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My Mother Escaped From Russia With Rags On Her Feet- Part Two » Apart From My Art
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My Mother Escaped From Russia With Rags On Her Feet- Part Two

Continued from Part one

Ninety years later, my husband and I sailed into St Petersburg harbor on a luxury ship. Now, I was in Russia and not sure how I felt about it.

On the one hand, I vividly remembered my mother’s sad stories and on the other hand, I was looking forward to visiting my roots and enjoying the art and majesty of Imperial Russia. This was a personal conflict that I would experience during my entire visit.

Peter the Great with his crown and throne, St. Petersburg Russia

St. Petersburg was founded by –– you guessed it –– Peter the Great in 1703. He wanted a seaport for commerce, so he invaded Sweden and conquered the land he needed to build a harbor.

Then, from the length and breadth of Russia, he conscripted vast numbers of peasants into forced labor to build his new port city. Tens of thousands of laborers died from cold, hunger, disease and if they were really unlucky, from wolves! Nearly a hundred thousand serfs are buried beneath the city, under palaces, grand avenues and even under the sea. That’s why St. Petersburg is known as the “City of Bones.”

So, every time I looked at this beautiful harbor I thought of the lives sacrificed to the Czar’s megalomania.

St. Petersburg Harbor

Read more: St Petersburg, Paris of the North or City of Bones?

Following the 1914 revolution, the city was renamed Petrograd. Then, a few years later, it was changed again to Leningrad. At the end of the Cold War, Leningrad became St. Petersburg again! What goes around, comes around.

The more I learned about the brutal history of this city, the more anxiety I began to feel. Do they know my parents escaped? There was an irrational part of me that thought, “Will they arrest me?”

In spite of these feelings, one bright morning in May, I placed one foot in front of the other and slowly descended our ship’s gangway and touched the homeland of my parents.

The first thing you do upon leaving the ship is to present your passport to the dour Russian Immigration officers waiting dockside. Now, I always say, “Good morning.” I always smile. Not one smile back. Not one, “Have a nice day.” Not one, “Dobroye utro!” or “Kak dyela?” Nada. Just grim faces, no smiles, no words. They make you feel guilty just for visiting their country. Of course if I lived there I probably wouldn’t smile either.

Immigration guards

Next, I got on a tour bus. I live in Los Angeles which is renowned for terrible traffic congestion. But, you want bad traffic? Try St Petersburg. For example, if you want the light to change, someone has to pay the policeman manning the lights. Have an accident? Pay the officer to have it towed or moved or anything. It’s what ever a person can pay! It’s called the “Pay-or-you-don’t-go-plan.”

collision in St. Petersburg

If you can ever get out of this morass, you will experience the magnificence that can be Russia.

We took a hydrofoil to Peterhof Palace. I was stunned by its beauty. Peter the Great decided to build a Palace “befitting to the very highest of monarchs.” He built his own Versailles. Look at the fountains, look at the gilded statues, look, look look. I was dazzled.

Peterhof long view

Peterhof Palace St Petersburg, Russia

Peterhoff Fountains covered in gold

Peterhof golden spires

Here’s more: Peterhof Palace

The next day, we went to the Imperial Palace at Tsarkoe Selo, built in 1752 for Tsarina Elizabeth, who named it Catherine Palace in honor of her mother, Catherine I.

Catherine the Great and her Palace

window of cloakroom at CatherineWhile there, I went to the ladies’ room. The anteroom was prettier than the bathroom. I saw the attendant, an old woman in a shabby dress. Her skin was pale and perfect like my mother’s. She had a sweetness about her. I thought, “This could have been my mother.” I gave her all the Russian money I had . She was so grateful, she kissed my hand. I was near tears.

The Amber Room in the palace was considered the 8th wonder of the world until it was stolen or destroyed during WWII. There are many theories as to what happened to the original amber panels. Today, the entire room has been rebuilt by brilliantly talented craftsman in residence at the palace. It’s an absolutely fascinating story which Daniel Brown should tackle. Photography was not permitted, but my husband took a few shots secretly.

