I caught up on some emails and rushed through the hotel's free breakfast before hurrying toward the Alexander Column to meet up with a walking tour. I made one quick stop—or so I thought—for some coffee in a basement café. I asked to an Americano to go, but it was brought out in a porcelain mug. I’d have asked for a paper cup, but it was small enough to manage in a couple of gulps before I headed on my way. One thing I noticed throughout the duration of my trip is that there is a certain cadence to ordering food and drink in Russia. If you fall out of it—and I was never really able to nail the thing down—it’s a good bet that something will go funny. In my case, there were several instances of asking to to-go items that were delivered for in-store consumption.
Regardless, I arrived just before the tour began. I always like to do a guided tour when it’s available in English. First, I like to get context for what I've already seen (for this reason, I tend to take the tour later in the week—I like to discover the cool things on my own, then figure out what they were as we walk past with the interpreter). The most valuable thing, though, tends to come in the last 30 seconds. Before handing off my tip, I always like to ask the guide something specific about places to go or see or eat. Most of the other tour members wanted to know about nightclubs. One particularly brazen group of Fins wanted to know the simplest place to find women of a certain profession. The guide ticked off a couple of streets quickly, as though it were a fairly common question.
Mine took her a bit longer to answer. Since the following day's forecast called for rain, I asked her for a good district with cafes for writing and hanging out—I told her I was a writer and I'd rather take a break and work than try to brave ugly weather.
After she ticked off a couple of cafes and I told her I’d already found all of those, she sent me on a more complex mission: a trip to the Golitsyn Lofts.
This would prove to be a highlight of my trip to St. Petersburg and Russia generally.
The complex is an old mansion once owned by a family of Decemberists and offered to Pushkin as a writing space. That’s cool enough for me, except that the modern iteration is a conglomerate of hip shops, cafes, bars and even a hostel. There are tattoo parlors, fashion shops operated personally by the designer, and a number of quirky crafters selling their goods, from buttons to belts. In the loft, I met a Russian-born, French-raised man who had started a wine bar and coffee shop. There, he sold Russian wines side-by-side with trendy French vintages in order to tell the story of Russia’s growing wine industry and the improving quality of product. The owner’s girlfriend hailed from Novosibirsk, so we spent some time talking about the city’s recent upswing in hipness while he tended to the steady flow of customers, most of whom were visual or performance artists with a sprinkling of musicians. The atmosphere and community in that place were incredible, and in addition to meeting some truly fascinating people, I was introduced to the music of Montreal-born chanteuse Klo Pelgag, who in the intervening weeks has become one of my favorite musical artists. I left, took a midnight stroll around the historic center of Petersburg, then headed back for some sleep.
Friday included a trip to Finlandskaya rail station, the place where V. I. Lenin returned from exile during the onset of the Russian Revolution and began steering the Bolshevik party from Russian soil. Prior to that he had written and published from abroad, his texts often smuggled into the country and then read aloud at factories of other gatherings of workers. Lenin had ideas, and he had flaws. He’s viewed in a thousand degrees, with an odd blend of affection and blame. Regardless of your take on his theories and the government that sprang from them, I love to see the spaces on which history hinged: the places where powerful women and men changed the course of history. Even though the Finland stations was demolished and rebuilt—in boxy, column-laden stile with the requisite Lenin gesturing from the square that fronts the station, this is a place where history took an immense turn, and it felt powerful to be there. As a writer, too, I’m can’t help but be struck at home much the revolution was shaped by authors and thinkers who distributed their ideas broadly and often covertly through print. There is great power—for good, for evil, and for change generally—in a powerful and carefully composed text, and I was reminded of that while standing in the place where a writer became a tactile leader and changed a big portion of modern history.
That wasn’t all I saw of Lenin on Friday. After some food and a quick stop back at the room to refresh, I took the metro to Moscovkaya Station and walked back toward the city. On the way, I stopped at another Lenin monument, where the current inhabitants weren’t worried about writing and the only thing revolutionary about them were the bright, mis-matched colors of their skateboard wheels. Across Russian, Lenin monuments (which tend to be in open, central squares) tend to be incredibly popular with skate kids. This one, in particular, was surrounded by an intricate system of ramps and guardrails that made for a blissful skatescape.
