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Peter At the Crossroads

ISSUE:  Autumn 1999

Music comes out to meet us as we head up the Neva into St. Petersburg. Facing the river on the English Embankment, the band is playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” A rude glissando on the trombone changes the beat, and the ragged, foot-stomping men segue into “Muskrat Ramble.” In Leningrad as it used to be, “Tea for Two” was as hot as it got. Half a lifetime ago, boarding the train in Helsinki, we chug-chugged all day through the snowy taiga, teachers, engineers, and businessmen, en route to jobs in Russia. At nightfall we came to Leningrad’s Finland Station, where Sovietskis in red epaulettes scowled while they looked through our passports. No jazz band piped us into the city.

The hammer and sickle doesn’t fly any longer over the old capital of Russia. Retreating at full throttle from the proximate past, it is once again St. Petersburg. But rumple-faced men still ply the river in dinghies, and the Neva is still the city’s highway, bread basket, and scourge. Less than 50 miles long, it runs down like a granite chute polished with rushing waters from Lake Ladoga on the east to the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic beyond it. Germans controlled the Baltic in the Second World War, but Lake Ladoga stayed Russian, and over its frozen surface a motorized lifeline—the Way of Life— kept starvation at bay. When the ice goes out in spring, the fresh water current brooks no argument, and you can still see it a mile from shore, churning up the salt waters of the Gulf.

Fishermen take perch, bream, and pike from the river. Armed with murderous teeth, the pike is cannibalistic, like Russia’s rulers from Czar Peter to Stalin. Hoisted to power on the backs of his colleagues, Stalin killed them when he got there, and Peter killed his own son. Everybody knows about Stalin, but for sheer brutality Peter the Great runs him a close second, lacking for mass murder only our modern technical know-how. Chief among his victims was Alexei, the Czarevitch. Others, who pitied the unfortunate youth, fell in Peter’s dragnet, like the Bishop of Rostov, broken with hammers and left to die on the wheel. Lopakhin, brother of Eudoxia, the wife Peter “put away,” died on the block, made to lay his head down in the blood of those beheaded before him. Glebov, the captain of Eudoxia’s guard, lay for three days on spikes, while a sharp wooden stake in his rectum slowly gouged him to death. Peter, relishing these proceedings, took part in many. One story has it that he was his son’s deathsman, lifting the ax with his own hands.

Perhaps I am hard on Peter the Great. Life in the good old days was tough at all levels, and compassion had yet to be heard from. Ivan the Terrible said, “A state without terror is like a horse without a bridle.” When the terror relaxed, the horse grew unruly. Infected with French Republican ideas, a group of young Army officers, members of the Imperial Guard, revolted against the Czar in December 1825. Had the censor been more vigilant, this might not have happened. Most were softhearted liberals, though, and of course they botched the job. Later that year, ironically on France’s Bastille Day, the ringleaders were hanged outside Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva.

In August winter is coming on, and men are stacking cordwood on the far side of the river, along the University Embankment. A line of small maples marches with the embankment, the leaves already starting to turn. Storm clouds, bringing rain, roll in from the Gulf of Finland, and soon falling snow will create a winter wonderland, but like the flower that hides the serpent beneath it. Often when it snows you don’t see the river until it is under your feet. This aspect of the city wasn’t lost on Osip Mandelstam, the century’s best Russian poet. He said living in St. Petersburg was “like sleeping in a velvet coffin.”

“Neva” in Finnish is swamp, and wraithlike vapors, simulating reality, flicker over its surface. Choosing unstable ground for the site of his capital, Peter the Great built it on the bones of 100,000 men. Carytids, they held up the mighty edifice of his bureaucratic state until it crushed them. Before this happened, they filled in the swamp, dragging earth from far away, sometimes in the hem of their pitiful garments. When they died, of exhaustion, hunger, or disease, they were buried in the clothes they wore, in the earth they had carried. Their bones aren’t inert, though, but quicken in death, breeding spectral shapes from decay. Yevtushenko saw all classical Russian literature originating in St. Petersburg’s white nights and dreams, “swirling like the mystical vapors on the marshes.”

On both banks of the river, columns topped with architraves face the elegant buildings, painted in muted pastels. Pale red and apricot, like marzipan pastries, yellow, lime green, and robin’s egg blue, they overlie the harshness of the north land. Turn back the clock and you see it as it used to be, when gloomy forests ringed the burgeoning city. Wolves came from the forest into its streets, and an account of the time tells of one who seized a woman in broad daylight and ate her. But Peter, taking the wish for the deed, called St. Petersburg “this paradise. Truly,” he said, “we live here in heaven.” The glowing pastels that beautify its facades help foster the illusion. Perhaps all art is like that, plastering over the void, and St. Petersburg is a great work of art.


Deposited on the English Embankment with nary a glance from the Customs—they don’t scowl any more but snooze on their benches—I feel a hand twitching my shirt sleeve. “Speechki?” the man is saying. Have I got any matches? From my pocket I fish a match book, courtesy of the ship’s bar, and he lights his evil-smelling papirosa, dragging deep.

“You English?”

“American,” I tell him. He likes Americans, and when he speaks English, tries for an American accent. “Tries,” wrote the teacher, grading my daughter in Home Economics. “I am Pavel,” he says, showing crooked teeth and a self-deprecating grin. “What you in America call a toot.”

“You toot your own horn?” I ask him.

“I give tips and drum up business,” he says. “I am—”

“A tout!” I say, and he nods in agreement.

Different from the squat and jowly Brezhnevs and Krushchevs, Pavel is a skinny Russian, whose long face and smoldering eyes recall Solzhenitsyn’s. His muscled hands are a peasant’s, though, almost wristless where they join the arm, like a football player whose head sits on top of his shoulders. To emphasize a point, he stabs you with a blunt finger, driving the air out of your chest. Waiting at dockside, Pavel hopes to pick up some change from the tourists. “My native city,” he says, taking it in with a sweep of his hand from the Admiralty Arch where Nevsky Prospekt begins all the way to the lavra that gives the city’s biggest thoroughfare its name.

