Romancing the Bear: Travels in Post-Communism
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On my first day back in St. Petersburg, after an absence of nearly five years, the first thing I do is go to Dom Knigi, the indomitable House of Books which looms like a stone gargoyle over the sidewalks at Griboyedev Canal, and I purchase a small red, vinyl-covered notebook.
I buy the notebook because I want to break some of the huge ruble bills I now get in exchange for my dollars — 4,500 to one — and also because this is one of my favorite remembered objects. I like the look of heavy Russian pen-ink on the bright paper; I like how the square- lined pages force me to form precise Cyrillic letters; I have a superstitious faith that these notebooks are conducive to diary keeping.
And maybe there’s something instinctively reactive in my choice. On the ride downtown I was just bombarded with the evidence of what I missed these past few years.
In certain ways the landscape seems entirely familiar. The same trolleys travel with the same lurching movement from Volunteer Street where Im staying, up along Veterans’ Prospect to the subway. At the subway the same gusts blow up from the tunnels, making it hard to open the station doors; and the subway itself remains nearly the same — still crowded and clean, still marked by an improbable grandeur: wide columns and crested chandeliers, elaborate mosaics depicting Soviet triumphs and the fruits of labor.
But along the way there are also a lot of differences — sharp, bright and decorative, like trinkets of western life haphazardly sprinkled onto the scene.
At every stop of the muddy, pockmarked trolley route are loud billboards hawking Finnish chocolates and car alarms. I see English words like “private” transliterated into Russian. The subway stations of St. Petersburg are crammed with vendors selling everything from home-picked berries to electronics, and among the things they’re selling are the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan, slick business journals, and glitzy seven dollar soft-porn magazines.
So this is the shock of experience.
It’s not that I haven’t heard about these details of change — I’ve been reading The New York Times, keeping touch with Russian friends. But the truth of the matter is that I’ve never seen a full-color advertisement — let alone a glitzy magazine — in Russian before. For me Cyrillic still resides in thin Soviet newspapers, neat red copybooks, and cloth-bound volumes of poetry, which have a particular redolent smell that anyone who’s been in a Russian library can tell about.
The Russian in Cosmo looks like it’s been written with a new and different alphabet; suddenly (for me) the very texture of the language has changed.
A week into my stay, I get together with Max and Nadia to watch a TV special on their friend, A. Martinez, former star of the hit U.S. soap opera Santa Barbara (which re-runs every night on Channel One, St. Petersburg). Martinez traveled to Russia for the fiftieth anniversary of victory in World War II, and a local film crew followed him around the streets of St. Petersburg during a city-wide celebration. Santa Barbara is an enormously successful show in Russia right now, and crowds formed rapidly as shocked and ecstatic passers-by recognized Martinez.
After all, this was Martinez a.k.a. “Cruise,” the studly, loyal and loving — if slightly slow-witted — crime-fighter of Santa Barbara.
Back at the apartment we watch the TV special, shouting and pointing all the way, trying to catch glimpses of Max next to Martinez, or behind him. Max and Nadia are artists and, oddly enough, Martinez is one of their big American patrons.
Or maybe not oddly. I begin to think, what do I imagine about wealth in America? There must be scores of brilliant-but-poor artists all over the U.S., who’d be more than glad to open their studios to high- paid soap opera stars. It’s just that the whole scenario seems more raw, or less well-wrapped, when enacted in Russia. It’s as if capitalism existed here in a parallel universe — all of its details just slightly “off,” or rotated somehow, in a way that reveals absurdities and fault lines.
Later that week I take the train to Moscow.
St. Petersburg feels like its been sprinkled with markers of change. But — perhaps not surprisingly — Moscow feels more wholly different; from top to bottom it scans like a bad movie about the west made during the Soviet era.
For one thing, the city is filled with tough boys, professional body guards dressed in fatigues or eggplant-colored Armani suits. They stand at the edge of subway platforms as if on duty, their hands laced behind their backs, craning their muscular necks to look for trains. There are so many of them — it’s as if a whole new body type was invented in Moscow overnight.
