Mujeeb Jaihoon’s insightful account of the snow and streets of Saint Petersburg, the seductive capital of world’s largest country.
The Secretive & Seductive Capital
Neither my body’s biological clock nor its psychological hands were tuned to the minus chime of the city that housed the world’s tallest Orthodox bell tower in the world. It was 9 am and the sun was still shy to unveil its face to the inhabitants of this cultural capital of the mighty empire: Russia, the largest country in the world, which is both secretive and seductive for the foreigners.
Building and monuments in Saint Petersburg gloat with history of emperors and empires, wars and conspiracies, military crossings and political double crossings. SPB is a land of knights and heroes who displayed unusual resistance to conquerors and invaders who eyed this port city’s fortunes. It may have been established with commercial ambition to be a ‘Window to Europe’. But few realize that this former Russian capital gave birth to its present-day president- Vladimir Putin- short by Russian but strong by global standards.
Taken for a Ride
After snacking a handful of almonds and cashews, I set out to the refrigerating ambience. The previous day a Muslim-named cab driver had literally and metaphorically taken me for a ride. Hence, I radically resolved never to hope nor hop on a cab, no matter how hard I would be bitten by the Minus Beast.
The previous night’s fraudulent fiasco by the airport taxi driver had taught me an entire book, let alone a lesson, about the treacherous transportation mafia in this city. To be charged two hundred percent of the average fare sounds totally unromantic for a travel lover, who had already faced other horrible hiccups en route the six hour journey from the Middle of the East to this land geographically classified as transcontinental.
The geography and demography of this Czarist-Communist-Republic nation are at fateful odds: more than seventy percent of the people live on the European part of the continent whereas seventy five percent of Russian territory belongs to Asian continent.
So, fully armored to fight, read survive, the callous cold, I set out on foot to witness the glory of city once named Sankt-Peterburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, and finally back to Saint Petersburg, whose natives fondly refer as Piter.
The Ultimate Countdown
Partly due to the cold and partly due to their preoccupations, I hardly saw anyone still. At the Nevsky street crossing, pedestrians religiously watched the traffic signal countdown for their turn to walk perpendicular to the automobiles. Businessmen, employees, government officials, students and lovers- everyone wanted to sail to the other side at the earliest second possible. Even the dog who accompanied their master and mistress wagged their tail, impatiently.
The countdown ended and I too joined my fellow bystanders to the other side of the road, officially named Ligovsky Ave, a well-built street which was in the past a path that led to Novgorod (new city), one of the oldest cities in Russia and among the important ones in Europe.
Cyrillic the Supreme Script
I continued the walk along the lane of connected shops which hardly had a passage in between them. Buildings tightly embraced each other as cozy lovers during winter. The billboards were completely curated in the Cyrillic script (used in the Russian alphabets) with zero tolerance for the Latin counterpart. The only visible English names with Russian ‘subtitles’ were of the Adult Toys shops and the restricted ‘Vape Zone’. Saint Petersburg was indeed wooing tourists, but not at the expense of their script and language. As a logophile, I have to admit that Saint Petersburg offers great lesson for the Developing Nations who auction their forefathers’ legacy and foremothers’ language to lure the insatiable fickle-minded foreigners.
Odd Christ. Odder Christmas
It was still modestly dark. Sunrays begged to pass through the concrete jungle. Pigeons kept flapping their wings to beat the morning chill. Pedestrians walked hastily. Buses sped in their approved limits. Trams transited the travelers in their traditional style. Lamp posts were decorated as brides to welcome the New Year and Christmas. Christ, according to the Russians, were born 13 days later than the traditionally celebrated date. Both sects, however, agree he was born on an odd date. Just as he was born to a single mother in an odd manner.
After walking a while, I reached a crossing which had a river and bridge perpendicularly facing my journey. I could either pass over the crossing or walk along the river. I impulsively chose the latter.
The Bronze Horseman Statue
A magnificent statue of a mighty king and his resilient horse caught my eye. Soulfully crafted in bronze, the work of State Art shone in grey-black. Neither time nor the cold, it seemed, had spoiled its splendour.
The Bronze Horseman Statue, as I precariously guessed, commemorated Peter the Great, the darling of all that is Saint Petersburg. Situated on the Neva River bridge, the Statue conveyed a two-pronged sentiment of pain and power.
