It was past 4:00 p.m. Our escorted tour of St. Petersburg had just ended. We were in Palace Square, outside the Winter Palace. Our tour guide gave us the option of getting back on the bus so he could take us to the point where we started the tour or of being on our own from then onward. I joined those who opted for the latter. We started wandering around Palace Square.
There were many people, of various nationalities, hanging around the square. It was a bright, sunny day—a luxury in a city which, on average, sees only 35 sunny days a year. I decided to enjoy it to the hilt.
Palace Square is a beautifully laid-out place. The city promotes it as “an excellent example of how different architectural styles can be combined in a most elaborate and aesthetically pleasing way.”
It, certainly, is aesthetically pleasing. On the northern side of the square is the beautiful green-and-white Winter Palace, which is the central part of the Hermitage Museum. Facing the palace from the southern end is the yellow-and-white General Staff Building, which headquartered the Imperial Army General Staff in czarist days and now houses various government offices.
The building on the eastern side was formerly used by the czar’s Royal Guard, and now various government departments have their offices in it. And on the west is the Admiralty, Russia’s naval headquarters until 1917, which now houses its naval college. The Admiralty Gardens in front of the building add to the aesthetic quality of the square.
The Alexander Column
To cap it all, there is the Alexander Column. It gets its name from Czar Alexander I, who ruled Russia from 1801 to 1825. It was built between 1830 and 1834 as a monument to his victory over Napoleon in the 1812 war. At 155 feet and 8 inches, the Alexander Column is said to be the tallest of its kind in the world. The 600-ton column is a single piece of granite rock. Perched on top of the column is a statue of an angel holding a cross. The angel, travel brochures say, resembles Czar Alexander I. In 1952, when the country was under Stalin’s dictatorship, there was a move to replace the statue of the angel with that of Stalin. Fortunately for tourists like me, that did not happen.
The red-granite column glistened in the evening sun. After photographing it from various angles, I went around the pedestal of the column. The pedestal has, on its four sides, engravings and portraits symbolizing Russia’s military glory. One of them shows two winged angels holding an unrolled scroll at either end. A fellow tourist translated for me the message on the scroll: “To Alexander I from a grateful Russia.”
After viewing all the decorations and trying to figure out, with some help from other tourists, the messages they conveyed, I couldn’t help wondering whether the monument Angel de la Independencia in Mexico City—which I had visited on April 9, 2008—was inspired by this one.
I was about to leave the Palace Square area, when a smart-looking teenager approached me. He said he was from Siberia. He did mention the name of his native town, but I didn’t get it. He wanted a picture of him taken, with me by his side. “Would you mind?” he asked.
I was overjoyed. “Would this ugly man mind posing for a picture with a handsome guy like you?” I said to him, adding, “I am flattered.”
He smiled and handed his camera to a passerby and showed him how to operate it. I did likewise with my camera. We chatted for a couple of minutes after that. He told me that I was the first Indian he had met in his life.
“You made my day,” I said and gave him a hug.
The sun had just set, and it was getting grayish. I decided to get back to my bed-and-breakfast place. I had promised Tania, the owner of the place, that I would have a drink with her before dinner.
On Nevsky Prospekt, Again
I was once again on Nevsky Prospekt, which our tour guide had talked a lot about earlier. Walking leisurely on the pavement of the most popular, fashionable street in St. Petersburg, I thought about the wonderful time I had all day. When I saw large numbers of people coming out of a movie theater, I stopped and watched. “What could the movie be about that attracted such a big crowd?” I wondered. A couple of people in the crowd with whom I inquired couldn't satisfy my curiosity. They didn’t speak English.
I was about to continue my walk when I saw five men blocking my way. All of them were smoking and looking in different directions.
“Excuse me,” I said.
They pretended not to have heard me.
“Excuse me,” I said again, this time loudly.
They still wouldn’t move, and I was surprised.
I was about to leave the sidewalk and step onto the road so I could go around them, when I felt my right hand being caught by one of them. He said something in Russian and started pulling me toward him. I got scared. The other four were still looking away, as though nothing was happening in front of them.
“Excuse me,” I shouted and wriggled my hand out of the man’s grip. The grip was firm.
Frightened and confused, I jumped from the sidewalk onto the road and started walking fast. After making sure that I was at a safe distance from them, I stopped and looked back. All five of them were looking at me, smirking. One of them gave me a salute. I have yet to figure out what that salute meant.
I was still nervous when I reached my bed-and-breakfast place. When Tania asked me how my day was, I said, “I have heard a lot about the presence of Russian mafia in St Petersburg. In fact, I have been warned about it. But I never took it seriously—until this evening.” I told her what happened.
Mafia Targets Mostly Foreigners
“Yes, there are criminal gangs in the city,” she said. “They are mostly after foreigners. In your case, it is very obvious that you are a foreigner.” She clarified the point by touching the skin on her folded left hand with the index finger of her right hand. “I didn’t want to scare you. That’s the only reason why I didn’t warn you about them.”
“Fortunately, I was able to get out of the man’s grip before they could do me any harm,” I told her. “I had these brochures in my left hand. When my right hand was grabbed by one of the fellows, another one could have easily reached into my pocket and emptied it. That would have been the end of my tour.”
The cash I had in the pocket was not much—a few dollar and ruble bills. But it had all my credit and debit cards. Lately, with the availability of ATM machines in all important cities of the world, I have stopped carrying cash in large amounts. I have been using credit and debit cards to withdraw money in local currencies for my daily expenses. The St. Petersburg incident alerted me to the danger of putting all my charge cards in one pocket.
That night, while in bed, I tried hard not to let this rotten incident spoil the pleasant experiences I had in St. Petersburg until then. I thought about the very first people I ran into in the city: three teenagers who went out of their way to help me. “They are the future of Russia, not these thugs,” I said to myself.
In a few minutes, I was fast asleep.