“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Winston Churchill said that. Like most of what Sir Winston said, it was true.
I visited St. Petersburg, Russia this week, which is like the Big Bear’s picture postcard or the good china it gets out when friends visit. There are some truly magnificent and beautiful structures in St. Petersburg, and I think we saw and explored each one. Most of them were built by the czars. There was the summer palace of Catherine I and the winter palace — where Rasputin was killed — and the spectacular winter gardens of Peter I. Plus, a lot of very ornate and gold-gilded churches that are now used as museums because Christianity was wiped out when the Soviet Union came into being in 1922 and not allowed to return until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1993.
And yet they showed us museums full of precious art — that which Hitler didn’t carry away or Stalin didn’t sell off — Madonna and Child, the Apostles and “Jesus Christ, Himself.” Our guides’ words. Every time one of them mentioned Christ it was “Jesus Christ, himself.”
About our guides. They were two beautiful young women in their late 20s. One of them could have been 30, but not by much. You didn’t get far from your guide in Russia. In fact, we are on a Baltic cruise and you didn’t leave the ship without one. And you didn’t leave the group without one, either. After a very pleasant meal in a former palace (the czars seemingly had hundreds) my stomach was doing flip-flops and I was in need of a restroom. The closest one was in a café about 50 yards from where we were standing, admiring the outside of a museum that had once been a cathedral. One of our guides had to accompany me and stand outside the stall and wait for me. I wasn’t going to be allowed out in that city alone.
I don’t know if they were worried about me or the city.
I do know that other than the old palaces and churches, the rest of the buildings in St. Petersburg are uglier than a rack full of bowling shoes. The communists had two building codes. Big and ugly. I suppose you could add plain and simple and dull gray concrete to the instructions page of their mid-20th century erector sets.
Five million people live in St. Petersburg, most in small one- or two-room apartments and they have to make an appointment to stand on a blade of grass.
What we really wanted to do in Russia, we weren’t allowed to do. We wanted to get away from the city and see the countryside and talk to the populace. Ivan wasn’t talking to tourists while we were there, and neither was Boris, and neither was Natasha.
Our guides were programmed to speak the party line and seemed to know a lot, until someone would interrupt and ask a question. They were not very good with questions. Not even simple ones. We were admiring some beautiful art in the Hermitage Museum and one of our ladies had been describing the story behind Rembrandt’s depiction of the Prodigal Son. I asked her about a picture near it, which told the story of Isaac blessing Jacob.
Her reply was the same one we got to many questions. “I am not allowed to know about that.”
Tell us about the government today. “I am not allowed to know about that.”
Tell us about how you are taxed. “I am not allowed to know about that.”
And so forth and so on. That’s a great way to run a democracy. Keep the electorate ignorant about anything you don’t want them to know.
But a couple of us struck up a conversation with our other guide, who was a bit younger and who had a bit of a dream in her eye. Col. John Matthews said to her, “There seems to be a lot about this country you can’t talk about. Why don’t you ask us anything you’ve ever wondered about the United States? We’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
She hesitated for a moment and her eyes got big, but then she spoke, and her questions were very insightful. Each one began with, “Is it really true that in the U.S. ... ”
And she wanted to know things like, “Can people really live as they please without the government checking up on them and telling them what to do?”
Well, yes — at least for now.
And can people really travel anywhere in the country without permission or checking in? And can people really move from city to city and even state to state without asking permission from the government?
“And is it true that in the U.S. people can be born one way, with not much money, and rise up to live another way — with having much?”
I just told her I was born in Porterdale and now here I am.
It’s true. It’s all true.
And I can tell you right now that Nikita Khrushchev was wrong. These people will never bury us. Never.
God bless America.