Amber Room in Catherine

Amber Room at Catherine


Notice the initial ‘R’ with the crown above. It represents the Romanov dynasty.

A fascinating story: The Amber Room

After the magnificence of the Amber Room, we then were astonished by the opulence of the Grand Hall.

Grand Hall of Catherine

Grand Hall of Catherine

Grand Hall of Catherine

The following day was spent at The Hermitage. I was at a loss for words. The collections are vast beyond comprehension. There were paintings I didn’t know even existed and I learned that some of the more contemporary paintings had been seized from their owners for the “benefit of the state.” While I was deeply offended that these paintings had been confiscated, I guiltily reveled in their beauty.

Sandy in front of Jan De Heem painting at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg

Paintings from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg

The Hermitage Museum and throne room

The women guards of the Hermitage.

Women guards of the Hermitage

The story of the Hermitage Museum

Google produced a short “street view” video of The Hermitage Museum as part of their Art Project.

While being immersed in the beauty of Russia, I could take a few steps outside a museum or palace and see street cars from before WWII and huge Soviet-era apartments that looked like drab, grey concrete mountains.

Russian apartment buildings

I also became keenly aware that no one smiled. No one. And there were no children in the streets, nor any mothers with strollers.

Old Russians

As they say, it’s a good place to be from.

Did I love visiting Russia? Yes.


But, I always remembered that my mother left Russia with rags on her feet and I left with a flute of champagne on the deck of a luxury liner.


There really was “gold in the streets” of America for my family!  God bless America.

If you’d like to read the beginning of this story, see Part One of How My Mother Left Russia with Rags On Her Feet.


All images appearing on My Mother Escaped From Russia With Rags On Her Feet- Part Two are the expressed property of Sandra Sallin. All rights reserved. In other words, don’t steal it!

Facebook Comments
  • Mom Mom's Apron - I am truly speechless. Tipping that attendant so generously was a beautiful way to honor your mother. This post has inspired so many strong emotions and says so much with so few words. I am glad you have the life you do in the golden streets of America.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Your words leave me with tears in my eyes. Thank you.ReplyCancel

  • Ginger Kay - St. Petersburg is the the only place in Russia I’d like to visit, but you are right. As dazzling as it is, I wouldn’t be able to not think about the contrast between that wealth and the peasants who died constructing it, or ignore the hideous Soviet blocks and the sadness that pervades them.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - I was surpirsed how close the fear was. So many years later, yet it struck so close to my heart.ReplyCancel

  • wilma engel - again, beautiful story, wonderful photos, and thank you for telling us all about your mother! I remember her as sweet and kind, and short and a great baker!
    I have been all over Russia..twice, and was scared the entire time..won’t return again and thank my father for getting the hell out of there too…

    • sandra - I thought I was the only one who felt that fear. Yes, my mother was sweet, kind and a great baker.ReplyCancel

  • afterthekidsleave - Such a moving, wonderful story, Sandra. The photos are dazzling, and it’s easy to see why you loved visiting…but also why you must have been grateful to leave.

    I know what you mean about fearing that they’ll arrest you just for being there–on his way home from Germany, my husband said he was doing fine, until they had to make an announcement on the plane: “Achtung!” He froze, and suddenly felt all the fear his father must have felt as he escaped the Nazis in 1939. I think this kind of “memory” is passed from one generation to the next.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Oh my, when I read “achtung” my stomach clenched up. You know I thought I was being too sensitive in Russia you have all opened my eyes to the fact many of us fell the same way. Thank you.ReplyCancel

  • Gail Corcoran - Sandy,
    What a wonderful story you tell, having been in St. Petersburg last summer I can certainly appreciate the contrasts.
    I recently read The Little Russian, by Susan Sherman, I think you would really enjoy the book.

