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Russian afternoon tea in SPB – A travel essay

February 25, 2011

Celebrating national Flag Day over tea in the Russian Venice

Ballerinas dance on Russia's national flag day in St. Petersburg.

By Soviet standards it wasn’t much of a parade on Russia’s national Flag Day this year (August 22). No ballistic missiles, no goose-stepping Red Army corporals, no anti-American speeches. In fact, the people that were sipping “Russian Afternoon Tea” with champagne and red caviar in the lobby of the Hotel Astoria probably didn’t realize that the day was upon us.

Outside, old St. Isaac’s Cathedral towered over the square of that name. Down a jagged street near one of the city’s many canals, Raskolnikov did the murderous deed for which his creator made him so famous and so guilt-ridden in Crime and Punishment.

Directly in front of me, chocolate flowed in rivulets pumping from an ornate silver fountain behind which stood a woman who looked more like a scullery maid in an Anton Chekov short story than a pastry chef. The chocolate was destined for a plate of freshly spooned crepes.

Behind me in St. Isaac’s Square Czar Nicholas I sat atop his horse. He might have been leading the charge against a band of revolutionaries called the Decembrists. The rebels made the first attempt at a Russian revolution back in December of 1825 calling on Nicholas to grant modest reforms. Off to Peter and Paul Fortress went they and their military collaborators, their uprising ruthlessly put down and those responsible eradicated.

British writer H.G. Wells might have sat at this very table contemplating such matters of historic import when he stayed at the Astoria back in 1914. Might he have been pondering what to write about Russia in his Outline of History? It alone could fill more than a few volumes and has done.

Perhaps H.G. was coveting some of the caviar, champagne and pirozhki (meat-filled pastries) that made this closer to a true “Russian” tea as he penned notes for one of his famous novels. Three years later, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin would set up headquarters in the hotel and provide more than few moments of note for H.G.’s history book.

Of course, it wasn’t only left-wing revolutionaries and famous authors who took tea at the Astoria.  The hotel claims with pride that Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush and Tony Blair sipped Assam and Earl Grey from its Imperial Porcelain china. Lesser luminaries like Chuck Norris, Luciano Pavarotti and Jack Nicholson also found themselves staring out at St. Isaac’s Square, but they were more likely knocking back vodka in the Kandinsky Lounge down the hall.

If they stepped out for a stroll they might also have seen another statue, this one more famous than Nicholas.  In fact, this one may well be the most famous of all the statues in St. Petersburg. It’s the czar who founded the city in 1703, capturing the land on the Gulf of Finland from the marauding Swedes. It’s Peter the Great, The Bronze Horseman in Alexander Pushkin’s celebrated poem.

A few stragglers from the Flag Day celebrations over at Alexandrovsky Park were snooping around the statue. Yet another couple was getting wedding photos taken with Peter on his high horse in the background. Across the Neva River at the old fortress still more tourists were squeezing the bronze index finger of another statue of Peter, the gesture said to bring good luck.

Just past the baby orchids on my  table (H.G.’s and mine), their lavender petals touched by northern sunshine, I could see the glass cabinets glistening with high-priced amber jewellery akin to what was to be found in the St Petersburg palace of Catherine the Great. By contrast, across the square outside, trinket vendors, sporting the usual Russian fur hats, scarves, pens, pins, and ubiquitous matryoshka dolls, were trying to wrench a few roubles from passing tourists. 

Cigarette lighters imprinted with the old Soviet hammer and sickle logo were prominently displayed. It seemed an anachronism now since former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin inaugurated Flag Day to celebrate the new capitalist Russia.

High up on the St. Isaac’s colonnade, others who clearly had forgotten to observe the day had paid the 170 roubles (about $7) to climb to the top for a peek at the costumed flag wavers far below.

The day’s parade had begun near Cafe Singer across the street from imposing Kazan Cathedral. The largest bookstore in St Petersburg is housed in the unmistakable Singer Sewing Machine Company building on busy Nevsky Prospekt. 

About 50 people mostly dressed and painted in white marched in ragtag fashion behind six young female drummers. Here and there a red, white and blue flag appeared. A beauty queen wore a paper sailing ship on her head painted in those same colours.

Along the old capital’s most famous street they went with traffic cops clearing the way as two clowns on giant tricycles added to the merriment. It was more like a small-town homecoming than a parade to celebrate the Russian Federation, arguably still the second most powerful country in the world even with all its problems. 

At the historic Admiralty spire a few blocks away from the Winter Palace, the one the revolutionaries stormed in 1917, baton twirlers joined the drum majorettes. Art has, of course, replaced revolution in the palace. As part of L’Hermitage it is stormed daily by tourists paying 400 roubles (about $20) to gawk at some of the world’s great treasures now housed therein.

In the Astoria lobby, next to a painting of St. Petersburg’s most famous landmark, the Church of Spilled Blood, a fresh copy of the English-language St. Petersburg Times reminded readers of Flag Day. An article inside claimed that the Soviet Red Army, not the atomic bomb, ended the Second World War and Prime Minister Putin warned that bread prices were too high.

Back in the park, Flag Day celebrants heard an opera singer’s booming voice sing of Russia’s proud past, they heard booming cannon fire that sprayed red, white and blue confetti among them, and they watched in awe as ballerinas, perhaps from the famed Kirov or Bolshoi ballet companies, wrapped themselves in the colours of their country.

I finished my tea and chocolate-drenched crepe and reminded myself to reread some of St. Petersburg poet Alexander Blok’s lyrical love poems or perhaps The Twelve, his response to 1917. But for now on this Flag Day it was time to say farewell to H.G. and resume the chase after Raskolnikov in this storied place of towering literary figures and revolutionaries.  

Ron Verzuh visited Russia in August 2010.

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