Lavra is monastery, one of the important ones. St. Petersburg remembers a Russian hero-saint, Alexander Nevsky, victor over the Teutonic knights in a famous “battle on the ice.” Prokofief, whose music glorified the battle, likened these early invaders to Hitler’s. Russians, standing in the breach, have saved the West more than once, when barbarians across their frontiers sought to destroy it. In our own time they have done this again, driving their own barbarians out of the Kremlin.

Pavel knows the city “from nuts to bolts,” and perhaps I would care for a guide? I don’t want a guide, but after the horde of well-heeled shoppers on the cruise ship, hot for berioska dolls, fur hats, authenticated icons, and hand-painted boxes, I wouldn’t mind someone to talk to. Not much younger than me, Pavel will have seen a few things, unless blind. He isn’t blind, and we strike up an acquaintance.

His job, “if you could call it that,” is restoring old paintings. He works half days, all the work they will give him, at the Russian Museum on Mikhailovsky Ploschad, earning, he says bitterly, about the same pay as the babushka who hangs up coats in the cloak room. This is standard in “Peter,” his name for the city, and the price of living in paradise. Whether he means to be ironic isn’t clear. Later I understand that in most things he tells me, irony and the unvarnished truth go together.

For instance, the name of the city he lives in, mutable and the same, like the people themselves. “First it was St. Petersburg, named for you know who. Well, actually, his patron saint. Then, during the First War when German was verboten, it turned into Petrograd. Now that we’ve seen through Lenin, we’re back where we started. But the name doesn’t matter,” he says with a touch of pride. “Whatever the world wants to call us, people who live here call their city “Peter.”“

As we walk along the embankment toward Senate Square, we talk about the founding father and his “Window on the West.” The Baltic Sea it looks out on laps another universe, different from Russia’s, says Pavel. Civilized when St. Petersburg had yet to be dreamed of, islands like Goteland stand over the sea, and cultivated port cities surround it, on the south Tallinn in Estonia, Copenhagen on the west, Stockholm on the north, on the east Helsinki, close except in feeling. Before it went down to defeat at Poltava, imperial Sweden controlled most of this land. Its feeling is German, part medieval, part baroque, but the Czar wanted something new. Notoriously, he started from scratch.

“Strictly speaking,” I say, “that isn’t an option.” Pavel agrees, and says that the Czar’s window, like a mirror, gave him back what he looked at. It wasn’t old Europe, America either, where New York was already a going concern, but a fairy tale city of gilded hemispheres and pylons. Peter, who dreamed this city, had the imagination of a poet. Travel to foreign lands stirred his imagination, and in Amsterdam he saw a city built on islands, separated by canals and stitched together with bridges. Overlooking the canals, the tall gabled houses didn’t spread themselves, a detail Peter noticed. A giant, he craved low ceilings, and made his buildings less tall than wide.

He had a “phobia,” and meant to redo the world in his own image and likeness. Obsessed with struggle, against the Swedes or the past or the backward-looking clergy, he toughened his people against it. When he lived in Holland as a young man, he visited a dissection theater. His Russian comrades cringed at the sight of cadavers, but he made them bite off a dead man’s muscle with their teeth. He was like those gargoyles you see on the walls of old churches. “They scare you, at the same time make you laugh.” Emceeing the big dinner after Poltava, he sang with the priests, beat time for the orchestra, set off the fireworks, and carved the roast oxen himself. “Like Bottom in Shakespeare, he wanted to play every part in the play, even Thisby’s.”

Turning away from the river, we pass the Czar’s Senate and Synod, color of old ivory. In these twin buildings, state and church conducted their business. Both were creatures of the Czar. When the Decembrist rebels drew up their troops in Senate Square, the senators looked out the windows in horror. Swearing allegiance to Nicholas I, they nipped rebellion in the bud. By six o’clock that night, it was over. A baroque arch ties the two buildings together, and a long colonnade curves round to meet the embankment. It directs your eyes upward, to statues of angels and abstractions like Justice, personifying the work that went on here. “They weren’t all that angelic,” says Pavel, following my gaze, “and justice didn’t always prevail. The buildings are nice, though, and if you like poetry better than truth, St. Petersburg is the city for you.”

Peter used the church the way Stalin did, he tells me. He took away its power but let it feed at the trough, and it kept his people in line. Clergy worried about the form while the Czar looked after the substance. I think about this, thinking how most I know identify form with the surface of things, as when we speak of the “dress of thought.” But the questions that come up when you worry the surface are hardly superficial, and trying to answer them puts truth in your way. With luck, you stumble over it.

Nice distinctions are a pleasure of mine, and in my bookcase at home I have the Nicene, Ante Nicene, and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Sometimes I take down these old volumes, and what I read in them widens my eyes. In Peter’s Russia they asked themselves: when you made the Sign of the Cross, did you hold up the traditional two fingers, symbolizing Christ’s two natures, or the three fingers that stood for the Trinity? Bored by all that, Peter left the hairsplitting to churchmen. He thought, says Pavel, that the people cared more for their security than forms.

Dominating Senate Square, his forbidding silhouette, a man on horseback sculpted by Falconet, tramples a serpent. This image out of the Apocalypse surmounts a granite monolith, shaped like the crest of a wave. The sun is bright today, and seizing the day, a good idea in Russia, brides in white wedding gowns are arranging themselves around the base of the statue. The photographer, setting up his traps, tells them to look at the birdie. Like Moscow’s Red Square, this huge public place is an emptiness, without benches or chairs to sit down on.

Atop the monolith, Czar Peter, his right arm outflung, summons the future. He couldn’t have predicted the Communist future, and Pavel says he would have hated its godless ideology. He wasn’t an ideologue. But like his successors he docketed experience, putting every last thing in its place. If things didn’t fit he stretched them, or he cut them shorter. Pushkin called him the Idol. In his poem, “The Bronze Horseman,” the Czar, spurring his dark stallion, pursues the bedeviled hero through the night until he dies.

“Of course he did what he did for the good of the people!” As usual, Pavel’s truth wears a lopsided grin. The facts he enumerates, stabbing with his finger, add up, however. Before Peter, he says, everything in Russia was a law unto itself. He made everyone serve a greater than himself, the serf under the landlord and the landlord under the Czar. Everyone had to soldier, go to school, climb the ladder of success. Three ladders, each with fourteen rungs, gave a man access to the three kinds of service, military, civil, and service at court. The society Peter dreamed of, where birth didn’t count, only brains, sounds attractive to me, and I say so.