Team Lenin’s Communist Carols
History has it that Peter dreamt of modernizing Russia. But his incandescent vision was frowned upon by the then nobles which led to several assassination attempts on the king’s life. Although his successor shifted the capital to Moscow, Emperor Anna, once again chose Petersburg as the HQ of Imperial rule. The de facto condition prevailed until Lenin and Team began to sing Communist carols to the revolution-hungry Russians sheeps.
City Founded on Bones
But Saint Petersburg was not built on a bed of roses. Instead, it was erected on heaps of flesh and bones of the oppressed lot. Just as the pyramids construction fandango was the result of dragooning the chained hands of the poor, so did this city’s builders consist of slaves, prisoners and bonded peasants en masse. The city has the blood of these builders all over its walls. Many have praised and condemned this city with equal zeal. The bricolage bone collection beneath the city belong to several ethnic and faith members. Researchers have concluded that a large number of them were Turkish Muslims who were forcefully brought as prisoners of war to build this mighty city of Peter the Great.
River Neva: The Loyal Lover
The water in the Neva river remained cowered fearing the return of the King of Bones. Grids of electric cables stretched from one side to another. I walked somewhat steadily on the somewhat cracked footpath. The River, which connects Lake ladoga (the largest lake in Europe) to the Baltic sea, skirts Saint Petersburg almost like a loyal lover. Many cities are known after rivers. In the case of Neva, however, it was vice versa.
The White Nano Matter
I decided to pixel-capture some of the raptures of this beautiful water body along with the fascinating scenes around it. The sky was filled with artistic goosebumps splashed in orange, red and pink color riot. I could not help clicking every kiss of this romance. In the middle of my photographic ‘command and conquer’ moments, I began to see some unnatural white nano matter flying across my lens. As time passed, the size and frequency of this white matter began to increase in random fashion. Cold too became bolder and the colorful sky faded in hue. In no time, the entire landscape was blanketed in white: it was officially snowing.
My black winter cap turned to white. With one hand I wiped the snow and with the other I clicked. Cars passed by with fog lights. Some parked unable to drive any further. Children as usual stepped out to enjoy this divine moment. I was the only one unsure of my direction: challenge the snow or retreat to the hotel? I chose to keep enjoying the snow-kissed romance between history and culture.
Courtesy, Not Advertising, Conquer Hearts
The pathway was now in pure white. And the walk turned slippery on the white carpet that Nature had spread for the Indian-born, UAE-based, Muslm-faithed wanderer. Geographical landscapes change. Flora and fauna differ from place to place. But our identities- of birth, work, stay and faith- remain with us. For many, these ‘realities’ may all be at the same. But for others, they belong to different coordinates on the atlas.
I marched like a resolute soldier. Since, simple walking was no good to beat the snow and cold. At crossings with no traffic signals, I was shown unusual courtesy by the drivers. One of the finest memories from the city of Peter was their traffic kindness. No amount of advertising dollars (rubles in this case) spent on destination marketing will win the hearts of visitors as much as the courtesy of a city’s natives. Courtesy is the greatest weapon in the battle to colonize hearts. Communities and Corporates need to acknowledge this reality: be it in the propagation of faith or in the promotion of products.
The snow continued its onslaught. So did my zeal to explore the white-carpeted backdrop. An old lady came walking from the opposite side. She looked baffled at my eccentric ice-walk taking snaps of the snow festival. I surprised her further by requesting her for a snap of myself. Change in weather can incredibly influence our accepted norms of sanity.
The snow fun slowly turned to pain. Fingers numbed. Feet strained. Throats scratched. Nose swelled. Voice froze. I had to talk to myself, louder and harder. For fear of the safety of the photos, I packed the camera. I did not wish the Saint Petersburg memories to freeze forever in the SD card.
The snow got thicker and harder. I did not find a single store to have an energetic bite. The handful of almonds in the bag diminished with every 500 meters I traversed. I reached a pathway which had a canal and park. But the snow had whitewashed it entirely. Barren trees begged for some sunlight. Trams crossed through the snow-hit rails.
It was slightly bright in a distant part of the horizon. But the roads were still dark. The speeding cars pierced the wind into my being. A man, in his morning jog, crossed me in fervor and vigor. Inspired by his resolute hobby, I too began to jog slowly- hoping to kindle, literally, some warmth. This was not the moment for literary metaphors- especially when you are in the existentialist battle against the merciless cold.
