Visiting Leningrad

Ok, I'm going to be brave. And admit that I've always hada slight allergy to anything Russian. I won't go into the reason (if you don't know why and you're interested, try reading some basic Latvian history) - but last week I got a partial cure for my allergy.
My singing group "Saucējas" was invited to a folklore festival in St. Petersburg and try as I might to get out of it, I had to go along. I felt funny about going - partly because I have never been away from the boys overnight, and partly because I'd be travelling in Russia. I dreaded going, but steeled myself by imagining I'd won a free holiday: "Congratulations, you've just won an all-expenses paid trip to.... St Petersburg!!!" (our trip was funded by the national cultural foundation). Secondly, I pondered for a moment and realised there was no point in fretting for the boys when they would be having the time of their lives without me - with their dad, grandma and uncle Joel. Thirdly, I started reading Robert K. Massie's "Nicholas and Alexandra" to try to get a picture of Petersburg before it became Leningrad. And surprisingly, the things I noticed - and loved - were a lot more Petersburg than Leningrad.
The city had its fair share of massive, monumental architecture, but unlike Berlin, it all fit together in a compact and breathtaking way. Many parts reminded me of London sometimes, Paris at other times. Although distances between metro stations were huge, the streets were lined with Art Nouveau buildings, castles, churches galore. People in St. Petersburg seemed a tad more 'western' than in Riga - lots of women wearing short hair, jeans and sensible shoes which was a welcome change from the stilleto, glitter and solarium that affects our ladies in Latvia.
The Russian folklore groups themselves were fabulous - such perfection in their vocal style and execution left us a little nervous - but they were all very friendly and interested in our tradition, and invited us to come again, and commented on the huge differences between our traditions. Of course I could speak no Russian except for 'ņepanimaju pa Ruski' so my contact with everyone was a very basic, smiling and nodding level. There was a certain sense of social justice when we stepped onto the stage at the Rimsky-Korsakov conservatorium, with angels painted on the ceiling and gilt edges everwhere and a huge chandelier above our heads - and we called out some ancient songs, rotāšanas. A quaint detail of our small Latvian culture, which we have managed to preserve tooth and nail, even after persecution and cultural censorship from this massive, vicious neighbour - and then to climb onto their opulent, prestigious stages and sing in full voice, with everyone listening.

Another stunning experience was to see the collections of the Hermitage Museum - wonderful stuff, things I hadn't yet seen in art catalogues - a lot of the 'heroes' of the Hermitage collections were the works of French artists appropriated by the Russians yonks ago. The Russian Art Museum acquainted me with local artists who I had never heard of - we were apportioned only half an hour in this museum and they dragged me out kicking and screaming! A highlight here were the icons, angels with huge, kind, almond-shaped eyes.

We travelled by train which also added to the drama, midnight border crossings and the deep sleep on the top bunk of a retro 60s train cabin as the train clattered over the rails. Coming home was also great - Matiss riding as fast as he could on his scooter towards me down the platform, followed by Mikus running in front of the pram, "Mama! Mama!"

One Response so far.

  1. Alex Chubaty says:

    Hi Marianna!

    Great to read all your recent posts and see the lovely photos - you have been very busy doing lot of interesting things!

    I know and recognise your aversion to anything Russian, and years I go I had a similar attitude, but came to realise that you need to distinguish between what is 'Russian' and what is 'Soviet'. Don't forget that alot of everyday Russians also suffered at the hands of Stalin and communism and are now enjoying the benefits of democracy (well, as much democracy as you can get from the Putin government...). I think I've also come to appreciate Russian culture more after experiencing the wealth of Russian music through listening and participating in it with Melbourne Chorale, reading Russian literature and having a few close Russian friends. Having said that, I still bristle when I come across examples of Russia appropriating Ukrainian culture, or non Europeans confusing the two cultures because they share some history, language and cultural activities, and/or they haven't bothered to find out the differences.

    Anyway, I'm glad you went and had a good time showing them some of the best that Latvia has to offer. St Petersburg is also on my wish list of places to visit for all the reasons you describe!

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