After a morning spent wringing out and hanging laundry on one balcony of the massive Soviet-era apartment we’re staying in, we go to the Finland Station.
The Finland Station is a 1960s modernist block: stolid statuary in square frames at the top, a light-weight steel tower with a clock towering over those, and – a later addition – Finland Railway Station in both Cyrillic and English on either side in big friendly letters.
Inside it’s unadorned, which for St. Petersburg seems odd after days of walking by/in palaces. But outside, in Lenina Square, there’s a big statue of Lenin with his trademark gesture – pointing with all five fingers.
For those who don’t study Soviet history, Lenin came to this square in April 1917, at the end of his voyage across Germany in a sealed train. He was met with rapturous delegations of workers, soldiers and sailors, and an entire armoured car division – and a delegation from the local republican government, whom he ignored and spoke to the workers instead, telling them to vest all power in the Soviets (democratic councils set up to run factories, offices, brigades, etc.) I found a short quote from the speech (which, according to Trotsky, he gave again and again because there were so many people there that night) and recited it at the foot of the statue. That felt good, and the Russian locals drinking beer (so many Russians drinking beer, everywhere) ignored me.
After that, and a trip to a fancy mall downtown where I gawked at massive jars of honey, rows of Soviet cameras (now vintage collectibles) and global brands of luggage and perfume, we went to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic playing Rachmaninoff and Bruckner.
I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to classical music (or, more accurately, Romantic music in this case): too much forced acculturation as a youth means I tend to avoid it entirely. I can appreciate its technical, aesthetic side, but it leaves me cold. Except in the Empire Strikes Back, which Bruckner sounded a bit like. The 100+ musicians on stage, including 8 stand-up basses and dozens of violinists, were impressive. But where are the lyrics about how bleak life is, with the only pleasures a pint and the chippy? You see – barbarianism.
I was impressed with the Russian audience. No coughing, whispering or crinkling food wrappers. And best of all, no standing ovation. I’ve never been to a ‘high culture’ event in Canada which didn’t get one – Canadians applaud everything, either because they don’t know what’s good or bad, so they just assume it’s amazing, or they want to appear as if they know it’s good, so they leap to their feet first. Here, although it was a great performance, and people applauded a long time (and even began fast-clapping by the end), no one got up – I got the feeling they’d seen enough symphonies to distinguish a good performance from a great one. Again, not my area of expertise, but I admire their decorum.
The hall was like a big marble wedding cake. Massive white pillars with fancy detailing at the top, at least 10 meters high; latticed windows that let the light in; a big shiny organ facing the audience flanked by red velvet curtains; and six massive chandeliers with hundreds of crystals apiece, lit up entirely unnecessarily given the brilliant sunshine at 8pm.
I’m writing this after midnight and the sun is beginning to set. I’ve never experienced this before and it’s worth the trip alone. The sun is too bright to look at by 10pm. The streets and shops are full until 11pm. And this isn’t even the ‘white nights’ when the sun never sets – that starts in a couple of weeks and is apparently one big party. My body thinks it wants to sleep but my brain thinks it should be awake.
We were warned by that ridiculous American man to be on our guard, but I feel comfortable here. There are sketchy-looking men, true, but they’re usually standing on their own, smoking, outside metro stations. You don’t have to bother them (and they’re probably waiting for someone anyway.) A rough-looking guy asked us for a smoke in a park – well, he asked us for something and carried a lighter. M. told him we don’t speak Russian, he smiled and walked away. I have yet to feel in danger, and I don’t think that’s down to my shocking naivete. I’m not saying I couldn’t get mugged, but London felt way more dangerous than this. There are lots of drunk men, particularly Saturday and Sunday night, but they generally have their arms around each other and are muttering in each others’ ears, or in one case, one drunk friend was frog-marching another down the metro hall, his fist around the latter’s collar. No one’s tried to pick a fight with me. They notice M. and I, either because we’re talking English or because we don’t look Russian. But they leave us alone.
There is definitely a Russian look, and possibly a St. Petersburg fashion. M. tells me that the Chinese call the Russians “Big Nose”, and it’s true – there are a lot of prominent noses here, along with wide cheekbones. Plenty of puffy lips too, but I suspect that’s collagen or botox. The fashion, as you might expect, is hyper-feminine: dresses, stockings, expensive purses, ridiculously pointy heels, long hair – it must take a lot of energy to scrub up like that. For men it’s less impressive – the only commonality I can observe is leather loafers turned up at the end, and I’ve seen some odd suits – all velour or stripey. And for the more casual, Adidas shell suits.
People seem to be reserved but friendly. No one panics when we say we can’t speak Russian, they just keep trying. When I got lost looking for the toilet in the Russian Museum of Art, and kept trying to say “toilet” to the guard when I should have been saying “tualet”, another patron stopped to translate. When we bought a cell phone SIM card, the unilingual sales guys laughed a lot and put their English-speaking colleague on the phone. I figure, if people were going to be impatient and unfriendly, the language barrier would provoke it, but no.
My Cyrillic skills are progressing painfully slowly, but I can now decipher some words if I know the context. The letter C is the letter S, H = N, and so on. I haven’t memorized the script yet so I can’t read signs if I don’t know what they’re advertising, and then there’s the problem of words that I can ‘translate’ into Roman letters that are still incomprehensible. But it makes sense if I concentrate. I’m still learning basic words – pasiba for ‘thank you’ helps a lot – but am essentially illiterate. I’ve pointed to the phrase book a couple of times, which helps tremendously.
Attractions are staffed exclusively by women in their 50s and 60s (men only work security) who don’t suffer fools gladly. And everyone is a fool. There can be a queue of 20 people and only one person behind the counter, but she won’t hurry. I have a picture of one on the colonnade at St. Isaac’s cathedral, telling some tourists not to exit down the entrance staircase. She took her job very seriously.
Not that there aren’t some friendly ones; at Tsarskoye Selo, Catherine The Great’s palace, I was getting my bag out of a locker and the woman in uniform started speaking Russian to me and pointing to the nearby coatrack. I thought she was asking if I had a coat and motioned that it was in the locker. “Tak tak tak tak tak” she said and leaned her head against the rack – she was telling me to not bump my head. I smiled (also useful) and leaned my head near it to show I understood.
I still can’t get over the architecture here in the workers’ quarter. There’s a road being built at the base of our building that looks like it’s been under construction for years. Fully functioning shops and occupied blocks of flats have lawns that haven’t been cut in at least a month. There’s waste ground, a car dealership, more waste ground, a road and tram line, a grocery store. I guess it’s just unplanned and will get filled in as more developers move in. It works; I just don’t understand it.
Tomorrow we’re going to a local park and the Buddhist temple, which apparently has a restaurant attached. I’m really looking forward to some decent vegetarian food. Then it’s off to Moscow on the Red Arrow, the overnight train that used to be exclusive to the Communist elite. That’s certainly me.