Ronald Reagan called it the Cold War’s “evil empire,” but after I flashed my passport last week at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, I was greeted not by brass-knuckle bruisers with Tommy Guns but a blonde white-shirt-and-tie immigration agent armed with a smile.
She carefully studied my passport, along with those of my daughter Wendy and son Barclay, then waved us through. Frankly, I was a bit relieved. After all, I’ve made unkind jokes in my column about Russian President Vladimir Putin, but no one seemed to be holding it against me.
Ahead lay one of the great cities of the world, where art lovers from around the globe visit the magnificent State Hermitage Museum. Catherine the Great’s little 300-room salon on the River Neva holds three million items, including paintings by Rembrandt, Degas, Renoir, and Van Gogh, to name a few.
“How were you treated?” one Santa Barbaran asked me after we arrived home last weekend, perhaps thinking of all the tense, high-level grumbling going on between Moscow and Washington, D.C. Answer: During our week in St. Petersburg, as we struck up normal traveler conversations in restaurants, taxis, or on the street, never did Subject A come up.
Everyone was going about their everyday lives and work, and we were always treated politely, and with delight when folks learned that we were Americans. Yet I knew that only days earlier, about 1,400 people had been arrested there and in Moscow in anti-government rallies, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was expected to run against Putin next year but now finds himself barred. In Russia, opposing Putin can lead to, shall we say, problems.
Despite persistent anti-U.S. propaganda, America remains popular, we were told by a young man who spoke out fearlessly and passionately about what’s happened to the country under Putin. The youth of Russia detests him, he said.
What are popular, however, are the Trump Burgers and other food sold around town by waiters delivering on mopeds.
St. Petersburg, a city of about five million, is a fast-moving tourist town founded by Peter the Great in 1703; Alexander Nevsky had pushed out the Swedish army in 1240. It’s not only a treasury of great art and antiquities but also boasts magnificent museums, garden-surrounded palaces, and heroic statues. We found the streets jammed with tourist buses, many hauling passengers from cruise ships. The cash registers go clang-clang in this town, especially now that it’s summer. Our small hotel buzzed with polyglot conversations by Eastern Europeans. But we were the only Westerners I ran into in the little café there. Maybe all the Americans were at the Four $$$$ Seasons. I’d been concerned about managing the Russian language barrier, but everyone we met spoke enough English so that we had few problems, especially as we learned a few words like “vodka.”
When in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad, and Petrograd before that), take a hop-off and hop-on boat ride. At a Neva dock, we climbed aboard a sightseeing boat (fortunately glass-enclosed because a light rain began falling.)
It’s an excellent way to see the town, cruising the canals past miles of beautifully painted apartment buildings and coasting under drawbridges that raise up at night. You can consult the map designating points of interest, like the cruiser Aurora, whose guns signaled the start of the 1917 revolution. You get off at the proper station, walk to view the ship, and then come back to catch the next boat. Same with another attraction, the Fabergé Museum, where you can tour the home of the famed Fabergé Egg or buy a small replica on the main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, for $60.
I timed our visit to coincide with the famed White Nights, when, because of the city’s latitude, spring days dissolve not into darkness but a kind of pale Nordic light. Leaving town at about 3 a.m. last Friday to catch a plane, we drove through eerily empty streets, except for a handful of young women on horseback.
The plane ride back to LAX, not counting the time spent during a stop in Stockholm, Sweden, took around 13 hours. But due to successfully bidding for SAS business class for the three of us, it was about as pleasant as flying gets these days.