It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. I’ve been distracted and have neglected my writing for too long now. I’m trying to get back into a regular writing routine, so I’ll try to update this blog a little more often.
One of the distractions was a business trip I recently took to Estonia and Russia. This was my second trip to Tallinn, Estonia. My first trip was in the winter and it was nice but very cold and dark. This time I got to see Tallinn in the summer and it was quite different – at least visually. The flowers were in bloom, the trees were full, and the Old City (the area around the original medieval castle where the city began) was full of people celebrating – I don’t know what they were celebrating but they were having a good time. It was supposed to be a “training trip” so most of our day was spent working but in our off hours we moved from one pub to the next and relaxed. Despite the celebration, the Old City still felt quite and comfortable.
The trip to Saint Petersburg was very different. Karina Isakova, who works for the studio we contract with in Saint Petersburg, greeted us at the airport. She took us to our hotel just long enough to get washed up before we were shown their new offices and then it was on to the pubs. All the stories I’d heard about drinking with Russians turned out to be true; they are a fun bunch. We were there during the White Nights, when the sun never completely set, and it really distorted my sense of time. I decided to quit the pubs early that first night because my wife was flying in and I wanted to be by the phone. It was dusk and I would have guessed the time to be around 7 pm – it was 2 in the morning.
My wife’s flight turned out to be a nightmare. Everything was fine until she landed in Frankfort Germany. Her connecting plane left for Saint Petersburg a half hour late – not that bad – but then they lost an engine. Even though they were past the halfway point, the pilot decided it would be safer to turn around and go back to Frankfort. Of course, my wife didn’t know that initially because the first announcement was in German (naturally) and all the people who could speak German were frantically talking over the English announcement. Soon after they had turned around, the plane lurched and there was a loud bang – a collective intake of breaths from the passengers as they prepared for the worse but it never came, thankfully. The plane landed safely in Frankfort where the pilot announced that the turbulence and bang had nothing to do with the engines; they just flew too close to another plane and were caught in its wake. Well, at least he was honest. They transferred everyone to a new plane and eventually Rebecca made it to Saint Petersburg, five hours late but safe.
Thanks to my wife’s planning, we saw a good bit of Saint Petersburg in only a couple of days. Karina was gracious enough to act as our guide through the Hermitage Museum – an amazingly huge museum on par with the Louvre. We saw the summer palace, Peterhof, which is awe inspiring in its abundance of guilt gold. We attended the ballet, Don Quixote, and walked through the Russian State Museum where there were some amazing examples of Russian art. We toured many of the famous churches including the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, which Alexander III built on the spot where Reformist revolutionaries assassinated his father, Alexander II. He built the church in a traditional Russian style as an “up yours” to his father’s killers. Later, the Soviets used this extremely ornate church as a warehouse – which was lucky since they demolished most of the churches in accordance their anti-religion beliefs.
Another church to avoid destruction was Saint Isaacs’s Cathedral. The Soviets turned it into the Anti-Religion Museum and hung a 93 meter long Foucault pendulum from the underside of the dome center, supposedly to demonstrate the earth’s rotation. Personally, I tend to agree with some of the Soviet’s feeling about organized religion and I certainly agree with the separation of Church and State. However, I did find the zealousness in which they destroyed amazing works of art and suppressed people’s faith to be surprising and as distasteful as the religious fanatics who burn books, ban movies, kill abortion doctors, and bomb buildings. The last church we visited was the Kazan Cathedral. Unlike the other churches, this one still functioned as a real place of worship. I have never see people so consumed by their beliefs. They crossed themselves, said prayers, and the women covered their heads before entering. Inside was quiet and reserved and there were long lines in front of paintings of different Saints. People bowed before their Saint’s image, they kissed them, prayed, and cried. I felt a bit overwhelmed and out of place – the dumb tourist invading peoples most personal moments. The cynic in me could make note of the souvenir stand in the corner of the church where they sold crosses and beads to the devout but that did not diminish the intense look of piety I saw on their faces. Of course, faith like that didn’t just start back up after the end of the Cold War – it had always been there – underground and secret but there. If I were to speculate, I could argue that the Soviet’s rejection of religion made their people’s belief all the stronger now that they can openly practice their faith – like the end of Communism was an answered prayer and proof of their God’s power. It doesn’t matter if I share the belief – to them it must have been very powerful.
I grew up at the end of the Cold War. Some of my earliest memories revolve around nuclear war – the fear of it, can we survive one, is there a way out of the arms race without resorting to mutually assured destruction? Khrushchev’s promise to bury us was before my time but I was aware of the history even at a young age. My mother was a hippy activist, my father claimed to be a card-carrying member of the Communist party (although that didn’t mean anything, his political view shifted with the wind) so I had a little more exposure than most children my age. I remember when Ronald Regan made his idiotic “Evil Empire” speech – a speech that I was sure would push us over the red line and send the missiles flying. I also remember when Gorbachev appeared on the scene and how hostile Regan and George Bush Sr. reacted to the change Gorbachev was trying to bring. I know historians like to rewrite history and lay the credit for the end of the Cold War on Ronald Regan’s senile brow but I – a teenager waiting for the end of his world in a mushroom cloud – remember it very differently. Regan and Bush did everything they could to scare the shit out of the American public, Gorbachev couldn’t be trusted, remember Khrushchev, remember that they are evil, godless, and treacherous – once they lure us in we’ll be ripe for attack. The Regan administration fought Perestroika tooth and nail until Gorbachev came to America in 1987. I remember the visit very well and I remember how public opinion swung drastically in favor of Gorbachev. Everyone wanted an end to the madness of nuclear proliferation; everyone except the arms manufactures who made billions off prolonging the threat. Public opinion is what changed the tone from the White House and it didn’t happen overnight. It was slow and begrudging. I know many people had issues with Gorbachev and I know he made mistakes – restructuring the Russian government could not have been an easy task, but from my standpoint he more than earned his Nobel Peace Prize.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Berlin wall were pivotal moments and brought about vast changes in American attitudes. It was like a sigh of relief, a feeling that the next generation will grow up without the fear we’d lugged around for decades – of course, this was before the “Evil Empire” was replaced with the “Axis of Evil.” But what I realized while in Russia was, although these events were massive for me and for the American public, it was an even more massive change for the Russian people. Being there and hearing our guides talk about history and the Soviets – as if they were a separate race from the rest of Russia – really gave me a glimpse of just how different things must have been for the average Russian my age. It’s not as if I had any in-depth conversations about the Cold War or about the right or wrong of Soviet rule. The people I talked to made no broad indictments or praise of Communism. It was just something that happened and this casualness is what made the impression. The end of the Cold War, for me, can be summed up in a few major historical events that happened over the course of four or five years. It was a time that made me hopeful for the future. However, the course of my life did not change – my daily concerns, trials and pursuits were the same. But, across the ocean, a Russian man my age would spend the next 20 years living with the end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism. He would go from standing in line for bread to buying Big Mac’s at McDonald. He would see warehouses became churches once more. Depending on where he lived, he might even wake up one morning to find that he is no longer Russian as his government redrew the boarders of his country. Perestroika and Glasnost affected him on every level, down to what he ate for breakfast, who he met, where he worked, whether or not he was living in safety or in a war zone. For the everyday Russian, the world changed on a level that I don’t think most Americans can appreciate. I know I didn’t.
Now to be honest, what I know about the day-to-day lives of Russians during the Cold War is very little and probably biased by American propaganda. I’m sure a Russian reading this might say that I’m full of shit – and they would probably be right. But, for me, I caught a glimpse of what it might have been like on the other side, I got a broader view and that was pretty cool.