But Pavel has a different take. The Czar’s ad astro, per aspera staircase led to the world’s biggest bureaucracy but made little of personal allegiance. Men whose eyes were on the stars lost all sense of where they came from. Most didn’t have time for today. He has an example, one Ulyanov, grandson of a serf but the son of an educated man, a schoolteacher, “wouldn’t you know it?” Climbing Peter’s staircase, the father reached the fourth stair from the top. His goal-oriented life exacted a price, though, turning the man into the achiever. “Hey, hey, I’m on my way!” Pavel sings mirthlessly, doing a little jig.

Ambition in the son, more impersonal than in the father, bred a devotion to abstract ideals, like Liberty, Equality, etc. Fraternity, Pavel says, the young man went right on, caring little for Tom, Dick, and Harry. Friends were tissue paper, tossed aside when he’d used them. Loyal to no country, he grew up in no particular village, not that he remembered. Like a character in an old-fashioned novel, he came from—in the province of—. We don’t hear that he had antecedents. In pursuit of his ideals he shifted from one place to another, occupying the same rooming house in the same squalid corner of an anonymous city. When his elder brother died, he inherited the title, signing himself “Nobleman Vladimir Ulyanov.” Later he changed this name to Lenin.


South of Senate Square, St. Isaac’s Cathedral overawes the city, as if God and His Czar were looking down from the roof. In the afternoon, Pavel is busy at the museum, and I go back there alone. I know a couple of saints named Isaac, early Christian fathers who cared little for the things of the world, but there is nothing early Christian about the cathedral. Its immense granite columns, admonishing all outdoors, are like a set for Aida, and inside, pains have been taken. Four hundred KG of gold and 16,000 of malachite, plus tons of bronze and meters of lazurite, porphyry, and marble spruce up the walls and pavement. More than a landmark, the gilded dome is to the city what St. Paul’s is to London and St. Peter’s to Rome. The cathedral, grand from a distance, turns grandiose up close, though.

During the War, when Leningrad-as-it-was lived through a German blockade, the green lawns around the entrance became a vegetable garden. I imagine the granite columns wearing a lorgnette and looking down on the cabbages and humble potatoes. Though the columns are real as real—I have read somewhere what each of them weighs and am staggered—they give the effect of being lowered from the skies. Statues crowd the interior but don’t look inevitable, only expensive, and its mosaics, work of “the golden smithies of the Emperor,” knock your eye out. “Voila, quelque chose!” I hear a French tourist say.

The last time I saw St. Isaac’s, the Communists had decommissioned it, converting the interior to an atheist’s museum. Instruments of torture stocked the museum, evoking the Dark Ages before our enlightened age. This medieval period, a bend in the road of history, witnessed the heyday of religion. Before the Revolution, religion in Russia aspired to create the City of God on earth. It wasn’t down-to-earth like Bethlehem or Tower-of-Babylonish like public buildings under Stalin, and it came in two models, old Corinthian inoculated with modern macrocephaly, or Byzantine that owed something to the Prince Regent’s folly at Brighton. Stupendous St. Isaac’s follows the first model.

The Resurrection Church on the other side of Nevsky Prospekt follows the second. Blood soaks the ground it stands on, like the bleeding head Rome’s first architects discovered on the Capitoline Hill. What did it augur but the headship of Rome, unless it augured Rome’s end in a blood bath? Exploding in your face like a giant pinwheel, the Resurrection Church rises on the spot where the liberal Czar, Alexander II, was murdered. Terrorist bomb throwers recognized their enemy in the man who abolished serfdom. He might have made the Revolution de trop.

Histrionic Russians know his church as the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood. Transcending his terrible death and the wasted lives of the men and women he liberated, it acts out a crazy fantasy of onion domes and writhing turrets, gilded or stippled, some whipped like gobbets of cream. Looking at the cathedral, I feel a long way from the white “Congo” churches of New England. How does its wildness that just escapes being Disney harmonize with that dour Russia where the standard retort is “Nyet”?

In the Flea Market beside the church, one of the vendors, sly but good humored, wants to barter with me for my Aussie cowboy’s hat, bought from a tourist shop in Visby on the Baltic. He offers in trade an “antique” samovar, genuine silver plate. The vendors are friendly and get a lack out of winching you up, when you think you’ve gone as high as you want to. But the great city isn’t people-friendly. Thundering traffic bears down on pedestrians, like the Horseman in Pushkin’s poem. On Nevsky Prospekt, hordes of citizens hasten along the sidewalk, threatening to bowl you over. In the street, a frantic press of sardine-stuffed trolley buses rushes through the lesser flotsam of Moskvas, Fiats, etc. The spirit of the place doesn’t care if you grow old and gray while you wait at curbside, getting your nerve up to cross.

Like London after the War, before the automobile became every man’s inalienable right, St. Petersburg is an imperious city, its psychology still that of the knight on his charger. Peasants get out of the way. Monumental, a bad word in my thesaurus, it reminds me of our nation’s capital, a cenotaph on the grand scale, nobody there if you knock. Or it is like Paris, after Baron Haussmann got through airing it out. Haussmann, the foe of alleyways and cul-de-sacs, tutored Louis Napoleon in crowd control. City planners in St. Petersburg took note.

The spacious boulevards that radiate outwards from the Admiralty and the Winter Palace don’t meander like something in nature but run straight as a broom stick. Sighting along them, the Czar’s palace guard had a clear line of fire. If a crowd from the city took it into its head to petition the government, the soldiers knew how to disperse them. On Bloody Sunday in 1905, 200,000 people converged on the Winter Palace. They brought their children with them and carried their icons, singing “God Save the Czar” as they came on. Firing from ten to twenty yards distance, the palace guard killed 500, wounding thousands more. Survivors remembered the blood on the snow.

