Tag Archives: St. Petersburg

The Grand Choral Synagogue

The Grand Choral Synagogue

The Grand Choral Synagogue

The St. Petersburg Grand Choral Synagogue, at 2 Lermontovsky Prospekt, is one of the largest in Europe. It serves a shrinking and aging Jewish population, in a city and country that have a history of anti-Jewish sentiment.

For about the first hundred years of St. Petersburg’s existence, Jews were officially forbidden from living in the city. Nevertheless, some lived in the city in order to serve Russian leaders, primarily as merchants or doctors.

Toward the beginning of the 19th century, restrictions on Jews were relaxed, though many were still required to live within the Pale of Settlement in Russia’s western region.

Throughout the 19th century, St. Petersburg’s Jewish population grew, and Tsar Alexander II granted the community permission to build a synagogue. However, construction did not begin until 1883, following Alexander II’s assasination, which triggered anti-Semitism and pogroms in the Pales of Settlement, though not in St. Petersburg.

Completed in 1893, the synagogue has witnessed wars and revolutions, but still tenaciously stands today. Having been neglected and looted during the early Communist period, the synagogue was restored between 2001-2003. According to the synagogue’s official history, on which much of this post is based, the synagogue’s various schools currently serve about 500 Jewish children, the future of St. Petersburg’s Jewish community.

Click here for photos from my visit to the Grand Choral Synagogue.

Racism in Russia

As I was hanging out by the Gulf of Finland recently, a Russian acquaintance engaged me in a conversation about U.S. politics.

“Do you think Obama can solve the U.S. economic crisis,” he asked.

“I think he’s working hard on it – I think he has a good chance,” I responded.

“But,” the Russian persisted, “Obama is black.”

This exchange wasn’t the first time I’ve heard Russians question Obama’s competence based on his ethnicity (though I have relatively few conversations with Russians, in part due to my limited Russian skills).

More broadly, it fits into a pattern of racist attitudes held by some (but certainly not all) Russians towards people who are not white Europeans.

The media has overlooked this attitude, even as newspapers and TV stations have reported on Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Russia as he visits Moscow.

But for those harmed by Russian racism, this pernicious social fact cannot be overlooked.

Visibly foreign students, particularly Africans and Asians, sometimes face harassment and even violence in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, as documented by the BBC in several 2006 articles.

A lot of the violence is perpetrated by Neo-Nazis, such as the ones described in this TIME article. But the attitude goes beyond the skinheads.

There are also the subtle looks at minorities, the passing comments made about people from “the south” (Largely Muslims from Russia’s southern regions and the bordering former Soviet republics), the police harassment (see this article, for example), the recoiling of subway passengers from dark-skinned people, the racist chants targeting black players at Zenit football matches — all of which make Russia an unfriendly place for those who are not white.

One of our Russian teachers, a middle-aged woman, began class by asking each of her students what we had done the week before.

After we finished describing the museums we had visited, she said, “It’s great that you get out. The Chinese students never go anywhere. Only to the store.”

The same teacher also told us about the “problem” Russia has. People from “the south,” she said, are moving into St. Petersburg and other major cities and giving birth to many children. She worried that these people (who are strong and able to produce lots of kids because they don’t drink, as she put it), will soon outnumber white Russians.

Island Adventure Delayed

I woke up this morning to rain and cold – not ideal weather for my planned island getaway – so I decided to postpone the Kronstadt trip til next weekend, my last weekend in St. Petersburg.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Tomorrow – Kronstadt

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring some of St. Petersburg’s 20th century historical sites.

Tomorrow, I’ll be venturing outside the city to the island and naval base of Kronstadt, about 20 miles west in the Gulf of Finland.

Kronstadt was the linchpin of St. Petersburg’s naval defenses at the turn of the twentieth century, and a line of forts on and near the island defend the city from the sea.

But in 1917, during the Bolshevik Revolution, the sailors at Kronstadt mutinied, killing their commanding officers. Due to this revolt, the sailors became known as some of the most pro-Red forces in Russia.

In 1921, however, as Lenin solidified control over the Soviet Union, the sailors became disenchanted with heavy-handed Bolshevik tactics, such as the violent suppression of strikes and the imposition of censorship. In early March, the sailors issued a set of demands, angering Bolshevik leaders.

