heartache, hope, and a lesson in history

Not wanting to completely outstay our welcome at Botanika, the loveliest little cafe with the best green tea in all of Russia, nor being entirely blameless for the puddles of just-melted frost and ice that were pooling under our table, Callum and I decided once more to brave the cold and head back out into the streets of St. Petersburg.   

Wandering up past Fontaka Canal, chatting quietly, and taking in the beautiful, ornate city dusted with snow, we mused over it’s history, imaginging it in summer, in siege, in Tsarist times, and under the charge of the Soviets. Much has been seen by these canals and Palaces, much suffering, much sadness, but also much hope and much happiness. Finally giving in to chattering teeth and shaking fingers, we took refuge from the bitter winds and falling snow, wandering past Pushkin and ducking into the Russian Museum of Ethnography.

Shaking off the snow that had accumulated across scarfs and coats, I was in my element. All around were my lectures bought to life, with artifacts from across the Russian empire and descriptions of lives and livelihoods of many of the ethnic groups who inhabited it.  Wandering through one room, trying to interpret indecipherable cryllic signs, the curator motion us over.  She was little and greying, wrapped up agains the cold that permeated even the Museum’s thick walls, but with a proud stance that belied an underlying strength of character.  We were soon to learn where this had come from.   

Over the coming endless minutes, we were treated to the story of her life.  Before the war, we were told, she had been a opera singer, travelling from Moscow’s Bolshoi to Vienna and the Weiner Staatsoper, performing at sold-out matinees to an enchanted audience. The came 21st June 1941, and all was to change. Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union, and before long was to lay siege to Moscow and blockade St. Petersburg, at that time known as Leningrad. Sent to a gulag in the Arctic Circle, Vortuka, for perceived crimes against the Soviet State, watching her mother and sister starve and perish beside her, she was subject to countless horrors and hardships, forced into hard labour in the bitter conditions, and reduced from a young lady full of spirit and opportunity to a tattooed identity number.  But, somehow, she survived. Beaten brutally by guards for the slightest mistake, surving off what little she was given and what little she could find, infected with lice and disease, life in such a camp was unimaginable to us, sitting warm and clean and fed beside her.

But then she spoke of watching her city come back to life all those months later, of the flowers outside St Isaacs, the spires of St Peter and St Paul fortress being uncovered, the sandbags removed from the Bronze Horseman, and the paintings returning to the Hermitage under the watchful eye of it’s Director, Orbeli.

Her story, she wanted us to know, was one not just of the suffering and cruelty brought by war, but also of the amazing human capacity for healing and for hope. She lost all her family, many of her friends, and her life changed forever the day the Nazis betrayed their pact with the Soviets and invaded, but as we stood listenning, we suddenly understood.  First and foremost in her memory was not the atrocities committed against her people or her country at the hands of Hitler’s war machine, though this does haunt her dreams, but instead, was the immense pride of watching the recovery of St. Petersburg.  And as we later wandered back past the Church of the Spilled Blood and down Nevsky, absorbed in our memories of the curator’s conversation and watching the city and it’s people with new eyes, it wasn’t difficult to see all that there was to be proud of.

Her story, the defiance with which she spoke of the heartache, the tremor of pride in her voice when she spoke of hope, will stay with me. And those hours with her in a timeless museum in the heart of St. Petersburg was a lesson in history like none before.


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