20 May 2014

Russia was calling ... 2006

Seeking to touch my Grandma's life. Marija, the globetrotting seamstress. I am on my way to St Petersburg, Russia.

Taking the two-lane highway from Helsinki (now there's a revelation of an interesting city) eastward, there are long, lonely stretches of birch woods. This is so like northwestern Ontario. Except here from time to time we see makeshift roadside stands selling smoked fish and prized forest mushrooms. The transport-truck traffic is extremely heavy. Apparently it is less expensive to bring cars and other goods into Russia by road than through the allegedly corrupt port of St Petersburg. Miles of trucks are lined up to cross the border each way.
Our Hotel Pribaltiskiya is situated on Vasilievsky Island—to my satisfaction, because I'd checked maps in advance—the part of the city where Marija once lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I can see her "Liniya 17" street as we rush past. We pass there several times on our back and forth for local tours. Pribaltiskaya is a very large hotel full of businessmen and tour groups. Service people (hotel staff, money exchanger, vendors, even our Russian bus driver) are not outgoing and rarely smile. It’s like they think friendliness would be unprofessional, or they wouldn’t be taken seriously.

The evening outing is a sunset cruise on the River Neva (N'vaaah, as our local guide Anna drawls) with a glass of champagne. Waiting on the embankment is a calm moment for a survey of our surroundings. We are really here in the heart of Peter the Great's dream. The amount of heritage restoration work everywhere boggles me, and the pace of it! Workmen are painting the front of the Winter Palace. Anna is lovely (she knows how to smile) and refreshing and mesmerizes us. Occasionally our boat scrapes its roof on the Fontanka canal bridges because the water is very high today.

One magnificent site after another is ours to explore in this storied city. A day in the Hermitage, another day at Tsarskoe Selo in Catherine Palace and Peter the Great's extravagant countryside estate, Peterhof. 

Church on Spilled Blood is where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, its magnificent mosaic tile interior, floor to ceiling religious and historic scenes, the most memorable church I have seen anywhere. 

St Isaac's Cathedral, centre of the Russian Orthodox faith, is a huge marble edifice. Sinking on one side (the city was built on a marsh), an international committee of architects is brainstorming how to shore it up. A trio of rather ragged country priests with a couple of wives, on a pilgrimage, are just ahead of us. In the nave after moments of rapt silence, they burst into a spontaneous kyrie eleison which resounds throughout the dome and could not have touched us more deeply.

Back to my unscheduled mission. Abandoning the tour group for a short allotted time, I negotiate a taxicab for 600 roubles; much agonizing about roubles, change, and tipping. The driver has no English whatsoever, just the address printed in Cyrillic script (by a stone-faced hotel employee), about 15 minutes driving from the hotel. The edifice on the corner of Liniya 17 was the home of Baron Kusov (see orange circle on the map); Marija lived in his household as seamstress for his wife and daughters.

This is prime real estate on the embankment boulevard along the north side of the Neva. Some of the grand mansions here are called palaces. Baron Vladimir Alexeyevich Kusov was a director of the Mariinsky Theatre among other favoured imperial appointments. In fact, during his lifetime he owned another five adjoining addresses extending along Liniya 17. Language frustration: In my excitement and the curiosity of the cab driver, I can think of only one word, pointing at the building, exclaiming to him, "Babuschka!"

But SO disappointing! The ubiquitous scaffolding of renovation/restoration covers most of the building. Nouveau riche Russians have been buying these immense mansions, renovating them into modern and expensive apartments. My Baltic researcher had said a Kusov was recently at this address in the telephone book. Considering the communication problem, I balk at trying to knock on doors if I could even find one that looked promising. One always thinks that one will return some day.

"Babuschka!" says the grinning cab driver as he leads me across the boulevard to get a longer shot of the scene. Down the boulevard I spy a church that Marija might have attended. Much later, I spent hours trying to identify it until I finally discovered it was a Catholic church (not an option). A little further on is the block-long Academy of Arts constructed in the 1750s.

St Petersburg is a feast of fabled treasures to explore. It's a joy to see so much preserved and being restored. Our few days cram in but a few highlights, tantalizing glimpses of powerful past glories. It would take weeks to do justice. No time to see the interior of the Mariinsky theatre, home of the unparalleled ballet company; the Baron regularly gave seats to his staff and employees. No time for the cemeteries at Alexander Nevsky monastery, resting place of so many acclaimed artistes. Strolling the Nevsky Prospect at leisure was not an option.
Marija ca.1895; a fine figure of a woman, as my Grandpa would say

Nevertheless, my mental images of Marija's life remain firmly rooted in the nineteenth century. The ambiance is still there ...

 © 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved. 

No comments: