Letter to Michelle Rochon from John F. Kennedy – October 28, 1961
The White House
I was glad to get your letter about trying to stop the Russians from bombing the North Pole and risking the life of Santa Claus.
I share your concern about the atmospheric testing of the Soviet Union, not only for the North Pole but for countries throughout the world; not only for Santa Claus but for people throughout the world.
However, you must not worry about Santa Claus. I talked with him yesterday and he is fine. He will be making his rounds this Christmas.
Beginning in May and lasting into July it never gets completely dark in St. Petersburg due to its geographical location as the Northern most city in the world. This period of time is referred to as “White Nights.” It was an eerie feeling and messed with my circadian rhythm. This was not the biggest deterrent to sleep, however. Never have I see such big and persistent mosquitos. They buzzed loudly and got in my face belligerently each evening in the hotel. They seemed partial to the face and hands for their nightly feast. I counted 20 bites on one hand and 10 on the other as well as enough on my face to look like I had chicken pox!
The Goodwill Games were started in Moscow in 1986 by Ted Turner as a response to political difficulties surrounding the Olympic Games at the time. While I was in St. Petersburg the country was hosting the games for the second time. It was exciting to see the enthusiasm the games inspired and I knew the city was presenting its best face for the onslaught of tourists.
The hotel I stayed in was the Rusky as I recall. It had a lot of marble, but not the beautiful expensive type that I was used to seeing working in the magnificent Humana headquarters in Louisville, KY. This marble was lifeless and the rooms were little more than one would expect in a hostel or at camp. Although clean the beds were cots, the bathroom’s plumbing was exposed and the mosquitos had free access to guests.
This view outside the back of the hotel is more representative of what the city was like in 1994.
Cemeteries are one of my favorite sites to visit. Those in Russia were certainly not a disappointment. By tradition, they are divided into three sections. There is a section reserved for Communists, usually signified by the hammer and sickle.
There is a section for those involved in the Arts and another for regular people.
Things We Take for Granted
This I saved for last. One thing that we take for granted here in the US and in much of the world, I suppose, is toilet paper. We load our grocery carts with no thought to what life would be without this commodity. In Russia in 1994 that was not the case. Many public restrooms had no T.P. at all. Others had attendants who presented you with a couple of squares as an allotment as you enter. Some places had a sheet torn from books (see the example from “church” below.) Here is the collection that I preserved:
Part 6 of 6
Note: Thank you to Lula Reynolds for giving us a break from St. Petersburg and sharing her visit to Moscow (2012) in the last post.
Welcome Guest Writer: Lula Reynolds traveled to Russia 18 years after my trip to St. Petersburg. She has graciously shared the post below about the city of Moscow. Thank you Lula!
My one-day visit to Moscow in 2012 was interesting but left me with lots of questions. I had visited Communist China so knew a little about what to expect. However, Moscow was different from China and even from St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, the people and guides were open and friendly and were willing to answer our questions. The museums were beautiful and ornate.
For our trip to Moscow, we could go by plane or high-speed train. We chose the 4-hour train trip to see some of the countryside. As we rode farther away from St. Petersburg, there were fewer buildings and those that we saw were very small, almost like huts, and crowded together in villages. We were told that these were country homes. The landscape reminded me of the movie, Dr. Zhivago, without the snow.
When we arrived in Moscow, we were introduced to our guide, a lady probably in her 50’s, dressed much like what I thought of as a typical Russian. Our first experience was a ride through the city to a Metro train station where we rode the subway for a short distance. The station was spotlessly clean and was exquisitely decorated with sculptures, chandeliers, mosaics and marble walls and ceilings. It was a work of art, leaving us to wonder if all the stations were like this or if this was their showpiece.
Our tour for the day included a visit to the Kremlin and Red Square. Our guide kept a swift pace and throughout the day a couple of men would appear to walk beside her and check off her schedule. She kept us in tight control, asking us often not to wander from the group. At one point a couple wanted to stop at a restroom they spotted but she said no, that a restroom break was scheduled later. When we were allowed to ask questions, she would not answer political questions.
I had always thought of the Kremlin as government buildings. We were not able to tour the government portion of the Kremlin, which is an old fortress and the seat of the President. The part of the Kremlin we visited was the Armory Chamber which was a museum of Russian history. It was beautiful and very crowded and we were guided through to see the armor, coronation dresses, jewelry, golden carriages, and Faberge eggs. There was much use of jewels and gold in these items.
We had been told not to touch anything, lean against anything or take pictures. Near the wall in several places were older ladies (with their purses on their arms) seated in chairs. If someone accidentally touched or leaned against a wall, they would come over and remind us not to touch.
