“I hope the Russians love their children too,” crooned Sting on his first solo album, released in 1985.
As a child growing into adolescence during the 1980s, the Soviet menace and the threat of nuclear annihilation were simply a part of daily life. I was a bit of a serious nerd, obsessed with history and poetry and dark wave bands like Camper Van Beethoven. Already resigned to the fate that the world would end with World War III.
Boom! Poof. Good riddance.
So, it was with mixed emotions that I scheduled a trip to Russia into our year-long tour of the world. While I wanted and fully expected a visit to Saint Petersburg to be nothing short of spectacular, and while I had read myriad reviews about the warmth of modern Russian hospitality, there was a tiny part of my old self that held on to distrust, almost out of habit. A quivering nerve in my stomach that was more flight than fight.
But, at the same time, I was drawn to Russia. Like a person watching a scary movie sidelong, through half-closed eyes and split fingers. I wanted to face my old fears, confront the monster of my childhood nightmares, and, hopefully, put the stereotypes behind me. I am, after all, an enlightened soul. Or so I would attempt to convince myself.
First off, Russia is huge. Twice the size of Canada, its closest geographic competitor. So a trip to Saint Petersburg would only be a toe dipping into an endless ocean. A tentative peek into the vast and mostly empty expanse that is Mother Russia.
Still, I wanted to take that peek. Dip that toe. Dance with those demons.
Angela and I arrived in Saint Petersburg after a tour through much of the former Soviet periphery. Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary, and the Baltic States had all developed individual versions of their independent selves, gingerly stepping into democracy and capitalism like bear cubs waking after hibernation. Remembering and reveling in their own ancient history, and finding a way to wed the very old with the very new while trying to forget the bits in between.
But Russia itself felt different. The proud history of conquering Slavs and progressive Tsars seemed to join the Soviet era in a seamless, logical advance toward the modern age. Instead of the Soviet Union being a suspension of the country’s history, as it certainly was in the satellite states of Eastern Europe, for Russia, it was simply another chapter. A giant sideways stride that thrust Russia onto the international scene, gave it nuclear weapons, and forged fanatical pride for country but largely ignored the need to develop the personal pride of the individual self.
The Russians we met seemed to balance pride for country on one hand and personal ambition on the other with preternatural ease, drawing on a history of conquest and applying it to daily life. Make no mistake, Russia is very much a capitalist country now. Although the state still owns and controls the tools of industry, everyone is hustling for the almighty ruble. Independent shops and Western name brands grace the busy streets of Saint Petersburg. Luxury hotels are plentiful, and lively restaurants are open all night.
If not for the Byzantine architecture and sheer number of imperial mansions (there are a whopping 50 in and around the city), we could have been in London, Paris, or Rome.
I had read Internet reviews that warned about the lack of English spoken in Russia, and that Russians who did know the language would be reluctant to speak it. Completely untrue. English is everywhere. Menus, signage, and spoken on the street. In fact, our experience demonstrated that Russians relish the opportunity to practice their English on native speakers. And they don’t shy away from political topics either, asking us our take on U.S.-Russian relations and welcoming our honest answers.
We stayed at the Melange Hotel, a walk-up hostel that proved to be surprisingly comfortable and, situated right on Nevsky Avenue, perfectly located for us to explore the city on foot. We walked nearly ten miles every day, taking in the royal palaces, onion-domed cathedrals, and elaborate mosques as we sought and found numerous green spaces dotting the city.
It seems that the former rulers of Saint Petersburg appreciated gardens nearly as much as they did opulent houses. The Botanical Gardens of Peter the Great were easily our favorite.
And we didn’t hurt for dining options either. As it turns out, Saint Petersburg has a cosmopolitan palate, with Chinese, Middle Eastern, and French cuisine being as readily available as traditional Russian. No borscht for us!
As it turns out, I had nothing to fear from the Soviet bear. For it was now a ghost of a memory. An abandoned ideology. A void to be filled with those things so common in us all: love, hope, peace.
Saint Petersburg was an eclectic, vibrant city filled with quirky art, quick laughter, and friendly, enterprising people. A welcoming place that I will be happy to visit again.
Sting need not have worried so much. And neither had I.