St. Petersburg: a City Full of Heroes

WE always used to visit our friends in St. Petersburg in the golden autumn or with the first flurries of winter snow. But last June we arrived on Midsummer's Day, during the most magical time of all, the white nights.

Here we were yet again, living with our friends in the familiar crowded flat five floors up. We went off on excursions to the palaces at Pushkin, Pavlovsk, and Petrodvorets. We saw Peter the Great's kingdom from the water as we went drifting down the canals, past the poet Anna Ahkmatova's house. Rose-red and emerald-green palaces, golden spires and cupolas floated lightly across the water in reflection.

At night it was still light when we came out from the ballet or the opera. Back in our friends' flat, we talked into the small hours, the samovar boiling beside us for endless cups of tea to go along with apple cake, our midnight feast. When finally we got off to bed it was almost impossible to sleep: A pearly-white light shimmered through the windows. The wide sky was bright with nightlessness.

All over the city was an atmosphere of fiesta: Music echoed along the streets, and horses were for hire outside Our Lady of Kazan cathedral. There was, however, a shadow hanging over the beauty of one of the world's loveliest cities. All of St. Petersburg was like a great flea market where anything and everything was for sale.

The hopeful and the hopeless set up stalls along Nevsky Prospekt, heaping high on them dolls, lacquered trays, fur hats, samovars, books, maps, coins, medals, uniforms, pistols, swords, and family heirlooms lurking beside pathetic junk. Worn-out mothers cradled sleeping babies; older children played beside them or dozed on the pavement.

Armenians, Georgians, and Mongolians passed by; soldiers maimed in the Afghan war limped past on crutches; drunks swayed among the crowd. In dim courtyards and back streets dubious transactions took place: ``How many rubles for $1? I'll give you the best exchange.'' Now that religion was no longer proscribed, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses were everywhere. With the division of the vast empire into independent republics, a sense of uncertainty hung in the air.

On our final day we went for a last picnic to the Kirov Islands, to Yelaghin Palace. Here we had the impression of entering another country, another cycle of time. The air was sweet with the perfume of grass, clover, and honeysuckle; red squirrels chased one another in the trees; blackbirds sang songs left over from spring. We walked over fields with masses of marguerites, daisies, and buttercups that glittered gold in the sunshine.

We went past a marble lion, up steps to a broad terrace and the palace. Its door was open, but no one stopped us to demand an entrance fee. No guide appeared to pour out a flood of information. We were the only visitors, free to wander at leisure, looking at furniture, examining paintings, admiring vases filled with buttercups and the snowy froth of hedge parsley. Who could have put them there?

Then, gradually, we became aware of a silent presence hovering in the background. We might only have nodded to the elderly woman in a drab gray coverall had we not suddenly noticed something about her: On her dingy wrapper she wore a ribbon, the mark of a veteran of the 900 days, when the people of what was then Leningrad held out against all odds, refusing to surrender to the invading German Army.

She had been standing there, watching us, taking in that we were obviously foreigners and that our friends and their small son were her fellow citizens. She was gray-haired, gray even to the skin of her weary, lined face.

``You were in the siege?'' I asked, pointing to her ribbon.

``I was there,'' she replied, and with those three words she came alive.

``How did you ever live through it?''

Sensing our interest, she grew more at ease. ``How ever did we? You might wonder how we could survive on our ration of bread, crumbs for sparrows. Would we ever walk erect again through our beautiful Peter, not bent double for the fear of shelling? It never seemed to stop. Keep your head down; don't cross the street; keep moving, or you'll freeze to death!

``Don't be afraid, my little sister would whisper, but who could help it? Now we are called the City of Heroes, but we didn't feel like heroes then. All we had was a determination never to yield. But I lost my parents and my little sister - they all starved to death.''

IN the gray wrapper, she certainly did not look like a heroic figure, but who would dare to underestimate even the humblest citizen of St. Petersburg? She had lived through nightmares beyond our imagining. ``You must have been very young then,'' we said.

``Only a child, one of millions.'' Her pale face grew quite pink. ``We were very proud,'' she went on, ``holding out against the Germans. In our great country we have suffered so much and so long. Now we see what we have come to, a nation of beggars, our politicians going around the world begging. Perhaps no one can quite understand the pride we feel for our country, and the love. We don't want charity.''

On a sudden impulse, she flung the casement wide open, overlooking leafy Yelaghin. We had a vivid vision of those 900 days, of the skeleton-thin bodies of those who resisted: the loss of all normal joys of life, laughter, family meals, the love of friends; the snow and ice and biting wind; the constant shelling instead of birdsong; the fear and the will to endure. That past seemed to surge up to the very window through her telling. We looked at the three generations of Russians who were in the room - our friends too young to remember, she too old to forget, and the child a hope for the future.

``When I come over here in the morning from the communal apartment where I live, I like to imagine what the palace was like when the czar took it over from the magnate Yelaghin in 1817. I think of the court ladies in beautiful brocade gowns. The czar would be standing there, talking to the Italian architect, Carlo Rossi, called in to redesign the building. Rossi would be unfolding his plans, and the czar would smile and say, `Yes, Signore Rossi, yes, that will do.' I imagine it all.'' She flung us a little sidelong glance to see if we were laughing at her fantasies.

Reluctantly she closed the casement and went with us down the broad stairway and out on to the sunlit terrace. ``In Russia we have an old proverb,'' she said to us. ``To go through life is not the same as to walk across a field. I often thought of it during the siege. I kept dreaming of flowery fields, and at night in bed I told my little sister stories about them. Now I do have enough bread, and I do walk across fields and pick wild flowers. I even arrange them here in Yelaghin - you may have noticed them. I live there with all those familiar ghosts, the czar, the Italian architect, the ladies in their crinolines. And all my other memories!

``If only my parents and my sister could see me in my palace!'' she concluded after a long pause. ``The main thing in life for me is and always will be the siege. With it, we became a page in history. We endured. But life is better now, and if only we stop begging it will improve.''

``It is better,'' our friends said. ``We can talk openly now. Our parents were always afraid. What if somebody were an informer? Could you trust him? We were serfs under the czar, and Stalin gave us a new slavery of fear. Life is better now.''

She smiled at us and patted the child. Then, with a small wave of her hand and a quaint wonderful dignity she returned back up the steps, a spare figure, vanishing off inside Yelaghin, like some great lady showing off her country estate. Who could guess what she had lived through resisting the Third Reich?

Always when we are in Russia there is some encounter, some words spoken, that reveal more than anything else the condition of simple and good men and women. Anna Ahkmatova could have written of all our friends as she did of her contemporaries: ``If all else fails with courage we are not unfurnished....''

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