Our guide walked swiftly all day. She was off the bus and on her way before the last person exited the bus. At one point when we were going up some stairs to a restaurant for a Russian dinner (beef Stroganoff), one of the tourists remarked that she walked so fast that we couldn’t keep up. Her response was, “Russian women are tough.”
The Kremlin included Cathedral Square, surrounded by 3 cathedrals. Important Russian ceremonies take place in the beautiful gardens.
Red Square has been the place of numerous historical and political events in the life of Russia. As we walked in Red Square there were many people hustling about, young and old. We noticed that the police or military would not make eye contact.
Red Square is made up of the Kremlin, the Lenin Mausoleum, the Church of St. Basil the Blessed, the State History Museum and GUM, the largest department store in Russia.
We were given an opportunity to wander shortly in the department store which is like a mall. The shops looked very similar to US shops and were brightly decorated.
Our day in Moscow was packed with sights, but I came away feeling very confined and not really learning a lot of information about the people and its culture. I admired the exquisite and lavish beauty of the museums and churches but left wondering what daily life is like for the people in Moscow.
While in Russia I met many interesting people. There were men who were bus drivers and pastors and volunteers, but it was some of the women who I really felt that I got to know. The interpreter, Natasha (yes, really, Natasha) was a beautiful young woman in her early twenties. She never lost patience with my questions and never seemed to tire of explaining what it was like to be Russian. She was proud of her country and especially that unlike when she was young, now she has the opportunity to meet travelers from all over the world.
Then there was Maria who was about thirty or so, it was very hard to tell because she wore a scarf that appeared to cover a shaved head. Her five-year-old son, Eugenia, was with her. He was wearing undershorts and a soiled button up shirt. After talking with her through Natasha for a couple of days, I learned of her sad history.
She said that she had been born and raised in the Islamic tradition, but was no longer sure of that status. Her mother died when she was a child and her husband and father were both recently deceased and she had no “papers” to prove that she was a citizen. The government had taken her father’s apartment and she was left without a home or income. She and Eugenia had been living in a cemetery for weeks at this point with some food provided by a friend. She was looking for work and offered to clean the church (Central Baptist of St. Petersburg, membership of 1,200) for food for her son.
There were many older women who dutifully cleaned the church, so there was no work there for Maria. They were caring, giving women who had little to give, but soon though, Maria and her son had clothes and food and a few other necessities. There were those who offered to help her in trying to obtain the papers necessary for livelihood. I had no way of knowing the outcome for Maria and Eugenia. I look at their photos and wonder what their lives are like today.
Unfortunately, there was another group of women in Russia who worked in what some call the “oldest profession,” prostitution. Apparently many women were all over the country trying to live by selling intimate services. Below is one of the cards left throughout the hotel where I stayed. This is not a profession. And, it is not a choice many women make other than out of necessity. Based upon recent news from Moscow, the situation has not changed for this population of Russian women.
In St. Petersburg it seemed that everyone lived in an apartment. I saw no private homes, although I am sure there were some grand ones for those high up in the government, mafia members and others with access to wealth.
I walked through an apartment complex that must have housed at least a thousand residences. There were no sidewalks, simply paths through the knee-high grass. There was a school that could only be identified by a couple of crude pieces of playground equipment, otherwise, the school looked like another apartment building.
I visited a couple from Kentucky who lived in a ninth floor apartment and the elevator was out of service. I was rewarded by seeing a mama cat and her kittens living on the seventh-floor landing, making the climb work the effort.
Alexander Pushkin was a poet and playwright who lived from 1799-1837 in St. Petersburg. There was a little town named after him and I was fortunate enough to be able to visit not only the park-like village but also a small hospital there. The facility looked more like a US nursing home of years ago. The beds were small and uncomfortable looking. Many of the patients who chatted away in Russian with clueless visitors looked old but it may have been due more to life conditions than chronological age.
One thing that I will never forget in that hospital was a very large printed, framed portrait of our then current US President, William J. Clinton.
The Russian language is very difficult. I worked for months before the trip to learn as many words as possible. I listened to tapes (yes, cassettes) and gradually learned approximately 100 Russian words. Today after all those years, I remember about three or four: “No”, “Goodbye”, and “Thank You” for sure. Often when the people heard a visitor say a few words of Russian they then assumed that you spoke the language.That could create problems without enough words to explain.
The currency when I was in Russia was very weak. A ruble was worth less than 1/10 of a penny. Each day would begin by standing in line at a money exchange kiosk.
St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad)
There were few private autos in Russia during the 1990’s, but there were trolleys, buses, subways and a few taxis. Public transportation was dependable, but very crowded, especially the buses which were cheapest. Commuters were jammed tightly together but never looked one another in the eye.
