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Goodbye, America. The US General Consulate shuts down in St. Petersburg

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March 31st, 2018. Diplomats are taking down the US flag from the Consulate building. Now it’s a former Consulate building. And this is 1973 – the day when the Consulate was opened in Leningrad. The history went the other way.

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Only a year later, in 1974, the Consulate hosted a party for the King of Blues BB King – and musician David Goloschekin attended it.

David GoloschekinL “We played together. Not just come and touch the man, but actually be able to play together with him”

David Goloschekin reminisces the unseen before cigars, coca cola and mixed feelings of a Soviet man, which found himself in a friendly environment of the ideological enemy.

  • I, as a jazz musician, had always been under surveillance. Today you’re playing jazz, tomorrow you’ll betray the motherland – this notion had been there for a long time and people felt caged.

Americans felt caged too. Here’s how James Schumacher, staff at the diplomatic mission, described his Leningrad morning. “I went out of the Consulate and got lost – made a wrong turn. And then noticed a funny thing. I was surrounded by 8 men who tried hard to make it look that they were not watching me”.

The opening of the Consulate followed several decades of negotiations. The US inquired about opening the Consulate in Leningrad – without which it was hard to imagine diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union – back in 1946. The Soviet government responded only 27 years later.

Natalia Tsvetkova: “The negotiations between Nixon and Brezhnev began. And the second most important matter – after that of nuclear warheads – was opening the Consulate in Leningrad. The Soviet government was actually rushing the Americans – lets open it, it will be seen as prestige and culmination of all our agreements. And there were a lot of those in 1972 – around 50 agreements”.

Americans wanted to be situated at Moyka, but their plea was rejected – because of close proximity to the Admiralty. Instead, they were offered a building at Petra Lavrova st, 15 – which was easy to keep an eye on. Rimma Ivanova had been a neighbor to the diplomats for 40 years. She says that even in the 1990s it was very calm on the street. And that for the locals, the star-striped flag was not seen as a symbol of the West.

Rimma Ivanova: “It was interesting to witness how they took out the flag and then took it back inside – by a marine. And we didn’t even need a barometer – if we wanted to know whether it was windy or not, we just looked outside the window to see how the flag behaved”.

Rimma did not get to see her old neighbors moving out. But dozens of TV cameras did – how the world was changing in front of our eyes and the entire epoch was disappearing. Diplomats taking belongings out in bags, moving furniture. And a farewell dinner, consisting of 21 pizza boxes. A polite video farewell was published online – a plea to the new residents of the building. “Please, don’t forget to water the flowers”.

And here’s the final writing on the Consulate’s page – announcement of exhibition of American writers’ portraits at Dostoyevsky Museum. One of those depicting Elif Batuman, Russophile and author of a sequel to Dostoyevsky’s “Demons”.

The closure of the US Consulate disrupted plans of many people of culture on both sides. Writer Yakov Gordin planned to release a thematic edition of magazine “Zvezda”, dedicated to the US, but didn’t make it.

  • When they return, we will joyously organize the publishing of that edition.

  • You are an optimist

  • No, I’m a sane man. I’ve been studying Russian political history for half a century. This level of inhumane relations towards each other – its unnatural. In the old times, such tensions led to wars, but today no one needs a war. I hope that I get to see the normalization of relations in my lifetime

English teacher Joshua is from Seattle – where the Russian Consulate was also shut down recently. Son of a military man, he’s been studying Russian history and Generals’ biographies. Joshua helps out St. Petersburg’s students participating in Russo-American cultural projects. The example of the very diplomacy which has to keep the contacts between the two nations alive until the new cold war is over. The war which is already been described as ice cold.

Evgeniya Altfeld: “Diplomats are gone, but the building still keeps the American crest and the working hours placard. Some bemoan the Consulate’s closure, some are joyous about it. The diplomats understand – this is not a closure, rather a suspension. Another matter is how long it would be – and what kind of world we shall be seeing while it exists, for years or even decades”.

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