From my vantage point between the Admiralty and the Winter Palace, I look south like a soldier along the plumb line of Nevsky Prospekt, then turning on my heel, north across the river to the fortress named for Sts. Peter and Paul. St. Petersburg’s first settlement grew up around the fortress, like the hut on the Palatine where the she wolf nursed Romulus and Remus. To see it, I cross the Neva by the Trinity Bridge. Men fishing from the bridge lean over the rail or against the filigree lamp standards, designed by the same Eiffel who did the famous tower. In the foreground, sun worshipers are lying on the sand that slopes down to the river. Behind them, the spire of the cathedral inside the walls thrusts like a stiletto at heaven.

Built to repel the Swedes, Peter and Paul Fortress never had to do that. It kept busy all the same, though, lording it over the city. In its prison, “politicals” regretted the day they were born, among them Alexei, son of the Czar. Dostoevsky slept here. Malingerers went to the prison’s “Dance Floor.” Lashed to a stake, they stood on sharpened piles, shifting in their agony from one foot to another. From a distance, they might have been dancing.

Romanovs, beginning with Peter, are buried in the cathedral. In this morning’s Pravda, a more-or-less liberal daily resurrected from the dead, I read that the ashes of the last of them, Nicholas II, are due to arrive any day now. As the world was falling to pieces around him, he received the British Ambassador, who begged the Czar to go to the country. “Do you mean that I am to regain the confidence of my people, Ambassador, or that they are to regain my confidence?” Nicholas asked him. He wasn’t much for humor, not a prerequisite of Czars.

On July 16, 1918, at Ekaterinburg in the Urals, Nicholas and his wife and children were shot by a firing squad in a cellar. The sickly Czarevich didn’t die at once, and a revolver had to finish him off. Anastasia, the youngest daughter, lingered also, dying from the thrust of a bayonet. Then the children’s pet spaniel was killed, and the bodies, dumped in a mine shaft, were doused with vitriol and burned.

Outside the fortress, the right bank of the river, bending north, takes me past the battle cruiser “Aurora.” Behind it I come to journey’s end, the Finland Station. On a high summer day like today’s, holiday crowds pack its platforms, waiting for a train to the seashore. The guns of the “Aurora,” still pointing at the Winter Palace over the water, fired the first salvo of the Revolution. “Such a little boat!” a visitor says, in the joke they tell hereabouts. “Little or not,” says Second Banana, “this boat has made more trouble for the world than any other boat yet.” But its guns didn’t really begin the Revolution. That happened earlier, on April 16, 1917, the day Lenin got down from the train.

Allen Dulles, who used to run the CIA, didn’t have much more humor than Nicholas II. Once he cracked a smile, though, at his own expense too, and from him I know all I know about Lenin the traveler. The day in early spring, 1917, must have been unseasonably warm. Young Mr. Dulles, attached to the U.S. Embassy in Bern, had a tennis date, he told us, and was eager to be out of the office. “There’s a young man in the anteroom waiting to see you,” said his clerk. “Name of Lenin. Says he has something important.” “I can’t see him now,” said Allen Dulles, hurrying out the door in his white flannels. That night the Germans put Lenin in the sealed boxcar and transported him from Switzerland to the Finland Station. Then they turned him loose, “like a plague bacillus,” someone said.

He didn’t expect to see the Revolution in his lifetime. On the outbreak of war, trade was booming in Russia, and a reforming head of state, having balanced the budget, was well into his program of handing over land to the peasants. Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks, not the voice of the people, lived a hand-to-mouth existence on the fringe. In elections for the new Constituent Assembly, it pulled less than a fourth of the vote. Against all odds, Lenin triumphed. More resolute than most, he had fewer scruples, and messy life didn’t distract him.

The Man of the Century was short, plump, and balding, indifferent to appearances, poor but not minding this, either/or in his thinking, cold in his person, prissy in his habits. If you wanted to smoke, he sent you to the toilet. Democratic principles provoked his contempt, but terrorism got his approval. Boosting his splinter group above the majority, he used force if he had to, and when the vote went against him, dissolved Russia’s first free assembly. Out of power, he made his name as a tribune of the people. In power, he repealed the right to strike, shut down the press, resurrected the secret police, imposed the death penalty. Objections to it, he said, were “inadmissible weakness.”

From the day he and his confederates took over, St. Petersburg began to crumble. Its new rulers never laid eyes on the city of domes and spires. Their X-ray vision cut through particular things, and they saw an abstraction behind them. Promoting the subway, they didn’t spend a dime on the palaces Rastrelli built, the paintings in the Hermitage, or the cathedrals where their forefathers worshiped. Maxim Gorki, a Socialist writer and close to the people in power, saw them let the past run into the ground. In 1917 he addressed a manifesto to the citizens of Petrograd. Take care of your heritage, he said. “Take care of the palaces, take care of the pictures, the statues, the buildings. . . . Citizens, do not touch one stone; preserve the old things—all this is your history, your pride.” But for upwards of 50 years, no one listened.


The best watering-hole in St. Petersburg is the Astoria, kitty-cornered across the square from St. Isaac’s. Pavel and I arrange to meet there for our Saturday’s trip to the country. When I walk in, he is seated on a bar stool, contemplating an etched champagne glass. Moisture beads on the surface, and the champagne, working up through the orange juice, pops and fizzes above the rim.

“Another mimosa for the gentleman,” he tells the bartender in English. To me, he says, “You’re buying.”

During the war, Nazis penciled the Astoria Hotel in their date books. This was where they planned to celebrate the city’s surrender. For the gala dinner, German General von Leeb had the invitations engraved beforehand and all ready to go. After the war, they turned up in a box in Berlin.

I drop a bill on the bar and follow Pavel out the door, taking a diagonal in the direction of the river. Men on horseback are big in St. Petersburg, and our path is blocked by an equestrian statue, patrolling the intersection between the hotel and the rear of the cathedral. Casting a cold eye on the hoi polloi, Nicholas I spurns the red salvia under his horse’s hooves. This autocratic czar liked shooting down dissent, and Pushkin, a poet with a conscience, kept coming up in his gun sights. Also he decreed that no building in the city should be taller than the Winter Palace, where he lived. Pavel cites this as an instance of the ill wind that blows good. According to him, St. Petersburg’s skyline, most of it on the human scale, is owing to Nicholas I.

Walking toward the embankment, we guide on the weathervane, shaped like a frigate, that turns atop the Admiralty’s spire. “We too take ship O soul,” Pavel says, quoting “your American poet,” Walt Whitman. “Hoist instantly the anchor! Cut the hawsers—haul out— shake out every sail!” In midflight, however, he bursts his own balloon. Where the ship of state is going isn’t clear, he admits. “It could be we’re heading straight for the rocks.”

The Winter Palace belies that, imposing order on the south bank. Its pale blue and cream facade abashes the rocks and forbids the waters to rise. Copper-green statues stand on the roof. Looking into eternity, they turn their backs to the great sweep of colonnade where the general staff meditated battles. The Alexander Column in the middle of the square is the pylon, the archway of the general staff Building sketches the hemisphere, but an entablature crowns it, surmounted by a winged Glory. Bronze horses draw her chariot, and weren’t born for death. “Where is thy sting?” said the architect, a rhetorical question.

No ensemble to compare with St. Petersburg’s, not the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin or even Paris’s Arch of Triumph. How would I describe it, Pavel asks me. “Magnificent? Chilling?” Neither seems adequate. “Both of the above,” I tell him.

Centerpiece of the table is the Hermitage Museum, built into the palace by Catherine the Great. Ten naked Atlantes, only a loin cloth saving the proprieties, hold up its portico. Pavel calls them the Dark People, his version of Russia’s mute, anonymous millions. I see them everywhere in St. Petersburg, supporting the balconies and bay windows that jut from buildings on either side of the Neva’s canals. The buildings are composed, with the elegance that only the 18th century can manage, the wrought-iron balconies are delicate as lace, but the half-bestial termini that take their weight have barely crawled up from the slime.

“What price beauty?” Pavel asks, not a question that occurred to the Empress. Living alone in the Winter Palace, she said she had the mice for company. Together they viewed the pictures in her made-to-order collection. The Dark People didn’t get past the front door.

If I lived for 70 years, Pavel says, and spent eight hours every day going from room to room, I might do the Hermitage. No time for coffee breaks, however. I get started the same afternoon I check out St. Isaac’s. Yards of Rembrandts, Leonardos, and Renoirs go by me, and there are whole roomsful of Cézannes and Van Goghs. Though I give a pass to the museum’s 1,000,000 coins and medals, and 224,000 works of applied art, I am running on empty long before the bell rings for closing. Gratefully, I prop an elbow on a convenient mantelpiece and press a Wash ‘n Dri against my forehead. Suddenly angry hissing sounds in my ear, and a red-faced babushka hustles up, wagging a finger. Even the mantelpiece is precious.

Opposite the museum on Palace Embankment, a small crowd has gathered, waiting while the hydrofoil noses into its berth. We are on our way to Peterhof, “Peter’s Court” in Dutch, where the Romanovs camped out for the summer. The greatest of them built it to glorify his Baltic conquests, incidentally, says Pavel, to outdo the French king’s palace at Versailles. Building Versailles cost France a full year’s income, plus the deaths of many thousands, all of them expendable. Peter the Great put the Sun King in the shade.

As the Neva, running west, widens out toward the sea, sullen blocks of apartment houses materialize on both banks. They don’t make the traveler think of Versailles. Wherever communism planted its flag, outside Tallinn in Estonia, or Moscow on the way to Sheremetyevo Airport, the landscape is like this. Concrete is of its essence, but the feeling it excites in you is oddly insubstantial. Plunked down on the river bank, not growing out of it, this complex of buildings makes a city to itself, except, as they say, there’s no “there” there.

Peterhof s is an illusion but hugely compelling. In dappled shade under the big hornbeam trees, refugees from the city loaf and invite their souls. The air smells wooingly, and strong-scented limes, elms, and Norway maples fan the glades. All this is a setting for the pleasure dome of the czars, 1500 cultivated acres, glittering with palaces and pavilions. Nature, forced into a straitjacket, has had its revenge, however, and millions of gnats, spawned in the cascading waters, divebomb the visitor the moment he steps from the boat.

Water is everywhere, tumbling over staircases and statues, or the squares of an artificial chessboard. Prying open the jaws of a golden lion, a.k.a. defeated Sweden, the Russian Samson releases a silvery jet, shooting 65 feet in the air. Falling to earth, the water collects in pools and fountains, then, gathered in a man-made canal, flows obediently down to the sea. A three-pronged stairway, divided by statues of heroes and gods, ascends to the royal palace. On one landing I see Perseus, holding up the head of Medusa. From this gory spectacle, all grossness has been purged.

The gilded victor is Peter the Great, Pavel says. Killing the Swedes, he is killing Russians too, the Dark People who lived and died in their one-room hovels with a dirt floor and a hole in the roof. Bath and toilet they did without. Deprived of letters, their minds were a blank. Sometimes they had no food. The one thing they were sure of, if they dared to complain, was a beating.

In the palace at the head of the stairs, the interior glows with light, refracted from the parquet floors, chandeliers and mirrors, and pouring in from the huge two-tiered windows. Walls are lined with silk, some inlaid with precious wood or blazing with exotic tiles. In the White Banqueting Hall, the faience dinner service, almost 200 pieces of it, is Wedgewood. Wonderful, the cates and viands prepared for the royal guests. Even in lean times, they never went hungry.

Outside on the lawns and walkways once reserved for the few, half of St. Petersburg is enjoying itself on an afternoon in summer. Boys and girls, in T-shirts or halters, step, by accident or design, on the triggers of invisible fountains. One, umbrella-shaped like a giant mushroom, showers water from its cap, another, evidently a park bench, tempts the weary to sit. If they do, they regret it. Streams of water spurt without warning from a make-believe fir tree or the flowers and leaves of a tulip. Squealing with dismay, the children explode in laughter. Over their high-pitched voices comes the lute-like music of a balalaika, inviting older boys and girls to romance.

Not everyone in the park this Saturday is there for fun. In the middle of an informal garden, the handsome little boy has set up for business, surrounded by pink and white flox. He could have modeled for a Renaissance painting. “By Carlo Crivelli,” says Pavel, who knows about such. On the ground at his feet, his upended felt hat holds a few small bills worth pennies, and the flute he is playing is fastened together with string. Agreeable sounds come out of it, though, a vaguely familiar tune, something by Grétry.

