I stepped onto the Aeroflot plane at the Frankfurt airport knowing it had the worst safety record of any airline in the world. In April 1996, four years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Aeroflot was still evolving from a state-owned to a privately-owned airline. The flight attendants wore drab suits rather than uniforms. They served all ten passengers boiled beef with a cheesy mayonnaise sauce. The seats were cardboard thin. Lights flickered on and off sporadically throughout the entire four hour flight to St. Petersburg.
As a member of President Clinton’s Advance team, I took a later flight out of Washington than the rest of the group. Each of us had Russian-speaking US Embassy counterparts in St. Petersburg and mine was meeting me at the airport when I landed.
In flight, I mulled over the phone briefing I’d received from the State Department’s Russia desk as I packed my bags in my cozy apartment in DuPont Circle.
“Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know,” she informed me. “Use only US Embassy vehicles and drivers. Exchange your money with the US Embassy staff at the hotel. Don’t eat food outside the hotel. Drink only bottled water. You’ll be followed wherever you go. Your room will be bugged. Beware of street vendors. They’re illegal and probably pickpockets.”
“Food?” I asked.
“Yes. We assume all the food and water has been contaminated with fallout from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. The food and water in the hotel are brought in from Helsinki.”
At the utilitarian grey airport, Russian military manned the entry checkpoints. A soldier tried to tell me in Russian that I wasn’t allowed entry. I tried to tell him in English that an Embassy official was waiting for me.
I was among a group of people in the federal government who were frequently assigned to overseas White House “advance” teams for the Clintons. None of the requests were mandatory. But my love for art and the chance to see the treasures in St. Petersburg’s renowned art museums compelled me to jump at the chance. Until then, I declined trips to anywhere that was a war zone, required inoculations for diseases or had a reputation for kidnapping Americans. I naively thought of St. Petersburg as a safe city. I had no idea what post-Soviet Russia was like.
When I finally saw the American diplomat in the deserted terminal, he stated the Russians delayed all the Americans in President Clinton’s party. Later in the week, as our team was on an official walk-through of the Hermitage Museum, a Secret Service agent asked me if I was the one “detained” at the airport.
“Don’t ever travel alone to Russia again,” he said.
We drove to the 120 year-old neoclassical Grand Hotel Europe in Nevsky Prospekt, the neighborhood where Dostoevsky set Crime and Punishment in 1866. Stepping inside, I faced marble floors, gilded walls and breathtaking stained glass.
I set out to walk around Nevsky Prospekt, imagining Raskolnikov skulking around every corner. What I found was a sea of red-eyed people wrapped in nondescript clothes, fixated on the sidewalks. Furtive street vendors sold Beatles nesting dolls, artifacts from the Soviet era and peasant folk art. Russians teetered on the lintel between communism and capitalism. All their safeguards were gone—pensions, free education, health care and food safety. Uncertainty shrouded St. Petersburg streets.
This city of revival palaces, Baroque monasteries and treasured art, became the most depressing place I’d ever visited. I’m reminded of that time in today’s shoulder-drooped America as we witness our autocratic-loving President driving us off democracy’s cliff into the slough of tyranny.