Susan sitting on the lap of Peter the Great, recently vacated by a group of Russian school children. To sit on the lap of this statue is a tradition.
"Peter's single-minded and ruthless drive built the city on a swamp ..." begins many a description of the city of St. Petersburg, Russia, also built on enemy land. Years later, Hitler decreed it should be wiped from the face of the earth.
St. Petersburg, Russia's window on Europe, city of light, Venice of the north, is quite simply the most beautiful city I've ever seen. It overwhelms the eye, and the soul.
It was conceived in the mind of Peter the Great, aptly named, as he stood 7'2" tall and cast an even longer shadow, and it was born of his will, built, as they say, over the bones of thousands of serfs, and built where no city could or should be built.
"The history of the city," writes the BBC, "is a story of the triumph of human will over the elements."
STATUE OF PETER THE GREAT
As the story goes, one day Peter, tsar of Russia, determined to make Russia a country in its own right, not the colony of one of the super powers busy at the time dividing the world amongst them, galloped across the swamp where the Neva River runs into the Gulf of Finland, shloshed onto Zayachy Island, plunged his saber into the mire and declared, "Here shall be a city."
Not only was it built on a swamp, it was built on a swamp that Russia technically didn't own. Perennially at war with Sweden, the land was at the time claimed by the Swedes.
None of which mattered to Peter.
Or perhaps it did. The man had a vision and a statement to make.
You won't read a description of the man without reading that he dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the modern world. For what's a city with no people in it? Peter ordered the boyars to move from Moscow to St. Petersburg, to dress and behave like Westerners, and to shave their beards; no small request, because in the Russian Orthodox religion, the longer one's beard, the greater his likelihood of entering heaven. Peter the Great didn't care.
The sophisticated female guide of our tour who spoke fluent English -- most of the guides were female, for Russia is now a land of educated women, while the men drive the buses and labor, rarely living past 50 -- showed ambivalence about the city. St. Petersburg was, and is, a political statement.
Its reconstruction for its 300th anniversary (2003), some feel, was much the same. In this land of pain (and what land is not?) the people of the city whose roads and houses were in desperate need of repair, watched as hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into reconstruction of the presidential palace. The total price tag for Putin's restoration was said to be $2 billion.
SUSAN AT PETERHOF
Of the restoration, Bob Parsons, BBC, wrote, "The people of this, the most European of Russian cities, are proud of the city's cultural heritage...But the hundreds of pensioners whose country cottages and gardens were razed to the ground to make way for the restoration of the Konstantinovsky Palace are seething with rage."
No one asked their opinion, and no one offered them compensation; it was simply decided their houses would be an eyesore for visiting heads of state, and they were removed.
Like most of us, about many things, they were "grudgingly happy" with the outcome. Shall we say, in EQ terms, ambivalent? And managing some strong emotions?
Does the city, does the world, need The State Hermitage the incomparable museum which sits in the heart of the city along the River Neva, six unspeakably beautiful buildings?
The city has its history. It is believed that Stalin's purges in the 1930s included a quarter of the city's inhabitants, and more than a million died while the Germans held seige to the city for 900 days during World War II. That's three years.
Standing inside the Hermitage, we saw photographs of the devastation. On the Hermitage website, we can read an excerpt from the instructions of Hitler’s high command on the destruction of St. Petersburg, dated 29 September 1941:
"...2. The Fuehrer has decided to wipe the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth. We have no interest in the preservation of even a part of the population of that city.
4. It is proposed to tightly encircle the city and by shelling from artillery of all calibres and constant aerial bombing to raze it to the ground..."
Just down from the Heritage is the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first stones Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, laid. We toured this as well. Over the years it housed Russia's most famous political prisoners.
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Tempers flare when emotion meets logic. The dreamers and idealists with their red-hot rhetorical appeal to the spirit and the soul of the thing pair-off against the steel-blue fury in the logical appeal of the thinkers and realists. It is a mistake to think the the "cold" reasoner lacks passion. The hottest flame is blue, and the deepest level of Dante's hell was frozen.
The woman who states "But that is impossible, it can never be done," grabs her charts, with their mathematical formulas, and leaves the room with icy glare and stony silence is as passionate for her cause as the man who shouts, red-faced and sweating, "But it must be done. I don't care what the engineers say!" and has his dream.
We human beings are not reasonable creatures. If we were, half the wonderful things in the world would not exist. But we are capable of being reasonable. If we were not, the tilting at windmills would have broken us eons ago.
It requires the wisdom of Solomon to know and be both, and choose when and in what proportion.
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him, "wrote George Bernard Shaw. "The unreasonable man adapts surroundings to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man."
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As we begin to put together the pieces after the devastation of New Orleans by Hurrican Katrina, we stand at a crossroads.
I include here an editorial written by Richard Winfield, editor of the Brefi Group in the UK, who grants permission thusly:
You are very welcome to copy these articles to your web site or newsgroup as long as you credit us and include our contact URL: http://www.brefigroup.co.uk . (So done.)
He begins with the obvious statement, that you shouldn't build a city on a swamp in the first place.
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"Triumph of Human Spirit"
New Orleans really should not be there; much of it is six feet below sea level and even further below the level of the largest river in America. It is unreasonable to build a city on such a site.
I have visited New Orleans twice this year and each time I was fascinated about how a town could be built in such a place and how it can have survived and grown. But it has not only survived, it has thrived and celebrated.
Apart from jazz, it is probably best known for the French Quarter. But the 'French' quarter is actually the Spanish quarter – the French quarter having burned down and been rebuilt by the Spanish. On one of my visits we stayed in a lovely old house in Uptown. We travelled into and out of town on the green St Charles Avenue trams...Did New Orleans go to Czechoslovakia to buy them like other cities do? No, they built them for themselves in their own workshops with their existing maintenance staff – and the trams carried a brass plate naming everyone who had worked on the project. Is this unique? It is certainly unreasonable...
On trips into the swamps we heard how previous hurricanes had swept towards New Orleans and then changed direction just in time. We heard how the fresh water lake Pontchartrain had been polluted by salt water from the sea, killing all the fish. Serious warnings from environmentalists, but it had recovered within three months...
Repeated tales of enthusiasm, energy and survival. This week we have been on an emotional rollercoaster, with fear followed by relief followed by shock, then sadness, then frustration, then anger and finally some level of relief.
Logic says that it is unreasonable to build a city below sea level, especially in a hurricane zone. But it is unreasonableness that distinguishes the human spirit, that causes us to make continued progress, to challenge and change.
In the words of George Bernard Shaw:
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him - the unreasonable man adapts surroundings to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man."
What unreasonable behaviour do you display that is moving humanity forward?
I am due to revisit New Orleans in May next year with CoachVille. I am sure that we shall witness great progress in the re-establishment of this vital city.
Let us not forget that the tragedy of Katrina spreads over much of the Gulf Coast and has displaced many thousands of people, who might never return home. However, such tragedy is also matched by human generosity ...
SWAMP TOUR IN NEW ORLEANS
As I write this, my city, San Antonio, Texas, home of the Alamo, struggling in its own way, prepares to accept 25,000 refugees from New Orleans ... Crescent City ... The Big Easy ... most-visited city in the US ... city of many cultures, smoldering beauty and mystique ... major industrial and distribution center, with one of the busest ports in the world ... 5,000 ships from 60 nations dock at the Port of New Orleans yearly, and 50,000 barges ... home of the Fifth District Court and the oil industry ...