Behind him, the walls of the Great Palace are dusted with pale gold, and its white trim looks cooler than sherbet. I am a things-oriented man, I have to confess it, and Peterhof s palace is loaded. I would give my old cardigan for the curving oak staircase designed by Le Blond, or a single Chinese tile from the ornate stove in the bedroom. On foggy mornings, it took the chill off royal bones.

Eighteenth-century bedrooms didn’t have toilets, but this one comes equipped with a gold commode that looks like a Louis Quinze chair. You lifted the hinged seat and sat down. Each morning one of the Dark People emptied the slops. Most of them never saw the palace, however, a decree ordering the royal guard “in no uncertain terms” to make sure “the vulgar masses” weren’t admitted. In 1917 the People’s Commissars repealed this decree, and the first workers on holiday passed through its halls, holding red flags in their fists.


I needn’t show up at Pulkovo for my flight to London and home until evening. With an hour or so to kill, I head for the Spit on Vasilievsky Island. St. Petersburg is all islands in the stream of the Neva, but Vasilievsky is the one people come back to. Brodsky, far away in America, said in one of his poems how he yearned to come back. Before he could do this, however, death took him.

On its eastern end the Spit, like the nosepiece of an oldfashioned helmet, divides the mighty river in two. Just beyond the tip of the nose is Peter and Paul Fortress, backed by the large islands natives call the Petrograd Side. Below the tip on the south bank is the Winter Palace. If you want to take it all in, the Spit is the best seat in the house. Water, flowing around it, is like a bright girdle cinching the focal points of the city. The Malaya or Little Neva descends from the north, the Bolshaya or Big Neva angling up from the south. In spring, big and little lose their distinction, and the river becomes a torrent, swollen with blocks of ice. Slow but sure, the current moves them along, though. Carrying the ice down to the sea is Russia’s immemorial function.

Framing the Spit like the pillars of a gate, the orange-red Rostral Columns are stuck over with the prows of enemy ships. The scene is geared to impress you, and behind the columns, the Zoological Museum looks like a temple in Karnak. Rostra in Latin is prows. Sawing them off Carthaginian warships, Romans embedded them in their triumphal columns. Russians, notorious copycats, followed suit. “Don’t tread on me,” they warned foreign sailors, venturing into the Neva. After much bloodletting, Russians have come down in the world, though. Buffeted by history, perhaps they are tired.

In the late afternoon sun, I sit on my “shooting stick,” a collapsible camp stool, saying “Das-vee-dahn-yah” to the statues on the roof across the river. A breeze has sprung up, and sailboats, their sails freshened, needn’t tack between the south bank and the Petrograd Side on the north. Like an old lizard warmed by the declining sun, I turn my face in its direction. But the breeze is off the water, and I feel the coming fall in my bones.

From where I sit, the view is edited, a blessing. I can’t see the stony high rises and industrial chimneys of the modern city, or its gleaming supermarkets, hell on the eyes. All that is “extramural,” outside the walls, not bricks and mortar but invisible, the contours that matter. Old “Peter,” a northern Venice, opens before me on its half a hundred islands, threaded by rivers and canals. This is the city of Montferrand, builder of St. Isaac’s, Rossi’s Alexander Column, the Admiralty of Zakharov, Rastrelli’s Winter Palace. A Johnny-come-lately as the world’s great cities go, Peter antedates human history, however, and the stuffed mammoth in the Zoological Museum, found in the northern permafrost, is 44,000 years old.

I am looking at my pocket watch, wondering where Pavel has got to, when I sort him out in the crowd on Birzhevaya Ploschad. Taller than others, he is swinging his arms stiffly, as if arms and hands were soldered together, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. They have kept him overtime for once in the Russian Museum, at work on Bryullov’s famous painting, “Pompeii’s Last Day.” Here and there the canvas shows signs of cracking, he says, and the surface, thicker than it should be, needs cleaning. St. Petersburg, I tell him, is like this.

I don’t mean the cracks and the muddy impasto but the part about the Last Day, not much they can do to fix that. “Open your eyes and you can see the volcano, almost ready to blow.” Getting out my watch, I ask him to check his against it. “The count down begins now,”

“Look around you,” he says, protesting. “People are smiling. They wear suits that fit them, even shoes that don’t curl up like canoes.”

“Lots more cars on the street too,” I answer. “That’s progress! Some things haven’t changed, though. Have you noticed the bas-reliefs above the doors of public buildings?”

“Yes,” he says, conceding a point. “The hammer and sickle.”

“It gets worse,” I say. “A block from St. Isaac’s there’s a plaque to Lenin’s police chief. Wherever I look, I see soldiers and cops. I get the feeling you could throw a switch and we’d be back in 1980.”

But Pavel remains upbeat. Rarely will I notice “The Three Beards” anymore, meaning Marx, Engels, and Lenin. On the walls of the city, blank patches say where their portraits once hung. Pretty soon pollution will make the walls all one color, and the bad old days will sink without trace.

“Maybe you haven’t noticed,” I say, “but billboards are filling in the blanks on the walls. They want you to buy toilet paper and hair oil. Not far from where we’re standing, in one of the old mansions on University Embankment, you can see where some landlord has cut plate glass windows into the upper story. Things like that couldn’t happen, if this city had a conscience.”

“I guess we thank capitalism and its greed,” Pavel says agreeably.

I don’t agree. On my reading, the culprit is loss of memory. “Capitalism hasn’t got a memory to lose, only a yen for dollars and cents.”

“Communism is different?” he asks me, wrinkling his eyebrows.

“Communism is more efficient,” I say, surprising him. “It has a program. It wants to get rid of history and begin from scratch.”

“Change is the law of life,” Pavel says. “When “they” were in charge, Nevsky Prospekt became Avenue 25 October, Leningrad replaced St. Petersburg. They renamed the university for Zhdanov, a party hack. Fifty years later, things are back as they used to be. What’s in a name?”

“Names are the keys to memory,” I say. It sounds hifalutin, and I feel myself redden.

Mocking me, Pavel holds up an imaginary mike. But I ignore him. “The place where we store up the past,” I go on. “If you want to get rid of memory, change the name.”

