Winter 2022: It seems increasingly unlikely my painfully acquired 430-word Russian vocabulary will ever generate meaningful sentences. Surely a 5-week intensive course in St Petersburg would help? It will have the added advantage of being located in one place, thereby circumventing any lingering Covid concerns (I choose to ignore that Russia is in the middle of its Omicron surge). Before I know it, my bags are packed.
Conveniently the most direct route from Boston to St Petersburg goes through Berlin, where Shyamala and I happily continue our emerging tradition of relaxing weekends in European capitals.
Not too surprisingly Boston, New York and North Carolina have been implacably against this whole idea. Berlin, on the other hand strikes a more optimistic note “I mean what can happen? You’re an old lady at a language school. In any case it’ll all be over by next weekend”.
Shyamala toasting my Russian vocabulary mission. But she is a scientist, not a geopolitician
Last week in St Petersburg
Part the first, arrival.
With impeccable timing – its 10:00 am at the departure gate in Berlin – the UK chimes in: “Germany closed its airspace at 8:30”. Yet before we know it Aeroflot 6642 to St Petersburg is on its way, via Sweden and Finland the pilot tells us smugly. At the almost empty airport my passport is completely ignored (the discrepancy between my 8-year-old photo and current visa picture normally elicits considerable alarm). My driver slaps my back, calls me a hero, and devises an impromptu tour of the many monuments to the Leningrad blockade, just so I’ll know what that really entails.
Unlike nearby Baltic cities that blossom in the winter sunshine, the St Petersburg exurbs suck all the life out of the blue sky, as only polluted Stalin-era monoliths can. We barrel down Nevsky Prospect for a good 30 minutes as it segues from Stalin to the Tsar, and the buildings, at last, start to square their shoulders to the sun. Disappointingly, since I have hauled over two pairs of snow boots, there is none to be seen.
Not my picture and not St. Petersburg, but it could easily be.
Back in Soviet days my homestay apartment, whose Lenin plaque somewhat confusingly indicates where Stalin might have met his first wife, would have housed three families. Now it’s just Anna, Vladimir and a revolving door of language students, currently young Théo, in his dreams a prospective French ambassador to Moscow, and now me. The family who vacated my cavernous room have left all their furniture, including ecclesiastical caliber wardrobes (still stuffed full of Soviet era detritus) but not, unfortunately, a bed, so I must make do with a pull-out. The mattress is horsehair which turns out to be not so bad, but so are the pillows and maybe even the duvet. In the way of all Russian interiors, it’s so stifling hot that the windows must be open no matter how frigid it is outside. More worryingly we will all share the (tiny) bathroom and Vladimir and I will turn out to share the same nocturnal schedule.
The front door of Chez Simonova. The provenance of the Lenin plaque is extremely difficult to fathom.
Anna, instantly voluble and vivacious, immediately hauls my desperately jet-lagged self on a frantic tour of the neighborhood, from the monument to Lenin’s secret train at one end, to the bridge over the Neva on the other. Everyone fears losing access to money (I have anticipated this and brought dollars, a sensible contingency which is roundly ignored) and am instructed to withdraw rubles from the Sberbank ATM and parlay them into Metro and SIM cards (I have also brought a burner phone) as well as milk to have with my tea. Anna’s English heritage, a green-thumbed ancestor who joined the service of the tsar sometime in the 1700s, means she has correctly anticipated I have brought tea bags but will guard them jealously.
At the other the Aurora that fired the first shot in the Bolshevik revolution.
The sun is beginning to set. On the other side of the river the golden domes of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, and a thousand other buildings, are catching fire; St Petersburg is finally strutting its stuff. We are standing by the Aurora, from where the first shots of the Bolshevik revolution were fired. ‘This is my city!’ declaims Anna gesturing frantically over the seriously fragmenting ice. It is all very affecting.
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.
The sheer Soviet perfection continues through dinner. It seems Anna has not yet managed to convert her professed love of cooking into execution, and though I don’t yet know it, the next week’s meals will consist of some combination of pelmeni (a chewier tortellini puzzlingly served with mayonnaise), chicken cutlets, ditto either fresh or reheated, a tepid soup only apparent from its texture to be cabbage, and mashed potatoes. Green vegetables and fruit have disappeared off the face of the earth. Today all is rounded out by Vladimir’s homemade vodka which he has also steeped in oak leaves. Its vile taste must be reflected in my face, so it is returned post haste to their room where Vladimir, presumably, will continue to nurse it fondly.
