For a little over two weeks – August 3 through August 19, 1991 – I lived in St. Petersburg, USSR, with a woman I’ll call Tatiana Petrova. She spoke English well, having studied it since second grade, and was eventually sent for her Masters in English so she could teach at a naval academy of submarine cadets.
I’d been a literary Russophile since the age of 12 when I read The Brothers Karamazov. I became hooked to the drama, the beauty of the countryside, the mystery of the women and men, of the great happiness followed by melancholy. I went on to the rest of Dostoevsky’s novels, then to Tolstoy, and then to poets Pushkin and Levertov. All Russian writers were romantic to me, “very happy at aperitif to very sad by digestif,” was a line I read somewhere. I likened the Russian soul to that of the Irish – the persecution of the citizens, the happy-sad-imbibing.
I was invited to Russia in 1989 by my friend Tara. She was taking a group of freshman college students on an exchange; five kids dropped out, and my friend asked me to go because she had room, and she knew of my passion for Russia. For $2,000, we would fly from LA to Moscow and take the train to St. Petersburg. We were to spend three weeks at a home stay, I with a friend of Tara’s Russian counterpart Vera, the rest of the group with student families. I could be a chaperone on Tara’s educational excursions, or I could do whatever my hostess Svetlana, best friend of Vera’s, thought might interest me. I was on board before she finished explaining.
It was late July, and I looked forward to the White Nights, those idyllic summer evenings that literally lasted all night, just a brief hour or so of dusk and the sun was up and at it again. I could picture myself hanging around on a bridge over the Neva drinking vodka all night with summer-drunk Russians – White Nights, the legendary chance for freedom in the tightly controlled enemy of America just breaking away from being the USSR, the infamous Union of Soviet Socialists Republics.
The 12-hour plane ride across the top of the world seemed to have lasted longer than 24 hours. So many new imprints on my brain made me remember it minutely. Because I smoked, I was assigned to the very back of the plane, where I soon discovered I was surrounded by Soviet forklift operators. They were returning from two weeks in Pittsburgh learning forklift tricks. Short, sturdy and badly dressed, these friendly Russian middle-aged men liked plaids, white socks and Florsheim-like plastic dress shoes. They were polite and jolly as they quaffed Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker held in their beefy hands as they puffed madly on Marlboros.
They were impressed that I could speak some Russian and liked whiskey and cigarettes, so they brought out their Russian/English dictionaries while pouring their duty-free liquor for me and lighting my Marlboros. They gathered around me like I was their English teacher. It was congenial and smoky and boozy back there in the tail of the plane. After an afternoon and half a night cruising at 30,000 feet, napping, eating, chatting, drinking, smoking, we strapped ourselves in, preparing to land on their native soil. I was beside myself with anticipation.
As I straightened up my dishabille to greet the customs agents, I discovered two cigarette holes in my paisley wrap-around skirt. Barely discernible, hidden among the paisleys, I never remembered to sew them up the entire time I was in Russia. Nor once home did I: the skirt became an artifact of the favorite trip of my life.
My seatmates and I were full of “dasvidanias" as we made our way across the White Nights twilight of the tarmac. With the good-byes fading in the warm breeze, they went one way, my friends and I another, with customs telling us where to be. It was midnight in Moscow, and the non-Russians were soon herded into a bus that would take us someplace – our group to the train toe Leningrad/St. Petersburg, the others to a hotel in central Moscow near the Kremlin. I was disoriented from the long trip and from the dim nadir of the White Nights . There were no lights on in the terminal or in the bus.
We reached our customs area, where no one was friendly. There was no eye contact. No “Welcome to the Soviet Union. They stamped my passport, even though I kept pointing at it and mimicking stamping. They ignored me, and soon I was pushed along by the people behind me. The guards and customs people were stern in their disallowance of any dawdling, and although they never looked directly at the foreign guests, they watched at all times. It was spooky, as in spy spooky.
No one but our group was going to St. Petersburg, so we said good-bye to the few Americans, some expat Germans and Brits that we’d met at La Guardia and lined up for another trudge through customs at the train depot; again, no welcoming. I did not care. I was in Russia, about to board a train for St. Petersburg. I would soon be in the fabled Paris of Russia. I knew it all – designed by Tsar Peter the Great nearly 300 years prior; the rulers’ houses with 500 rooms, endless birch tree parks. Barely a peek seen by Americans in 70 years.
I was in great spirits considering how little sleep I’d had in two days.
Along with large numbers of Soviet humanity, we jammed ourselves into the train, all cars the same and no berths. The tea trolley came through several times, but after the first cup and my first trip to the primitive and never-cleaned toilet, I didn’t drink again for 11 hours.
I spent most of my time standing alone on the platform between cars watching the scenery flash by in the warming, whitening day – by 1:30 a.m., it was bright as 10 a.m. I could not have slept had I tried, so I just gazed at the flat of the countryside, wondering about Tartars and peasants, Jews living beyond the Pale, and the overwhelming wealth of the Russian aristocracy. Now and then I talked haltingly to the conductor who came out to smoke and drink tea. I managed to ask him if he would trade his glass holder for cigarettes. He grinned from ear to ear when I held out an entire pack of Marlboros for him. He gave me one of his Russian cigarettes from his jacket pocket and two pewter glass holders from behind a fire hose.
The Russians drink their tea out of glasses wrapped in a napkin or set into a holder, often with a handle, like a cup itself. The cup holders he gave me looked to be antique pewter, delicately etched and carved. The Russian cigarette flared as he lit it for me. I took one drag, coughed at the harsh tobacco, and the cigarette went out. There was an empty space in the middle of their cigs, or there was in the one he gave me, and the trick to keeping it lit was beyond me. I watched the Russian elaborately savoring his American smoke and grinning as I struggled with his tobacco-less gift to me.
The entire trip so far had been like nothing I’d experienced, ever, anywhere. When we pulled into St. Petersburg, where the sign still read Leningrad, the station stuffed with people milling about with no apparent idea of what they were doing – none of it dismayed me. How would I find Svetlana? I didn’t worry about it. I figured it would just have to happen because I had no clue how to make it happen.
As it turned out, Svetlana spotted me the moment I appeared in the doorway of the train car and came to me, reached up, grabbed my hand, and I leapt. She told me later there was no mistaking Americans, and besides, I looked like I was described to her by our mutual friend Del. Svetlana did not hug me, shake my hand or look me in the eye; she just said, “I would be Svetlana, you would be Ku…Ku…. We will be calling you Kalinka, nyet?"
She was dark-haired, a bit sloe-eyed, lightly olive skinned, neither fat nor thin, exotically pretty, so Russian-looking. Svetlana swooped me along, dragging me forward. I pointed out my luggage sitting outside the baggage compart, so she let go of me and grabbed both bags. I followed her to a tiny two-seater toy car with a teenage boy driver.
“This is Alex. He’ll take you to my apartment. I shall be meeting you there!” Svetlana banged her palm on the trunk of the car, and the silent boy put his foot on the accelerator and zoomed us away.
He was red-faced. Embarrassed, I decided, so I started saying words in English and Russian, words like “boy” (malchik) and “tree” (derevo) and “church” (tserkov). As if I were his auntie, he relaxed and quit hunching over the steering wheel and driving like he was escaping from a bank robbery. He pointed out statues and buildings as we sped along the Nevski Prospect, the main drag along the River Neva through the center of Saint Petersburg. I knew exactly where I was, but I felt cut loose from reality, from not having peed all night, from sleep deprivation, from too much Jack, and mostly, from the truth of it all: that I was being chauffeured along the most famous street in Russia, the only vehicle in sight except for a trolley on the other side of the river.