St. Petersburg Dream

Most people have a certain place in the world that draws them like an irresistible magnet. The attraction can long remain dormant, but typically one feels unfulfilled until the Holy Land, Greece, Rio, Sweden, or wherever is experienced in the flesh. My place is St. Petersburg, Russia. I am not sure of the yearning’s source . . . a blood connection with my Swedish ancestors who tramped about the Baltic? . . . a grade school biography of Peter the Great? . . . or Harrison Salisbury’s account of Leningrad’s heroic defense and survival during World War II (The 900 Days)?

Last spring, my long-deferred St. Petersburg dream was granted a wake-up call. Our former Swedish exchange student, Ulrika, was getting married in Ostersund, and of course we were invited. My wife Jan and I agreed on going, regardless of the cost. My only stipulation was to include St. Petersburg in our travels. I asked Ulrika’s father, Nils, a businessman with inter- national savvy, to research the logistics of a “side trip to Russia.” He quickly responded that a visit to St. Petersburg now would be unwise. Conditions in Russia were too unsettled: Food was scarce, accommodations chancy and expensive, and the threat of violent crime pervasive. Such news did not deter me. I had once been an adventurous student trekking about East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1966. But my dear wife reminded me of the obvious, ‘‘That was then. . .” and I repackaged my St Petersburg dream for another day.

But Nils had found a solution—a brand new cruise trip from Stockholm to St. Petersburg! The four of us, Nils, his wife Ella, Jan, and I were booked to leave the same day our plane landed from the United States! Jan worried about jet lag and weariness. But I knew the energy of dreams coming true!

On Friday morning, July 23, 1992, we arrived at Arlanda Airport. As we drove through Stockholm, I was overcome with how much the city had changed since 1966. Not only was it much bigger, but also it was culturally diverse. We saw people from every continent on the globe. We also saw an ironically disturbing change in the antiseptically clean Sweden we remembered: a proliferation of graffiti so widespread that we felt constantly assaulted. The culprits . . . alienated youth? skinheads?. . . despairing immigrants . . . a society so spiritually immobilized by its own malaise that it seeks movement through aping the antics of some grade B American movie?

Under warm and sunny skies, we boarded our beautiful ship. The wealth of contemporary Sweden was always in view.

Comfortable summer homes dotted the endless archipelago, screened by the well-dressed passing Swedes holding their ubiquitous drinks and cigarettes. After twenty-four hours of rich food, entertainment, and rest, the Russian mainland was in sight.

Excitement spread as the golden dome of St Isaac’s came into view. My own anticipation was so intense as I drank in the vista that I wept. Like a child approaching a long-awaited Christmas present, I was about to unwrap my dream.

Not wanting to be confined by Intourist, the four of us arranged for our own tour. Actually, I was the guide. I simply showed our driver a map of the city with certain sites circled. Shortly after we left the comfort and security of our boat, we entered the grim reality of present-day St. Petersburg. Our new mini-bus gave a most clear and disturbing view. We first passed one checkpoint (to keep Gypsy cabs away from cruise ships) and then approached a second, a very narrow archway. Hovering about was a group of shabbily dressed men with the most desperate and dangerous expressions I have ever seen. If we had chosen to walk from the ship to the city proper, this archway would have been our last stop. Our wise and kind driver, Eugene, knew this and was forthright in keeping our bus moving through the milling crowd. We then entered the city proper. But the place seemed deserted on this warm and sunny afternoon. As we drove further into the city’s core, all four of us came to the same conclusion: Never had any of us seen such physical decay and deterioration in a world-class city. Dilapidated buildings, dirt-encrusted sidewalks, crater-infested streets, crumbling canal and river banks, rubble, and weeds everywhere. And the people’s faces revealed their living despair.

Our first stop was St. Nicholas Cathedral. Walking across a small plaza, we were soon assaulted by child beggars. Running through this gauntlet, I brought my eyes to the eyes of a very special old woman. Like an angel in rags, she sensed my desire. Tenderly she led us into a dark doorway. Then, up a grimy staircase, we entered the sanctuary. We did not enter a barren museum dedicated to atheism. No. We entered into the presence of a living, vibrant Orthodox service. We four stood frozen, as the fervor of faith wafted upwards in the most moving and sublime congregational singing we have ever heard. Many in the church were shoeless; all wore dark and threadbare clothes. As we stood, two secular Swedes and two American Covenanters, eight eyes wept. We silently sensed we were standing amongst the people of God in the Church Universal.

We saw many more sights that day and the next, places rich in history. We saw long lines of ancient Ladas [Russian cars] waiting for gasoline. Every place we stopped, we were rushed by either shoeless beggars or aggressive vendors peddling cheap dolls or questionable caviar. We marveled at the beautiful facades of buildings born when czars ruled, now flaking and crumbling after 75 years of commissars.

Had my dream ended as a nightmare? Somehow, I am drawn to St. Petersburg more than ever. I would like to return with my wife—only dressed like Russians. Then maybe we could better sense the reality of this great city. Then we could stand freely and equally with those people of God in the Church Universal in St. Nicholas Cathedral.