station in Helsinki is like everything else in the city. It is clean, simple and extremely efficient. I was able to find my train by myself like a big boy.
I booked a first class car from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg, mostly because of the WiFi, but also because I don’t care for the riffraff. Now that I am an international man of travel, I now take pride in looking down on the little people. OK. I really just wanted the WiFi. I read somewhere that if you wanted to make sure you had good service the whole way, spend the extra euros on the better ticket. That and you get food services and a charging outlet, which is essential these days. For 65 extra Euros, it is a bargain for a three hour trip.
The first class car has a double row of seats on one side of the car and a single row on the other side. The seats face one another over a table. I selected one of the single seats facing to the back of the train. A middle aged gentlemen, slim, European cut suit, but of the quality one would see from an upper level civil servant, maybe a staffer for a political appointee, got on the car and sat right across from me. The car was empty at the time and only a handful of riders boarded, so his choice was unusual.
The result was I was going to spend three plus hours facing off with a fellow, who looked like Chris Cooper from the Bourne Identity. The possibility that I was either having a flash back to another part of my life or perhaps going to have to kill this man in a life and death struggle on a high speed train occurred to me. I was good either way, but then I remembered I had dosed off while watching that movie last night. He did look remarkably like the guy from the movie, but I’m not a sleeper agent in a CIA program…
A little over a century ago, April of 1917 to be exact, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin got off the train in Petrograd from Finland to change the world. Today I got off at the same station under less auspicious conditions. Of course, Lenin’s trip was more dramatic, as he left Switzerland for the Baltics, then crossed over into Sweden. From Sweden, he and his traveling party, all revolutionaries, traveled by sleigh to Finland. The party broke up into groups of two and three, so they could make it across in the dark and avoid detection…
The Finnish countryside this time of year is all pine trees and snow. In breaks of pines there are stands of white birch. The uniformity of the trees and the various paths and roads cut into them suggests this area is carefully forested. We passed many small farms on the way. Some had the idyllic look one wants to believe is rural live, while others were abandoned shacks. Watching the scene roll by, I could not help but wonder what the Russians were thinking when they decided to invade Finland in the dead of winter…
To expedite travel between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg, customs is handled on the train as you make the trip. Unlike the airport, you just get on the train and the process of inspecting your documents is done by custom agents as you travel. Once you get to the border, Russian border agents repeat the process. They are just like the version you see in movies. It was two women, not bad looking, with scanners for reading your visa and looking up your ticket information, to make sure you are you.
They were quick with the Finns, but they took a strong interest in me. They looked carefully at each page of my passport, then both of them checked to make sure I was the guy in the passport photo. I suppose not many Americans turn up on the train to Saint Petersburg. Talking to my new traveling companion, I learned the train is mostly used by Finnish businessmen. They use Russia for cheap labor, especially high tech labor, in the same way American firms use India or China…
If you are old enough to remember the Cold War, the train station and surrounding area looks like a scene from an old spy movie. It’s actually quite remarkable, for reasons that are hard to explain. It looks like a movie scene, but it is a working, functioning city with people going about their daily lives. I guess I did not know what to expect from the city, but it was quite astonishing to me. It reminded me of my first trip to Boston as a kid. It looked like the pictures, but was also a real place, not just a movie set.
At the front of the train station, I got a cab. The weirdest thing of the trip was the cabbie looked just like my grandfather looked when I was boy. My grandfather has been dead for a long time, but this guy was his doppelganger from decades ago. He was a man in his 60’s and he had the same face and build. He also had the same crystal blue eyes, which was his most striking feature. There was a ton of traffic and plenty of crazy Russian drivers, so I had time to think about the odds of what I was seeing.
This is good time to mention that all of those YouTube videos of crazy Russian drivers are all true and plus some. Anyone who has been to what we used to call the third world knows that insane driving is a feature of these places. Russian is obviously not third world and Saint Petersburg is a mostly modern city. Russians are just crazy drivers. On the trip to the hotel, we saw three wrecks and too many outlandish acts to count. The really crazy thing is they have an otherworldly respect for pedestrians.
After checking in, I did not waste time getting to see the city. I was at the Renaissance, which is just west of Nevsky Prospect. It’s a great hotel and a great place to see all of the normal tourist stuff. I walked the Neva River west toward the docks. It was a beautiful day, so the locals were out in big numbers, walking along both sides of the river. There were also tons of Chinese tourists, so it felt like a weekend afternoon. The sheer beauty of the buildings you pass by is quite remarkable. It’s like being in a postcard.
