Again I’m taking a break from my Church Dogmatics blog to write a little meditation from a McDonalds in St. Petersburg.
I am writing today from a McDonalds on the second floor overlooking the Alexander Nevsky Square which is the eastern end of Nevsky Prospekt, the main street of the city.
Alexander Nevsky is one of the most celebrated of Russian heroes. He may be most famous for leading a small band of Russians who turned back an invasion of Swedes in the Battle of Neva in 1240 when he was only 19-years-old. Due to this crucial victory, Alexander was given the sobriquet “Nevsky” which means Neva.
Alexnder Nevsky is also famous for the dramatic Battle on the Ice in 1242. A group of Teutonic Crusader Knights along with knights from Denmark and Germany plus Estonian infantry was drawn onto the frozen Lake Peipus by cunning Alexander. In the fierce battle on the ice, Alexander’s troops defeated the over-confident Crusaders who never again were able to push east into Russian territory. I believe that it is this battle which is depicted in a large mural inside the entrance of the Alexander Nevsky Square Metro station.The heroic Alexander was glorified (canonized) by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547. By order of Peter the Great, Nevsky’s relics were transported to the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg where they remain to this day. (I had to look up the word lavra and found that in Orthodox Christianity it refers to a type of monastery consisting of a cluster of cells or caves for hermits, with a church and sometimes a refectory at the center.)
From the window in McDonalds I can see the large statue of Alexander Nevsky clad in what looks like knight’s armor astride a horse in the center of a traffic circle. I can also see the dome of the church in the background.
(There is a bakery in the refectory of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra where Tanya and I have sometimes purchased the fresh, tasty bread.)
In the distance I can see main river on which St. Petersburg was founded, the River Neva.
Across from Alexander Nevsky’s statue I see the entrance the the Alexander Nevsky Lavra which was established by Peter the Great in 1710 just seven years after he founded the city on the banks of the Neva. I can see the dome of the church in the background. I also see a yellow wall across the street and know that beyond that wall lies two of the more remarkable cemeteries I’ve ever visited. The name of the cemetery is Tikhvin. It is referred to as a necropolis, literally a “city of the dead.”
One side of this cemetery some of the first famous residents of the city are buried. The other side is reserved for famous Russian artists. The first time I wandered through it, I was astonished to see the decorative monumental grave sites of so many Russian artists who are well-known worldwide. Just inside the gate to the cemetery I found the grave site of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who lived and wrote in in St. Petersburg and used the city as the setting for novels including Crime and Punishment.
Several events of Dostoyevsky’s life stick in my mind. One is the time he was arrested by the Tzar’s police and accused of some sort of anti-government crime. After spending some days in a dank prison in the Peter-Paul Fortress, he and others were taken out and placed before a firing squad. There he faced the prospect of an immanent violent death. But at the last minute a soldier rode up and declared that the prisoners had been granted a reprieve by the Tzar. Dostoyevsky was sent to Siberia for years, but was eventually able to return to St. Petersburg. I also recall two other related aspects of the writer’s complex life. Like many Christians of his time, Dostoyevsky disliked Jews and often expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in his novels. He also suffered from an addiction to gambling and lost a great deal of money due to this vice. He struggled to free himself from his gambling habit, but was only cured when he happened one day to drop into a Jewish synagog.
The artist’s cemetery also contains the graves of more famous musical composers than any cemetery in the world. Here I’ve seen the final resting places of Alexander Glazunov, Mikhail Glinka, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anton Rubinstein, Mily Balakierev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, and my favorite – Pyotr Ill’yich Tchaikovsky. This little cemetery is a striking reminder of the cultural heritage of Russia which has enriched the world with its literature and music.
Tchaikovsky is my favorite Russian composer. My late parents told me that when I was just a baby, they would play his music for me on old 78 rpm records. Many times I have thrilled to his 1812 Overture especially when I have attended a live performance with booming canon and flashing fireworks. Many times I’ve enjoyed the Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets. Last summer I was thrilled to see my Christian friend, Xander Parish, dance the lead role of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake at the prestigious Mariinsky Theatre here in St. Petersburg.
Only late in life did I discover that Tchaikovsky was most likely a homosexual and that his shame about his sexual orientation may have led to his death. That makes me wonder how many good and talented people have suffered at the hands of their contemporaries who considered being a homosexual a shameful, sinful condition.