I am well aware that Russians talk politics interminably, but at 18 Sampsonovskaya Blvd, the days of kitchen table samizdat are clearly over. When Théo arrives agitated with reports that access to the Metro is closed by anti-war protests – he has gone out without his passport (a serious no-no, no wonder he is so frantic) – Anna tells us firmly that these are paid protesters. I have not yet learned my lesson and offer that I too have seen a paid audience at a military parade in Moscow. Sensing an incipient counter-revolution she tells us firmly and then several times more with increasing agitation, that while she does not know why all this is happening, if Putin has deemed it necessary, it must be, and therefore it must also be supported. Vladimir, who does not speak English and who is at the mercy of Anna’s willingness to translate, which is sporadic at best, is a cipher. Théo, who can sometimes insert himself into a gap in the diatribe to share a few words with him in Russian, later tells me Vladimir is a Stalin supporter.
To cut a long story short (one advantage of not writing in real time) we are also going to learn in excruciating detail how the Ukrainians are our brothers (Sunday) but are governed by Nazis (Monday) and so must be rescued in their own best interests (Tuesday) or taught a lesson also in their own interests (Wednesday). On Monday we also say goodbye to CNN on the kitchen TV and the State channel takes its place. Théo, the diplomat in training, is beside himself, afraid they have been radicalized. I, with the cynicism of age, merely assume the emergence of true colors.
My one concern in signing on to a homestay was that the perfect retro Soviet experience would be enacted by batshit crazy actors. Clearly, it’s going to be a long 5 weeks.
Anna caught in a rare moment of silence
Victor can only express his opinions on the rare occasions when our vocabulary coincides with his.
Part the second, school.
Liden and Dentz is highly regarded, and I have been assured I will not be the oldest student – ‘No, no, plenty of people in their 80s come to learn from us’. While that might be true in aggregate, it is clearly not at this particular moment in time. The current class, mostly Russian majors from various international universities who are here to perfect their grammar (not so much their accents) while immersing themselves in homestay Russian culture, are supplemented by a 40-something Englishman with thyroid issues and what seems like an unhealthy dependence on his parents, a rather elderly Belgian whose plan to recreate Napoleon’s march from Russia to France has been hampered by a horrific accident that has reputedly cost him 1/3 of his brain, including the parts most useful in language acquisition (I inspect his skull closely and find no evidence that it has been breached and so am somewhat skeptical of this story, despite hearing it multiple times). And now me.
They all, most significantly the administration, seem confused I am here. Clearly the dialog:
“Are you coming?”
“Is it safe?”
“Yes, there is nothing to worry about here”
“Well please let me know if anything changes”
has lost something in translation.
Liden and Dentz. Fourth floor, no elevator. Those 80 year olds must be really committed.
There are only 2 of us in my class and the other, Alicia, is on zoom from Zurich, deeply resentful at getting up too early only to be unable to read the blackboard, so I essentially have Daria’s full attention. I warm to her immediately until she starts to teach, when I too start to wonder about what unwitting accident has also cost me critical areas of my brain.
Lessons continue for 4 hours with a single 15-minute break. We have already dispensed with all the material it took me 2 years to teach myself and my 430-word vocabulary needs to double tout de suite. The lure of a nice nap is becoming irresistible, but It is not to be. We are herded into an all-school meeting to evaluate ‘the situation’. The Director is quite explicit: “We Russians are deeply ashamed about this senseless and unprovoked attack on Ukraine” she tells us firmly. Students will be supported in whatever decisions they make, transfer to other campuses, notably the one in Riga, is encouraged. The teaching staff look miserable; presumably they aren’t invited to Riga too. I notice the senior administrator has slipped out of the room.
The three young English undergrads and I repair across the street to the Chinese Bao café for a debrief. The deeply satisfying three course lunch costs 420 R (currently $6) and while it too has never seen a vegetable, at least it eschews cabbage and potatoes. In short order the European Universities have started to order their students home. Flights via Istanbul and Dubai are in high demand. Fortunately, last night, unable to sleep in-between cabbage-induced trips to the loo, I impulsively bought a bus ticket to Helsinki for $25 on Friday. From there I can get a frequent flyer ticket to Berlin for $2, so I think I book that too. (Later this turns out to have been a jet-lag induced hallucination and I end up having to go business class for $10). The young ladies seem amazed it is possible to travel internationally without leaving the ground and rapidly book their own bus tickets thereby saving themselves thousands of dollars. Tomorrow the US embassy too will send a get out of dodge email (rider-don’t expect any help from us).