    What a wonderful story you tellReplyCancel

    • sandra - I just looked up the book Gail, and I do think it would be a fascinating read. Interesting that you saw the same thing I did in St Petersburg.ReplyCancel

  • Debra Eve - Sandra, I’m just floored by this whole story — the irony of your mother’s rags and your champagne glass. Several years ago, I saw the Catherine The Great exhibition at the Hammer Museum. What an astonishing culture, to produce so many beautiful things. But then you look at those Soviet blocks…

    I live in West Hollywood, where we have so many elderly Russian immigrants. They sit in Plummer Park, talk and play chess. I never see them smile either. Yes, let’s have coffee some time! Email me at elle.b (at) laterbloomer.com.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Yes, the sharp contrasts of what I saw was stunning. I knew I would not have survived. Very few did.
      I’ve always wanted to go to one of the delicatessens in West Hollywood, wanted to taste the authentic food.
      It’s always fun to meet other bloggers.ReplyCancel

  • Randy Hyde - What a great post! I really love these, Sandy. And the picture of the woman guard between the two statues, blew my mind!ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Thanks Randy. Yes, the women guards were fascinating. The stories they could tell.ReplyCancel

  • kathy peck leeds - Wow – so much to say here. I so understand your feeling of deep conflict while visiting Russia. I know I would have them too, as I have a similar background. But, part of me would love to see St. Petersburg as well. I have found recently that I have mixed feelings when I’m in France as well. Often think about Nazi collaboration, and the deep amount of anti-semitism that has always been part of their history. Fascinating post, and when I see you I will tell you the story of being on a train in 1972 that was passing through Germany, at the time the of the Israeli massacre at the Munich Olympics. Beyond scared.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Oh, Russia is well worth visiting. But if you experience these feelings, you’ll know you’re not alone. I didn’t realize that until this post and people expressed he same feelings. I understand your mixed feelings about France also. I’m looking forward to hearing your story regarding the Israeli Massacre.ReplyCancel

  • apleasanthouse - What an interesting story- and so telling- the lack of smiles, the lack of mothers and children on the streets, the women guards, the concrete mountains of apartments. It’s almost cliche. Almost.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Well, I guess you could say it is a cliche. Interesting thing is that so many people have experienced the same thing. The interesting thing that once we arrived in Sweden, suddenly the streets were filled with men pushing strollers, women on the corner in bikini’s, selling cel phones, and lots of the color red. I don’t know if I was just sensitive to color but suddenly I just saw lots of red in the streets.ReplyCancel

  • Highland Fashionista - What a wonderful story! I used to work on one of those luxury cruise liners in the 90s (Holland America) and did Russia a few times that way. I remember feeling like everything was so BIG…the buildings, the art….Your photos are elegant and beautiful, and really capture the sort of conflicted old and new that is Russia…ReplyCancel

    • sandra - How interesting. Since you traveled in that area and you’re so artistic. ( I read your blog) Did you notice how when you suddenly went from Russia to Sweden that the colors changed? Sweden had red everywhere. It was so jolly in comparison. Red, red, red. That’s what I saw.ReplyCancel

  • Tammy Bleck - Sandra, so, so enjoyed this post. LOVED the pictures. Can you tell…I’ve never been there? The opulence is staggering. Still, with all that beauty it appears to be such a sad place. In your shoes, I too, would resent the beauty while drinking it in. I think it’s wonderful that you visited your parents homeland. And even MORE wonderful that you left on a luxury ship with a flute of champagne. In reading it, it felt like a retribution of sorts. An “in your face” moment, declaring the survival of your parents and producing an offspring that ventured back in time to close the deal. Wonderful.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Thanks Tammy. You got it! Exactly!ReplyCancel

  • Susannah - I love it! Very well written and I learned a lot!!ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Thanks sweetie. I learned a lot also.ReplyCancel

  • Lisa - You really are a story-teller. Words and pictures both. I’ve never been to Russia, have read about it for years, and feel like I know it better from this short post than from anything else I’ve come across.

