I used to walk the streets of Saint Petersburg, propelling myself forward at a strident pace. Sometimes, passerby would stop me and ask me for directions. I told them I didn’t know where I was, where I was going.
I’ve seen people travel to Russia with an image in their mind. A romantic image: a dark but gorgeous, majestic place, literary geniuses winding their way through the lamp lit streets, symphony notes hovering in the air, poetry in the wind. A harsh image: never ending Soviet apartment blocks, grey sky, grey streets, grey faces, a hush all around, a terror gripping you, reaching out from every pulled-aside curtain in the window. A chaotic image: mafia men roaming the streets, lawlessness abound, money exchanges on the street, bright glittery shops full of bootlegs and do you even want to know? I had an image of Russia too: political dissidents, rebels and revolutionaries, ere hidden interests now blossoming, a glamorous and edgy grit.
None of these images are true.
All of these images contain a shard of truth. Russia encompasses them, scrambles them up, and adds a dash of everything more. If you’re coming to Russia looking for straight answers, any answers, you won’t find them.
The stereotypes do contain some truths, though, in the form of old women hunched and hobbling down the street, swinging their bags at anyone who dares get in their way. It’s best just to step aside for your own safety.
The small kitchen was overwhelmingly brown. I sat at a small table, hunched over my tvorog. It was too much to stomach; I set my fork down over the scrapings scattered around the plate. My new hosts hovered over me. One took up my fork, gathered up the last crumbs, not quite a forkful, and stuck them in my mouth. “We can’t waste any food; we’re blokadnitsi.” That night in my room, it took me a few moments to fully realize: they survived the Siege of Leningrad, these two. As children, they saw the city starve to death, with hardly people left to haul bodies away through the snow.
The sun is coming out and the parks are glistening – snow or spring dew; doesn’t matter. The canals maybe even sparkle. Take a walk, you can pass: birches, elegant cathedrals, drunks in the street with piss on their pants, a crowded McDonald’s, a courtyard with hippie art, tiny shops, expensive designer displays, old women prostrate hands out, a Hummer roaring by, trash maybe burning from cigarette butts, the Soviet insignia, a blini stand, someone yelling at you for being in their way, some of the most beautiful bridges. This is one city in the world’s largest country.
We huddled around the campfire, in intervals covering our faces as smoke engulfed us. The guitar was on a lap and we sang songs in Russian and English. We lingered too late for proper sleep before getting up to the chilly morning, slightly misty, which the sun soon dispersed. We laughed under the trees, swinging our pickaxes in the marsh. It was Siberia, but everything was warm, even when it was dark again and we were bundled up in our sleeping bags. Talk about heartfelt.
I came home from volunteering at a human rights organization. What did you do, my host inquired. Well, I compiled English sources on the Gulag for an online museum. Back to me, hunched over laundry, “oh, that’s good. You know, my father was sent to the Gulag.” What? “We don’t know why. He came back from the war, from the front, with children’s books in German, because I was studying German, you see? And then they took him away, Stalin took him, and we never saw him again.”
I walked along Nevsky Prospekt and different old women were on the street, resolutely holding up framed photos captioned, “Stalin, our hero.”
The museums, goddamn. Tsarinas’ dresses and carriages and bejeweled icons and gold shit everywhere, parading the imperial past. Look at this wealth! It makes me sick.
I do not enjoy these museums.
We crowd into one small room in one small apartment. A woman clutches a violin; someone else, a guitar. The audience is all on the floor, butts pretty much on top of one another. We draw our knees inward and wrap our arms around our legs, sucking in. But the energy spreads out: we laugh, and applaud, and the songs last for hours. I even sing.
A bulky doorman beckons us inside and closes the heavy door behind us. He looks through our purses and takes cameras, cell phones – anything that can obviously record. We’re assessed. I stand nervously by my friend, somewhat of a regular, who is the only reason I could get in. The bouncer opens another door, and we’re allowed on the dance floor. We’re in Saint Petersburg’s gay club. It’s still early and it’s largely empty. I hang out for a bit before deciding to make it home before midnight; I have a quiz the next morning. The guard gives me back my phone and opens the heavy door. I step into the darkness, and I run home.
Our bus had caught fire. We sat on the sidewalk of a small town near the Estonian border as our now-shirtless driver banged around the back of the bus. We befriended a street puppy. We wandered in the radius of a few blocks, finding the town’s World War II monument. The sun shone heavily.
Every snippet I grasp of their previous life, their Soviet life, I cling to. There isn’t much, but it’s not the scarcity that makes the stories all the more fascinating. I’ve grown away from building pedestals, but still this one remains, a tower greater than all the angular Soviet monuments I’ve stood underneath, craning my neck. I tend the flowers there, at the bottom. Over the years, tendrils have crept down with stories: hiking through a forcibly relocated village and leaving food behind for the one old lady who remained, walking out of the American embassy, forbidden books clutched under a jacket. I want to dig my nails in, forcibly hoist myself up.
Some day too soon, I’ll have gathered all the tendrils I’ll ever gather, and it won’t be enough. But, I suspect some truths were unspeakable, and the lies were unpalatable. So there was a gaping silence, one I filled with nothing, and they held their stories to themself.
What does anyone really, truly understand? What can anyone really, truly comprehend? Those who lived the past are dead, but the past lives on in others, the unknowing.
I don’t know.