How it really was! Cry, the unloved serf

St. Petersburg with its monuments, colorful buildings and magnificents churches and memorials is a testimony to the cruelty of the ruling classes.

Lenin addresses the crowd in St. Petersburg in 1917 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Lenin addresses the crowd in St. Petersburg in 1917
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THINK OF St. Petersburg. What comes to mind? The Hermitage Museum. The Winter Palace. The Nevsky River and its bridges.
The beautiful even-roofed buildings in their bright colors. The powerful state buildings and the towering churches.
Each one of us has his own St. Petersburg.
Before I saw it on a recent visit, I had several preconceived images of the city. First, the revolutions against the Tzarist system in 1917. The seizure of power by Vladimir Lenin, with the connivance of Germany and with the help of sailors manning the guns of the Russian cruiser, Aurora, firing from the Nevsky River, and Soviet soldiers charging into the Tzar’s Winter Palace. (Yes, he had a summer palace as well).
The Tzar had already been arrested months before; the palace was then used by a provisional government which Lenin swept away. I had either read on my own or studied in graduate school enough of Soviet and Communist history to carry in my imagination names of places like the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Finland Station, St.
Isaac’s Cathedral, Fabergé, and so on.
A second image was the siege of Leningrad, the Communist name for St. Petersburg, changed in 1924, following Lenin’s death. This may well have been among the longest and certainly ugliest sieges in history.
Known in Russian as Blokada Leningrada, or the 900-day siege, it actually lasted 872 days from September 1941 to January 1944. The German North Army Group held the lines around the south of the city, while the Finnish Army forces advanced from the north. In essence though, the Finns did not shell or bomb Leningrad. Hitler wanted Leningrad because of its symbolism for the Russian people as their former capital, and to idealistic Communists, for its role in leading the Revolution.
More than a million and a half people were trapped in the city, many of them drafted to join the battle. A similar number were evacuated, with many of the evacuees dying en route. Hitler’s orders called for taking the city, looting all precious objects, total destruction of the city and elimination of its entire population: killing or starving 1,500,000 people so as not to have to provide them with food.
The first winter of the siege saw people dropping dead of starvation, or freezing to death in -30 degree weather. There had been no chance to organize in advance, which meant that the following two winters were “better” – if such a concept can be applied to Leningrad. That first bitter winter led to cases of cannibalism. In that first year alone, the toll from all these causes plus constant shelling and bombing from the air was 650,000. In all, more people died or were killed in Leningrad than the combined Western military losses in World War II.
On our recent visit to the city, our middle- aged guide refused to speak of the siege, saying “my parents wouldn’t even talk about it with me.” Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The third image of St. Petersburg is a happy one. Geoffrey Wigoder, who seemed to know all there was to know in the field of Jewish learning, thought, and art (later editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica) came to see me at the Prime Minister’s Office.
It must have been in the early 1960s. He was preparing a book on Biblical themes as reflected in great art. There were some specific paintings he wanted, which were at the Hermitage Museum and he thought an official letter on the Prime Minister’s Office letterhead might get more attention than one he would write privately. He needed permission to include copies of these paintings in the projected book.
I recall telling Geoffrey that it would be interesting to see how the Hermitage directors would respond. Relations with the Soviet Union were bad. Would art be exempted? Months later we received the response Lenin addresses the crowd in St. Petersburg in 1917 from the Hermitage. Very excited, I called Geoffrey and we both were actually quite thrilled at this outcome.
When Geoffrey came to pick up the letter, we conjectured what had taken so long. The Hermitage directors probably sent our request to the art commissar of the Leningrad regional government. He bucked it along to his corresponding senior in Moscow.
The lower official in Moscow passed it along to the Minister. The Minister consulted with the Soviet Foreign Ministry. The two Ministers said why not? Let’s show how we esteem art even when relations with Israel are bad.
The official who had to sign the approval was Jewish. He was afraid to sign because he might in the future be charged with the “crime of Zionism.” The Jewish official found a non-Jew in the ministry to co-sign the approval. Then the return trip down the offices back to the Hermitage directors.
The fourth image of St Petersburg is that of the immense wealth the Tzars and aristocrats had. Peter the Great (1672-1725) was over two meters tall, but the so-called greatness was in winning wars, thus extending Russian rule over new areas of Europe and Asia, and trying to westernize his army, build a navy and modernize the administration.
Tzar Peter was inspired by the canals of Venice and Amsterdam, and his imported planners, architects and builders did make the outline and the beginnings of the city.
It is built over a bog, and required massive supplies of wood to create stable foundations, according to our knowledgeable guide.
St. Petersburg was built essentially with the blood and bones of serfs. The monstrous mortality rate required a constant supply of – let’s call it by its Western name – slaves. “Peter ordered a yearly conscription of 40,000 serfs, one conscript for every nine to sixteen households. Conscripts had to provide their own tools and food for the journey of hundreds of kilometers, on foot, in gangs, often escorted by military guards and shackled to prevent desertion, but many escaped; others died from disease and exposure under the harsh conditions,” to quote the encyclopedias.
Thus, St. Petersburg with its monuments, colorful buildings and magnificents churches and memorials is a testimony to the cruelty of the ruling classes. Perhaps it was the combination of autocratic power, the intertwined relations of the Russian Orthodox Church and the aristocracy, and serfdom that led to revolutions in the early 20th century.
How many millions were spent on the gold vessels, the thousands of works of art, the vast spaces and rooms in the Winter Palace (that is the Hermitage of today), the beautiful craftsmanship displayed in the Fabergé Museum and the Palace of Peter’s peasant wife, Catherine the I, enlarged and decorated sumptuously decades later by Catherine the Great, and the immense churches? How many bodies lie in their foundations? These heartless Tzars and Tzarinas ruled over a country that only abolished serfdom in 1861.
Can we draw any conclusions about major factors that entered Russian historic memory? Obviously, a desire to copy and surpass the West, the immense power of the state, the late arrival of freedom for millions of serfs, then mostly illiterate – all these are packed into the hard drive of the people today. Add to that the terrible siege of Leningrad, whose victims join the serfs buried in the soil. These, at least partially, may help us understand some of the forces that were at work in the Communist USSR and are still alive in today’s Russia of Putin.
Thus, the visit to St. Petersburg was for me a trauma. A paean to man’s quest for beauty, the egomania of rulers, the waste of human life and the cruelty of power.
Cry, the unloved serf! Cry!
I weep with you.