Part the third, boots on the ground.
Thanks to the wonders of Russian public transport (one Metro pulls in as soon as another pulls out) I can get from home to school door to door within half an hour. This is critical since the daily diatribe begins on the dot at 9am, coincident with breakfast and I am never able to evade it. On the way into town, the popular mood, while still decorous, is showing some evident strain: Everyone on the Metro is masked it is hard to distinguish the anti-Putin eye roll from the pro-Putin equivalent, or which side the ‘No worries, we still have kasha, salt and matches’ sentiment that is being revived, albeit a bit tentatively, belongs to. On Monday, lines for the Sberbank ATM are round the block; Tuesday they are at the banks; Wednesday the ATM is all locked up and bank customers must bang on the door to ask to get inside (permission is not always granted). From Tuesday on Bao café lunch is cash only. By Wednesday its value has dropped to $3 and is correct change only with half as many noodles. Fortunately the way home is beneath where protests occur.
Our Lenin Station Metro stop had the longest elevator in the world until some other arriviste built theirs three centimeters longer, Anna tells me furiously.
I discover that having only snow boots to wear raises uncomfortable issues of arch support, and institute a mission for insoles. The pharmacy on the way home lies within the Military Medical School with its huge attendant hospital (Doctors need to be taught differently for war than peace Anna tells us darkly) and miracle! not only contains a whole room specifically devoted to insoles but the staff of 10 is right now undergoing a training on insole diagnostics. The sole English speaker seizes me in ecstasy (staff to customer ratio currently 10:1), 4 separate people remove my boots and socks and the insole expert proceeds to imprint my imperfect feet, efficiently diagnose their multiple deficiencies and recommend an insole solution (I regretfully turn down the opportunity to have some custom made). We are all even more ecstatic when by some cyber-miracle my card goes through since not one person has a ruble in their purse for change. ‘I am sorry they are so terribly expensive’ the English speaker commiserates. In fact, they cost me only $10. ‘Well, for us they’re expensive’ she clarifies with a grimace. Correct. At the beginning of the week, they would have been $30, roughly the same price as home.
It is past time to seize the opportunity to do some sightseeing. Since the QR code necessary to breach the Hermitage is obtainable only with a Sputnik vaccine and clearly not worth the trouble now, I must settle for the less famous ethnographic museum. In fact, it is perfect. Glorious dioramas of all the myriad ethnic groups the Soviets documented within their borders. Within the Ukraine section, the breakdown of the earnest conversations about whether Ukraine is part of the Russian world, seems to be about 5:1 in favor, not coincidentally matching the ratio of docents to visitors. I meet my Armageddon in the unpopular Chechen room. No sooner do I have both feet inside than the docent seizes my arm. ‘Sit down!’ she demands. My protests fall on deaf ears. ’10 minutes!’ she shouts plugging in a boring slide show of blurry photos from the 1930s. After 9 I try to sidle away. No such luck: ‘Give me your phone!’ she demands. Someone shaken I hand it over, whereupon she proceeds to photograph all the critical exhibits less discerning folk would simply ignore. That done she arranges herself for a pose and then scrabbles around in her purse for a fridge magnet of St Petersburg with which to send me on my way. The highlight of the week. By Thursday more folks are hauling home potatoes than knock off designer perfume and the mood on the Metro has segued into overt shell shock.
The Chechen exhibit, is critically important as I now come to understand.
Ah the dioramas! What’s not to love?
Dispatches from the provinces.
Word starts rolling in. не войне! Writes Urmat, my Kyrgiz friend from past adventures*, ‘No war!’ clearly not expecting his email will be read in Russia rather than Boston. Besides pledging to protest against the war whenever such protests will materialize (a big move for him) he tells that his hotel is inundated with Russians fleeing what is turning out to be a domestic disaster. The advantages are no visa, an absurdly low cost of living and lingering Soviet nostalgia. But the disadvantages of Bishkek as a refuge are far too numerous to enumerate.