Samarkad in Saint Petersburg
As I reached the apogee of the bridge, I noticed a blue and white domed structure in the middle of the sky ‘photo-filtered’ by snowflakes. What was Tamerlane doing in the city of Peter? Geographically and chronologically, both kings had no remote chances of meeting. How then did the the blue dome look like the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum? Samarkand and Saint Petersburg are not imperial cousins, at least not when they were founded. I left my fatigue behind and trooped like a soldier towards the enemy frontiers.
Anticipation Elongates Journey
The pathway, again covered in ice, was very long. A man was dog walking presumably with a Pyrenean Mastiff breed which seemed no less than a polar bear. I kept a safe distance. Dog-chasing would not be an interesting proposition in the snow where walking was hard, let alone running. I had to walk past several trees whose barks were snow-covered to reach my sight of interest. Anticipation only drags the journey farther. Earth elongates for those who anticipate. In fact, anticipation is to the heart what the flame is to the wax: suffering and melting is for sure.
The blue dome appeared vaguely through the trees molested by the Minus Beast. The snow on the ground took a heavy toll on the feet. Some places sank deeper than the others. The entire area was now mono-colored. Reality felt feeble than fairytales.
And then a few steps more. Past the trees. Past the snow. Until there was nothing left to more past. And there it was. The full dome in its full glory appeared sans any sign of bridal blush. The Little Samarkand in Grand St. Petersburg. A Timurian tribute standing tall in the land of Tzar.
Sadly, when I reached, the Saint Petersburg Mosque was all but open for its quintessential purpose for which it was erected: Prayer. Instead, a tourist delegation, possibly from the far East, was admiring it from the exterior. The soulless guide appeared to describe the tale of this building to her clients. The Dome, accompanied by two minarets, looked as numb as my head.
The Saint Petersburg Mosque, built in 1913, was considered the largest mosque in Europe, outside Turkey, which could accommodate around five thousand worshipers— revealed a peripheral reading about this building. Believed to be the northernmost masjid on the planet, this asylum of faith was used as a storage of medical supplies during the godless Soviet era. Historically, the mosque was a faith-Production Unit from 1913 to 1940 and then demoted to a Storage Chamber for a decade and a half (1940 till 1956) and then again upgraded to Faith production in 1956 when the Indonesian president requested the Communist Inc. to reopen the mosque for believers.
Saint Petersburg is predominantly a ‘Multiethnic Megalopolis’, a melting pot of Central Asia’s ethnic peoples including Afghans, Turks, Tatars, Persians and Uzbeks. Though xenophobia prevails to some extend, with Muslims referred to as ‘black faces who invaded the city’, the inter-community equation has largely been harmonious. It is said that Leo Tolstoy often frequented the Muslim-owned ‘Samarkand’ cafe in this city. Muslims in Saint Petersburg have undergone severe existential challenges during the Stalinist regime. Many of their living descendants, who witnessed their grandparents’ forcible abduction during the witch hunt for faith leaders, continue to be haunted by the horrors of those dark times.
Nevertheless, reports have surfaced about Russian Orthodox leaders’ admission about the overwhelming but underpracticing Russian Orthodox members being outnumbered by fervent and observant Muslims (one-third of the city’s 1.2 million Muslims attend prayers every day). Christian leaders complain of believers who ‘enter churches only to burn a candle and give tribute to traditions’.
Hope: The Eversweet Candy
But here I was burning the app-candle on my smartphone to find the entrance to the oldest book shrine of this nation. “Идите прямо, а затем поверните направо”, said the bystander directing me to go straight and then turn right. I obeyed word by word. For, how I could afford to lose way in the merciless cold?
The reception of the building I entered had a long list of rules and regulations. The very first one clearly stated that I was late for the day. The second one said I had to have a prior appointment from the department of culture. But I didn’t walk all the way to read these nemetic rules. Hope is the only possession that we carry till death and beyond. Hope is the eternal candy that doesn’t lose its sweetness as long as you consume it. The wine whose intoxication lasts a lifetime.
Super Secure Entrance
Adamant and persistent, I forced my steps to the rear side of the building on the Sadovaya Street. After wandering left and right to find the entrance, I finally managed to get it right. In what appeared to be HQ of a super secret agency, I thought I was entering Saint Petersburg’s KGB branch: the multi-door entry had put me in a fog.
