The bus journey from Estonia to Russia was cheap, comfortable, came with wifi, and included my first proper land border crossing! I’ve travelled a lot, but always either via airports or among Schengen countries without internal border controls (for now, ha.) So an actual border crossing, at an actual physical border, was a new and slightly intimidating experience.
It was a two-stage process. On the Estonian side of the border (and the river Narva) stands an old Sword Brethren fort called Narva Castle: quite a vertical affair, with its main tower whitewashed and red-roofed. On the Russian side, its counterpart, the fortress of Ivangorod, is low, square, grey and far more intimidating. In Narva, two hard-looking blonde Eestis boarded the bus, took everyone’s passports – mine the only wine-red British one in a big pile of brick-red Russian ones – went off for a while and then brought them back. This was expected; leaving Estonia is the easy boring part, it’s getting into Russia that gets tasty.
We drove across the river, and stopped to dismount at a border post which resembled nothing so much as the grimmest, tackiest service station you’ve ever seen, with armed Russian soldiers instead of petrol pumps, and queued up for what Misha described as “some old school Papers Please”. I handed my passport over, with its new, expensive Russian visa sticker in; the passport control lady took ages scrutinising it, and then said “not in order”, handed me another form and a pencil, and sent me back to fill it in. I did, sweating slightly, and pushed to the front of the queue for a second go. She took the passport; the door next to her booth opened, and three large young Russian soldiers came out. She looked at me, looked at them, nodded to them. I just about wet myself.
And then… they just walked past. “Welcome to Mother Russia,” said Misha.
We had a long drive through green but mostly purposeless-looking land, which gave me the same odd feeling as I got in the Ukrainian countryside, and some parts of Australia – everything feels spread out and uncared for, with great big fields nobody’s doing anything with. I’m sure my perspective is affected strongly by growing up in the south of England, where everything is small, ownership is carefully delineated, and just about everything is being used in some way – but the grand open spaces and ragged field-forest boundaries of the Russian countryside give me an impression of having so much space they don’t really know what to do with it.
We arrived at St Petersburg at dusk, although dusk is about a third of the day here. I thought I was ready for it, but the scale still took me by surprise. Everything is mind-bogglingly enormous, and mine is not a mind that boggles easily. Misha and Olga’s flat is in a sixteen-storey block, a mid-sized component of a residential complex which dwarfs any I’ve ever seen. This complex is just one segment of an estate you could drop the entire Barbican into ten times over and never notice. And a glance at a map shows dozens of these estates, in neat but gigantic rectangular plots, with building sites raising still more. After a meal of stuffed peppers and tea with honey, we went for a spin down Moskovsky Prospekt, which makes Unter den Linden look like a country lane.
The House of Soviets, silhouetted against the flawless dark blue of one of those weird Baltic nights, was immensely imposing. It was originally designed and built to house local government (although it never did, thanks to the war, and now it’s just private offices), and it stands, a gigantic Stalinist-neoclassical pile set back from the prospekt by a square full of fountains, across from a pair of equally cyclopean buildings meant to house government ministries. I felt a definite sense of awe, not only at the staggering scale of the buildings, but at the ensemble they’re in, the immense amount of space and effort devoted to framing them and giving them a proper sense of grandeur and glory; the pride, the ambition, the optimism the designers and builders felt still shines through, past all the decades of by-turns disappointing, banal, gloomy and hideous reality.
At the southern end of Moskovsky Prospekt is a monument to the Siege of Leningrad, unusually gloomy and un-triumphant as these things go this side of the Iron Curtain. Most of the grand Soviet monuments I’ve seen have their heroes lantern-jawed and muscular. But eight hundred thousand people starved to death here, and so their bronze avatars are tall and ragged, bony and hollow-cheeked. Leningrad was a victory of endurance as much as arms. Inside a huge broken bronze circle, “900 nights” is written in gold letters, lit by memorial flames which burn whether or not anyone is there to watch them.
I commented to Misha that British war memorials only ever depict soldiers. This is because we have, as a rule, been lucky enough to fight wars where only our soldiers die, but also because our conception of wartime heroism is pretty much limited to the battlefield. But the USSR’s self-image needed general participation, needed to represent the factory workers and the peasants as well as the frontoviki – not to mention the fact that, as the front ebbed and flowed across half of Europe, all these people were often on the front line. So Soviet military iconography includes a very broad cross-section of society; and here, while the soldiers and sailors stand heroically with bayoneted 91/30s outthrust, and the pilots look grimly at maps and horizons, the nurses have submachine guns on their shoulders as well as stretchers, male and female factory workers haul girders and cast metal; the elders and children heft guns or carry kit or simply lean on each other for support. And beneath the huge obelisk at the centre of the memorial, the man with the hammer stands a proud equal to the man with the PPSh-41.
Border crossing, monuments by night – Downtown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt