JUST off Nevsky Prospect, the main street of Saint Petersburg, where I currently live, stands the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter.
Originally serving the German community in Saint Petersburg, the first Lutheran church was built in 1708, after Peter the Great permitted Catholic and Protestant churches to be built in his new capital on the Gulf of Finland. The current building, nicknamed ‘the German church’, was erected between 1833-1837.
Saint Petersburg, as we all know, became Petrograd, and subsequently Leningrad. It was during the Leningrad era that Saint Peter’s was repurposed as an indoor swimming pool by Soviet authorities. Similar fates awaited other religious buildings in Leningrad: in 1932 Kazan Cathedral reopened as the ‘Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism’, or as Truman Capote dubbed it, ‘Leningrad’s largest antireligious museum’. The Church of the Saviour on Blood, built on the site of Alexander II’s assassination, was used as a warehouse for vegetables after World War II, earning it the nickname ‘Saviour on Potatoes’.
Who said the Russians don’t have a sense of humour?
Thankfully these buildings are seeing much better days now that we’ve come full circle back to ‘Saint Petersburg’, with churches being reconsecrated left, right and centre in Russia. There is even an Orthodox chapel in Pulkovo airport – not a ‘multi-faith diverse prayer centre’ or whatever our bland equivalent is called.
Following this trend, Saint Peter’s was turned back into a church in the 1990s, and is now also home to the city’s minuscule Anglican congregation.
Having been reconsecrated, it is no longer advisable to walk around the building in your Speedos. Nevertheless, attending the Palm Sunday service I was reminded of a vital element of the modern dress code: the mask.
Upon being introduced to a pair of American attendees, who some decades ago traded Colorado for the Baltic Sea, I moved to shake hands. It was clear, however, that this gesture dating from the Old Normal was streng verboten, as their hands remained firmly glued in their jeans pockets.
I should have known: my interlocutors were masked, but not in the usual Russian way with mask pulled down below the mouth. They were fully sealed, soggy rags firmly strapped across the mouth and nose.
Subsequently, upon learning that both had taken a dose of Sputnik V – a feat of which they seemed remarkably proud – I experienced a moment of confusion, which I expect to experience again many times.
Although being vaccinated and happily attending a public event, to which they presumably travelled via Saint Petersburg’s busy public transport system on which very few wear masks, they were nevertheless not going to shake my hand for risk of infection. Cognitive dissonance, much?
Perhaps they were just good modern Westerners, obeying government advice to the letter – a trait which stands in marked contrast to the Russian character.
Still, it’s hard to know what to make of it: willingly taking a vaccine yet living in fear of the virus it is supposed to defeat. Somehow they seemed unable to take the next logical step by asking the question: ‘Then why are we all having to take this blasted serum?’
That said, in Russia you don’t have to take the vaccine, with Vlad recently stating that it is ‘a voluntary decision for every person‘. One waits in vain for a similar commitment to individual autonomy from our self-described libertine Prime Minister, sitting happily atop Britain’s health junta.
In contrast, everyone in the UK is to be injected with this hastily created vaccine whether they like it or not: we’ll even be pumping children full of it from August, despite the fact that it has not finished clinical trials and that the virus poses close-to-zero risk to them.
What else to expect after a societal experiment which has purposefully damaged the lives of young people and children across the western world apparently in order to protect octogenarians and nonagenarians from untimely deaths?
We have found a new rallying cry: Centenarian Lives Matter!
Indeed, it is peculiar watching events unfold in Blighty from Russia, where life is by and large completely normal. Just a few days ago I was at a concert with 500 or so others. Afterwards I had a beer at a bar. I went home on the crowded metro and subsequently to the gym. A few weekends ago I was amid a crowd of maybe 1,000 during Russia’s Maslenitsa celebrations, watching a giant effigy go up in flames.
It is the land that Covid forgot. Or rather, it’s a country where people ignore it, revealing the degree to which Covid-19 is a pandemic manufactured by our willing consent and participation.
I say none of this to boast, nor to rub readers’ noses in it, but merely to emphasise how other-worldly the situation in the UK is to me.
Perhaps the difference has something to do with the two nations’ histories and characters. A more fatalistic mindset rules here, freeing people from the desire to be constantly mollycoddled by the likes of Sage and their acolytes. There is a tacit understanding – similar to something I observed while living in China – that ‘anything goes’ until you cross some very obvious red lines. After that things can get pretty hairy pretty quickly.
We Britishers always thought we had a better arrangement than that. We were always told that the UK was freer than anywhere else. We were unique, don’t you know?
Now I find myself many hundreds of miles from home, free to come and go as I please while the UK sinks deeper into the totalitarian tendencies it once claimed to stand against amidst hardly a murmur of opposition. Freedoms wither by the day.
Granting a granule of freedom, the British government sternly warns the British public not to abuse it, threatening a further clampdown if the populace decide to embrace their modicum of recovered liberties too warmly. We have become the inverse of what we once were – a people free by nature – and turned into the subjects of overbearing power, from whom liberties are readily withheld.
I suspect I am not alone in feeling that the pandemic has destroyed many of the assumptions we once made about our country. Once believed by a happy number of its citizens to be singularly liberty-loving among the peoples of the world, an unhappy many have proved themselves to be as slavish and unworthy of that freedom as is possible.
Little wonder it may never be returned to us in its previous form. It turns out we were running on borrowed time all along.