I loved reading this wonderful post about a winter trip to St Petersburg in Russia. It took me right back to my first-ever visit to the city, going by the name of Leningrad back then. It’s a place I’ve had the good fortune to visit several times since, so I’ve seen the city in its spring and summer (White Nights) glory too.
But that first trip was a December visit back in the early 1980s. I was on a three-month Russian language programme for students from British universities, a dream come true having been fascinated by the country, its language and its gymnasts from an early age. And so I found myself there for those autumn and winter months as the Soviet Union was beginning to unravel behind the scenes – not that that was obvious to any of us at the time.
We spent most of our time in the southern city of Voronezh, but an excursion to Leningrad was part of our experience. We had been in the country long enough by the time this trip was upon us to know that the big cities (Voronezh being ‘merely’ a provincial city of a million people) were where the shops had stuff. We had seen our Russian roommates travel once or twice on overnight shopping trips to Moscow to bring back what couldn’t be had for love nor money out there in the sticks. You know, shampoo and soap, sanitary goods, tinned foods – exotic stuff like that.
So, as we prepared for our trip north, we asked what they would like us to bring back from the nation’s former capital.’Toothpaste’, was the immediate response. The list got a lot longer, and we did manage to find most of it, but it’s only the toothpaste that I still remember now. At the time, I recall feeling ashamed that I hadn’t even noticed the lack of toothpaste in their lives. Though in my defence I would argue there was so little of anything in the provincial shops in those late Soviet days that it was hard to see when essential, and taken-for-granted items, were part of the general lack.
Just the day before, we had joined a queue near to our student hostel, simply because it was there. We had, by then, been Soviet residents long enough to know that when you see a long street queue, you join it. And only then do you try to establish what everyone is waiting for. My roommate went to the front to investigate. We held our place in the ever-growing line snaking along the cold, dark winter’s street. While she was gone we eavesdropped our neighbours in the queue and asked what was on sale. ‘Big yellow oranges’, we were told.
‘Grapefruit from Cuba’, our fellow Brit informed us on her return. We tried in vain to remember the Russian for grapefruit and, in the absence of a handy smartphone loaded with Google translate, we managed to find a dog-eared pocket dictionary and told our new queuing friends – in their own language – what we were all waiting to buy. They shrugged, the fruit clearly unknown to them. They were simply after their first taste of ‘big yellow oranges’. Something new perhaps to tingle tastebuds bored of cabbage and potatoes in all their myriad Soviet forms, mayonnaise-swamped ‘salads’, and the occasional ‘kotleti’ (minced meat patties of dubious origin) to enliven the offering.
The day of the Leningrad trip dawned horribly early. We set off in what was really still the middle of the night. It had been snowing heavily and we found ourselves trudging through dark streets simply to wait – for what seemed an age – at a random road junction for some rattling old bus to scoop us up out of the snow and trundle us out of town to the airport. A trip that took us beyond the city limits sign which had attained mythical proportions as the boundary we were forbidden to cross on pain of arrest, imprisonment, hard labour or deportation.
And all the while we waited in the freezing darkness, we were aware of being watched. Ivan, we called him, as we always did his type. Ivan stood swaddled in a long overcoat, the usual fur hat virtually obliterating his face, which was, in any case, completely hidden behind a newspaper. We weren’t fooled. Five o’clock in the morning on the edge of town in a snowdrift, and a man finds it necessary to stand reading a newspaper nearby. The bus arrived. We scrambled in for warmth and watched Ivan vanish from sight – not to be seen again – not, that is, until we were in the ice cream shop in Leningrad later that same afternoon! And he still hadn’t finished reading that newspaper – or maybe it was another one. Some people just don’t have what it takes for the job of surveillance!
On board our flight, the usual announcement was made about flying time and altitude and weather at the destination. ‘It’s a bright morning with sunshine in Leningrad,’ we heard. ‘And the temperature on the ground is -26C’. We all did a double-take, trying to process the information. Minus 26 degrees Celsius! But we were students of the balmy south of Russia. It had been a mere -2C that chilly morning – the sort of temperature most of us had experienced even back home. Children of England’s green and pleasant – and very temperate – land, none of us, it turned out, had ever been in such cold before.
And so we wrapped up as we disembarked. Coats, hats, gloves, scarves – the full monty. But we had no protection for our eyes and our mouths and that was my first experience of frozen eyelashes and nostrils – the brutal cold instantly freezing any exposed drop of moisture. Nearly two decades later, my Russian travels took me out on a sunny afternoon walk in air another 20C colder again. I remember that day how my moisture-rich contact lenses felt crisp and brittle in my eyes, but it’s still that first moment of Leningrad’s freeze that I can feel in my bones.
The Leningrad days passed in a blur – a constant battle between staying warm enough on sightseeing trips to the many fabulous buildings of that stunning city and then overheating as we entered those same buildings kept at more or less tropical temperatures. We were amazed at the abundance in the shops. Yet this came to be a mere foretaste of the culture shock that was to hit us when we flew back into the materialistic madness of a pre-UK Christmas just a week or two later.
But there is no denying the beauty of Leningrad under blue skies and a fresh blanket of white. Even on the grey days of winter when the half light of the city’s short daylight hours barely brighten the sky, it’s still a beautiful place. Its many rivers and canals were frozen to create a fascinating landscape of myriad jagged and snow-capped shapes – miracles of nature, the like of which we never get to see in this mild, grey land I call home.
And so it was a delight to come across another blogger’s experience of that same winter wonder and beauty in modern-day St Petersburg. And good to know, in a city and a country that has seen so much change, struggle and dramatic upheaval in recent years, that the city’s most amazing gifts to the world remain for all to see and enjoy. Its buildings and its watery infrastructure, yes. But more than anything, it is surely nature’s winter splendour that amazes and awes the visitor to that city – a city I am assuming is these days replete with ‘big yellow oranges’, Cuban or otherwise, for most of the year. But mother nature still visits to create that incredible winter wow factor for her first-time visitor. Do go and see how it looks today. And, if you can’t get there yourself, then drop by on One Foot Out the Door for a wonderful description and stunning photographs.