(This continues an earlier essay. If you haven’t done so already, read Part One.)
Talking to the driver was useless. We gathered our luggage and exited the bus but were blocked to the ship docking areas by high wire fences. Thick chains padlocked the gates.
I pointed toward a building on the right and we walked toward it. Uniformed men met us and we explained our need to get to the people who ran the ship. They asked for our passports then flipped through them, looking closely at the country stamps. I could feel my sense of unease growing stronger.
A refrain repeated in my head: we’re in Russia. Russia. For Americans like us, the word is associated with military and societal dangers.
I remember my 6th grade history teacher, Mr. Duff, describing Khrushchev banging his shoe on a lectern while declaring to the United States “We will bury you!” (Mr. Duff — and American newspapers — got it wrong. Read this translation.)
Magazine covers down through the years showed the Red Menace. I had been in college during the Reagan years and the anti-Soviet rhetoric of that period. Every American has been exposed to the complex relationship between our government and Russia. Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine and his sword rattling of the past few years underline our wariness of Russia’s political intentions.
And I have a rather bizarre anti-Russian thread in my upbringing. I was raised in a fundamentalist Evangelical church in southeast Texas. During the heyday of the End-of-the-World prophecies that swept through the United States in the 1970s, our church taught that Bible references to “Gog and Magog” (Ezekiel Chapters 38 and 39; Revelations 20: 7-8) should be interpreted as referring, in part, to Russia. These battles are a supposed harbinger of the Apocalypse. Powerful images for my teenaged self to encounter.
The woman from Atlanta asked us if we were scared being in Russia, and though we didn’t respond to her question, it did strike a nerve. After a lifetime of mistrusting Russians, it’s nearly impossible — despite what I understand intellectually — to turn off the fears that had started almost the moment we disembarked.
I told myself: this is silly. Millions of people visit this country every year. But Bill and I discovered few Americans. We had simply lucked into this couple from Atlanta. During the four days we were there, we can’t recall hearing a single American voice despite visiting the most crowded destinations: the Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace, Nevski Prospekt…
After the officers approved our passports, they sent our bags through metal detectors. We were allowed back at the docked ship.
And then — finally — someone explained there were multiple buses and shuttles with the St. Peters Line logo. While the large buses (the type we had boarded by mistake) drove throughout the city, the shuttle vans repeated a small route of stops that included the hotels where we were registered.
We walked to far side of the lot. Eight drivers were standing around. We told them we needed to go to our hotels; they pointed at a shuttle van and we loaded our luggage and took our seats. There were only the four of us.
None of the drivers approached the van. They were lighting cigarettes while laughing with one another. Though none of us wanted to become (more) paranoid, it felt odd to sit there while they smoked and looked at us occasionally. Had they understood our request? Were they getting a good laugh on us? Were they on a break no one mentioned? We will never know.
After about 15 minutes (that doesn’t seem long but after what we had gone through, the time dragged by as the men watched us…) one of the men came over, started up the shuttle and soon we were barreling through the streets of St. Petersburg once again.
The Solo Sokos Palace Bridge Hotel. What a glorious sight. The hotel had been recently constructed and seemed oddly out of place. The buildings around it were hundreds of years old.
I realize these Lost in Russia posts give a stark and unwelcoming picture. But like so many things in this complicated world, they’re misleading in terms of our ultimate experience in St. Petersburg.
We want to go back. Next time, we plan to stay a week or more.
I know this is unexpected. The stories I’ll post in the next few days will explain what happened.