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