Enter the wooden door complex and the twin lady security personnel looked at me in the same way I faced them: blank and smiling. Their inhibition was understandable: why did this foreign visitor come at the last hour? The staff at this secretive building signed out one after another as they displayed their id while walking down the stairs.
Beloved Sayyid Shihab at Saint Petersburg
Wasting no time, I took out the translator app on the phone and typed my request. After reading the Russian rendering on my screen, they looked at one another. And then I had to withstand 15 hours-seeming minutes of uncomfortable silence when another mae staff arrived at the scene. This time thankfully I did not need the online translator, for, Alexander and I could grasp the same language. He spoke a while and then arrived another lady by the name of Yulia Berezkina, the head of Donation Group, National Library of Russia.
Speaking to her demanded the app again “Я писатель из ОАЭ и хотел бы подарить мою книгу вашей великой библиотеке” which implied that I was a writer from UAE wanting to donate my book to their grand library. They had a form brought for me to fill my details and then ta-da: a photo click of the book handover ceremony.
The Shaurmoy (Shawarma) Ceremony
By then, it was more than officially dark. The joy of contributing my book on my heartthrob leader, Sayyid Shihab Thangal, the late Indian statesman and philanthropist, renewed my passion and removed my pain. En route, I stopped over for brunch-cum-supper at a local шаурмой (read shaurmoy- Russian for Shawarma) where the translation app again came to my rescue. I made sure to empty both the 10-inch sandwich as well as the mint tea jug I was served. The Azeri lady cashier reassured me with a beaming smile: She had just won a delighted and elated customer. (I made several more visits in the subsequent days).
The Human Shields
Walking ahead, the snowflakes continued their romantic stroke. With the heart and stomach fed, my armor and power were in full form. In the middle of the crowded street, an old man stood with a commercial banner hung around his neck. It was not a pleasant sight to behold, especially not in this brutal cold. To witness an elderly man abused as a human shield of consumerism reminded of the other human shields in the oppressed militarized zones of Palestine and Kashmir where the humiliated victims breathe injustice 24/7.
Beauty & Bestiality Defined
Passing by a leading grocery store at the Nevsky Centre mall, I noticed apples with the unbelievable size of coconuts. Shock and surprise are the ice-breaking drink of the foreigners. Tourists carry within cultural and normative shocks wherever they go. Beauty and Bestality and all the grey areas between them are conceived and defined only on the subjective scale of relativity. Tourism is perhaps men and women looking to purge their urge for expressing their contempt or respect for norms of foreign cultures.
Reason Collided into the Faith Glacier
I lingered on the tourism definition until my sight gazed on the most mystical moment I witnessed in Saint Petersburg. In the open ground of a public park, where lovers’ hearts throbbed in unison and hands cuddled in passion, I clapped eyes on a bough of red flowers lovingly enveloped by the tender snow. Was it the red flowers that made the snow alluring or vice versa, I could not discern for sure. Nevertheless, my eyes intoxicated. Heart swept. Veins invigorated. Words fainted. Mouth watered. Reason wrecked upon colliding into this glacier of Faith.
All I thought on my way back to the hotel was about that splendid moment: those Magnificent Hands which assembled and animated that inimitable art. Who had dragged me all the way from the land of onshore malls and offshore fields to witness this miraculous moment? Time and space frozen, as if just for my reflection. How eccentric an idea! How narcissistic a thought!
Love Alone Testifies for Humanity
Anyone with a living heart would be overwhelmed by its bewildering beauty and the Ultimate Designer who fashioned it. Those who could not fall in love with the Divine, even after this romantic eureka, instantly need a heart transplant to fix their humanity. For, it is love, and love alone, which testifies for our humanity. As long we can love, we continue to be humans.
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Mujeeb Jaihoon is an Indian-born writer and socio-cultural commentator based in the UAE. As a prolific traveler, Jaihoon has extensively traveled to cradles of ancient civilizations in various parts of the world. He serves as director at several educational institutions, besides playing an advisory role in community development projects. Jaihoon is also a regular speaker on issues pertaining to education and women empowerment, besides being a vocal critic of wars and injustice. He has authored nine books including Slogans of the Sage and The Cool Breeze From Hind. His blog can be reached on www.jaihoon.com