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Russia in Person: Beyond the News

Posted by A Colin Treadwell on 8/16/2018
Posted in: Musings From Colin Treadwell
Tags: Travel, Tauck, News, Royalty

Sometimes it seems travel and the news are diametric opposites, one canceling out the other. When I am travelling I don’t often catch the news, and I find I don’t miss it. In fact it’s a relief not to hear the incessant prattle, that tense tone of voice relating so many disturbing events. Unlike movies or literature, which often glorify travel, the news tends to discourage people from travelling.

It’s not that I don’t want to keep up on world events. But sitting in front of the TV tends to hypnotize you and make you want to just keep sitting there and not take any action. The news lures you into a scary state of mind, creating a picture of the world as a series of horror stories that can put a damper on the joyous impulse to travel.

Russia in Person: Beyond the NewsSitting in front of the TV is no way to spend the precious vanishing seconds of your life. Sometimes, sure, it’s nice to lounge in front of the TV, but I don’t want to live my life in a TV screen. The news is self perpetuating because its messages encourage you to stay on the couch, soaking in the commercial messages about products and disclaimers about their side effects … Please give me a break!

We all need a break sometimes, and that is what travel is better at than anything. When I feel myself sliding into a mental doldrums, what I need is a great trip, to throw myself into a new environment where I will be flooded with impressions through all my senses simultaneously in a spectacular ongoing 3D, 360-degree experience. Blowing out cobwebs, that’s what it is. Travel is the joy of living exercised to the maximum, all the good things of life rolled up together, served in a fresh new recipe.

So I booked a Baltic Sea cruise on a small ship that calls in Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; St. Petersburg, Russia; Tallinn, Estonia; and Copenhagen, Denmark.

Bad News Travels
Then I was taken back when one of my most sophisticated and well-traveled friends blurted out, “I don’t like Russia.” I’ve known him nearly 40 years and never heard that. I figured the news must have got to him.

I too had heard plenty of stories about Russian political figures that left a sour aftertaste. But in spite of that, I found that I was increasingly thrilled about my approaching trip. And I realized that the stop that excited me most was St. Petersburg. I had been there before, tasted its delights, and the idea of going back was delectable to me.

I love Russian literature: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Ceckov, Nabokov, Pasternak, etc.; Russian music, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky; Russian dance – the Bolshoi, the wild folk dancers that kick their legs out from a stooping position, and – oh my God! Russian architecture! - with its vast, ornate structures and wildly colourful onion domes. There is nothing like it anywhere else.

And that history! Grisly as much of it is, it is epic.

Russia is a wonder, an extraordinary country as intricately complex as it is vast and deeply soulful. To me as an American, it is enigmatic. There is a great brilliance to that culture, but ultimately it seems impenetrable. To a Westerner it retains an elusive mystery. I can’t say I fully grasp it, but I am irresistibly drawn to it.

The endlessly quotable Winston Churchill called Russia “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

It is a country of great passions and great extremes. When you look at historical figures like Ivan the Terrible or Rasputin, and many characters from Russian literature, it’s hard to doubt that Russia has its streak of madness. But don’t we all? Yes, I think we do. Each in our own way.

Encountering the Real Thing
Our ship docked at a quiet port on the Neva River, and at the moment I encountered the real St. Petersburg all my previous thoughts about it were blown away by the presence of the vast, magnificent city looming before me.

In a whirlwind three days we explored the city and got a delicious sampling of its voluminous treasures. At the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison at the Peter and Paul Fortress, we saw a grim picture of the 100-year history of revolutionary fervor that led up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

At the Yusupov Palace we saw the ornate opulence of the privately-owned home of a family that was wealthier than the emperor. In that palace we saw the actual setting of the death of Rasputin, the strange Russian mystic who became intimate with the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Russian monarch. He became so influential with the royal family it was decided by some that he must be eliminated. But the conspirators found that to be more difficult than they expected.

When the cyanide didn’t affect him, they shot him in the chest. Still fully alive, Rasputin leaped up and attacked the shooter and chased him upstairs and into the palace courtyard, where he was shot again. When they thought he was dead they wrapped his body in cloth and dropped it into the Neva River. When the body was recovered, an autopsy determined Rasputin was still breathing when he was dropped into the river. It was death by drowning.

Such wild stories are typical of the colourful pageantry of Russian history, and almost make the tales of Dostoevsky seem normal. On a lighter note, we concluded our visit to the Yusupov Palace with a lovely performance of piano, ballet and opera in the palace theater.

We visited the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, one of the world’s largest and most magnificent cathedrals. The intricate detail, wild colours and jagged, electric shapes superimposed over neoclassical pillars and vaulted ceilings were staggering,

We spent a few hours in the Hermitage looking at not only one of the most extravagantly opulent homes in history but also one of the world’s greatest art collections. I visited the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, one of the most mind-blowing pieces of architecture anywhere. It’s a glistening Art Nouveau recreation of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow. Also astonishing was the Catherine Palace.  

Wholly absorbed in all these magnificent sights, I forgot about the news or my friend’s comment about not liking Russia. All those thoughts were far away. Instead, I had before me the vivacious Russian people, on the streets, in the restaurants, at the tourist sites. They are attractive, fascinating people, occupying that unique cultural space between East and West, embodying the same traits that make the destination so alluring.

It reminded me that what you see on the news is only one small fragment of reality. News stories tend to focus on political figures. But no country is really controlled by its politicians. They control certain aspects of things. But when you are on the ground in a country as marvellous as Russia, the politicians seem far from the reality you are experiencing.

When I was there on the streets of St. Petersburg, there was no sense of that. Putin, if he existed at all, seemed distant. Other than his cartoon image on some tee shirts and calendars at souvenir stands, he seemed remote. No doubt he is a powerful man. But Russia does not belong to Putin. Putin belongs to Russia. He’s just a passing face on the rich and varied landscape of Russia’s epic history and culture.

It’s a reassuring perspective that can help inoculate me against the anxiety and melancholy that can be caused by watching too much news. It’s an asset that can only be gained by going to those places and experiencing them for yourself.

Political events and struggles will come and go. My life is only for a while. I want to take these opportunities to see the great places of the world while I can.

Your humble reporter,

A. Colin Treadwell

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