A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
(Thirty-second in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
In St. Petersburg, there is a building originally constructed by the Singer Sewing Machine Company, For more than a century it has stood on Nevsky Prospekt, opposite the stately Kazan Cathedral. An architectural landmark, it has survived revolution, bombardment and socialism.
During Soviet times the former Singer headquarters was known as Dom Knigi (House of Books), the USSR’s official state-run bookstore. For me and many others, the undisputed highlight of Dom Knigi was its poster shop.
Posters in all shapes and sizes were printed by the tens of millions in the USSR, comprising a sprawling graphic arts genre all its own, even if subject to denigration by Westerners as mere propaganda.
Most were, but it’s ironic that those visiting capitalists observed to laugh loudest usually waited until no one was looking, then snatched up propaganda posters by the dozen for the bargain price of pennies apiece, to be transported home and flaunted as exotic, chic décor in their dens and rec rooms.
I was not at all immune to this urge. In fact, I was completely overwhelmed and later even obsessed by it.
One of the posters I bought in 1985 celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War’s victorious conclusion. Westerners know this bloody conflict as World War II, but whatever its name, the poster prompted a point constantly reinforced during our tour: The Soviet Union bore the brunt of human and material sacrifice in defeating Nazi Germany.
It is estimated that upwards of 20 million Soviet men, women and children lost their lives during the war. The city of Leningrad itself was a major battleground. For more than 900 days, it was besieged, starved and shelled by the Germans.
Down the street from Dom Knigi, a wartime inscription on a building’s wall had been preserved. It reminded citizens which side of the street was safer when the artillery rounds started falling. 1980s-era Leningrad was crowded with plaques and monuments to the war, as well as living reminders in the form of older men proudly wearing their service medals in public.
Leningrad never fell, but the cost was immense, as my tour group learned when were taken by bus to the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.
About 420,000 civilians and 50,000 soldiers of the Leningrad Front were buried in 186 mass graves. Near the entrance an eternal flame is located. A marble plate affirms that from September 4, 1941 to January 22, 1944 107,158 air bombs were dropped on the city, 148,478 shells were fired, 16,744 men died, 33,782 were wounded and 641,803 died of starvation.
These improbably precise yet grim numbers are sufficiently eloquent, but while visiting the cemetery on a Saturday afternoon, we were fortunate to witness an instance of remembrance’s unfeigned dignity.
A wedding party arrived in a convoy of Lada passenger cars, and the bride and groom were photographed with seemingly endless rows of mass graves as a backdrop to their special day. The Soviet government didn’t require them to do it. They just did.
Are they still, now?
Looking back on it, Leningrad was a collage of surreal occurrences. I remember standing in the middle of the vast open space called Palace Square, with the huge green Winter Palace on one side and the even larger gold-painted Admiralty on the other, imagining the revolutionary crowds of 1917.
The Internationale was on heavy rotation in my head, along with scenes from Warren Beatty’s classic film Reds. These imaginings wore me out, and it was time for a break.
Near the closest wing of the Winter Palace were benches beneath shade trees, and what appeared to be a vending machine. Hesitantly, I walked toward the sooty gray box until I could make out a word stenciled in Cyrillic: Вода́.
Water … apparently drinking water.
There was a coin slot, and a posted price of one or two kopecks, at 100 kopecks to a ruble. Our tour escort Ari later explained that the two choices were still (uncarbonated) or sparkling water. Three public drinking glasses were available for use – merely select the cleanest, place it in the recess, deposit coins, push button, drink liquid and set the glass back on the ledge for the next user.
My water wasn’t fizzy. The glass was returned to its place. Now the remarkable absence of litter made sense.
On Sunday morning, luggage and hangovers in equal measure were hauled to the motor coach for the return trip to Finland. It was a sunny summer’s day, but the mood on the bus was somber. In the end, perhaps the visceral experience of a world so very different from ours was more exhausting than we imagined.
Border controls on both sides were perfunctory, and most group members debarked in Helsinki, including Mark the Australian. He’d been a great pal, and so we embraced and promised to stay in touch.
So it goes. I’ve never seen him since.
A half dozen of us rode the bus an hour further to the Finnish port of Turku, where the overnight ferry was sailing back to Sweden. The sands in my hourglass were becoming scarce, and the highway segment from Leningrad was only the beginning of an epic three-day, non-stop public transit journey waged across six European nations, all the way back to Luxembourg.
