Lingua Frank

This blog goes fishing in my memory hole for stories that I hope will provide at least marginal amusement for all.


This blog is really about memories from my life...retold for the pleasure or yawns of friends and strangers alike. Bon appetit.

понедельник, июля 04, 2005

Nevsky Prospekt

My little brother is packing up to come back to the States after two years of bum-freezing fun in Siberia. As my readers know (both of you), I, too, spent a small chunk of my life in that Slavic wonderland, though I was fortunate enough to spend most of that time in St. Petersburg. Anyway, I thought I would post an essay I wrote in college about leaving Russia, in honor of the occasion. Enjoy!

Nevsky Prospekt

February lay heavy and cold upon Saint Petersburg. The ice on Palace square seemed twice frozen by the arctic frost: the first layer was solidified water; the second, I was convinced, was solidified air…it caused my boots to stick more than slide. My first day in Russia and my last both began with this: a walk through Palace Square, then on to four bristling, rushing, wildly changing miles of city street called Nevsky Prospyekt.

Palace square, at least on this morning, was empty of post-cold-war tourists…twenty-five below was probably a bit much for a stroll to buy some cheap Lenin pins. This lonely morning could have been 1815, the victory column celebrating the dispatch of Napoleon rising into the gray, still sky, and a very relieved Tsar Aleksandr sipping tea in the gargantuan Winter Palace. On the capstone of the column, a marble angel bore a cross, reaching upward, seeking hope in winter. This is a typically melancholy image of Russian victory…an angel free, yet bearing the weight of all the earth, heading to his own Golgotha.

I lowered my gaze, inhaled a gulp of stinging, crisp air, and turned onto Nevsky Prospyekt. This, too, was a victory column—a flat concrete epitaph of the tsars and Lenin. Nevsky’s confused irony—liberty and burden—was not unlike that of the woeful seraph. Here, though, there could be no Napoleonic time-travel fancy. Here, the years of architectural experimentation, of social and political firestorms, of the thundering mortars of world wars and processions of the emperors were all awkwardly juxtaposed into one totally unique moment in time: nineteen-ninety eight.

The light signaled my safe passage, but even after two years I could not help but feel uneasy as the growling motors of automobiles and icy glares of their drivers warned me that if they should so decide, then my next step would certainly be my last. Nevsky Prospekt crawled with an armada of BMW’s. The vessels were chromed, jet-black, impossibly dark-windowed testaments to the arts of smuggling and extortion. At the helms of this fleet were not politicians or CEO’s or lawyers: in the roller-coaster economy of post-communist Russia, those could still scarce afford a lousy ’95 Moskvich. These helmsmen were thugs in silk shirts and bad suits, whose glove compartments were less likely to hold gloves than a SIG .45. They were men who, for the most part, received their training in terror from the former world champions of intimidation: the KGB.

I hurried to Café Minutka, which had formerly been a joint venture with Subway Sandwiches. The American partners, I was told, were convinced to sell their half at discount…it seemed a good deal at the wrong end of a snub-nosed revolver. There the good deals ended: a foot-long meatball with the works would set me back sixty-five thousand rubles, a little over ten dollars. Hogi in hand, I left the exclusive clientele of Americans and the Mafia to continue my final tour of Nevsky.

The street grew fuller with people and traffic, and I descended into the underpass to cross over to the glitzy shopping center of Gostiny Dvor. I could hear the muffled howling and sighing of an accordion through the maze of pedestrians. Making my way through to the source, I saw Sasha, the most accomplished four-year-old accordionist to play the subway tunnel circuit. Street musicians and beggars of all types had multiplied in the two years since my first walk down Nevsky…children most notably so. I tossed a five thousand-ruble bill into his bucket, and smiled. True to form, Sasha didn’t flinch, but stared straight ahead with his glassy eyes, pumping out a forlorn rendition of Katyusha.

Emerging on the other side of the street, I surveyed the newly reconstructed, bright yellow façade of Gostiny Dvor. Much of downtown Nevsky had been spruced up—made more palatable for tourists. Two blocks on either side, to Ulitsa Italyanskaya or Malaya Sadovaya, one would find a crumbling, tired city of soot-dulled pastel buildings, vodka, and cynical despair. But Gostiny Dvor gave no hint of that other city; it was rife with business in furs and arcades and Gucci handbags…completely beyond the reach of the meager subsistence of the tenants of the building next door. When I first visited Gostiny Dvor, there was a small bread shop, a few stands for hats or camera equipment, and vast empty retail space. Under communism, that would have been considered abundant: then were only bare cupboards. Gucci, unfortunately, feeds the masses no better than did Stalin, but at least the stuffy concierge with his fake French accent wasn’t about to send tens of millions of them to their deaths in frozen slave camps.

I walked to the curb and hailed a taxi—a process that would be called hitchhiking in America. A passing motorist, seizing the opportunity that capitalism had afforded him, pulled his formerly blue ’83 Lada beside me and rolled down the window. After a moment of heated bartering, the driver agrees: 20,000 rubles to Moskovsky Station. The BMW’s didn’t stop because I must not have met their passenger dress code: no high heels and micro mini, no cement shoes.

I unwrapped my now lukewarm sandwich, and we were off. We crossed over Moika canal, then Fontanka canal. Tires and cans were frozen, half submerged in the translucent ice of the pride of Petersburg; the Venice of the north. In summertime, I had seen children and old men fishing in those canals…a risky proposition at best, considering the dizzying array of chemical concoctions that had been liberally poured into them by the Soviet war machine.

Like a darting insect, we wove in and out of the anarchy of speeding metal that is Russian traffic, and arrived safely at Moskovsky station, having narrowly averted death at every turn. I paid my bill, and tipped with the other half of my tepid sub. The driver grinned and accepted both, then sped off to search for more Americans whose pockets stretched at the seams with fat wallets.

Four minutes until my train. Other passengers crowded and pushed by around me, lingering for a moment to buy a snickers bar or pornography—the west’s most prolific imports. I strained for a moment through the morning rush to take my last glance at Nevsky Prospekt. I thought again of the angel on the victory column. Breathing out the words, I bid farewell: “May your cross be light, and your resurrection swift”. I turned, and boarded the 11:35 for Aerodrom.


Blogger Beck said...

Beautiful. I can see it. I even want to put a coat on. Beautiful.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Lucius Atherton said...

Thanks, Beck. I still miss that screwed-up place. I can't even fathom how much more it must have changed by now...though I suspect that it's not entirely for the better.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous din said...

dear pan lucius,
i think i should tell you that i would have liked to have seen you (very badly) in a micro-mini on the arm of the mafioz and stepping out of a taxi at Moskovsky. not just for the aesthetic pleasure, but also for the story that would be behind it. and also because you'd still be wearing your mission attire under this get up (with the legs pulled way way up). you would be trying somehow, what ever it took to get that man into the waters ("you would do anything for baptism, but you won't do that"). and eventually, to be honest, you would, and the whole family would come with him. and we would begin a mormon reign of terror, crime, and faiersaidy all over orthodoxy.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Lucius Atherton said...

Beautiful Meatloaf reference there, Condren of the apes.

3:35 PM  

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