I’m not the most sentimental guy, but as I was walking along the river, I was feeling a bit emotional. I suppose being reminded of my grandfather must have brought to mind memories I’d long forgotten. Family lore is always a bit dodgy, but I know that side came from Saint Petersburg. I kept thinking what it must have been like for then, all those years in America, remembering what they left behind. They were poor, so it was not like they left the good life, but they did cut themselves off from who they were as people…
Since it has come up in prior posts, Russian women can be quite beautiful, but they can also be ridiculously trampy, at both ends of the scale. On the high end are the glamour whores, who always dress to the nines and love wearing garish sunglasses. They have a look on their face like they are bored and disappointed. On the other end are the type who look like they would be at home in a West Virginia trailer park. They dress like strippers and probably smell like bar soap. They have that bored look on their face too.
There is another type that was the majority, from what I could tell. They are plain and pleasant, thin in their youth. They sort of remind me of country girls. I started talking with a women in her early 30’s, I’m guessing. She had good English, so we could chat without using hand signals. She was visiting her mother, as she lived in England. Her mother looked like she pushed school children into her cottage oven. That’s the thing about Russian women. Father time is never very kind to them…
I walked down to the Dom Knigi, which is a tourist area for having lunch and buying cheap souvenirs. Everywhere you look, there are sellers hawking Russian dolls and lacquer boxes. I guess people like that stuff, but I can think of a dozen better things to sell to tourists looking for a memento. There is one good thing there and it is the Savior on Spilled Blood church. It’s not big, but it is an impressive church both inside and outside. If you are into old churches, it’s worth the walk and the 350 rubles for the tour.
From there I visited the the State Hermitage Museum, which is a collection of buildings that includes the museum founded by Catherine the Great and the Winter Palace of Peter the Great. It is simply impossible to accurately describe how I felt walking across the massive plaza toward it. Maybe is the vastness of the plaza or just the sheer enormity of the building itself, but I felt like an ant walking toward it. It’s one of those things that you just cannot appreciate until you walk up to it in real life.
Like every other tourist, I took a million pics of the place as I walked up to it. I even took some shots of the silly Cinderella carriages they use for giving tourists rides around the city. Unlike the ones you see in American cities, these are modeled after the Grand Coronation Carriage. When you walk into the complex, the enormity of it gives way, as you are suddenly in a relatively small courtyard. It really does give the full effect of what it must have been like for the royals. This was their shelter from their people….
Maybe it was a carryover from the unfortunate bout of sentimentality I experienced earlier in the day, but walking back I suddenly understood why the people revolted against the Tsar. Nicholas II, like all of the aristocratic families of Europe, was no longer the leader of a people. He was just a guy in charge of an empire. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, King George V of England and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the three principle monarchs at the start of the Great War, we all cousins. The Tsar’s mother was Danish.
If you were living in Saint Petersburg at the dawn of the 20th century, the royal family and the system that supported them was as foreign to you as space aliens. Instead of the trappings and symbols being a tangible representation of the people’s shared reality, they were symbols of a system that allowed strangers to rule over people they did not know and would never know. The massive walls of the palace and the guards who protected those walls, were a daily reminder that you were ruled by strangers.
That’s how it is with revolutions. The people in charge, at some point, take a turn where they no longer see themselves as an extension of the people over whom they rule. They begin to see themselves as different and separate. They start to turn the rituals and ceremonies of the people’s shared reality into a psychological barrier, reminding the people on the other side that they are not inside. That’s when they start building walls and exclusive retreats. The Hermitage was a tangible representation of this reality.
It’s why the revolutionary can have no empathy for the people on the other side of those walls. The rebel may have some sympathy for the people he must dispatch and some sympathy for the people who must do it. There can be no empathy, though, as when the revolution comes, the people on either side of those walls no longer know one another as people. You cannot have empathy for strangers who hold you in contempt. Those on the other side are defined by your hatred for them.
Walking back from the Hermitage, not only did I understand that the Tsar got what he deserved, I understood why the Bolsheviks were so quick to do it. A revolution that seeks to preserve the past is not a revolution. It is a restoration. It’s like trying to fix up an old house. A proper revolution must always end with the utter destruction of the old order, the symbols of that order and the people who control it. Revolutions are a sacrament in blood, bring forth something new and washing away that the old order.