A sail into the Baltic Sea, but out of the Cold

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ROY HARRIS

A Baltic Sea cruise to St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia’s his­toric show­place, of­fers won­ders ga­lore, punc­tu­ated by breath­tak­ing on­board views of dra­matic Nordic coast­lines. But I had a spe­cific mis­sion in mind for the seven-day voy­age my wife, Eileen, and I took there this Au­gust— one that be­gan with an ex­cur­sion to Ber­lin. As a U.S. Army cold war­rior 45 years ago, briefly based in what was then West Ger­many, I aimed to make some sense of the vast changes in Europe since the Soviet Union’s col­lapse.

Thanks to cul­tural in­sights gleaned in Ger­many’s stately gem of a cap­i­tal, and in Rus­sia’s glit­ter­ing “sec­ond city,” with its or­nate czarist palaces filled with artis­tic trea­sures, we re­turned to the United States feel­ing far more knowl­edge­able about the coun­try that Win­ston Churchill fa­mously called “a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery in­side an enigma.” For this, we also give a nod to our lo­cal tour guides as well as the ship’s lec­tur­ers.

Our two sum­mer days in St. Peters­burg re­minded us how skewed our high school history lessons had been in the ’60s. Our 862 fel­low pas­sen­gers hailed from more than 30 na­tions, but a ma­jor­ity were Amer­i­cans, with many of those, like us, be­ing of re­tire­ment age. Thus, they too had at least been teenagers back then. More than a few ex­pressed sur­prise dur­ing the cruise to learn of the Sovi­ets’ decisive role in the de­feat of the Nazis, for ex­am­ple, or the Ger­mans’ cat­a­strophic 872day Siege of Len­ingrad— as St. Peters­burg was known dur­ing com­mu­nist times — dur­ing which hun­dreds of thou­sands of Rus­sians starved to death.

What­ever new im­pres­sions we got about Rus­sian pol­i­tics and history, though, were dwarfed by the im­pact of the mas­ter­pieces on dis­play in the mu­se­ums and palaces. They are one and the same in the case of the sprawl­ing, pas­tel-tinted Her­mitage that stretches in a seem­ingly end­less se­ries of con­nected build­ings along the Neva River em­bank­ment. Its core is the Win­ter Palace, with its high-ceil­ings and lav­ishly gilded arched walls, where Cather­ine the Great be­gan col­lect­ing match­less Euro­pean works around 1762. Al­most as as­tound­ing, though: how a Soviet state built on ha­tred of czarist ex­cesses had de­voted it­self to pre­serv­ing the trea­sures those rulers had ac­cu­mu­lated on the backs of peasants mired in poverty. (The sim­plest ex­pla­na­tion we got:

Even the com­mu­nists prized the cen­turies-old cul­tural her­itage of Mother Rus­sia.)

The trip be­gan to take shape early in the year. To celebrate Eileen’s im­pend­ing re­tire­ment, we booked a cabin on the Sym­phony, a 960-pas­sen­ger ship op­er­ated by Crys­tal Cruise Lines. Our first cruise, through the Panama Canal, had been on Crys­tal seven years ago, near my own semi-re­tire­ment. That voy­age had taught us that a pre­mium price — $3,895 for this cruise, with ex­tras re­flect­ing choice of room and ex­cur­sions— can come with such im­por­tant but hard-to-value fea­tures as top on­board lec­tur­ers and bet­ter choices of tours when ashore. Our evenings aboard the Sym­phony were filled not only with lec­tures tied to the next day’s port — stops in Helsinki and the quaint Ger­man town of Warne­mu­nde came be­fore St. Peters­burg — but with cabaret acts and stage shows good enough to qual­ify for off-Broad­way runs. Yet another ad­van­tage of vis­it­ing these cities via ship.

Our first stop af­ter em­bark­ing from Copenhagen, Warne­mu­nde, was a town un­fa­mil­iar to me be­cause it lies on Ger­many’s eastern coast: the “wrong” side of the par­ti­tion cre­ated by the Sovi­ets, the United States and other al­lies af­ter World War II. Dur­ing my Army years, I had trav­eled around Europe but never imag­ined en­ter­ing East Ger­many. Now, Eileen and I were ea­ger for our first look at Ber­lin, a 90-minute ride from Warne­mu­nde on the bus that would also serve for our tour, led by Kon­stanze, a Ber­lin-based guide who joined us in the city. The ex­cur­sion we had cho­sen on­board fo­cused on the once-di­vided city’s moves to­ward re­uni­fi­ca­tion at the end of 1989, and the Ber­lin Wall’s fall, af­ter which the Soviet Union soon dis­solved.

