A Lesson In Greatness

Prior leaving to Canada, my parents decided to take the 10-year-old me to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Visiting St. Petersburg – the city of my maternal ancestors – I got a fever after sailing down the river Neva. I didn’t notice that fever, especially not in the Hermitage – where my heart quickened from the thrill of the artwork, and the vast majesty of halls, gilded and marbled to imperial perfection. I was a sponge of impressions, absorbing millennia in their quintessence.

A worker at the museum observed to my parents that she had never seen a child studying the Roman and Greek sculpture so intently. It was both an art and anatomy lesson for me.

The Gallery of 1812, celebrating the heroes of Russia’s War with Napoleon, had me glowing with pride.  I would have gladly exchanged the dress I was wearing for a uniform and sabre, to never remember that I was a little girl, still fond of Barbies.

(If you have not read “War and Peace” or saw the Oscar-winning USSR-era movie or BBC production of 2016 – I recommend you check these out.)

I walked out of the Gallery, reciting one of my favorite poems – Mikhail Lermontov’s “Borodino,” and making a mental list for myself to read the diary of Nadezhda Durova “The Cavalry Maid”– the first Russian female officer, who had disguised herself as a man to fight in Napoleonic Wars.

I was fevering for 3 more days, but I refused to stay in the hotel despite my parents’ protests. No fever could stop me from exploring the stately rooms of Pavlovsk; or the smoky melancholy of Tsarskoe Selo – Catherine the Great’s palace, also the cradle of Pushkin’s genius, Russia’s greatest poet, whom I never preferred to Lermontov. The magnificent retreats of Peterhof Palace were a golden dream to me.

“I will be Great too, bet on it!” I promised Peter the Great, smiling at me from the canvass, “Even my fever is gone! Haha!”

I met another little girl and invited her to play tag– down the cascades of stairs leading down to an alley of Peterhof’s famed surprise fountains.

I told her, “Come on, catch up with me!”

I was flying on the clouds of history, lightnings flashing in my eyes.

“Wait!” the girl cried, but I kept running, lost in my sheer, invincible rapture, “Come on – make history with me!”

I heard her stop behind me, but encouraged with a tinge of irritation, “You’re lagging behind!”

“Wait!” she pleaded, and I suddenly stopped too.

The girl breathlessly explained, “I have a sick heart. I can’t run this fast.”

Her words were a revelation of a common fragility.

At that moment, I realized that a great triumph is worth nothing if we are blind to those around us.  Making history is not about soaring in clouds – feverish with our grandeur –but through simple acts of kindness, empathy, and reaching out. Such is the measure of true greatness.

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