Monumental in Everything

Letter From St. Petersburg

I have before me, as I write these lines, a handsome white envelope, marked in pale-blue characters with the six-pronged, anchor-fish-hook-crown emblem of this once imperial and still maritime city, which was offered to me by a friend as I was leaving St. Petersburg.  Inside, against an elegant dark-blue background illuminated by six colored pictures of various city landmarks and the dates 1703 and 2003, I was informed that this was a pam-yatnoye svidyetelstvo—a “commemorative testimonial,” thanking me for having sojourned in the city during the “year of its 300-year-old jubilee.”  Today, I cannot contemplate this touching testimonial without an ironic smile—given the extraordinary difficulties I encountered in visiting Russia as a self-reliant individual rather than as a docile member of a tourist group.

Incredible as it may sound more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, no foreigner can visit Russia today without being formally invited by some specific institution or accredited tourist agency.  In October 2002, I rashly thought I had solved this problem when I volunteered to join a group of Parisians whom a Russian guitarist was recruiting to accompany him to St. Petersburg in mid-February, when the temperature often drops to 20 or 25 degrees (centigrade) below zero.  A couple of weeks later, however, the cold-footed “group” disintegrated,...

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