In front of the Zoology Museum, an ancient of days is peddling soft drinks from a traveling kiosk, mounted on a pair of bicycle wheels. Jingling coins in his pocket, Pavel calls the old man over and buys us each a kvass. “So it’s warm,” he says, “and it isn’t quite beer. On the other hand, it only costs a few kopeks.”

“Phooey!” I say, making a face.

“Me too!” he says, upending his plastic cup on the ground. “But there have been worse times in Peter, and the city hasn’t folded its hands. It isn’t going to now. I didn’t live through the blockade not to know that.”

Too young to serve in the war, Pavel stayed home and watched his family die. His city came close to dying, he says, hunger and cold accounting for almost a million. “But the theaters never closed, even though the actors were starving. Children never stopped going to school. In winter, trucks brought supplies across Lake Ladoga. Hundreds went through the ice, their drivers still at the wheel. But the Way of Life never snapped.” Pausing, he looks down at his erector-set hands. “We’re not ready yet for the Last Day.”

Over our heads the sun, moving west, fires the buildings on the embankment. The sky is almost empty, most birds in the city having fled the approaching cold. But the crows we have always with us, and on a stanchion by the river I spot a solitary siskin. St. Petersburg’s fishermen, fixtures on the bridges all summer long, are nowhere to be seen, gone for the year, Pavel says. When the ice melts, however, the sparling, a deep-sea fish, runs up river to spawn and die in Lake Ladoga, and the fishermen return again. Pavel says I mustn’t miss the running of the sparling, but if I’m to see it, I’ll have to come back in the spring.


Some words or phrases imply assumptions I happen to disagree with. In the context of the Civil War, “home front” is an example. To speak of the “home front” in connection with the Civil War is to use an anachronism, since the phrase came into our language during World War I, when a distinction between people who lived at home in peace and people who faced the “red animal” across an ocean actually meant something. But to Katherine Couse, cringing at Laurel Hill in May 1864 while the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania swirled around her house, or to Jennie Wade, killed in her kitchen at Gettysburg, this distinction meant nothing. Well, of course, some might argue, but doesn’t the distinction between war front and home front hold wherever civilians do not confront actual combat, as in most of the North?

I don’t believe so. In fact, one of the ways to think about “civil war,” a way that perhaps still acknowledges the long history of Southern discomfort with the term, is to think of it as war in which the boundaries between war front and home front are anything but stable and clear. True, more fighting happened in the South than in the North, much of it in Virginia alone, and so the name “War of Northern Aggression” has some appeal, especially if one ignores the firing on Fort Sumter. But the fact is that effects of warfare, whether actual fighting between armies, the threat of actual fighting (as in the minds of the citizens of Harrisburg or Philadelphia after Lee invaded Pennsylvania in 1863), or the violent and destructive consequences of actual fighting (the New York draft riots of July 1863 or the Confederate raid on St. Albans, Vermont, in October 1864, a raid that many would now consider terrorism), extended far beyond the battlefield. Furthermore, and more important, beyond the worrying and nursing and grieving and mourning and financing and supplying and laboring and cheering that have made up the work of noncombatants during the later wars abroad, civilians during the Civil War, both North and South, felt deeply uncertain about the future shape of what they called home, about exactly where its front would be. When the phrase “home front” was coined 50 years after Appomattox, it was coined to describe a realm in which people don’t feel deeply uncertain about the future shape of home.

Some people might disagree about this particular phrase, and I can accept their disagreement with something like respectful detachment. But in the case of certain other words or phrases my respectful detachment collapses, since those words or phrases imply assumptions I cannot stand. In the context of the Persian Gulf War, “collateral damage,” an Orwellian euphemism for civilians killed in the bombing of Baghdad, would be an example. In the context of the Civil War, one of the worst offenders is buff, when used as a noun to mean someone interested in the events, conditions, and legacies of the years 1861 to 1865. Of course, there is at least one big difference between “collateral damage” and “buff.” Whereas “collateral damage” disguises the killing of innocent civilians in neutral, bureaucratic language, most people who use the term buff have no conscious intent to obscure or conceal. The term does, however, obscure and conceal, just as it illuminates and reveals, much that is important.

Different dictionaries emphasize different aspects of the word, but the ones I looked at all point to the association of buff with firefighting and firefighters. Significantly, the closest relevant definition in the second edition of Webster’s New International (1960) does not imply any necessary connection with interest in the Civil War (“An enthusiast about going to fires”), but the Third New International (1986) includes the etymology of the word (from “the buff overcoats worn by volunteer firemen in New York City” about 1820) and makes the connection implicit (“FAN, ENTHUSIAST, DEVOTEE”). The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) gives no examples that involve the Civil War, but both the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (1969) and the second edition of the Random House Dictionary (1987) do:

a devotee or well-informed student of some activity or subject: Civil War buffs avidly read the new biography of Grant.(American Heritage)

Informal. One who is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about a given subject: a Civil War buff.(Random House)

What’s the matter with these definitions? Who could object to being called “well-informed,” “enthusiastic,” and “knowledgeable”? Although the Oxford English Dictionary gives examples of usages from 1931 to 1968 that include “police buff,” “choo-choo buff,” “hi-fi buff,” “disarmament buff,” “ballet buff,” and “sports buff,” it’s pretty clear from the history of the Webster’s definition, as well as from the examples given in the two other dictionaries, that, at least in the United States, the Civil War centennial has tinged the term buff with particular associations. Regardless of the examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is English, after all, my bet is that when asked to fill in the blank in the phrase “so-and-so is a _____ buff,” most Americans would supply “Civil War.” Or, to design the test differently, if asked to complete the sentence, “My friend who visits all the battlefields is a Civil War _____,” more Americans would volunteer buff than fan, devotee, or enthusiast. Although the dictionaries show that there have been other lands of buffs since 1900, the centennial made the phrase “Civil War buff” idiomatic and in doing so reflected the emergence of a new attitude toward the war.

What’s wrong with the definitions above, or, more accurately, what is incomplete about them, immediately becomes apparent when we try to use buff as though it were merely a neutral synonym for a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable person. If, for example, one were to call a well-informed, enthusiastic, knowledgeable student of Christianity “a Jesus buff,” that epithet would sound disrespectful and offensive to many ears. Or if we called a passionately committed specialist in the history of the Nazi concentration camps “a Holocaust buff,” the tasteless trivializing behind the phrase would be palpable. We would never think of describing Abraham Lincoln as “a Union buff,” Jefferson Davis as a “states’ rights buff,” or Frederick Douglass as “an abolition buff.”

