Visa-free to St Petersburg

by George Hatjoullis

St Petersburg was created by Peter the Great as a window into the west. Through this window he placed Russian materials and skills on display and introduced western technologies and business methods to Russia. Today it is a window to the tourist world providing the only visa-free access to Russia. It is very specific access and designed to encourage tourism. If you sail from Helsinki on a ship of the St Peter Line (the Princess Maria or Princess Anastasia), you purchase a return ticket on the city bus tour, book into a local hotel, and stay exactly 24 or 72 hours, you may do so visa-free. You must, of course, not leave the boundaries of the city. I have not suddenly developed an interest in travel writing. The trip from which I have just returned offers some interesting, albeit anecdotal, insights into geopolitics of Russia and Europe.

First, English-speaking voices were rare among tourists, and those that we did hear were typically antipodean. In the crowded museums and palaces overhearing was unavoidable. Chinese was ubiquitous and catered for through such things as local maps in chinese (but not english). Russians are also numerous tourists to St Petersburg. Our tour guide, who had dual Russian and Estonian citizenship, offered the opinion that the absence of english speaking voices reflected the ‘wild east’ view of Russia. I pointed out that the third most common language we were hearing was german. The lack of english voices was indeed odd.

Second, St Petersburg is a densely populated and bustling city. It looks like it needs a massive face lift but behind the worn facade there seems to be wealth. Breakfast at the hotel was a case in point. No one ever checked room numbers and judging by the crowds I am sure people just walked in off the street! Yet there was always a wide variety of good quality food (including a glass of bubbly) and the standard of hygiene was high (in contrast to our hotel in Helsinki where the breakfast crockery was never clean). Sanctions were not in evidence in St Petersburg. The traffic jams were not quite Moscow-like but certainly London-like. The pollution, especially on the hot humid days, exceeded that of London at its worst. St Petersburg is a busy city.

Third, St Petersburg is not a high crime city, at least in the tourist centres. We have never felt safer when travelling. As a Londoner I am acutely aware of pickpockets and potential mugging situations. This did not seem an issue at all. The most criminal thing I saw was the treatment of wild animals. Sad creatures were cruelly restrained and used to pose with tourists for a small fee. The really sad thing is that one of our party, and American lady, paid to pose. I am afraid I could not hide my contempt.

Fourth, the Russians are confused and still sorting out their identity in the post-soviet era. Many of the tourist attractions were once churches. Tourism revenues are being used to painstakingly restore the mosaics, icons, iconostasis , marble facades and so on. The churches look like churches again and magnificent ones at that. The tour guide insisted they would just be museums (she was Lutheran) but I pointed out that as the damage had been so severe many of the interiors were recreations so ‘museum’ did not seem appropriate. At best they are religious art galleries but the reconstruction is so impressive that it is almost inevitable that people will wish to us them for worship. Moreover, all of the churches, it seems, have been reconsecrated.

Much was preserved during the soviet era as art and to provide a basis for illustrating the corrupting influence of religion (it was war and bombing that did most of the damage it seems), so the idea of churches as museums has a recent tradition. But the move back to worship and Orthodox christianity also seems quite powerful and the recreation of such magnificent symbols of religion can only encourage it. It is an interesting example of the power of symbols and monuments in creating and perpetuating ideology. But then you would have thought the descendants of the soviet era would know this!

St Petersburg seems to be the receptacle of much of Russian history (much like London in relation to the UK). The styles are an eclectic copy of western and Byzantine design using Russian materials and craftspeople. Stone veneers painstakingly pieced together from small pieces mined in the Urals were everywhere. Most of the Romanovs, including the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and family, are interred in the church in the Peter and Paul Fortress, another brilliant restoration. One wonders where the physical restoration of history will lead.

Fifth, the Russian people that we met were complex. Tall men were invariably aggressive and rude. Even when serving (taxi drivers, waiters etc) they behaved as if they were doing you a favour taking your money and clearly felt demeaned by having to serve us. Short men and most women were typically friendly and helpful. Seemed to us an unhealthy situation and left us somewhat ambivalent towards Russia and Russian people.

Despite the psychological complexity of Russia we found it quite sane compared to Finland and the Finnish people. Finland was the first time I began to see some logic to Brexit! They have an indifference to visitors to their country (you know the type, paying tourists) that is quite astonishing. I left with the impression that if they saw you were about to be hit by a bus they would not call out to warn you. We sat for an hour on a train which the board said was going to the airport, which the ticket seller and driver said was going to the airport. We noticed locals muttering and getting off after a while but no one said anything to us or any of the other tens of people with suitcases clearly going to the airport. It eventually left and stuttered slowly on until it came to Tikkurlia when we were all told to get off and take a bus. No explanation, no guidance as to which bus or buses and certainly no apology. A hundred or so people found themselves in a panic seeking ways to the airport. There were no taxis or taxi ranks with taxis attached. Eventually a bus arrived alleging it was going to the airport (in fact it was only going near the airport) and everyone crammed on. We sat at the back and finally a kind girl who pointed out it was only going near (the driver did not point this out) and if we got off at the next stop we could change and get a bus to the airport. We did and have no idea what happened to everyone that did not. We did call out to them but they ignored us.

It did not end there. We got on to the transport to get to the plane. It drove out to the plane and then drove back. The doors opened and we were all left to infer that we should get off and go back into the terminal. There was no announcement (in any language). Inside the terminal there was no announcement but the staff volunteered to anyone that asked that the plane was faulty and there would be a delay. No estimate of how long this would take. No announcement. There was no announcement when they recommenced boarding. One just looked up and saw people boarding the bus and joined in. This is my last memory of Finland. No announcement, no information voluntered, no communication initiatives. Quite what this implies about the character of the Fins is speculative but I am not sure I want to be part of a club that includes these strange people.

The Fins are openly contemptuous of the Greeks. They accuse them of incompetence and dishonesty. This man of Greek descent gave the girl waitress who gave me too much change 20 euros back. This Greek witnessed the worst example of incompetence and indifference to tourists that I have ever seen. My experience yesterday and the holier-than-attitude constantly emanating from Finland has left me with a distinct antipathy towards the Fins (notwithstanding the one kind girl that worked for Norwegian airlines). Needless to say I shall not be visiting Finland again.