    Had so much fun at lunch with you yesterday. And then slept really well last night:). Hope your new lipstick is glorious.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - It was my privilege to have lunch with you. I so appreciate all the encouragement you have given me. Thank you.
      Looking for the perfect lipstick was like a mini vacation. I needed it. Now ready to face the day.

      Glad you got a taste of Russia. I’m going to have lunch with a woman poet who lived in St Petersburg. Looking forward to her take on the country.ReplyCancel

  • Audrey Howitt - Gorgeous post–my family also escaped from Russia with just the clothes on their backs–I am glad that you got to experience the best of what it has to offer!ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Thank you Audrey. So many brave and gutsy stories to be told. I’ll be writing about my father also. Felt good to leave Russia with that Champagne in my hand and in my life. I’ll show them! They didn’t get us down.ReplyCancel

  • Judi Briscoe - I’m going to make certain that my cruise-mates see these two blogs on St. Petersburg Sandy. I will be there in June… Very informative, but so sad that you had to experience the angst.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Thanks Judi. Make sure you read all of the hyperlinks with additional information. Fascinating stuff there.ReplyCancel

  • Diana - Great post – great pictures, too! Thanks for sharing them 😀

    I am sorry to hear about the fear and anxiety you have experienced but it is always good to appreciate what you have compared to what you could have had if… right?

    Although I’ve not been to Russia (yet), i can very much relate with the lack of smiles on the streets and the ugly apartment buildings – I born and raised in Eastern Europe and we have these, too. It’s all about perception and life story though. Not that people can’t smile here or there or anywhere – it’s just they don’t really have a reason to. Sad but true.

    Thanks for the great post – I just revisited my to-go list and bumped Russia a bit up 😉ReplyCancel

    • sandra - The beauty can be just astounding. It’s the history that get’s to me. I wonder how you will feel visiting Russia. Growing up in the Eastern Bloc, you must have many memories.

      Yes, I didn’t have the feeling that people had much to smile about.ReplyCancel

  • Leora - My mother was born in Leningrad in 1924. She and my grandmother left in 1929 (my grandfather was already an American citizen – he got them out through connections in the State Dept). I enjoy reading your posts, though I have no desire to visit St. Petersburg. It is fine to learn about your visit!ReplyCancel

    • sandra - They got out just in time. You had a smart grandfather. Bless him. I certainly can understand your not wanting to visit. Thanks for reading.ReplyCancel

  • Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) - I just read both Parts One and Two of your visiting Russia story. My father’s family came from the Ukraine–Lviv, when it was called Limburg and might have been in Poland at the time. My mother says her grandparents came from a shtetel in Poland. She used to spend school holidays visiting them in their cold water flat, shared bathroom in the hall, in a lower East side tenement. My husband’s family escaped from Bulgaria in 1940, traveling by train across Europe one step ahead of the Nazis.

    I have never been to Russia, but I experienced similar feelings to what you describe when visiting southern Germany—a little town south of Munich where my husband had a conference. No one spoke English and the cemetery had WW II era graves with brooding black crosses. We left by train to return to Munich. After we boarded and were waiting for the train to pull out of the station, I glanced out the window, and there on a siding was a rusting cattle car. Just thinking about it still unsettles me.

    I found you on BHB. Write on!ReplyCancel

    • sandra - My mother lived in a lower Eastside tenement when she lived in New York. She hated it. Funnily enough when our son was going to school in NYC, he lived a few blocks away from where my mother and her family lived. Imagine.
      I also took a tour of the the lower East side tenements. Interesting.

      I can certainly understand the shivers up your spine seeing that cattle car. It unsettles me also. Too many memories. It could have been one of them.

