Russians catch up on Baltimore

Festival: As Charm City honors St. Petersburg, many there know Baltimore as a condiment, not a city.

February 02, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - A world away, an American city called Baltimore has spent millions of dollars and marshaled all of its cultural muscle to salute Russia's imperial capital, St. Petersburg, on its 300th birthday. And here is what Yevgeny Martinyenko, standing on an ice-paved sidewalk in St. Petersburg, wants to know:

"Is this about ketchup?" he asks, tentatively.

Here, Baltimor is the brand name of a Russian-made tomato-based condiment. But Martinyenko seems dubious that an American newspaper reporter would be interested in what he pours on his shashlik and sausages.

Told Baltimore is a city, not a Reagan-era vegetable, the 23-year-old student at St. Petersburg's Railway Construction Institute nods. Further informed that Baltimore has a historic port and that two Baltimore brothers (Thomas and William Winans) helped build the first railroad linking St. Petersburg and Moscow in the 19th century, he smiles blankly.

During the course of what turns into a brief cross-examination, no bells ring. No memories are jogged. "This is the first time that I've heard of it," he says. "I know Las Vegas and Los Angeles, New York and Washington."

But Baltimore? Beats him.

Baltimore's art and cultural institutions are celebrating the 300th anniversary of the founding of Russia's mythic and melancholy former imperial capital with "Vivat! St. Petersburg." The St. Petersburg-related exhibitions and performances, scheduled from Feb. 13 to March 2, have become the centerpiece of a Baltimore winter tourism campaign.

One avowed purpose of Vivat! is to help introduce Americans to a city that since its founding in May 1703 has produced some of the world's best-loved music, painting, literature, dance and theater. But it's safe to say that residents of the city of Dostoevski, Tchaikovsky and Pavlova have a lot to learn about the city of H. L. Mencken, Blaze Starr and John Waters.

`Not far from Chicago'

Among those Russians who have heard of Maryland's major metropolis, many hazily recall the Soviet-era reports of Baltimore's blast furnaces and factories.

A terse entry in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1976 called Baltimore a "big industrial center due to easy use of coal from the nearby Appalachian coal basin," and described Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant. There was little mention of the city's contribution to American art, literature or science.

"Of course, I have seen the name somewhere," says Yevgeny Kozlov, a graduate student in literature and part-time critic. "But only the name. In my mind, it is connected with some steel production. I think it is somewhere not far from Chicago."

Russia's makers of Baltimor ketchup sponsor a weekly comedy show named - coincidentally - Gorodok or "small city," on the RTR television network. The show's two stars often toss tomatoes at each other to mock their patrons. Once they hawked the product by rephrasing an old Russian proverb about - what else? - vodka.

"Russians can't decide anything without a bottle of ketchup," one announced.

But the name Baltimor has nothing to do with the American city, the manufacturer says. It is a contraction of Baltiskoye Morye, which in Russian means Baltic Sea.

"The ketchup Baltimor is very famous," explains Simeon Mikhailovsky, an architect and historian with the Russian Academy of Arts.

The city Baltimore? Much less so.

Mikhailovsky knows a bit about Baltimore because as a historian he is familiar with the city's celebrated Basilica of the Assumption, dedicated in 1821. Designed by Benjamin H. Latrobe, the basilica was the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States and is generally regarded as one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in the world.

Baltimore is also home to one of only a handful of American newspapers whose name Mikhailovsky has heard over the years: The Baltimore Sun.

No kidding, he says. (During the Cold War, Voice of America and Radio Liberty read articles from The Sun, which has had a Moscow bureau for 47 years, to listeners in the Soviet Union.)

Among prominent physicians and scientists, Baltimore is widely recognized as a center for research. "It's a nice city with a wonderful aquarium, and the remarkable Johns Hopkins University," says Zhores I. Alferov, director of St. Petersburg's A.F. Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute and winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in physics.

He was honored for work that made possible the development of cell phones, without which, it sometimes seems, Russians would be unable to sit still for long in restaurants or aboard aircraft.

Alferov, the first Russian to win a Nobel Prize in the post-Soviet era, visited Baltimore twice in the late 1980s and early 1990s to attend conferences on lasers and electronic optics.

He praises the city's hospitality, seafood and - by comparison to St. Petersburg - mild climate. (St. Petersburg is almost as far north as Anchorage, Alaska, while Baltimore is farther south than any city in Russia.)

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