Days later, 60,000 Red Army troops were ordered to attack Kronstadt across the ice from Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The troops suffered heavy casualties in their assault—the ice offered no protection from Kronstadt’s guns—and some had to be forced into battle by the Cheka, the KGB’s precursor.

By mid-March, the rebellion had been suppressed, at the cost of at least 10,000 Red Army soldiers and perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 Kronstadt rebels.

The 1921 Kronstadt rebellion was seen in the West as a sharp rebuke to the Soviet manifestation of Communism. On March 1, 1956, the 35th anniversary of the revolt and a few days after Khrushchev’s (not-so-secret) Secret Speech denouncing Stalinism, the New York Times wrote in an editorial:

In sorrow tinged with hope friends of freedom the world over today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Kronstadt Rebellion, which, though drowned in blood by Lenin and Trotsky, serves even today to remind us of the Russian people’s love for liberty.

Beyond a large and beautiful cathedral, I’m not sure what there is to see at Kronstadt. But there’s no way I could leave St. Petersburg without spending a day on an island steeped in so much history.

Off to Moscow

We’re heading to Moscow tonight by overnight train. We should reach the city around 8 a.m. tomorrow. We’re spending two days in the city before heading back to St. Petersburg Thursday night.
I’m not sure what exactly we’re doing in Moscow, but I have no doubt that various art and cultural museums are on the schedule, along with the Kremlin, and hopefully, the Lenin Mausoleum.

The St. Petersburg Palace of Soviets

Lenin stands before the Palace of Soviets in St. Petersburg.

Lenin stands before the Palace of Soviets in St. Petersburg.

The Saint Petersburg Palace of Soviets was built by Josef Stalin in an attempt to relocate the city center away from the bourgeois downtown area. Stalin also hoped to have a magnificent building of his own to counterbalance all the Tsarist palaces in and around the city, such as The Hermitage and Tsarskoye Selo.

However, World War II stalled Stalin’s relocation plans, and the center of St. Petersburg remains in its bourgeois location. But even the area around the Palace of Soviets, on Moskovski Prospekt, is looking pretty upscale these days.

The massive statue of Lenin now glares at a Nike store and a Sberbank. Just down the road, hungry former party members can pick up a Big Mac and fries at McDonalds, and contemplate the massive hammer and sickle atop the palace while eating the best of American capitalism.

Even the palace fountains add to the upscale atmosphere. I mean, who ever heard of proletarian fountains?

Click here for more photos from the Palace of Soviets.

Photos: Boat Trip Down the Neva

The Cruiser Aurora next to billboards on the Neva.

The Cruiser Aurora next to billboards on the Neva.

Click here for more photos from our cruise on the Neva River.

Long days, cold showers

In major Russian cities, hot water is produced centrally in big plants and then pumped out to individual buildings. This saves Russians the expense of a hot water heater.

But during the two weeks each summer when those plants and pipes get their needed maintenance, it costs everyone their hot water.

(Read Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Clifford Levy’s account of the hot water shutoff in Moscow in the New York Times here.)

In my district of St. Petersburg, the hot water was turned off yesterday, and will remain off for about two weeks.

Generally, residents of St. Petersburg cope by bathing at the homes of friends in different districts or by heating their water on the stove and taking sponge baths. I’ve also been told that some people shower less, which should make the metro rides a bit more fun.

We, of course, don’t have friends in other parts of the city to bum showers from.

But luckily for us, our apartment actually has a small hot water heater in it. It should provide for some lukewarm showers, if it works.

So what the heck are you doing over there?

It’s been a while since I last wrote about what I’ve been doing in Russia. And those posts were only about gross potato chips and an interesting police encounter—nothing too exciting. So it looks like I owe you a post about what I’ve been up to for the past week).

Saturday,I went to a Zenit soccer (football) game in Petrovski Stadium. Zenit, St. Petersburg’s team, beat Kuban Kransodar 2-0 in an exciting match on a day with perfect soccer-watching weather. Sunny and warm.

To get into Petrovski Stadium, you have to pass through three police checkpoints. At the first, they search your bags. At the second, they search you. And at the third, bunches of police officers, dogs leashed, check you over again to be really, really sure that you’re not dangerous. While this didn’t dim the mood too much for the rowdy crowd, it’s definitely a reminder that you’re in Russia.