I have trouble getting into the hotels here for coffee. I’m dressed too badly to be a wealthy Russian or a first-class tourist, and no other category of person is really welcome.
This is tied to the fact that prices have moved into the realm of the fantastic. One evening, hoping to cook a Mexican meal for friends, I pop into one of the new, smart grocery stores on Leninsky Prospect. The only rice they have is Uncle Ben’s. OK, I think, and I take this one item to the checkout counter, where I’m asked for eight U.S. dollars, and seventy nine cents.
“There must be some mistake,” I say.
“But how can this be?” I naively push on.
“This is American rice,” the sales clerk begins a smooth and practiced sales pitch, as if she were peddling Rolexes, or Italian leathers. “It has its own special qualities, nuances...”
“But I’m American,” I say. I feel my blood pressure begin to rise. “And I happen to know that this is perfectly ordinary rice. In fact it’s not even good rice. In America this box of rice costs less than a buck.”
The sales clerk is clearly unimpressed. She has already looked me over, read my jacket, my briefcase, my shoes; she can tell I’m not going to fork over the eight dollars and change. “Well you have your way of doing things, and we have ours.” She puts the rice to one side and deliberately turns her head away from me; a guard looks up mildly from his chair at the door. After a few seconds, I leave.
That night I go for drinks with Inna, the daughter of a Moscow friend.
Inna was twelve when I last saw her; she’s now a tall and stunning almost-seventeen. Like so many adolescents, her demeanor is a perplexing mix of shattering confidence, and undisguised vulnerability.
Inna takes me to the American Bar and Grille, a self-styled yuppie restaurant not far from Red Square which caters to an international clientele. She’s oddly proud of the bar, which she visits nearly every night. “I know you’ll feel right at home,” she says with certainty.
Inna insists on treating for the first round, and I order mineral water, feeling decidedly square. She wants me to say a few words in English to the barman; I do. When we settle, she explains how she usually gets free drinks from the bartenders and tourists — she likes American men best, since they’re easier to get drinks from.
“Just by smiling and crossing my legs!” she squeals. This seems incredible to her, since several mixed drinks at this place cost the equivalent of her monthly salary. “They’re so naive I can’t believe it.”
“Maybe not so naive?” I suggest, trying to sound knowing.
But it’s difficult to sound knowing. At times I feel that Inna is looking for some deep answers from me, some startling rules for her life. And not just because I’m slightly older, but because I’m American. As if somehow, I should have a secret, missing piece of insight into her new Moscow world.
She confides that she’s been despondent, which her mom has told me. She says she doesn’t care if she gets pregnant, that it’s fate if she gets AIDS. She believes there’s no future for her, except maybe doing some soft-porn modeling, as a relative suggested.
When I dont have much to tell her, except that these questions are tough, that she’s got to believe in herself and not look for security from tourists — she waves her hand dismissively. In her position I wouldn’t believe me much either. After all, I know so little about the things she thinks are the sum of American culture — Bon Jovi, casinos and New York discotheques. She feels cheated, like I should have been one of those urbane, sophisticated Americans.
As per her mothers instructions, I make sure she’s home by twelve.
Later that night I get a call from Galya, Inna’s mom, who’s in hysterics. “She’s out wandering,” Galya cries. “It’s nearly two in the morning. I know she’s gone back to that bar — don’t those idiots know they shouldn’t be pouring drinks for little girls?”
Suddenly life collapses definitively and frantically into soap opera. I meet up with Galya and we begin an early morning search through Moscow streets, stopping first at the American Bar where, like Las Vegas, there seems to be an eternal, neon day in full swing. Inna is nowhere to be found. Galya takes me to the manager, and tells me to dress him down in English; I do. I lie and say Im a tour-guide for a big American company. I tell him we’re strongly displeased with the loose way he runs his bar. The man must think I’m insane, but he nods several times as if he understands, and gives the “all-OK” sign to his bouncers, who’ve come skulking around.