*See wild, wild Kyrgistan
Next, Sergei-from-Yakutsk whose life-long dream is to recreate an actual mammoth to roam the Taiga and thereby mitigate global warming**. It should be said that this may be more attainable for him than most since he does have actual mammoth DNA in his possession. The trick of combining it with a suitable elephant genome is where I apparently come in, since the outfit that will perform the unholy alliance is located in Boston. Sergei has been hatching a plot for me transport his precious samples to Boston even before the political circumstances deteriorated and I have reluctantly agreed, provided of course he can supply the necessary official paperwork (we both know this is highly unlikely, but that bridge will be deferred until later). But now things have come to a head. Shall he fly to St Petersburg with the samples this very day, he inquires plaintively. I have a momentary vision of the Russian/Helsinki border, my suitcase open and trying to find ‘mammoth DNA’ in Google Translate. Sergei accepts the inevitable ‘It is force majeur’ he tells me sadly, and somewhat inaccurately. We both take a minute to mourn a dream denied.
**See ‘How much Taiga is too much Taiga?
Finally, tweets from Nate and Phillipa, who took us to Iran*** all those years ago, have stayed friends and organized our excellent Tunisia tour just-pre-Covid. Kyiv is their adopted hometown and now they are trapped a mere trip 500 meters from where Zelensky films his outdoor selfies. What they are enduring is simply chilling. It is clearly time to leave.
Finale: Sayonara St Petersburg.
Thursday is my last day of classes. Alicia has been sick and with Daria’s laser-like focus I have learned a ton of Russian. Sadly, getting up at 3am to continue remotely from Boston is unlikely to happen. “F*** all this” Daria tells me in Russian, by way of farewell.
My last dinner. Théo has gone on the overnight bus to Riga and Anna pulls out all the stops with spaghetti, a hot dog and a bottle of Georgian ketchup. Remarkably, I can now understand that Vladimir is actually vehemently anti-Putin, which clearly explains Anna’s efforts to sideline his opinions. But how can he have rehabilitated Stalin so effortlessly? Vladimir claims not to have as much information on Stalin as he would like. He allows that the Great Patriotic War might have been less painful had the best generals not been murdered beforehand, and most surprisingly he agrees that autocrats inevitably develop paranoia. Anna is almost spitting with derision, but then, and to my total shock, declares that the Bolshevik Revolution was the worst thing that happened to Russia. In fact, Anna turns out to be a Tsarist, and her actual hero is not Putin after all but Peter the Great. With that fragile conciliation, we call it quits. Just before she is about to explain how Rasputin has been sorely misunderstood.
Friday: Up at 5:00 for the Helsinki bus, a half hour business class Uber is now about $4. Eco lines has put on an extra bus anticipating high demand. However, it is not full, and I have two seats to myself. As advertised, it has a toilet and a (free) espresso machine and there are no cardboard boxes tied with string or jerry cans of water or any other refugee cliché. In fact, everyone looks like they are merely on a weekend jaunt. The young lady in front of me bought her ticket only a few hours ago. Given the supposed fear of martial law, surprisingly few of the passengers are young men. Apparently most potential conscripts have already left via Istanbul, which seems patently absurd from a number perspective alone.
After a couple of hours, three sequential Russian checkpoints emerge. At the first the officer takes away a random selection of passports, mine included. We wait. At the second those passports are returned, and another random selection disappear. We wait some more. At the third we haul our luggage over the sheer ice sheet to be inspected. The officers are dour and thorough but pull no-one aside and open very few pieces, but there are a lot of us and it takes a lot of time (a day trip to Helsinki is probably not a great idea at the best of times). I am roundly ignored in the manner of old ladies the world over, and have no opportunity to practice my extremely pertinent Russian (Daria has topped up my vocabulary with this contingency in mind). Once actually in Finland the mood becomes as euphoric as a bus load of Russians 5 hours late on a journey to who knows where, can muster. The espresso machine is on full capucchino alert, and astonishingly, people are talking animatedly with each other. It is just like the plane out of Tehran when all the chadors disappeared within 30 seconds of wheels up.
I am sad to be leaving Russia which will always have a place in my heart, and I’m reminded of the saying Urmat taught me when we were traveling together.
Сколько зим, сколько лет
How many winters? How many summers?