Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

30 Jun 2001, 5:12 a.m.

Why HRC and not AR? -- And the Smolnyi.

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

In the past two weeks (my goodness, I've been in St. Petersburg for two weeks), I've had two dreams somehow involving Hillary Rodham Clinton. But, even though my alarm clock by my bedside ticks really fast, like the stopwatch in the "60 Minutes" opening (it's a newsmag TV show in the USA), I have had no dreams in which I am, say, assaulted by Andy Rooney and Lesley Stahl and so on.

I think Andy Rooney would have a field day here. "Didja ever notice how hard it is to brush your teeth with bottled water?"

So I went to the Smolnyi Cathedral on Thursday night. I shall excerpt from John's journal here, since it says most of what I would want to anyway. Italicized & bracketed comments are mine.

White people! They're everywhere! AAAAAAAGH! So at the Marinsky the other day, Sumana helped some American guy from Yale find something on a schedule board (he didn't read Russian at all), and was subsequently invited to this singing dinner thing at the Smolny Cathedral. Not knowing what to expect, she tapped me for escort duty, and after meeting (and, of course, being fed by) her host mother, we walked our way there 20 minutes late. Fortunately, the people were 45 minutes late. [In between our arrival and theirs, I had a fun time finding a bathroom and using one that wasn't especially prominent. I'm not sure I wasn't forbidden from using it, since I'm not a member of the Smolnyi Institute, and there weren't any RESTROOM HERE-type signs. Oh, well. When you need to go...] They rolled up in a tour bus... then another... then another... 500 or so former Yale choir singers, dating back into classes of the 30s and 40s. [Maybe only 300. And many of them were friends and family of the Yalies. Of course, some of them were part of dynasties. Maybe some Skull & Bones members. Oh, well. And there were some kiddies. You just know that they're going to say, at 15, "Oh, I'm so sick of Russia. Yeah, I've done the Europe thing." And so on.] There was a band there to play marching songs as they exited the busses [sic] and went into the cathedral. Needless to say, we felt out of place. [Well, he did. I kept saying, "You have no spirit of adventure."] The guy's son found us, and hauled us inside, where we watched the massive tide of Conneticut whiteness schmoozing with itself and being touristy with all of the Russians. [I met -- I kid you not -- Anya and Tanya. They recommended Chaif and DDT, Russian rock bands. Also, the American sitting across from me -- Herrick Jackson '62 -- looked like Bruce Willis. John disagreed.] Got some free food and vodka, [I didn't drink at all, Mom. Worry not.] and then sat down to watch various groups of them get up and sing (sometimes spontaneously) old glee club songs. The choir from Smolny was also into it, which was kind of pretty. The translator had an amusing take on some english idioms and song titles ("the whole world is located on his arms" was roughly the Russian she used for "He's got the whole world in his hands"). [John and I had a gay old time with the Russian/English issue. We kept saying Russian words to non-Russian speakers for little things like "Thank you" and "Excuse me." And we were almost called upon to translate -- thank goodness there were enough real translators that we didn't have to.] Oh, and apparently the really elite choir people are called "Whiffenpoofs" (don't ask me to spell that correctly). The cathedral itself, while quite pretty, was blanketed in off-white on the inside, completely devoid of the usual artwork. Creepy. [Yeah, it was really sad and disturbing that this place, built as a house of worship, was now just a pretty place for tourists to visit, and really blank. Of course, the sacred music still touched me, and in fact made me very, profoundly sad at one point, thinking about the one great betrayal, and the possibility of God's forgiveness, and of forgiving myself.] Did I mention the white people? There were lots of white people.

Oh, and I have a new nickname. It's a diminuitive, and -- isn't this great? -- it turns out that "Sumka" literally means "bag," as in "purse, suitcase, etc." At least I'm not Siri. "Sirka" is "little cheese."

First published by Sumana Harihareswara at