      Thanks for visiting.ReplyCancel

  • Hannah Katsman - Amazing how our parents’ memories of places and experiences somehow get passed down to us. Thank you for sharing your beautiful photographs.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - I now treasure those memories and one day my grandchildren will revere them also, I hope.ReplyCancel

  • Susan Cooper/findingourwaynow.com - Conflicts , love and emotion are the words that come to mind. We had a foreign exchange student from Russia many years ago. We still talk to her and as such this really resonates with me. BTW: I loved you pictures.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Thank you. Almost all of the photos werre taken by my husband. He’s teaching me photography now.

      I tried to comment on your site but for some reason, maybe it was my problem I couldn’t.ReplyCancel

      • Susan Cooper/findingourwaynow.com - I love you art work by the way. I am currently in the process of setting up my studio and revisiting my pen and ink drawings. I am very excited about it.

        Thanks for stopping by my blog. You might try refreshing the page and it should be ok to comment. 🙂ReplyCancel

        • sandra - What a delight to set up a studio. It’s truly part of the art process. Thanks for the tip about refreshing the page. I’ll be back.ReplyCancel

  • Pamela Mason - What a fascinating trip you recorded here – I’m so happy to have found you and your blog.
    Forgive me if I’m repeating another’s comment, but Steve Berry wrote The Amber Room – a historical thriller much like Dan Brown.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Thanks for reading. No I had not heard about the Steve Berry book. I will certainly buy it. It’s such a natural for a thriller.ReplyCancel

  • Yvonne - These photos are stunning, and I love those of the attendants and the people of Russia as much as those of the opulent palaces. (Though I do love the blues and amber of the amber room.)

    I somehow imagined that Russia might have improved a bit since the end of the USSR, but it certainly doesn’t seem so from your visit.
    I can imagine it must have been a very emotional trip, going back to your mother’s home city with all its history.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - I’ve spoken with more people about this since this bog was posted. I understand that people simply don’t smile. They really ddon’t have anything to smile abou. I’m going to meet with a poet who lived in Russia and get the whole story. But it was a unique beautiful and emotional experience.ReplyCancel

  • AlexandraFunFit - Otlichno! Spacibo bolshoe.ReplyCancel

  • Tammy Bednarik - The history lesson was amazing. And all the people that died and ever found was sad but I think that’s the beauty of St Petersburg the sacrafices are in the city, I liked the amber room. wern’t you a little scared bring there? I liked your post and learned a lotReplyCancel

    • sandra - Yes, I was a little scared.ReplyCancel

  • Kate Hall - Wow, Sandra, what an amazing story. What a tragic way to have to live – for your mother and family and even for the people there now, it sounds like. I am really fascinated by the photo collage you did of the women guards of the Hermitage. I love that. Beautiful post, thank you for sharing this history.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Thanks for reading Kate. Glad you enjoyed this post. Glad you liked the collage.ReplyCancel

  • christine - This was a fascinating read. (I read both installments just now.) It is astounding the difference in the lives between two women in consecutive generations. That sentence near the end, about your mom leaving with rags on her feet and you leaving with champagne in your hand spells it out well.
    I can’t imagine such suffering and hardship that your mom and her family went through. So many of us think we have it hard here in America. We have no idea what hard is compared to people in other cultures or those in fairly recent history.
    Thank you for sharing your mom’s and aunt’s story.ReplyCancel

    • sandra - Dear Christine, I love the difference between the generations. Only in America! My mother adored America and never took the freedoms and opportunities here for-granted and neither have I.ReplyCancel

  • Lillian Plummer - moving and heartbreaking post Sandra. Generations have lived there in fear and poverty and I can’t see it changing anytime soon. Not much to smile about!
    Thank God for America and Australia. Best wishes lillianReplyCancel

    • sandra - I understand. My mother hated the stage show “Fiddler on the Roof.” She felt there was nothing to make a stage show about.She blessed America. Kissed it’s ground and felt people were not appreciative enough of this country.ReplyCancel

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