History repeats itself
Perhaps no other country has affected Americans so directly as has Russia and the former Soviet Union. Even today, with all the terrorist attacks on Russia, many Americans' impressions of the world's largest country are as much influenced by the movie "Dr. Zhivago" as by reality. In many cases, those impressions are correct; Russia's history is one of almost unbelievable tragedy and violence. But existing alongside that history is an important facet of the Russian soul.
In 1997 I had the opportunity to spend almost a month in five Russian cities, part of a newspaper trade program where American journalists were invited to consult the Russians with their staggering newspaper problems, following the fall of communism in 1991. I found in my brief stay there that Russia is cloaked in mystery and contradictions. One of the most fascinating stories was the story of Czar Nicholas II and his ill-fated reign. I stood in the very spot where he and his family were murdered in Yekaterinburg. I also stood at the bottom of the staircase of their Winter Quarters mansion in St. Petersburg from which they departed that place for the last time on the night the Bolshevik forces mounted their attack on the royal family and forced them to flee in 1917.
That all came back to me last week when I had the opportunity to spend a considerable bit of time at the exhibit "Nicholas & Alexandra: At Home with the last Czar and His Family" at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, N.M..
The exhibit caught my eye in the local Albuquerque newspaper and after having been to the Russian Czar's hometown and experiencing their palace I couldn't resist going to the exhibit. It was packed, as record crowds paraded through the once-in-a-lifetime displays.
While in Russia I spent considerable time in both Moscow and St. Petersburg and on the surface they appear so different that it's easy to forget they are in the same country. Moscow, the country's political and spiritual capital, is dotted with ancient palaces and churches. All were undergoing extensive renovation while I was there in preparation for the city's 850th anniversary that was held in 1998.
St. Petersburg, on the other hand, is often referred to as Russia's adopted child, forced into the Russian family in 1703 by the headstrong and forward-thinking Czar Peter the Great. St. Petersburg has preserved much of the original architecture and sprawls across more than 100 islands connected by ornate bridges and canals.
It was there that I experienced the Hermitage, connected to the former Czar's Palace and his last official home before his family was forced to run into the Ural Mountains. Many of the articles, paintings and scrapbooks that were featured in New Mexico last weekend were part of the museums collection in the Hermitage when I toured it back in 1997.
A tour of the Hermitage is not an easy stroll. Spread through more than 1,000 rooms and three floors in one building alone, I was told that it would take a visitor nearly two years to spend just one minute at each exhibit. Probably the finest work at the Hermitage is the building itself, which faces the Neva and is backed by the large and historic Palace Square.
I was told that hundreds of thousands of Russians gathered in this square to cheer, protest, kill and be slaughtered during the last years of Nicholas' ill-fated reign.
I love history and having the opportunity to not only see it in an American display, but to have remembered the setting in its original country meant much more. The home site that Nicholas, Alexandra and their four children were killed in now stands as a memorial. Along side is also a small chapel to commemorate their deaths and remind visitors the end of a long line of Czars whose lives were surrounded by violence and destruction which ranged over hundreds of years.
It is always interesting when history repeats itself.