Along one of the major streets of St. Petersburg is a large gray building on a corner. During Soviet times it was supposedly an Aeroflot office. However, very few customers were ever seen there. In reality, it was the headquarters of the KGB and called, by the local residents, The Big House. Local people will tell you that those who were "escorted" into the building rarely left. Popular wisdom was to avoid it at all costs.
Natalia, our wonderful guide, who had so many interesting insights into the city such as the one above, works as a tour guide full time. On her days “off” she has a part time job as tour guide at the Hermitage. And, she really knows her art. She had insights into the artists, the times they were working in, and their styles and techniques. I came away feeling as if I understood, at least a little, of what the artist was all about. And that, my friends, takes a bit.
Natalia's grueling work schedule is her way of providing the type of life all parents want for her two children, ages 9 and 14. The children live with their Grandmother outside the city. There is no other option since Natalia’s long days begin with a 6 am meeting with the bus driver and go until 7 pm or later 6 to 7 days a week. Time with her kids is a lot more limited than she would like. It would not be exaggerating to say hers is a hard life, both physically and emotionally.
Moving around the city over two days we were able to see a large cross section of the population. Men, women, children, old, young, businessmen and blue collar workers. We even saw many brides and grooms walking around among the buildings of the Imperial era. Seeing a smile was very infrequent, even on the faces of the bridal couples.
Life did not seem to provide the people much joy. But then, the Russians through history have not been made to think of life and joy in the same breath; not under the autocratic Tsars and not under the Soviet fist. Hopefully, someday.
Final Interesting Aside: During its “lifetime” this city has had three names. Originally, it was named St. Petersburg in honor of Peter the Great. After the rise of Lenin it was renamed Leningrad. Later still, it was called Petrograd. Today, as a result of a vote taken of its citizens, it is again known as St. Petersburg.