My wife, Rohan, has been dreaming of visiting Saint Petersburg since her teens. She has a warmth for Russia, for Russian literature and for the Russian language and, fittingly, she studied Russian at school and took it up again after retirement.
For years, Rohan has cherished a photograph of her grandmother, Annie Forsyth, taken in around 1914 when Annie was working in the Coats thread factory in St Petersburg. She spent three years there showing the workers how to use the new equipment. Annie originally worked on the shop floor in the company’s factory in Paisley, where she was a breadwinner for her family. Coats had asked for volunteers to help in St Petersburg; she applied and her adventure abroad soon began. By the time she returned she was speaking Russian, and later sang Russian songs to her children – one of whom was Rohan’s father.
With this family history it was inevitable that, one day, we would visit Annie’s Russian work place; Rohan began to think seriously about going there around five years ago. She had already visited Moscow several times but it was St Petersburg about which she now dreamt.
When it comes to going abroad, while Rohan is adventurous, I am very apprehensive. For me, the prospect of being in an unfamiliar place and visiting museums and tourist sights for which my interest might soon pall, makes me feel uneasy. I go eventually, but Rohan knows that persuasion takes time. In this instance, coaxing took five years; for our trip to the Galápagos Islands gestation was nearly eight years, for Cuba, ten.
My wavering about St Petersburg stopped two years ago when Jean-Claude, a close friend in France, made me a challenge that ultimately tied me into going. For years I had been trying to persuade him both to wear a crash helmet when cycling and to marry Armelle, his long-term partner. The crash helmet argument was simple. Both Rohan and I had been saved by our helmets so going bare-headed made no sense. After several years, wearing a helmet became his standard practice too. Persuading him to marry took longer. Inheritance laws in France harshly penalise partners, why put either of those left at a disadvantage? Initially there was inertia, even resistance, but gradually their views changed and knowing about Rohan’s wish to go to St Petersburg and about my dithering, Jean-Claude struck a deal. He asked me to sign and date a contract which, loosely translated from the French read – “If Jean-Claude and Armelle marry one another, I will go with Rohan to St Petersburg for one week”. On April 10, 2016, I signed on the dotted line. Two months later they got married; a day after that plans for our week in St Petersburg were underway; last week we returned after a magnificent trip.
Relationships between the UK and Russia have changed mightily since the contract was made and on telling friends of our planned trip, several asked “are you sure it is wise?”, while some even implored us not to go, adding that if we did, we should be careful what we said – remember “walls have ears”. In fact, while there we never felt anything but safe and welcome. One Russian told us how, while amongst the politicians there was now a ‘Stone’ (rather than a ‘Cold’) War between two, once-powerful old sparring partners, amongst the people no hint of such animosity existed. In St Petersburg that was certainly the case.
Our week in St Petersburg was wonderful. Rohan saw the building where her grandmother worked and the streets where she would have walked and shopped. For my part, I learned a vast amount about Russian history and culture. Both of us adored seeing the exhibits in the richly-packed museums – the Pushkin House museum amongst them – and were continuously amazed by the umpteen pastel-coloured palaces that lined the streets and canals. In daylight these looked like iced cakes; at night like toys. And then, of course there was the language. I used to think that the sound of Italian was the most beautiful – now Russian is easily its equal.
At one moment, things were a little soured. Finding ourselves in the midst of ranks of soldiers marching, some goose-stepping, across the cobbles of the main square, was not pleasant. To me, the sight of soldiers in their masses is very disquieting. They were, we discovered, rehearsing for their Victory-Day parade the following week.
As it turned out it was right not to heed our friends’s kindly, but over-pessimistic, warnings. However, the warnings did make me think, and if it were not for Rohan’s family ties with St Petersburg and for my signed contract related to Jean-Claude’s ties with Armelle, I might have been dissuaded.
The illustration is a of Annie Forsyth; a detail from the larger, cherished group photo.
For help in writing this blog I would like to thank Rohan, Jean-Claude and Vivien