As it transpired, two fellow tour members were to be my shipmates to Stockholm. I’ve long forgotten their real names, so for the purpose of this narrative, they’ll be known as Jeff and Robert, who were 1985 high school graduates from Somewhereville, Mississippi, both 18 years of age and bound that autumn for some variety of collegiate military school to be trained as cannon fodder.
But seriously: Jeff and Robert looked, spoke and acted the part of future soldiers, personality traits fully evident in the USSR, where we’d aired opposing points of view on more than one occasion. Mark had been openly disdainful amid their frequent references to the glories of the Bible and Reaganism. I tended to agree with the Aussie.
Periodic prayers testified to Jeff’s and Robert’s fundamentalist upbringing, and any mention of Soviet history produced a rote response, as though Pavlov himself had trained these two super-patriots to salivate and squawk “dirty stinking Commie” upon activation of the electrodes. Even the provocative Swiss schoolteacher Phil had quickly grown weary of their ideological edge.
“It’s hard enough fighting the Communist disinformation without having to fight the anti-Communist disinformation, too.”
But it hadn’t stopped these youthful Falangists from buying armloads of posters at Dom Knigi, and no matter how heated the discussion, Jeff and Robert kept coming back for more. I’ve never understood this. Maybe they wanted to “save” me.
As we waited by the docks in Turku for the gangplank chain to fall, they plied me with questions. Having flown directly into Helsinki for the Leningrad tour, this would be their first ever ferry ride.
It was a teaching opportunity, so I sketched the boating routine, which immediately sent Jeff and Robert running to the nearby train station. They hadn’t bothered activating their Eurail passes, and the cardinal rule of passage is that one must have a ticket.
I told them that unless there was a deck passengers’ padded lounge on this vessel (it turns out there wasn’t), we’d all be looking for a place on the floor to nap during the nighttime hours.
As for food, I noted the existence of a duty-free shop, a less expensive cafeteria-style eatery, and the Silja Line’s wonderful, reasonably priced seafood buffet in the ship’s ritzier restaurant. I explained my methodology of bringing a plastic “doggie” bag for the next day’s breakfast.
Jeff and Robert were intrigued by the seafood, but hesitant. Would it be too much for their burger and fries upbringing? Would they feel out of place in a nice space? Would Jesus have approved?
Would I go to dinner with them, just to make sure – their treat?
Yes, it would be my pleasure. I can tolerate almost anything for a free meal, even teenaged militaristic evangelicals from the Deep South. That night, at the seafood buffet, we were nearing the end of the meal when Jeff and Robert each produced huge plastic bags of the sort used to wrap booze at the duty-free, and began animatedly filling them with food.
Before I had the chance to helpfully suggest that discretion is an integral part of any pilferage equation, they had been spotted, and shortly a restaurant worker appeared. As the dressing-down commenced. I shrugged. After all, everyone knows that carry-outs aren't allowed at a buffet.
Soon Jeff and Robert were marched off to the cash register to settle their tabs and pay a fine for intemperance. I’d been entirely forgotten, and the whole dining room’s attention was centered on them, so I shrugged again and filled my own freezer bag with selected morsels for morning, secreted it in my coat, and left the scene.
On the way out, I thanked Jeff and Robert for their generosity. They were very unhappy, but I felt pretty good. It may have taken three months, but at least I’d learned some of the many budget travel ropes.
The last time I ever saw Jeff and Robert was on Monday morning in the subway station near the Silja mooring in Stockholm. They were standing forlornly by the turnstiles, crumpled dollars in hand, unable to determine how they’d be able to get the Swedish kroner necessary to buy tickets to the central station.
Having passed through Sweden a week earlier, I’d reserved a handful of coins for just such a contingency. There was enough for the three of us. It was the least I could do for a morning’s delicious smoked salmon.
THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 31 … Leningrad in three vignettes.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 30 … Or, as it was called at the time, Leningrad.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 29 … Helsinki beneath my feet, but Leningrad on my mind.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 28 … A Finnish detour to Tampere for beer and sausages.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 27 … Stockholm's blonde ambition, with or without mead-balls.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 26 … The Hansa brewery tour, and a farewell to Norway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 25 … Frantic pickled Norway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.