Zenit is not as good as the team has been in years past, but that didn’t stop the crowd from cheering and waving massive flags. And it also didn’t stop the mildly intoxicated, shirtless, middle-aged Russian man sitting next to us from yelling thing that I’d rather not print in this blog. I’ll give you a hint though—some of them involved the mothers of the opposing team.

It was on the way back from this game that I got stopped by the Russian police officer, as I wrote about earlier.

Most of the week since has been filled with homework, making food, sleeping, and the other regularities of daily life in any place. Homework, in particular, took up a lot of time this week. We read a 4-page Chekhov story, At the Dacha, which took hours of dictionary-fueled deciphering.

Once I figured it all out, I got a good laugh out of the story (No, I won’t tell you why. Go read it.). But looking up every word in every sentence tends to drain the love out of reading.

We’ve also been delving into every Russian student’s favorite subject: verbs of motion. Russia has different verbs for going long and short distances, by boat, or by plane, which also vary if you’re leading, driving, carrying, or taking an object by vehicle. And then, each multi-directional verb also has a unidirectional partner (you use one verb if you’re making a round-trip, a related one if you’re going one way). If that’s not enough there are a bevy of prefixes that can be affixed to any of these verbs, adding meanings such as entering, going to a large number of different places, or going a short distance back from a specific location.

We’ve been practicing by using these verbs, mostly jokingly, to describe our trips around the city. “We went by foot to the metro. We crossed to the correct platform. We entered the train. We took the train three stations… and went to a Duran Duran concert.”

The Duran Duran concert is no joke though.

Some genius party planner decided that the best way to celebrate the start of the International Economic Forum—a high-level (think Putin and Medvedev) conference being held in St. Petersburg on business innovation and the Russian and global economic crises—is to throw a giant, beer company-sponsored, free concert in the center of St. Petersburg, right next to the Hermitage art museum.

And what better band to bring a bunch of politicians (there was, of course, a VIP section) and economists to than the English rockers Duran Duran? I mean, there’s nothing an economist loves more than an 80’s flashback.

Unfortunately, Duran Duran was greeted by cold and rainy weather. So while the band tried to get the umbrella-toting crowd dancing (yes, we went), they must’ve felt like a bunch of American economists (or Russian central bankers) cutting interest rates to try to get the economy movin’ (or in Russia’s case, because runaway inflation is easing).

That’s the last financial crisis joke. I swear.

We only stayed for a few songs at the Thursday night concert—basically, long enough to say that we had, indeed, been to a Duran Duran show in St. Petersburg. We even got to hear the smash hit “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

In touch with the ground
I’m on the hunt, I’m after you
Smell like I sound, I’m lost in a crowd
And I’m hungry like the wolf.

And no, I have no frickin’ idea what “smell like I sound” means either.

Documents, please

Every time I walk past a police officer in St. Petersburg, I look down, up, to the side—anywhere but his face. It’s not that I’m guilty of anything, but here the militsia, as the St. Petersburg police are called, are not known for jolly attitudes and community outreach. They also do not need a reason to ask for your documents, an open request that can lead to questioning in an unfamiliar language and to the gifting of pastel-colored Ruble notes.

I’ve played out the scenario many times in my mind: An officer’s eye meets mine. Nightstick dangling from his wrist—Russian police seem to always have their nightsticks out and ready—he approaches. As I pull my photocopied passport (And here’s the technical guilt: By law, one is required to have the actual passport with him at all times) out of my wallet, he sizes up its monetary contents. He questions me. I tell him—in English—that I speak no Russian, as I’ve been advised to do. He suggests a ruble figure. I comply, replacing my passport in my now-lighter wallet, walking away, if all goes well.

Today, my imagination met reality.

As I walked into Vaselostravskaya Metro Station, a police officer, standing to the side with two others, stopped me. “Документы, пожалуйста,” documents please. As I’d practiced, I told him that I speak no Russian as I unfolded the crumpled copy of my passport. “Ah, American,” he said. And smiled. One of his partners added in a “Hello, American.” The young officer, no club in hand, gave me back my passport, and I was on my way.

Apparently, the police are not looking to bother American students, or to earn an easy several-hundred rubles.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, what the police are looking for is draft dodgers—young men trying to escape their mandatory time in Russia’s military. Spring is draft time, so the police may (they deny this, according to the St. Petersburg Times) be ratcheting up efforts to fill the military’s ranks, in part by checking the documents of young men at metro stations.