On Sunday July 3 my step-son Roman and I joined my mother-in-law Svetlana for a trip to the city of Kronshtadt on the island of Kotlin near the mouth of the Gulf of Finland. It is located almost 20 miles (30 km) from St. Petersburg. I knew about Kronshtadt from the name “St. John of Kronshtadt,” who is an Orthodox saint, and I also knew that it has a history identified with the Russian navy.
Kronshtadt has a long history, but I’ll just hit the highlights. It was taken from the Swedes by Peter the Great (Peter the First) in 1703. Peter the Great is the most well-known of the Romanovs I suppose. His large physical size coupled with his uncanny ability to learn how to build stuff—especially ships—made him a larger than life person in Russian history. He is responsible for building St. Petersburg and Kronshtadt. Given his interest in learning from and exchanging ideas with the West (something never done in Russia before him), the city of St. Petersburg became known as “the Window to the West.”
Our trip provided me with more insights into Russian history, as well as reminders of those little details about learning to live in Russia. We went on a tour with some other faculty from the school where Sveta teaches. We boarded the bus about 7:00 a.m. It was the warmest day we had had yet since our move here. I started to wear Bermuda shorts, but my wife reminded me that men my age do not wear shorts in Russia. Silly me. But when we showed up all the other men (my age or older) had on shorts. So things HAVE changed in Russia! I consoled myself with the fact I could still go in the Orthodox cathedral there. Shorts are seen as a lack of respect in a Russian temple. The bus was a twenty nine seat bus, and all but two or three of the seats were filled. So with the driver and the man who organized the trip we had about 30 people. Since it was hot I decided to wear my thinnest nice shirt. It is a white pull over with a small Russian flag over the left breast pocket. The leader came to us and checked off our names from his list, “Svetlana… Roman… Hell” (that is how most Russians say my name). He then glanced at me and back at her, “So he’s the foreigner?” “Yes.” He then looked at me and my shirt and said, “Foreigner has a Russian flag on his shirt.” Well, I thought about complaining about being offended at the dismissive use of “foreigner,” but the “I’m offended” card does not really play well in Russia. As the Russians say, “на обиженных воду возят!” We boarded the bus.
I was relieved it was such a nice bus. The seats were comfortable with an arm rest. You could lean back a little if needed. He announced our trip would take about 2.5 hours, but we would stop in about an hour for a bathroom break and an opportunity to get tea, coffee, or snacks. Into the trip the bus driver turned the air conditioning on, and I was so relieved. It had started to get really warm. Then you saw these Russians reach up and close their little overhead vents. The lady in front of me got out her jacket and put it on. Here is something I have never understood about Russians. They are used to severe winter cold. It can go for days—weeks–and never get above freezing. But they’re tough. They keep going as if freezing is normal. But in summer if it gets a little breezy and the weather feels so refreshing to me, they get the chills. One day we were out for a walk here with our little Marina Grace in her stroller. It was such a pleasant evening at about 68 degrees F. So she had on a dress that covered her shoulders. We met about six or seven couples out like us with little ones in strollers. Everyone except Marina Grace had on a heavy cap, sweater, long leggings, and heavy shoes. I have given up trying to understand that. I did not like the glares we got, however, as if we were exposing our child to bitter weather.
We arrived at the store/gas station at exactly one hour after our departure. I would not call it a “convenience store” in the American sense because it is nowhere near the size of a QT or other such stores. But it did promise gas, snacks of various sorts, and restrooms. The first thing I noticed was it had more than one restroom. Usually these stores only have one. They were not marked “men” and “women,” however. You just take the next one available. Roman went to get in line to buy him a soft drink and snacks and me coffee while I went to the restroom. When I came out he said he did not get any snacks because it was time for the shop workers to go on a mysterious break “due to technical reasons.” Those can happen at any hour here, and the “technical reasons” can mean anything in the world. I checked the time and it was 8:01 a.m. A few from our bus had gotten some snacks and drinks before the break started, but most of us did not. Now, this kind of thing may seem common to Russians. To an American, however, taking a break while you have about 20 customers waiting in line to buy products your store will make a pretty good profit on seems ridiculous. Sensing I was the only one really upset about this turn of events, I tried to calm my glare as I looked out at the three workers enjoying their technical difficulties smoke break while I went coffee-less. Fortunately, my MIL, Sveta, came to my rescue. There was a very small cafe not far away, and we got coffee and juice. My day was saved. Through all of this experience the Russians remained stoic in the face of disappointment and found a solution. My response would have been more typically American: fuss, complain, write a letter to someone! Here they know: it won’t work anyway.
We arrived at Fort Konstantin on the outskirts of Kronshtadt for our first site-seeing spot. We had to wait for the local tour guide to arrive. That took about 10 minutes. He got on the bus and explained he had lived in Kronshtadt since 1951. He would later prove he knew the town well. But when the bus tried to enter the fort there was a problem. Our guy and the tour guide stepped out and both got on the phone. The driver was then told to pull the bus to the entrance gate. After a wait of another 10 minutes we were told they did not allow tourists on Fort Konstantin till after 12 noon. We moved on. In Russia you really do not expect things to go according to plan.
So we went to one of the first locations built to defend the island. We saw five “forts” that were well worn. This was where Peter set up his first defenses. You could see the old wells for the artillery. Then there were the “catacombs” where the guards slept, but there was no light there so we could not go in. We were told too many visitors had been injured. It was moving to see something that old. There were 22 of those defenses set up, but 17 were too low and the vegetation too thick for us to see. According to records the water from the gulf came to the spot of the fort on which we were standing back in the 1700s.
