Over the course of more than twenty years, I came to know the backroads and alleys of St. Petersburg, Russia. I found the coolest little cafes and late night jazz joints, made friends in shacks serving Georgian wine and shashleek—a kind of shish kabob—in a small room with low ceilings and dirt floors, the Gulf of Finland pounding at the sand outside. I returned again and again to long embraces from friends like Igor and Dima and Valentine the crazy man and brilliant artist.
I taught American culture at the college, endured endless people wanting to practice their English, celebrated Victory Day on Palace Bridge year after year, mourned the losses of people during the siege with veterans who sat telling me their stories all the while holding my arm, connecting to me through touch.
I prayed with old nuns in shrines, climbed the rubble of the ruined St Catherine of Alexandria Catholic Church with American priest Frank Sutman who raised enough money to rebuild this first Catholic Church in all of Russia back to its glory from the ruins of the storage facility it had become during the Soviet Era. I met musicians in old bars—Gypsies—and played music until the sun came up, read my own work at the famed Stray Dog Café surrounded by the ghosts of Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky.
What a time it was.
With friends I toured palace after palace, attended private concerts by quintets from the Kirov who played before dinner at the Nikolaevsky, walked the halls of the Summer Palace and wondered about the infamous Amber Room, learned every crevice of the Winter Palace and its five building complex that is the Hermitage Museum. Had drinks in the basement of the Yusopov Palace where Rasputin had drinks just before he was killed for the fifth time. Walked the grounds of Galinka Palace, the Church of Spilled Blood, St Isaacs, St Nicholas, Trinity, and more. I climbed to the top of the tower of Smolney from which St Seraphim supposedly fell the ninety feet to the ground when he was ten but landed softly and got up and ran toward canonization.
I learned where to buy vodka and where not to sip it at all. I found the best places for authentic borsch and had Beef Stroganoff at the Stroganoff Palace.
I ate at McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and more western joints filled to the gills with Russians loving the taste of America, drinking in the swell of western culture, surrounding my friends and me trying to fit more English into their Cyrillic mouths.
We took canal rides and saw folk shows where more than a few times I was dragged on stage to dance with the Russian women and men as balalaika music filled the packed arena. I’ve seen Swan Lake at the Marinksy Theatre more than a dozen times and have seen Hamlet in Russian.
I’ve made friends with former Soviet Naval Captains, countless professors, writers, and artists. I’ve become friends with translators and more than a few vets of the Chechnya War who would have rather stayed home and continued their studies in Engineering at St Petersburg University than return with no legs, one arm, half a face blown away, leaning against the Metro Walls, cap in hand—handicapped, hopeless.
I’ve sat on the rocks of the Gulf of Finland drinking champagne during the White Nights while one of Russia’s finest flautists performed privately for us, laughing, making us cry with Tchaikovsky and Bach. I’ve sat backstage at the St Petersburg Conservatory with a dear friend who is a choreographer, and his teacher, who used to dance with Baryshnikov, and watched them practice.
We’ve had food from an Uzbekistan Restaurant, and I came to understand the plight of the refugees from Azerbaijan after the slaughter by Armenians. I’ve read at the flat of Dostoevsky with an original volume of Pushkin on the table next to me and one of Fyodor’s own manuscripts two feet away. We have wandered through the massive marketplace next door and carried home to our apartment bags of fresh vegetables and chunks of meat cut before my eyes off of a carcass.
I’ve battled with border patrol over textbooks, bribed cemetery guards to let us wander sacred grounds, sat in the cell that held Dostoevsky and other dissidents, and watched the ruble gain strength, take a beating, then recover, then fall. I’ve sat on benches with women who were survivors of the siege during the Great Patriotic War and talked about family, talked about poppyseed rolls, talked about the flowers that grow in the dirt.
I was there when they reinterned the remains of Czar Nicholas II and his family, including Anastasia and Alexi. I was there for the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the city that Peter the Great called the Window to the West.
I watched as Marlboro came to town, then Clairol and every Russian woman suddenly had bright red hair. Adidas showed up and all the men wore warmup suits. I’ve walked past too many men in cheap three piece suits holding semi-automatic rifles guarding some boss’ SUV as money exchanged hands—all cash, USD, in suitcases.
I had just turned thirty-one when Communism fell and I went to St Petersburg. The city streets were dank and barren, not a single neon sign, not a single advertisement, nothing to see or do. I toured the lab of Pavlov where dogs are still used, and I stood next to the eternal flame commemorating those lost during the siege on the Field of Mars. I met Putin. I met Ambassadors. I met Sophia, who was a young teen when the Czar was still in charge, who lost her husband and son during the siege, and who sat in the shadow of the Smolensky Shrine and told me they can take anything they want from her, but they’ll never take her faith from her again. She blessed herself in the large Orthodox way and held my arm with her ninety-something year old transparent hands. She could tell me whatever she wanted. I could talk about anything I wished. I watched this county I was raised to fear fixate on all things west, becoming a strong and welcome presence in world culture and exchange. Every person I brought returned home amazed at the life that was Russia, hoping to return, knowing they had friends there.
I’ve brought dozens of US faculty, hundreds of college students, a dozen cousins, pilots, performers, writers, and an Army General.
Now, exactly half a lifetime since my first trip, I’ve watched it all go full circle. The western influence is there and that can’t be changed, but the presence has faded away—no more McDonalds, Pizza Hut, or KFC. No more Starbucks. Open readings are tolerated only if no one, no one, absolutely no one uses the word “War” in reference to the Ukraine.
I sat by hopelessly as friends wished me well and hoped we’d someday meet again. I told them, my friends, including those now in Germany and France, a few in Norway, that I cannot wait to see them again, perhaps in New York, or Paris. Maybe Oslo. Not Russia.
I have taken a train from one end of that massive empire to the other with my son, creating memories to last all our lives, spent late nights drinking shots of vodka with Siberian businessmen. I’ve sat in the home of tour operators and laughed and became brothers with them. I have mementos on bookshelves, on walls. I’ve written three books about my times in Russia, and more than fifty articles. I’ve developed three college courses about Russian Culture and mentored more than two hundred students who received Study Abroad credit. I miss the beauty of the architecture, the beauty of the people, and the mystical way history bathes me when I walk the streets at night. I miss my friends. I miss laughing with Valentine and talking about butterflies and angels. I miss sitting alone at this one café I love and drinking tea, making notes, listening to contemporary folk music and enjoying this magical life I’ve had the chance to live that brought me more than two dozen times to a place that until I was in my thirties, I never thought I’d ever see. I miss the people very much.
But I’m not going back until Vladimir Putin is dead.