I shouldn’t even have been in St. Isaac’s that morning.
I was supposed to be in Paris, stretching luxuriously as I awoke in the Hotel de Nice on the Rue de Rivoli, looking forward to a leisurely breakfast of croissants and wonderful coffee and then a trip on the Metro to the Musée de Orsay, where I would bliss out on rooms and rooms of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art.
However, we had run into the bizarre circus that was Air France’s St. Petersburg operation. In those days (and these days, for all I know) the Air France counter in St. Petersburg operated on a first-come, first-served basis: as in, first-with ticket, first-on plane. Just like all other airlines right? But in St. Petersburg, they added a special twist: it didn’t matter when your ticket was for — today, tomorrow, a week from Thursday — they would put you on the plane. At least that was how it was explained to us when we arrived at the airport well within Air France’s suggested window, with confirmed tickets, only to be told that not only was the plane filled already, it was preparing to take off.
Okay, no problem, they could just put us on the flight tomorrow, right? Well, yes, they would honor my husband’s ticket, but my frequent flier ticket was no good. We would have to buy another ticket for the flight tomorrow. My husband argued with the Air France manager for a long time, at one point leaving me to sit under the watchful eye of increasingly suspicious Russian soldiers with submachine guns, to no avail.
So, after an uncomfortable evening, with me being particularly grumpy at my husband on the irrational grounds that it was his idea to go shopping that morning (we ended up buying what was thereafter referred to as “the $600 lacquer bowl”), we decided to spend a little time (not much, we planned to get to the airport way way in advance, as the Air France manager hinted that he could make sure we got on the flight if we got there by such and such a time) at St. Isaac’s Cathedral. St. Isaac’s had once been an operating church, but under the Communists had been turned into a museum.
In Russia, there are two prices for everything, a Russian price and a tourist price. The Russians justify this on the hard to argue with grounds that a) these are their national treasures, and b) if you’re traveling there, you can afford to pay more to see things. (Even the tourist price was quite low.)
I approached the ticket table. It was staffed by two Russian women who looked to be in their late forties or early fifties. (This was in 1997.)
The ticket seller looked at me for a moment and then said something in Russian, pointing to the cross I always wore, the cross I had bought a couple of years earlier in Germany. Then she said to me, “Priest’s wife.” (Orthodox priests can marry, and often do, and their wives are respected members of the community.)
I smiled. “No, no, I am not a priest’s wife.”
The woman insisted, “Priest’s wife,” and pointed to my cross. The other woman explained, “In Russia, the only people who could wear crosses were priest’s wives.”
I was taken aback. Then it occured to me that these women grew up in an era when the simple act of wearing a cross could be dangerous.
The two women, beaming at me, insisted that I pay the Russian price for admission, in spite of my protestations to the contrary. I went in to view the marvelous mosaics and gilded walls, feeling like a bit of a fraud: although, yes, I am a Christian, I am not a hero.
Whenever I hear American Christians whine about persecution, I grow angry. I remember those two Russian women, and countless others, for whom persecution was not a matter of people possibly saying mean things about you but about safety for yourself and your family. We are free to practice our religions in ways large parts of the world can only dream about — just ask Christians in Algeria, or Buddhists in Tibet, or Muslims in Uzbekistan.
We can wear crosses with impunity, or without meaning. They can be just jewelry, to us.
But never to me, not again. I think I owe it to the Russian women to wear the cross more thoughtfully than that.