Ber­lin is far more than its Cold War rem­nants, of course. Broad boule­vards took us past mod­ern high-rises, as well as fa­mous ed­i­fices such as the Re­ich­stag build­ing and the glo­ri­ous Bran­den­burg Gate. One stretch of for­mer Nazi gov­ern­ment build­ings, still in use by the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion, was part of what Kon­stanze re­ferred to as “the to­pog­ra­phy of terror” be­cause of the de­ci­sions reached there be­fore and dur­ing World War II.

Af­ter a lunch of sausages, sauer­kraut and beer, we im­mersed our­selves in tak­ing photos of var­i­ous seg­ments of the Wall, many now charm­ingly graf­fiti-cov­ered. Other tour high­lights in­cluded Check­point Char­lie, the for­mer sta­tion for en­try into the Amer­i­can sec­tor, where ac­tors in pe­riod U.S. Army uni­forms pose for the cam­eras. The tow­er­ing col­umns of the Bran­den­burg Gate, closed to East-West pas­sage by the Sovi­ets in de­fi­ance of its name, again rep­re­sent a pho­to­genic sym­bol of free­dom, topped by its statue of the god­dess of vic­tory’s char­iot pulled by four horses. Kon­stanze told us how much the Ger­mans had re­sented the Sovi­ets from the ear­li­est days of their post-World War II oc­cu­pa­tion — fear­ing that the Rus­sians would ex­act re­venge for the hor­rors the Nazis had in­flicted on their own home­land, es­pe­cially along the Baltic. Vis­it­ing Tem­pel­hof Air­port we saw where the post-war air­lift by the United States, Bri­tish and French pre­vented the Sovi­ets from chok­ing off sup­plies to Ber­lin’s non-Soviet sec­tors. There Kon­stanze de­scribed the Amer­i­can “candy bombers”: U.S. pilots who won many young Ger­man friends by drop­ping treats from cargo planes mak­ing their ap­proach to Tem­pel­hof.

In a mu­seum ded­i­cated to those Amer­i­can, Bri­tish and French oc­cu­piers — a sign there reads “How En­e­mies Be­came Friends” — two rous­ing speeches by U.S. pres­i­dents were played to demon­strate Ber­lin­ers’ love for Amer­i­cans. There was John F. Kennedy declar­ing “Ich bin ein Ber­liner” in his June 1963 visit to the di­vided city, fol­lowed by Ron­ald Rea­gan, in 1987, taunt­ing the Sovi­ets with “Mr. Gor­bachev, tear down this wall.” His chal­lenge was de­liv­ered against the back­drop of the Bran­den­burg Gate.

Af­ter Ber­lin, we sailed overnight across the Baltic to Helsinki, spend­ing the next day on a bus tour vis­it­ing a farm­house for lunch with the fam­ily there (another ex­cur­sion choice made on­board). One more night at sea got us to St. Peters­burg, where, as cruise pas­sen­gers, we were per­mit­ted to dis­em­bark with­out Rus­sian visas. Look­ing de­cep­tively plain from the port, the city be­gan to un­fold its won­ders as our tour bus neared the Neva River — cross­ing sev­eral of the low bridges across its Venice like lat­tice­work of canals. The ex­cur­sion we chose fo­cused on Rus­sia’s czarist ar­chi­tec­ture and great art col­lec­tions. We also sched­uled a bal­let for one of our two nights in port. As for life in the city, we hoped to learn some­thing about that from our lo­cal tour guides.

Their de­scrip­tions, it turned out, uni­formly re­flected weari­ness with gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion, Vladimir Putin’s long ten­ure, ef­fec­tively 15 years, and a lack of per­sonal op­por­tu­nity they per­ceived amid the coun­try’s fi­nan­cial strug­gles. Still, that was mixed with ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the very free­dom to speak their minds in such a way these days. They also praised how Rus­sia con­tin­ues to pre­serve and to re­store the trea­sures we were be­ing shown.

The topic of restora­tion led to another theme — one that touched on the Rus­sians’ an­i­mos­ity to­ward their own, ear­lier oc­cu­piers: the Nazis. Re­stor­ers were the be­hind-the-scenes stars at two stun­ning palaces we vis­ited out­side the city’s perime­ter: the Cather­ine Palace from 1717, with a spec­tac­u­lar “am­ber room” dec­o­rated with the pre­cious sub­stance, and Peter­hof from 1721, with ter­race af­ter ter­race of glo­ri­ous foun­tains. Both had been all but de­stroyed dur­ing the Siege of Len­ingrad, and palace dis­plays fea­tured shock­ing be­fore-and-af­ter photos of the ruin at the hands of the Ger­mans.