The Metro (subway) was one-third mile underground. The escalators were efficient in transporting passengers to and from the trains. The trains ran at 100 MPH and were clean and safe. The interpreter I was with said that pick-pocket thieves were on the lookout for tourists, but I experienced no problems nor suspicions.
The Hermitage is one of the world’s most premier museums. It is filled with priceless art and at the time I visited it had no temperature or humidity control for protection of these precious pieces.
Patrons were asked to remove our shoes and use soft slippers provided to reduce noise. We were allowed to walk around with few to no guards or docents to prevent damage to the irreplaceable works of art.
Music and dance are adored in Russia and I was fortunate to be able to enjoy both while in St. Petersburg.
The ballet Swan Lake was performed in a historic theater by a newly formed dance company which now performs all over the world. The theater was grand, but showed signs of age and lack of maintenance as evidenced by the restroom picture below.
I also had an opportunity to attend a folk music show with traditional dance, costumes, and instruments. It was the first time I had seen or heard the three-stringed instrument called a balalaika.
Traveling to Russia in 1994 was no doubt very different than today. At that point, Russia had just become more open to travelers due to “perestroika” but was not yet well prepared for those travelers. Before leaving home certain shots and immunizations were recommended. While at the Health Department meeting these requirements I received a handout warning against eating raw fruits and vegetables or anything, including using ice, that might have come into contact with unpurified water. There was a warning to use bottled water for toothbrushing and to not open the mouth while showering!
The trip from Louisville to St. Petersburg, Russia took almost nineteen (19) hours with about fifteen (15) actually in the air. Along the way, we landed in Germany and then in Poland, which did not allow passengers to deplane. Officers came on board and checked our passports and visas and then would not allow the pilot to take off for two unexplained hours.
When looking down at Russia prior to landing in St. Petersburg it was hard to comprehend the country’s size, nearly twice as large as the US and containing eleven (11) time zones. Local time was eight hours ahead of EST, which made phone calls home complicated, so I only called once to say I had arrived safely. It is just as well because phone calls to the US were difficult to make, unreliable and very expensive.
The population of Russia at this time was 149.5 which was actually about 5.6 million more than the current population. Education was free and the literacy rate was 99% at that time.
Before the trip, I read a document prepared by Brigham Young University which provided insight into properly interacting with the Russian people. It was entitled “Culturgram ’94 Russia (Russian Federation)” In it, I learned many things that made me better prepared, but also a bit apprehensive. Here are a few customs that I tried hard to remember while visiting.
If you ask “How are you” be prepared for a detailed answer. It is not the casual greeting that we use, but a serious question.
One should eat with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. Hands are kept above the table at all times. Leaving food on one’s plate is rude.
Pointing the index finger is impolite, as is talking with one’s hands in the pockets or with arms folded.
Some other information of interest was that flowers are given in uneven numbers except at funerals! Russians prefer social interaction prior to business discussions and when a bottle of vodka is opened it is expected that it will be emptied by those present. Not surprising is that alcoholism is a serious problem.
During the “cold war” I grew up hearing about the evil Russians who lived in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). The country’s shortened name was the Soviet Union and even that sounded ominous. People with enough money to afford underground bomb shelters had them built. There were discussions about the hard decision of what to do if during a nuclear attack a neighbor wanted to enter your shelter. What would you do was the question, since you likely didn’t even have enough supplies to sustain your own family for long. My family didn’t have to worry about that dilemma, but I worried about what would happen to us. Hearing of new threats on the evening news or hearing adults talk about the possibility of a Russian bomb was very unsettling for children. It didn’t help that we had bomb drills at school where we were taught to duck under our desks for protection from the falling bombs!
Communism came to Russia, then called a Socialist Federation, in a revolt led by Vladimir Lenin in 1917. Joining other Socialist Republics in 1922 the country became the USSR. Millions later died of starvation or while working in forced labor camps under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. During World War II he led the Soviets in siding with Hitler but ended up losing over twenty-five million Soviet citizens. The Cold War between the US and the USSR followed this period.
The last leader under the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced a new openness called “glasnost” around 1986. He was elected President in 1990 and led the reformation of the Communist Party, called “perestroika.” Up to this time, Communism had discouraged all religions including the most prevalent Russian Orthodox. Boris Yeltsin was next elected and took the country further into democratic reform and to a free market system.
In July of 1994, I visited Russia for seventeen days. It was worth every dollar spent, every inconvenience and every discomfort that I endured to learn that Russian people were not who I thought, who I had been taught. I will tell you more about what I learned in following posts.