St. Petersburg, Russia: Reflections on an Enigmatic City

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

As I exited the Winter Palace—my head still spinning from absorbing hundreds of exquisite art pieces at the Hermitage—and threaded my way through throngs of museum-goers to board my bus that would whisk me back to comfort and security on the cruise ship, I reflected on my whirlwind tour in St. Petersburg.

Oceania Line Cruise ship photo Denise Ames

As mentioned in another blog, I visited St. Petersburg, for three days in 1998, as Russia was reeling from inflation and adjusting from its communist past to a free-for-all capitalist economy. The rich, at that time, were maneuvering to seize the vast wealth of the country’s immense natural resources, while most of the people were suffering from the rapid changes and longing for the seemingly security of their communist past.

The elderly women in 1998 seemed to me to be suffering the most (there were only a handful of elderly men, either killed in World War II or succumbed to the effects of poor health and too much vodka). They were barely surviving on their meager pension incomes, ravaged by the effects of inflation and budget shortfalls. It broke my heart to see them shuffling along the streets or struggling to board a bus, their tattered coats and dingy scarves their only barriers against the cold winter days. I couldn’t help myself, as I walked down the streets in 1998, I stuffed fistfuls of rubles into as many of their carry-all bags as I could. It was actually only a few dollars, but it was about equal to their whole monthly pensions! I am happy to say that I have been blessed in Russian many times.  

Apartment building outside of St. Petersburg, Russia photo Denise Ames

This time, in my short three days in St. Petersburg I didn’t see the terrible suffering by average citizens as I did in 1998. In my bus ride outside the central part of the city, I was surprised to see rows and rows of modern-looking, well-maintained apartment buildings, surrounded by newish looking small businesses, car dealerships, restaurants, and department stores. I didn’t see much of the crumbling, dreary, Soviet-style apartments, made of sub-standard concrete and designed to look decrepit shortly after completion.

Abandoned factory, St. Petersburg

I did see a number of decaying brick factories, empty, forlorn, and remembering a past when they were the proud engines of the giant Soviet industrial economy. Much like the abandoned factories in the Midwest (US), they awaited their eventual destiny of an encounter with the bulldozer, and being permanently erased from the memories of future generations. 

Although the material standard of living had obviously improved for the people that I met along the way, I wondered about their spiritual lives and their psychological state of mind. As one of our tour-bus guides informed us, many Russian, especially the older ones, had returned to their Russian Orthodox Christian heritage. The Soviets ostensibly outlawed religion, but it continued under wraps through the years, and it flowered in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Shopping center outside of St. Petersburg, Russia

Many Russians, however, were now turning away from religion and embracing consumerism as a new way of being, especially among the very rich. Those who were closely connected to Russian president Vladimir Putin had made millions, and were eager to show off their wealth. In my walks along the conspicuous-consumption 5th Avenue in New York City’s upper East Side, when visiting my daughter and grandchildren, I would peek in the windows (didn’t buy anything) and hear chattering Russian women (I recognized the language) snatching up designer clothes. According to my observations, they were clearly the main and most eager shoppers. Lenin must be turning over in his grave at this transition.

Motherland Calls statue

The collapse of the Soviet Union and disintegration of its sprawling empire in 1991 exacted a psychological toll on its already battered population. Pride in the Russian motherland that defeated the Germans, according to them almost alone, that I witnessed in my 1989 visit had waned in 1998 and seemed to be non-existent in 2017. So, I wondered what held the Russian people together?

Perhaps, it was the support of Putin as their president. Although he ruled, in my opinion, like an authoritarian tsar of the past or the Soviet dictators of the communist era, he did bring material progress and a sense of respect to Russia that had faded in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, Russia is a country to be reckoned with on the world stage, as we Americans have been learning for a number of years.

St. Petersburg skyline, photo Denise Ames

On a final note, as I reflect back on my visit to the intriguing city of St. Petersburg, I got the feeling that the Russian people had a new sense of pride and confidence that I did not see in 1998. They walked down the streets with determination, not defeat, and dignity, rather than dejection. They made it through a grueling economic transition from communism to a state version of capitalism better than most people (including me) expected, although their political transition from communism to democracy seems to be stuck more in the old-style communism with only a smattering of democracy sprinkled around for show.

St. Petersburg at night, photo Denise Ames

I was happy to have spent three days in St. Petersburg. Even though I was restricted from strolling through the city on my own, I felt I was able at least to get a superficial glimpse of the city. The next stop on my Baltic cruise was Finland, a stark contrast to St. Petersburg. As our ship sailed out of our dock, up the Neva River to the Baltic Sea, I said good-bye to the city that holds so many paradoxes that are still left for us to ponder.

Author in the Winter Palace

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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