Friday, August 19, 2011

A Visit to Leningrad

Twenty years ago today a failed coup d’etat marked the collapse of the Soviet Union. On that very day – my wife’s birthday, as it turned out – Jill and I boarded a plane at Logan, bound for Heathrow, thence to board a cruise ship for Leningrad. Little did we dream when we left that we would be witnesses to history.

When we embarked our ship at Tilbury, a note was waiting for us. Here is what it said:

Dear Passenger,

Welcome aboard the Royal Princess.

I wanted to take this opportunity to assure you that the Company is closely monitoring the political situation in Russia with the U.S. State Department and British Foreign Office. It appears likely that we will be required to revise our itinerary unless the situation rapidly improves. For your information, our revised itinerary substitutes Oslo for Leningrad.

Captain D.H. Brown

It was a grave disappointment to everyone on board. Oslo would be nice, but it wasn’t Leningrad. The next day, as we rounded the Jutland peninsula, we kept watching TV news bulletins, hoping for a miracle.

And it happened. On August 24, we found the following note in our cabin:

Dear Passenger

I am pleased to inform you that the situation in the Soviet Union has stabilized to the point where the Royal Princess can proceed with her call at Leningrad.

As of August 23, 1991, both the U.S. State Department and the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued new travel advisories, which indicate that the situation in the Soviet Union is rapidly returning to normal. If you do choose to go ashore, please exercise caution and avoid any areas of crowds or unrest.

Captain David H. Brown

On Sunday morning, August 25, we walked down the gangway and into Leningrad. We would be in the city for two days, giving us time for four tours. Dour-faced Russian policemen took our passports and gave us temporary papers, and then we boarded a tour bus.

“Welcome to Russia,” said the pert Intourist guide. “We are given these booklets, which contain the approved answers to your questions. I am going to throw it away and give you my own answers."

And she did. At the end of the afternoon tour, as we entered the naval base where our ship was docked, the bus stopped at the gate, a man climbed aboard, spoke briefly with the guide, and exited.

“That was KGB,” the guide said. “He says that no one should take pictures in the docking area. But I say you can take all the pictures you want.”

This feeling of giddiness (“Look at us, we’re free!!”) was palpable throughout our visit, which included tours of the Summer Palace, the Winter Palace (the Hermitage), a ride on the subway, and a visit to a department store. We chatted with some young boys who were peddling leather belts. (See my blog entitled Sasha.)

A fitting finale to the drama occurred as we sailed out of the channel to the Baltic at sunset. We passed the huge Soviet Naval base at Kronstadt, and Royal Princess tooted a salute because, our Captain explained, the Kronstadt Commander was invited to join the attempted coup a week ago and said "Nyet." Good call.

Two weeks after we left Leningrad, the City was renamed St. Petersburg.