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DATELINE: ST. PETERSBURG : Their Ships Come In With Sale of Matroshkas

August 01, 1994|RANDY HARVEY

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Navy Day brought the best of the Baltic Fleet's battleships and submarines to the Neva River by morning Sunday and drunken sailors to the streets by night.

In between, St. Petersburgers enjoyed the festivities connected with the annual holiday, although no one seemed to know exactly why one was set aside in honor of the Russian Navy.

The role of the battleship Aurora in helping to bring down the czarist regime in 1917 was probably a factor, however.

Peter the Great started the Navy in 1694 with one ship and three admirals. That was pretty much its peak in the pre-nuclear days.

If Russian television producers had not been so relentlessly dull, they could have created a situation comedy about some of the things that happened and called it "Mikhail's Navy."

In 1904, the Japanese Navy staged a surprise attack upon Port Arthur on Russia's Pacific Coast. Seeking revenge, Russia's Baltic Fleet sailed halfway around the world and proved superior in its first engagement--against a British fishing fleet. Seven months later, the Russians finally arrived in Japanese waters at Tsushima Bay and were sunk.

Nevertheless, Navy Day was marvelous. Russians lined up five deep alongside the water across from the Hermitage on another atypically scorching day. Afterward, they went to the main street, Nevsky Prospect, to eat ice cream--for as little as 15 cents a cone--and watch foreigners shop.

For as long as most street vendors can recall, their most popular item for tourists has been the nesting dolls, called matroshkas . The traditional ones are of Russian women in traditional folk dresses.

But, with the shift a few years ago to a free market, the makers developed enhanced senses of commerce and humor, selling dolls of Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Kruschev, Stalin, Lenin, etc.

Today, one can buy not only U.S. leaders, including Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al and Tipper Gore, but also NBA stars.

The most popular model features Michael Jordan on the outside, then descends to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Ron Harper and Mark Price.

There also are team models--Bulls, Knicks, Lakers and even the Heat. But not even on Navy Day can one find the Clippers.

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