We de­voted a whole day to St. Peters­burg’s Her­mitage, the height of Rus­sian op­u­lence. Mirac­u­lously, it sus­tained lit­tle dam­age dur­ing the long Ger­man siege, through which Soviet de­fend­ers kept the en­emy from break­ing through at the city’s out­skirts. As for at­tack from the air, our guide, Anna, proudly re­counted how cam­ou­flag­ing the Her­mitage had fooled Ger­man bombers — an al­most un­be­liev­able achieve­ment given its enor­mous frontage along the Neva.

As Eileen and I strolled the ex­pan­sive gal­leries we felt as if we were wan­der­ing through a cross be­tween the Smith­so­nian and the Na­tional Gallery — sev­eral times over. The daz­zling gold trim adorn­ing the walls and high arched ceil­ings of the Her­mitage amazed us. Crowds were large but moved at a leisurely pace, giv­ing our tour group time to ex­am­ine at length the clas­si­cal Euro­pean works that dom­i­nate its dis­plays. Par­tic­u­larly stun­ning to us: a Dutch col­lec­tion with 21 Rem­brandt mas­ter­pieces, and Ital­ian stat­u­ary ri­val­ing any­thing we’d seen at the Vat­i­can mu­seum.

“Think­ing about Cather­ine the Great ac­quir­ing these works of art, way be­fore Amer­ica even de­clared in­de­pen­dence, rein- forced how young our coun­try is,” re­called fel­low cruise pas­sen­ger Jo Kirsch, a re­tired nurs­ing pro­fes­sor who back home is a fre­quent visi­tor to New York City’s Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art. Kirsch was es­pe­cially moved by the Her­mitage’s Rem­brandt and Ti­tian rooms, and its two da Vinci paint­ings (two more than the Met has). In­deed, she said, the Her­mitage “filled me with awe from the mo­ment I re­al­ized it is so large that I could not take a pic­ture of the en­tire façade of the build­ing withmy iPhone.”

Back on­board we were treated to a lec­ture on a topic of con­cern for most Amer­i­can pas­sen­gers: whether sour­ing U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions will jar us into a new cold war. John Ren­ninger, an ad­junct New York Univer­sity global-af­fairs pro­fes­sor who had spent 30 years with the United Na­tions, deftly blended pes­simism and op­ti­mism. He hung much of his talk on the pres­ence of an un­pre­dictable Putin. That fit in well with Churchill’s rid­dle-mys­tery-enigma de­scrip­tion of Rus­sia, an as­sess­ment that had come in 1939, Ren­ninger noted. That was when the Sovi­ets signed a “nonag­gres­sion pact” with Ger­many that seemed to put the Euro­pean com­mu­nists and fas­cists on the same side. (The pact col­lapsed when Adolf Hitler broke his prom­ise and in­vaded Rus­sia— lead­ing, of course, to the Sovi­ets join­ing the Al­lies and help­ing win the war.)

Churchill’s full com­ment has this less-fa­mil­iar con­clu­sion: “But per­haps there is a key. That key is Rus­sian na­tional in­ter­est.” The trick now for Eileen and me: us­ing our new­found ex­pe­ri­ence to help us un­der­stand what that might be.

In Ber­lin, one stretch of Nazi gov­ern­ment build­ings, in use by the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion, was part of what a tour guide re­ferred to as “the to­pog­ra­phy of terror” be­cause of the de­ci­sions reached there.

ANA­TOLY MALTSEV/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The daz­zling State Her­mitageMu­seum sits be­yond the Arch of the Gen­eral Staff Build­ing in St. Peters­burg. A cruise with stops in Rus­sia’s “sec­ond city” and Ber­lin pro­vides an up­dated view of Europe’s po­lit­i­cal shifts.

WOLF­GANG KUMM/PIC­TURE-AL­LIANCE/DPA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

DMITRY LOVETSKY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Above, a long photo ex­po­sure of visi­tors ex­am­in­ing por­traits of the gen­er­als who were he­roes of the 1812War in the State Her­mitageMu­seum in St. Peters­burg. Top, snap­ping pic­tures in front of the iconic Bran­den­burg Gate in Ber­lin.

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