Monday, November 6, 2017

Travel Notes 3 - updated


On the train from Finland, a group of babushkas - old women dressed in ornate peasant clothing - boarded the train, discomfiting the middle-class Russian women who had just gone on a shopping trip.  However, they were a  folk singing group, and sang and danced the whole way - until we got to the border.  The middle-class women found it amusing.  One babushka made fun of the "Soviet" woman soldier who martially walked down the aisle.  You can tell there is a fear of the authorities.  Young women in black fur hats with red symbols greeted us at the border.

Lenin, Finland Station and the comrades of the KKE

I arrived at the Finland station with no crowd to greet me, so I sang the Marseillaise alone.  However, as I walked to the Lenin monument in the park in front of the station, a crowd of 50 comrades from the Greek Communist Party (KKE) also arrived.  If you have followed the socialist movement for so many years as I have, this is a somewhat emotional moment to be at this specific place, to say the least...  I talked to the comrades, who were going to Moscow for the main celebrations of the centenary.  The KKE, as you might remember, refused to critically give a vote to Syriza.  When Syriza later betrayed their anti-EU bank base, the KKE's hostility looked a bit justified.

I walked down the Liteyny Prospect, right by the "Big House" KGB building and later where the fascists shot down demonstrators in the 1917 July days (prior picture), then over to the Field of Mars.  Here a regiment, the Pavloskiy, is still barracked right in the city.  They were having a ceremony of some kind around the 'eternal flame of the unknown soldier.'  Here Leningraders grew vegetables during the WWII siege by the Nazi army and the dead of February 1917 are buried, most in a mass grave.  Graves were added later from the Civil War and later.

On the street I met a few young people carrying a red flag with hammer and sickle around town, and others with communist symbols on their hats.  Not sure if this is something trendy (Soviet kitsch is still selling well...), but the Sovak Cafe at 20 Nevsky was very hot and packed with Russians, not tourists.  In Winter Palace square the city has set up some large structures for their attempt to note or downplay the Nov. 7 revolution. People dressed in wealthy costumes were strolling around, like actors.  Saw no one in costume from the 'dark people' though, though the city still has them.

Czar/Caesar Peter the Great as the 'Bronze Horseman'

What can I say about the central part of St. Petersburg?  It was designed to be 'grand' - and from what I can tell inspired, not just by Paris, but really by Rome.  Wide streets, views that go for long stretches, parks, canals that remind one of Venice, monuments, many palaces, blocks with just one building, Russian Orthodox basilicas - in many places you look there is something 'big' about your view.  It instills, psychologically, a feeling in the humble pedestrian, that he or she too is somehow part of this.  Quite interesting to be in 'Peter's dream."  However, as my girlfriend has said about the Winter Palace, once you see it, you know why there was a revolution. The Winter Palace square where the Cossacks shot down Father Gapon in the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre is immense. What is telling is the statues and monuments have more of a classic 'Roman' feel.  Even the Bronze Horseman, featured in Chernyshevsky's story, "What is To Be Done," (reviewed below), Peter the Great, wears a wreath over his head.  One empire aping another dead one.


You can also tell why the west wanted a counter-revolution in the USSR.  St. Petersburg has been conquered by western products - especially cars, where you can barely find a Lada or Skoda on the streets - just BWM, Mercedes, Ford, Peugot, Land Rover, Fiat, Nissan, Toyota, Kia, Volvo etc.  Cultural programming is also western - Russian copies of "The Voice," Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars dubbed in Russian.  One Russian comedy featured a scene were a big, drunken Kronstadt sailor with a hammer and sickle on his sailor hat and a 'wife beater' T-shirt destroys the interior of a house.  (!?)  The funniest show was of two Russian women traveling overseas - one spending massive amounts, the other on a budget.  They list what they spend as the show progresses and the difference is astounding.  High-end department stores on Nevsky feature many European products, as well as McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks and Subway.  On the high end, I saw a Lamborghini shoot down Nevsky, while a Rolls stretch limo trolled the back streets.  The failure of the Soviet bureaucracy to produce consumer goods was met by a capitalist west eager to provide them.

Nevsky Prospekt, the Champs Elysees of St. Petersburg


Russians still smoke too much.  Vegetarian food is hard to find, as meat is even included in dishes that are ostensibly meatless.  Bicycles are few in the heavy traffic, but you are never alone if you walk in St. Petersburg, as many people walk.  Young male drunks bang on cars or kick anything they can on the streets. Poverty is around the edges of this grand central district.  Down Sadovaya Ulitsa (street,) in the area where "Crime & Punishment" was set, the street sellers come out and the garbage appears.  There is a complex of run-down small streets where street business is done.  These streets don't even have names on maps.   Television is cheesy, but so is American TV.  But Russian TV is not as cheesy as Italian TV, which has no English language stations, while the Russians have BBC, Japanese NHK, French 24 and another English  headline news station.  It is almost as if Russia tried to appease the west - and failed.

A biography of  Trotsky is playing on Russian TV. Of course it is not complimentary, focusing on sexual or personality issues, depicting him as tough and cruel.  Local analysts think this is because it is a sly commentary on the charismatic Alexei Novalny, the anti-corruption crusader imprisoned once again.  After all, Putin was once a bureaucrat in the nomenklatura, along with Yeltsin, so being anti-Trotsky is a reflex.  Lenin and Stalin are harder to take on for this government.

Police swat teams in body armour are stationed around town, similar to what was seen in Paris after the 1968 rebellion, when the flics occupied key intersections jn the Left Bank.  Not sure if they are waiting for a rising of irritated shoppers or what.  There will be no real reenactment of the Bolshevik seizure of power tomorrow, only a celebration.

Stay tuned.

Red Frog
November 6
St. Petersburg

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