We are currently in St. Petersberg, Russia. This is the city that Peter the Great, rich and privileged, built. I don’t want to dismiss his accomplishments, which are impressive. But Peter himself didn’t build this city on an unwelcoming swamp out of nothingness.
“There are pickpockets waiting at the top of steps. Hold your valuables close and do not buy from anyone.”
So our guide, Alex, told us as we emerged from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersberg, Russia. We happened to be one of the closest people to our guide as we emerged. We observed one of the street vendors approach him. They entered earnest conversation.
Street vendors try to sell unwitting tourists various souvenirs. They watch which pocket the visitors reach for to get cash. They then alert the pickpockets on their team to do their work.
A few minutes later, Alex told us the story. This particular vendor, high on drugs, had threatened Alex, warning him of consequences if he didn’t let him try to sell to an earlier tour group. Alex had stood up to him. The thief offered an apology, of sorts. The result, “Don’t mess with Alex’s tour clients.”
The luxury cruise for today’s rich and privileged
I am on a luxury cruise. I’ve written about it on a different blog you can read here. We now tour St. Petersberg. The Russians have built the biggest cruise ship port I have ever seen–right now, there are at least six giant ships here. We tourist invade St. Petersberg this time of year, the “White Nights” week.
We are also clearly seen as rich and privileged. By the standards of ordinary Russians, we fit the bill.
But this is more about the rich and privileged in history than in the present. We’re peons compared to them.
St. Petersberg is the city that Peter the Great, rich and privileged himself, built. I don’t want to dismiss his accomplishments. They are impressive.
But Peter didn’t build this city on an unwelcoming swamp out of nothingness. Endless others did. And he got all the credit.
Starting with the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress, Peter dragooned thousands of conscripts, convicts and prisoners of war to erect the city from scratch in a place where snow can fall as early as September and as late as May. Tree trunks had to be sunk into the swampy ground before it could support structures.
Living in ramshackle quarters and working with inadequate tools – often digging by hand and carrying the dirt in the front of their shirts – these involuntary labourers died in their thousands, carried off by disease or frequent flooding. As a result, St Petersburg became known as the “city built on bones”.
The tour guides never mention those bones. I, however, find myself exceedingly aware of the faceless, nameless people who built the glories of this city.
Houses of the rich and privileged
Today, we visited the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, the descendant of Peter the Great who carried on his ambitious building program.
Here’s an aerial view of that Palace, now the Hermitage Museum.
It has one thousand rooms. Yep, one thousand. In a what was a residence.
Now it houses millions of objects of art, mostly collected by various members of the Romanov family who ruled Russia for about 300 years until their final demise at after the 1917 revolution. The last of the Romanov’s were murdered as a part of the clean sweep of ridding the nation of those overly rich and privileged.
Here’s some of the furniture in the Winter Palace I saw today. A woman behind me gasped as we entered the room. I asked, “How do you think it would fit in your living room” and we shared a laugh about it.
Again, the rich and privileged always live their luxurious lives on the backs of others. Russia has a long history of serfdom. They set theirs free before the US freed our slaves, but both nations built their prosperity on the backs of those who have no privilege so some may have extreme privilege.
I am not saying that all must be “equal,” whatever that means, for a just society. In every society that I know of, and that is quite a few because of my background in Anthropology and my extensive readings and travels, there is always stratification. Social stratification is imbedded in our human nature. We instinctively create pecking orders and they start early. Any somewhat socially conscious child can quickly state who ranks where in schoolyard games and classroom status.
I am saying that history’s tendency to ignore how “great” things were accomplished speaks way too much about the tendency of humans to dismiss the sacrifices of the many who made those things happen.
Who really builds the great churches and create celebrity preachers?
Today, we hear of people who “built” great churches, who rise to the heights of celebrity preachers. The religious press lauds them, conferences honor them and offer keynote speaker spots, They gain riches by the sales of their books.
No one mentions the quiet faithful givers who made those giant churches possible.
No one offers praise to the ghost writers who took sermons and notes and turned them into readable and saleable books.
No one mentions the researchers who check facts and theological references.
Nor do they speak of the volunteers who seat people and teach the children and wave cars into empty parking spots, open doors, check the microphones, man the cameras to give the best possible photographic angles on the speakers.
They totally ignore the graphic artists who illustrate the sermons and Photoshop the press photos.
As far as anyone knows, the celebrity preachers “build” their mega-churches on their own. Just like Peter the Great “built” St. Petersberg and Catherine the Great “built” multiple palaces, including one to house her lover who had arranged a coup so she could step into the seats of power.
Just some of the things I’m learning again here. It’s the nature of history: we only acknowledge the most powerful–who are also generally the most ruthless and least respectful of the lives of others.
I am finding this deeply saddening.