Friday, June 29, 2012

Riga-St Petersburg, June 28-29


We had a busy day yesterday, flying from Helsinki to Latvia to St. Petersburg. I'm going to start with St Petersburg because it has really knocked my socks off -- what a city! The canals, the palaces, the golden church spires...all absolutely beautiful.

We arrived last evening, blazing sun at 7 p.m. Driving from the airport to the center of the city, we paused at their World War II memorial where Clinton laid another wreath. It was a pretty impressive structure - Socialist realist sculptures, and a subterranean chamber lit by electric lanterns, one for each month day of the Siege of Leningrad. They had some sort of wailing music in the background and the whole thing was a bit spooky.

We weren't really paying attention, however, because on landing the camera crew had asked Clinton for her reaction to the Supreme Court decision upholding Obama's health care law, and she had (much against expectations) answered. We all wanted the quote but the camera crew was busy filming Clinton inside the memorial. There was a lot of blackberrying back and forth and finally we got hold of the quote, which wasn't particularly interesting. But the ruling was BIG news so everybody got on their phones to send it back to Washington.

Then it was back on the bus and into the center of town, where we were staying in the perfect location right in the heart of things. The hotel, the Astoria, is one of the old ones in St. Petersburg but has been taken over by an international luxury chain (name: Rocco Forte, which is great in itself). The revamp has left a lot of the original detail, but boosted the price tag -- to $1000 per night. Crazy but that is what the market will bear. I wouldn't want to pay it myself, but I am very glad we stayed here because you really can walk to anything. The golden domed St. Isaac Cathedral is right across the street, and the onion domed Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, is a few blocks away.

I had to work for about an hour and a half after we arrived, and the rest of the folks went out with Michele K from NPR who has a local artist friend here. They kindly left me a map which I took and presented to a taxi driver, and we set off. It feels very strange to be in a city where you can't read the signs, and can't speak a word of the language. So riding in the taxi felt like shooting into space..I wasn't sure where we were going, and wasn't sure the taxi driver knew either. As we kept driving I started wondering..could they really have walked THIS far? And I had no idea of how to get back. We finally got to the restaurant and I made the taxi wait while I called Michele -- thinking that if he drove off I would never find my way back to the hotel. I was in the right spot, and within a few minutes the rest of the folks came walking up. We had originally planned on going to a Ukrainian restaurant but ended up going to a Georgian one next door. Fantastic food -- a red bean and lentil stew, braized kebabs, and crazy cheese bread with egg cooked into the top. Doesn't sound delicious but it definitely was. I was starving which helped.

Today we had a mostly free day. Clinton's schedule didn't start until 4:30 p.m., which was great for us but frustrating for her -- she had come to meet the Russian foreign minister but he kept her waiting all day. Their differences on Syria come on top of lots of other tensions, and the feeling is that the relationship is not going in the right direction. But we had some free time. I did an interview with the consul general about how Clinton's new LGBT rights policy is translated into policy in a place like Russia, which is so hostile to gay rights, and then went out to find some of the other guys to walk around the city. It really is a beautiful place, and I was able to catch the exteriors (at least) of some of the major sights: the Hermitage Museum (pictured at the top), the Admirality, the Fortress of Peter and Paul...what a collection of buildings. The city is punctuated with nice touches, like the fence around one of its parks. A couple of people who were here in earlier days say it has really cleaned up, and it feels like a bright, tourist town. I want to come back (but I don't want to spend $1000/night for a hotel!)

We had a good lunch at a sort of fancy restaurant overlooking the Ivan Cathedral (and located on the top of the Gazprom Headquarters), and then went back to the hotel to wait "movement" with Clinton. It has been a blur since then: we followed her out to the Catherine Palace, a totally over the top place in the Tsarskoe Seloe summer retreat of the Russian Imperial Family. The famous "Amber Room", destroyed by the Germans, has been rebuilt with German funding. Its strange to see a room entirely tiled in amber....not pretty, but impressive. The rest of the place was sort of Vegas meets Versailles...too much to describe here. She gave a speech to a women's group, then back to the city for her meeting with Lavrov.

The meeting went long -- we went and had another Georgian feast at a restaurant around the corner -- and then back to the plane at about 11 p.m. A State Department person gave us a few quotes on Syria while the plane was taxiing: there are still major "difficulties and differences" in the U.S. and Russian positions, one day befor the Geneva meeting where they are supposed to work everything out. Not promising. We all dialed frantically to get those quotes to our bureaux before the plane took off..and then we were in the air again.

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I'm in Geneva now. It is 3 a.m. and we are waiting for our bags to be delivered. We start again tomorrow around 9, when Clinton heads to the UN building for the Syria meeting. It will be another day of waiting, then frantic activity (did they get a deal or not? and what next?) and then back on the plane for the 9 hour trip back to DC where it is something like 104 degrees today and will be just as hot tomorrow. Not looking forward to that, but we have had a few days in the cool Baltic and it has been beautiful. I don't have the time or energy to talk about our few hours in Latvia before we go to Russia. Looked sort of cute, in a Pied Piper way. Maybe I can fill that in later. But now I have to get my bag and go to bed.

I'll close with a picture of the Leningrad Siege Memorial -- a relic of Soviet times, but impressive nonetheless.