Sunday, May 11, 2014

L is for Leningrad, Part I

Leningrad, USSR; known also as St. Petersburg, Russia (Russian Санкт-Петербург/Sankt-Peterburg) from 1703 to 1914 and again from 1991 to the present; renamed Petrograd from 1914-1924; known less formally as Peterburg and Piter (publicly when the city has been named St. Petersburg; privately and courageously when it was called Leningrad)

Panoramic view of St. Petersburg from the Palace Bridge in 2009;
taken by "Panther" and uploaded from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
Until about ten years ago, students at the Department of Russian for Foreigners at the university stayed in a dormitory in an area partially visible behind the columns at the far left.
Lermontov (known to Russians primarily by his first name and patronymic, Mikhail Yuryevich) was the most popular poet of Russia's literary “golden age” in the nineteenth century after Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin. One of Lermontov’s most distinguished poems, “Death of the Poet,” contains a bitter lament at the death of Pushkin in a duel. Pushkin, for whom a duel formed the climax of his own “novel in verse,” Evgeniy Onegin, did not take the implied warning to heart, or at least he was unable to overcome the cultural and all-too-human temptations. Neither did Lermontov: four years later he also was to die in a duel.

Although I read about the cause of Pushkin’s demise when I first studied Russian in high school, I learned the details when I was studying in the summer program at the Department of Russian for Foreigners at Leningrad State University during the late 1970’s. Students in the program took a field trip in a bus that retraced Pushkin's last days. Many of the historic buildings were still standing or had been rebuilt after World War II. The bus driver and the Russian literature lecturer, a professor from the regular philological faculty invited along for the occasion, both showed such intimacy with the subject matter that the duel might have taken place the previous year, not 140 years before. One of them —I no longer remember who—  at one point quoted the famous Pushkin opener, “Не дай мне Бог сойти с ума,” “God grant that I don't go out my mind.” The context was not the same as the original, in which Pushkin has a reverie of slaking his madness in the wilds of nature, only to be brought back to his senses by remembering that the insane were locked up. But we all were inclined to think Pushkin must have gone right over the top when he agreed to yet another duel (he apparently was connected to as many as twenty-nine), regardless of what the biographers had to say about his motivations.

God grant that I don't go out of my mind. About ten days after we arrived in Leningrad, I stepped out onto the sidewalk from the foreign students' residence, looked up into the brilliant early summer afternoon, and realized that my parents' tax dollars, and mine, too, whenever I had a summer job, had helped to purchase missiles that were programmed to head right at me (although of course that was not the intent). I had joined Friends about a year before, in part because of my support for the peace testimony, but never before had I been cut to the core, as Margaret Fell would have said.

We were in the period of détente under Presidents Carter and Brezhnev, but anyone could have been forgiven for not knowing it. The acronym used by US defense planners during that period was MAD, for Mutual Assured Destruction, i.e., the possession of an arsenal big enough for the USA and USSR to be able to guarantee to annihilate each other, and then large enough still for whatever was left of the US to come back and finish the job. If it sounds like lunacy, it was (and still is, as both sides have massive nuclear stockpiles to this day); but no military planner  or mainstream politician was going to step away from it on his own, any more than Pushkin could walk away from challenging Georges D'Anthès, who was reputed to have tried to seduce Pushkin's wife, Natalya Goncharova.

But step away we all did. The Cold War ended with the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the unification of East and West Germany, and the demise of the Soviet Empire. Millions of people  benefited from the physical and moral courage of Soviet President Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II, from the recognition of President Ronald Reagan and his advisors that the West had in President Gorbachev a partner for peace —and from the determination of countless others, many of whom will never be publicly known.

However, if we thought that the post-Cold War status quo would remain indefinitely, we were naïve. As I write about Leningrad, on Mother’s Day in 2014, Russia has annexed Crimea, and separatists in eastern Ukraine are holding a referendum on autonomy. While no one expects another Cold War, no one knows what will happen next. God grant that we don’t go out of our minds.
Kristin Lord, a few months before studying in Leningrad.
photograph by Peter Stettenheim

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