St. Petersburg: Of Darkness and Light

I believe that the history of your land informs you, and makes you who you are.

On our first day in St. Petersburg, we visited a memorial to the victims of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad—the Monument to the Heroic Defenders, it was called. There are engravings on the walls, dedicated to those who refused to surrender to the Nazis—soldiers and civilians alike. It was a reminder—like so many others I’ve seen in Eastern Europe—of the things humans are capable of doing to one another.

Yes, there is hope and lightness in Russia today, but I believe part of that darkness has stayed with the people … which is the reason, I think, that Russians don’t walk around smiling. It’s a cultural trait that can be hard to get used to—but once you have a real exchange with someone, you realize how quickly that stoic exterior melts into a smile.

At the Hermitage Museum, I felt exactly the opposite. Here, instead, was an opulent façade of blue, white, and gold—which absolutely exuded lightness and grace. But not even this glorious building was spared destruction during World War II. During the Siege of Leningrad, it was damaged by bombs and shells. Fortunately, the collection had been evacuated in time, and today, no evidence of this darkness remains.

My family and I had a delightful time in Russia—I’ll never forget navigating the local bathhouse, which involved icy-cold plunges and whacks with birch switches; and getting lost in the rain en route to hear the outstanding St. Petersburg Philharmonic. But travel is about seeing a place from all sides, which means understanding all of its history—from lightness to dark, and everything in between.

Where in the world have you felt the lingering presence of history? We’ll be traveling to France next month in Harriet’s Corner—including the shores of Normandy, where the 70th anniversary of D-Day will be commemorated in 2014. I hope you’ll send your stories to harriet@gct.com.