The Babushki of St. Petersburg

By Cameron Hewitt

I'm wandering the streets of St. Petersburg with Alina, a very sharp local tour guide. Within minutes of meeting me, Alina has already warned that she plans to avoid the city's big sights. I can see the Hermitage and the Peter and Paul Fortress on my own. Instead, she walks me directly to a produce market. Most of the stalls are operated by babushki — little old ladies. Alina explains to me that the word "babushka" means "grandma," but it's also used generically to describe any elderly woman. Today's babushki, she says gravely, are struggling to find their place in post-communist Russia.

The first market stall we visit is stacked full of delicious pickled goodies. I see cucumbers, of course — both the predictable dill pickles, as well as a less familiar salty version. But there are also beets, tomatoes, chopped cabbage, peppers, cloves of garlic, and savory stalks from wild garlic plants. As I bite into a sample slice of salty pickle, the woman behind the counter pulls out a spray bottle and mists water on her wares to keep them fresh. The warnings I've heard about giardia in St. Petersburg's water supply flash through my mind. I ask Alina, who asks the babushka — no worries. "It's fresh water," Alina reassures me. "Fresh like from a stream." Convinced, I buy a salty cuke and stick it in my daypack for later.

Next are the honey babushki. They stand in a row behind counters, dipping twisted scraps of paper into big jars of honey — all shades of yellow — and offering us gooey, dripping samples. When she sees I'm still not convinced after trying two different types, the babushka reveals her secret weapon: She carefully slices a chunk of honeycomb for me. Her sign language explains that this kind is good for fighting colds. She proudly says something more about her honeycomb. '"Never touched by human hands," Alina translates. Again convinced, I buy a tiny jar of honey to smuggle into my next destination.

We leave the market and walk up the street, passing more babushki squatting on the sidewalk. Spread out in front of them are little mats displaying fresh flowers and humble produce from a garden patch. At the time of my visit, groceries cost at least as much as they did in the US, but the government pension the babushki receive isn't keeping up with inflation. These poor ladies are literally starving to death, so they sell what they can on the street — even though it's illegal. (When the police come by, the babushki quickly scoop up their wares.) Alina explains that there just isn't enough money in the federal coffers to give Russia's elderly a comfortable retirement…so they're on their own. In a way, faced with the cold reality that they can't provide for their babushki, Russia is simply waiting for this inconvenient generation to die off.

As we walk, the sun pokes through the thick cloud cover. In a few minutes, it goes from wintry to summery. Alina pauses to peel off her overcoat, revealing a sweater and another shirt underneath. "Here in St. Petersburg, the weather changes quickly," she says. "So we must dress like a cabbage — in layers."

Our next stop: an Orthodox church. Just outside the front door stands another line of babushki, holding their hands out, begging for money — yet another solution for dealing with the hard economic reality of today's Russia. Alina explains that most women cover their heads before entering a church, but it isn't essential. Three other rules are more carefully observed: Your shoulders and knees should be covered, you should keep quiet, and you shouldn't take any photos. Once inside, Alina takes me to buy one of the tall, skinny, and natural-wax-brown candles. Worshippers light a candle in front of the icon representing the saint who can help with their concern: One icon is for health issues, a different icon is for honoring a deceased relative, another is for prosperity, and so on. I choose my icon and light my candle.

At the iconostasis — the partition in the middle of the church displaying the most important icons — a wedding is going on. Alina seems surprised. "That's a little unusual," she says. "Most people still get married in civil ceremonies. Church weddings are only recently catching on again." She points out that most of the women attending the ceremony don't have their heads covered, and one is even wearing a mini-dress — with her shoulders and knees exposed. She's all dolled up for the party after the wedding, but since she's probably never been to a wedding in a church before, she's unwittingly violated a triple taboo.

After the wedding, the new couple is photographed (yet another fractured taboo) holding small, framed icons. The bride is holding an icon of Mary, Mother of God, and the groom is holding Jesus. "There's only one big difference between Orthodox and Catholics," Alina tells me. "Orthodox call her Mary, Mother of God; Catholics call her the Virgin Mary."

Leaving the church, we look back to see that the newlyweds have just come out behind us. The guests are standing around them, throwing coins — the local tradition, to bring prosperity. The babushka beggars leave their post and swoop in, scrambling to grab up the shiny one-ruble and 50-kopek coins at the feet of the happy couple. We cross the street and get a quick lunch: bliny, Russian crêpes with various fillings. My blin — with minced meat, freshly chopped dill, melted cheese, and dill pickles is a bargain in expensive St. Petersburg. Alina informs me that this chain of bliny stands — serving oh-so-traditional Russian fare — "is becoming as popular as McDonald's." So post-communist Russia is coming full circle.

Or is it? I look back across the street to see that the coin-hungry babushki have formed their perfect line once more, standing patiently — hands outstretched — in front of the church.

Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves Scandinavian & Northern European Cruise Ports guidebook.