Thursday, 7 June 2018

Revolution? What Revolution?

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but St. Petersburg was definitely not it. Obviously, life has changed dramatically in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, and I suspect those of us in the West who grew up in the "Cold War" years still have a hard time mentally separating today's Russia from the Russia of yesterday. "Yesterday" being nearly 30 years ago now. Soviet-style Communism? What's that?

But even so: it was not what I had been led to expect. In a good way, I suppose. After all, this is supposed to be the City of Crime. This is where white supremacists are supposed to hang out, and murder overseas students. This is Putin's home town. I suppose it was not as different as I had anticipated. Frankly, if it were not for the Cyrillic signs and the bling-fixation – gold is everywhere – I could have been in pretty much any major European city I have visited in recent years: I was constantly reminded of Lisbon, or Paris, or Berlin, or Amsterdam. There is the same crumbling but magnificent heritage architecture, the same constant traffic, the same advertising hoardings, the same hordes of tourists (including vast numbers of Chinese), the same restaurants, bars, and clubs, the same apartment blocks and out-of-town megastores, the same discreet courtyards entered via anonymous-looking gates and passageways, the same museums and galleries, large and small, and even the same hipster-run cafes with chalkboard menus and a baffling variety of coffees, teas, and healthy, wholefood snacks. Why, there are even the ubiquitous silver-painted human statues, scaring the bejesus out of passing small children when they break pose, asking a few roubles for a selfie opportunity. In a nice local touch, though, couples dressed as 18th century courtiers cruise the tourist hotspots, and a crimson-clad executioner plies his trade in front of the utterly bonkers Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

Mind you, I did get a distinct sense that the place has been recently and thoroughly cleansed, perhaps in anticipation of the World Cup and the global media spotlight that will accompany it. There were very few drunks, beggars, or street-people of any sort, and no obvious petty criminals. I mean, you get all of those mob-handed in Southampton, never mind central London. There were also not many police in evidence, either, come to that. True, I have read that those apex-predators, the vory ("the thieves", or Russian mafia) have made such a killing on construction contracts connected with the World Cup that in return they are expected to keep a lid on the activities of the bottom-feeding, small-time crooks and parasites who would otherwise be swarming to service and rip off the upcoming tourist bonanza. And no doubt if you were to head out to the seedier suburbs the story would be different. But I suspect there's more to it than that.

All the guidebooks say that Russians are by nature surly and unsmiling: don't be surprised, they say, if your attempts at d├ętente are met with a blank stare. Only lengthy acquaintance and copious vodka will unlock the effusive warmth within, or so it says here. Now, this may well be true for those Russians who recall the heady, carefree days of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, but I was very struck by how friendly and west-orientated the young are. In those hipster chalkboard venues, you will be served your Americano by the same young girl with piercings and tattoos, or the same young man with a topiary beard and topknot that you will encounter in similar places from Edinburgh to Florence; they are glad to practice their English, and apparently genuinely happy to see you. They serve a damn fine cup of coffee, too. And I totally recommend the samsa s kapustoi (cabbage pasty) in the Tronskii Most cafe at 25 Millionnaya ulitsa as a perfect light lunch after an exhausting morning exploring the Hermitage. Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Putin? Or maybe you do.

But what really surprised me was how far nearly all trace of the Soviet past has been eradicated. It's as if it had never happened. I was expecting to have fun, sorting through mountains of flea-market communist-era detritus, but found none at all. None. Apparently there is a big car-boot affair on the edge of town with rich pickings, but I didn't have enough time to get out there. You can buy purple or orange fun-fur military-style caps with a red star on most souvenir stalls, along with the odd repro Lenin pin-badge, but it's mainly matryoshka dolls all the way down. But, if you look really hard – and trust me, I did – you may spot a few memorials at significant sites associated with the 1917 revolution. Just round the corner from our hotel, on the Fontanka Embankment, I found this:

I've never been a student of the events of 1917, but the one at the top commemorates a speech Lenin gave to the [deep breath] Extraordinary All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Peasants' Deputies on the "agrarian question" on 14th November 1917, which may or may not have had a major significance in the early history of the Revolution. Whatever, someone obviously thought it warranted a marble tablet, which is not something many speeches on agrarian policy get. More to the point, it is still there.

Then, on our second visit to the Hermitage, taking a breather on the landing of a back staircase, I spotted this:

Now that one is significant, especially if you've ever watched Eisenstein's film October. This relatively modest plaque commemorates the "storming of the Winter Palace" in October 1917, or, more specifically, the rush up this actual staircase by "detachments of revolutionary workers, soldiers and sailors", thus "opening the path into the palace". However, it seems that Eisenstein's exaggeratedly heroic version has supplanted reality, which was more a case of, "Oh look, they've buggered off and left the back door open". In fact, I am told that more people were hurt during the cinematic reenactment than in the event itself. But, hey, print the legend!

And talking of October, I had a real surprise in store waiting inside the Hermitage. More about that later, comrades.

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