Further down the street, I strolled through Victory Park, where St. Petersburg residents had no qualms about stripping out of their work clothes and sunbathing in their underwear, beneath the watchful thousand-mile stares of busts representing the nation’s military heroes.
I arrived back on Nevsky prospect just in time to see the seemingly incessant traffic grind to a halt. Sensing this was unusual, I reached for my camera and waited. A few seconds later, a parade of tanks, troop carriers, and missile casings rolled down the street. They were on their way to the evening’s run-through for the Victory Day Parade, and so it was anything but sinister—still, watching a column of such power roll down a busy city street in mid-afternoon is enough to give anyone a neck full of goosebumps.
In the evening, I took in my second opera of the week, this time a shorter performance—just three hours. The performance, like Wednesday’s was spectacular. Unlike Wednesdays, I sat on the floor level, or the partir, where most of the crowd held their seats for the duration of the performance. Up in the cheap seats, it seemed like much of the crowd—Russian and foreign alike—were checking “Dressing up and Walking into Opera” off the list of things to do in St. Petersburg, and they started rolling out in droves once the first intermission hit. Down on the floor, though, the audience was invested and attentive, and the performance was amplified as a result. On the way out, more than 200 dressed-up opera-goers waited more than a half hour for the first bus to arrive outside the venue and start ushering us toward our homes and rented rooms. And while a few of them grew huffy toward the end, most calmly accepted the wait. It was a remarkable thing, though, to watch so many gowned and tuxedoed patrons waiting for city buses.
The deeper one walks into a Russian market, the more stripes the Adidas shoes gain. They were at a solid six by the midpoint of the market at Udelnaya, and the Nikes had sprouted shark-line fins on the swooshes. I saw an Ohio State University sweatshirt that was maize and gold—likely some combination of a hilarious joke, a translation problem, and a sketchy effort to skirt past copyright protection.
Just beyond the Alp-shaped tables of discarded shirt from Western charities—that's right, the stuff you pawn off on Goodwill is just as likely to wind up on sale in bulk at some Eastern European market stall as it is on a store rack in the States—there's a writer's gold mine. Part of the reason I love markets so much is that they do for present culture and society what museums do for expired civilizations: they provide a clear snapshot into what people's lives are, or what they very recently have been. And for a storyteller, these places are unmissably chock full of unanswered questions and the sort of curiosities that lead to the very best of stories. To wit: a blanket spread on the ground, over which an old man presides, sitting on a wood stool and propped up by a cane. The blanket is coated with the mundane things that can be gotten rid of for a few extra rubles of dinner money: yellowed, dog-eared books, a couple pieces of old clothing, spent and rusty tools, and some tableware. But then, in the very center of it all, is a giant, inexplicable disco ball. Wait, what? Nearby, a woman who appears to be a retired exotic dancer has her own blanket laid out, and her used costumes are selling with surprising briskness to younger girls and a couple of middle-aged women.
Inside the rented and covered stalls, one grizzled salesmen keeps all sort of old Soviet buttons and pins, something that's excessively common at the stalls, and probably the primary draw of foreigners. What sets him apart, though, is the merchandise that's jammed down into the displays: small but discernible edges of rusted swastikas poking out for those who care to let themelves linger that long. He has rusted helmets, too, behind the case, some with sickles and others with iron crosses. What's common among them, though, are the holes torn in the sides or tops of the metal gear. These weren't brought home by victorious solders at the war's end. These were collected off the ground, taken from those who didn't return at all.
One woman was selling nursing scrubs. Well, sort of. Half the nursing uniforms were, indeed, scrubs, and the other half looked like they belonged on the blanket with the other out-of-use dancer costumes—the sort of thing that might be found in an open-all-night store without windows. There are a number of solutions to what could have happened there—all of them amusing. Here's hoping no one went to the market and showed up to work in something pulled from the wrong end of that rack.
In the afternoon, I went for a plate of sugared Pishki (Russian donuts) and a cup of Soviet-style coffee, with the sugar and milk stirred into the vat in which the coffee was brewed. I spent much of the rest of the afternoon revisiting some of the trip highlights, buying a new suitcase to help ferry my things back to the States from Novosibirsk, and checking out a couple of skate shops and quirky stores for souvenirs. By the evening, I was too worn out from a week’s worth of walking to get to worked up about going out, so I packed and prepared for the next day’s flight, took a relaxed evening stroll, and then headed to bed, tired but full of St. Petersburg’s wonder.