Then we look for Inna at her boyfriend’s place across the way. Nobody’s home and Galya begins randomly checking in doorways up and down the street.
Then, the boyfriends appear. Inna has two. One of them, Boris, is the son of high-placed Soviet apparatchiki, a student at the academy of the new KGB. He’s a tall and serious boy who carries a Zippo lighter like a gun in a tiny leather holster around his waist. He knows all about Inna’s midnight disappearances and begins murmuring comforting things to Inna’s mom.
The other boyfriend, Arkady, stands there silently, clutching his car stereo. According to Galya, he’s the profligate son of some of the richest of Russia’s new rich, a post-Soviet redux of the 19th century’s lishnyi chelovek — the “superfluous man” with no real goals, and no idea of what to do with all his wealth. Standing there in his boat shoes and canvas jacket, Arkady looks grim beyond all belief, like an aging Mafia don.
After some scattered discussion of what to do, we pile into Arkady’s tiny, electronically-guarded Toyota and fly down Kutuzovsky Prospekt, past limousines and brightly lit casinos, a warm wind whipping through the car and deep heavy metal booming from the stereo.
Inna is home by the time we are.
She’s safe and sound, but nonetheless, I find something incredibly sobering about the experience. It’s hard to be a teenager all over the world, but these teens seem to be playing far-fetched roles which they can’t quite get the knack for. These are roles which have been borrowed from American movies and magazines, and even from old Soviet propaganda about the bad, bad West, which they have cleverly inverted and deemed good. So it’s not surprising that they don’t know the full script, that every step feels insecure.
Nor is it surprising that, for Inna, all the opportunities she can see seem to be about her body, and about sex, even though she also seems to have picked up the idea from Cosmo that it’s good to look confident, talk tough, and show that she’s Nobody’s Fool.
As a sociologist, I assume that all across Russia structures are coalescing to shore up these staggering roles.
But as a friend, it’s simply hard to see a talented and sensitive girl stepping off the edge into a vast space — the space where her adolescence and the advent of market economy have by chance intersected.
I stand by the window on the night train back to St. Petersburg, just two days before I fly back home. The midnight sun has dissolved into inky night air; the window is open from the top, letting a constant ribbon of cool wind stream down.
At each station we slow down a little and pass small plaster buildings with their windows lit; they seem to represent coziness, no matter how shabby they might look in daylight. Between them are vast stretches of unruly grasses, birches and pines, villages stacked along the tracks. I know their presence by the dark masses which take form in a rush of fleeting illuminations from the lights of the train, and from traveling this route many times by day.
After a while a large man comes and stands to my right at the rail, very close, in a way that would necessitate my moving two paces to the left if this were an American train. He’s fingering a pack of cigarettes, and I know he wants to invite me for a smoke, since, even in the faster, glitzier, more tourist-filled Russia of now, I represent some fading piece of exotica to him as surely as he does to me. It’s as if, in the dying glow of Cold War fantasy, fear, and thriller-fed imagination, we’re all still catching glimpses of one another.
But as much as I wouldn’t mind talking, I also want these last few hours alone to remember why it is I once fell in love with being here.
Curiously, like so many other travelers to Russia who spend all their time in the cities, I somehow feel like I can remember what I love by watching the countryside fly by. Mentally I fill in the picture: old women carrying baskets of berries, people riding bicycles on the embankment, slanting wood houses, a flock of geese.
For the moment I’m content to essentialize. Sometimes you don’t want to try to take Russia apart; sometimes you just want to watch Russia come together and present itself to you whole. Because it’s such a big place, such a big concept — in the end all you hope for is the sense of having swallowed a taste of it, even a bitter or bad one.
Naomi Galtz is a doctoral student in Sociology, who did pre-dissertation research in Russia in the summer of 1995, funded by the International Institute.