We then went to visit the city of Kronshtadt. It was much larger than I expected. The number of apartments built during the Soviet period was well beyond what Roman and I had imagined. And new apartments were still going up. When we arrived downtown we first visited the memorial to St. John. Then there was a small Orthodox Church a few meters away. This was the church where he had actually served and lived for several years. The church was very beautiful from the outside, but we could not go inside. We moved on and just saw some sites in the city. One building impressed me because on the side facing the street between the windows it had several stone plagues commemorating different significant events in the history of the town. One I found especially moving was the one describing when the Nazis entered the city. The thought occurred to me that America certainly does not have anything like the long and troubled history of Russia. Yet I also think a willful historical amnesia has gripped our country. I know our major cities have monuments and plagues, but you see these in almost every city of every size in Russia. While there is still patriotism in America to be sure, we seem to have lost that reverence for our past and the sacrifices that were made. Or it could be I’m getting older and becoming a typical cynical curmudgeon.
We then visited an apartment building and I wondered what we were going to see. But it was actually three rooms in the building dedicated to the “firsts” of Kronshtadt. I could not follow his Russian well enough to understand all of them. Clearly most dealt with diving and military equipment for diving and for submarines. Also I understood that the first radio to be used for maritime maneuvers was invented there. The diving suits and their paraphernalia were particularly impressive. The suits were huge and cumbersome. The weight of the boots, helmets, and clothing was much greater than I would have assumed. I saw the large dagger-like knives that came with the suit and assumed they were for self-defense. The diver used them, however, to loose himself from the boots and equipment when he needed to ascend to the surface. Some early divers had forgotten their knives and died on the ocean floor. The oxygen delivery system was a hand pump kept on the ship that pumped the air down to the diver. Those first divers were made of more courageous stuff than I am I must admit. We then went to another room that had a Soviet soldier in full battle array. The weapons looked like they were drawn from about the same time I was in the U.S. Marines. It was strange looking at that mannequin. So, you were the guy we were taught to hate, huh? I had hoped to get more pictures but we were hurried out.
We then went to the Naval Cathedral I had been longing to see. I had read up on it before our trip. It was built from 1903-1913. It was closed by the Soviets in 1929. It served as a cinema, a house of officers and then a naval museum. After the fall of Communism a cross (which is HUGE) was restored to the building in 2002. Divine Liturgy began again in 2005. It was reconsecrated in 2013 with Patriarch Kirill leading and Prime Minister Medvedev and his spouse in attendance. The relationship of religion and the political leadership of Russia is such a long, fascinating and complicated one.
The cathedral is not an aesthetic disappointment. The almost unreal size does not deprive it of beauty. I stood for a moment and watched tourists kind of rush in. You knew the Orthodox because they stopped before entering and crossed themselves and most bowed. Orthodox do not “rush” into a holy place set aside for worship. Of course, the ladies could not rush in no matter what. There was a line of women who had not brought the required head coverings for entering the Cathedral. Someone was there to provide a temporary covering for each woman or girl to wear. Felt weird, a guy raised a Baptist in America pausing to cross myself slowly before I entered a Russian Orthodox Cathedral on a base that had served both the Romanovs and the Soviet Union.
The interior of the cathedral was breathtaking. So many beautiful icons, and the interior of the domed roof was stunning. I took several pictures, and I hope you can see them on my post! Svetlana bought us all candles, and I lit mine before the icon of St. John. There were people there who obviously were just there to tour the building as an artifact of history. Others were venerating the icons, lighting candles and bowing before the iconostasis.
We left the cathedral and our last stop was at the harbor. We actually were able to board a large boat (small ship?). Before we boarded I got to observe another common feature of Russian public life. Russians are congenitally incapable of forming a line to enter anything. They “gather,” or they “bunch up,” “form herds,” I really do not know what to call it. I lived with this phenomenon when I would catch the Metro (subway) to and from work every day in St. Petersburg. They are not always rude, but they are always on the lookout as to how they can inch just a little ahead of the other person. One lady saw me standing idly sort of in the middle of the “bunch” of people around the ticket office and asked if I was waiting to buy tickets. When I said nyet, she immediately saw her opening! Before boarding the ship we “shuttled” back and forth on the pier as the little ship approached the dock. Members of each tour group trying to position themselves, based on their prediction of exactly where the ship would tie up so as to be the first to enter. After the vessel arrived the different tour groups were allowed to enter based on the group of which they were a part. So our shuffling had meant nothing. We were the second group. In the end, despite the fact that on the pier it looked like there would be no way we all could have room on the boat, there was plenty of room. We sailed around the island and got a good look at St. Petersburg. He even pointed out Vasilievsky Island where Oksana and I used to live. But I had a hard time keeping up and just did not realize what I was looking at most of the time. My Russian is not good enough to follow a fast talking ship’s tour guide with good sound, much less coming through the microphone.
Then we returned to our bus and began the trip home. We had one more “bathroom” stop which turned into quite a long experience. But we made it back to Luga fourteen hours after we left, and the weather was nice and cool. Roman and I walked the mile home to our apartment. It had been quite a day. I saw a lot of Russian history, got to reflect in a beautiful cathedral, and got to smile at how different and how much alike Russians and Americans behave.