The ludicrousness of these examples shows the difference between what calling a person “a Civil War buff” denotes and what it connotes. What it denotes is someone well informed, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable, but what it connotes is that this well-informed, knowledgeable enthusiasm is not really serious but a little quirky and eccentric, a harmless private hobby on the order of collecting bottle caps or matchbooks from around the world. It also reveals a distance in time and mind from events and conditions, including some of the ghastliest that the 19th century produced. It shows that the renewed interest accompanying the Civil War centennial was wide but not necessarily deep. In fact, it may have been wide and continue to be widening precisely because the distances in time and mind guarantee that it cannot be deep, or at least not so deep that it could interfere with one’s enjoyment of the domestic prosperity and relative peacefulness of the United States before and after Vietnam.

When Patricia Polacco closes Pink and Say by telling us to say the name of Pinkus Aylee out loud and to remember it always, is she telling us how to be good Civil War buffs? I don’t think so. If we return to the precentennial definition in Webster’s, “[a]n enthusiast about going to fires,” the adoption of buff to describe one interested in the Civil War should make us uncomfortable. On the one hand, fires, especially large fires, are beautiful, sublime, and hypnotic, except perhaps for those who are phobic about fire. Quite understandably, some people might be enthusiastic about watching one. On the other hand, large fires necessarily involve the destruction of property or the environment and often involve injury or loss of life. How can one be enthusiastic about these things, unless one is some kind of ghoul or sadist? War has the same two-sidedness, a doubleness that Whitman captures perfectly in his Memoranda. In an entry for July 3, 1863, immediately preceding one about Gettysburg, he describes watching “long strings of cavalry” pass from north to south along Fourteenth Street in Washington: “How inspiriting always the cavalry regiments! . . . This noise and movement and the tramp of many horses’ hoofs has a curious effect upon one.” But this exhilarating spectacle soon gives way to another that moves from south to north, the geography of its movement replicating in miniature the constant flow of bodies back from the fighting:

Then just as they had all pass’d, a string of ambulances commenced the other way, moving up Fourteenth street north, slowly wending along, bearing a large lot of wounded to the hospitals.

One can be a buff about the cavalry pageant but not about the ambulance convoy or about a boy hanged and thrown into a lime pit. When Polacco tells us to say the name Pinkus Aylee and remember it always, she charges us with a deep memorializing that is the very opposite of chasing after fire trucks for the thrill of watching buildings burn.

Here then is the problem with buff. Its employment after 1960 to describe interest in the Civil War confirms that the boundary between war and peace within the United States feels so secure that people who want to can cross that boundary for their own amusement. In places and times where the boundary between war and peace feels insecure, interest in war is not a form of amusement. There were no Civil War buffs in Atlanta in 1865, no World War II buffs in London in 1945, no Vietnam War buffs in Saigon in 1975. McPherson may be right when he claims that many people fascinated with the Civil War are preoccupied with the multiple meanings of freedom, but a country in which there are two million copies of Killer Angels in print, a country in which supposedly nobody reads anymore, is a country that feels stable enough to entertain itself, while commuting to work or lounging at the beach or before turning out the light at night, with a story of a battle that involved more than 50,000 killed, wounded, and missing people.

It is only in the safety of peace that people can have fun with war. When a man plasters his pickup truck with bumper stickers reading, “Happiness Is a Northbound Yankee,” “I had rather be dead than a Yankee,” “Keep the history, heritage and spirit of the South flying [with picture of the Confederate battle flag],” “Forget, Hell!”, “Send more Yankees/They are delicious” [with a picture of a mosquito], “Lest we forget the Civil War; America’s Holocaust,” “American by birth/Southern by the grace of God,” “Welcome to the South/Now go home,” and “When I’m old/I’ll move up North/& Drive like I’m dead!,” he appears to be carrying out a kind of deep memorializing that keeps the war present in his mind and that of anyone who sees his truck. But in fact he’s having it both ways, since it is only because the war is so long gone and absent from most people’s awareness that he can afford to brandish these inflammatory slogans. He appears to urge remembrance, but he does so in terms that depend on forgetting. If the Yankees who have overrun his Southern home felt as ardently as he about keeping sectional tensions alive, he might think twice about the possible effects of those bumper stickers on his insurance premiums.

In all fairness, many of those whom other people label buffs are committed to deep memorializing rather than to amusing themselves. Describing three different audiences for Civil War history, McPherson’s essay “What’s the Matter with History?” distinguishes among professional historians, the general readers who bought 600,000 copies of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), and those he calls Civil War buffs, including under this heading the members of 200 Civil War roundtables, 40,000 reenactors, and 250,000 subscribers to four popular Civil War magazines. Although McPherson charges the last group with ignoring political and social issues in their preoccupation with military matters, it is not at all clear to me that many of his general readers aren’t out for their own amusement or that many of his so-called buffs aren’t doing what they do in deep remembrance of realities that are anything but amusing.

But it’s hard to know for sure. In the same spirit that, according to Corwin Linson’s memoir My Stephen Crane (1958), led Crane to “wonder that some of those fellows don’t tell how they felt in those scraps!” I often wonder how each of the two million owners of Killer Angels feels about the book or how each of the professional historians feels about devoting a life to Civil War history or how each of the 40,000 reenactors feels about reenacting. I even wonder how a genuine buff, someone who looks to the Civil War for amusement, feels about that amusement. Is he or she really amused? How and by what?

As for me, though I confess there are many moments when I can manage to forget the war and think about something truly amusing, the war itself is not a source of amusement. I’m not enthusiastic about chasing firefighters, and the word buff does not describe me. For one thing, I don’t feel as secure about the boundary between war and peace as I’d like to, for reasons I’m still trying to discover. In the meantime, what word does describe my condition and that of people like me, however many or few we are? I’m not sure, but I think it might be the word “sufferer,” as in the phrase “allergy sufferer.” I think I must be a Civil War sufferer. How else can I explain the itchy throat and watery eyes when, on my way home from work each day, I pass the road sign for the Wilderness?


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