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A St. Petersburg Christmas

St. Petersburg is the most beautiful city in the world. If you don't believe me, you should wake up in Room 403 of the Grand Hotel Europe and look out your window. Directly ahead you'll find the vast snowed-in lemon wedge of the Neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace, designed by the ubiquitous court architect Carlo Rossi to resemble a Russian country house (it's the size of a city block). To the left, the flamboyant gold and tutti-frutti domes of Church of the Savior on the Blood. Built as a nationalist rebuke to this elegant and slavishly European city, the church will bring to mind the famous onion domes of St. Basil's in Moscow (no wonder Petersburg's Europhile architectural snobs wanted to dynamite it). To the right, the golden spire of the Engineers' Castle, a quirky apricot fortress-like château, erected on the orders of the rightly paranoid Czar Paul, who was strangled with his own sash a mere 40 days after moving in. And, finally, in the distance across the Neva River, the festively lit Soviet-era television tower, its construction supervised by a brigade of sturdy female comrades. There you have it—architectural hubris, nationalist reaction, regicide by sash, beautiful Socialist women conquering new heights—all out one window, all hemmed in by the bright winter snow, all of it looking hallucinatory, imposing, and anything but real.

No matter how much gorilka one puts away the previous night, in the wintertime it is important to wake up, drink some coffee, and get your galoshes on by 8:30 in the morning, while the sun is still rising. I eat a delectable hard-boiled egg laid by a scruffy post-Soviet chicken that has never met a Western hormone, and head for the Griboedov Canal. I find a spot on the bank next to the pedestrian Lion's Bridge, marveling at the four winged lions, their delicate foreheads dusted with snow, their mouths cleverly issuing the suspension cables that keep the whole structure intact. Later, I stroll down the massive Nevsky Prospekt—a combination of New York's Fifth Avenue, Chicago's Michigan Avenue, and L.A.'s Sunset Strip. I haven't been to the city in two years, and the changes shock me. The 24/7 pop culture parade that is now Russian television—one makeover show might as well be titled Western Eye for the Slavic Guy—has clearly had an effect. In the new Moscow-styled St. Petersburg the words espresso and double latte are as commonly heard as default and bankruptcy. In the city center, sushi and sashimi saturation is complete. Young people are looking less and less like refugees from a Slayer concert and are learning to wear Columbia mountain fleece jackets with abandon. Trying to keep out of a sudden rainstorm, I duck into the new Grand Palace mall at 44 Nevsky Prospekt. There is enough marble here to redo the Parthenon, but the actual patrons are scarce. Petersburg was recently ranked the 10th most expensive city in the world (New York was 12th, by comparison; Tokyo topped the list), a paradox given the fact that the average citizen earns only a few thousand dollars a year, while fewer than half of Petersburg's men will survive until the retirement age of 60. Sadly none of my Petersburg friends can afford one of the $8,000 Paula shot glasses at the fabulous but empty Moser glassware store on the mall's second floor, nor will they be raiding the nearby Escada, Bally, or Kenzo outlets anytime soon.

I cross the Neva River, gleaming patches of ice clogging its vast curving artery, to the city's fashionable Petrogradskaya side. After devoting a glance to the azure tiles and twin fluted minarets of the St. Petersburg mosque—reminiscent of the fabled mosques of the Silk Road city of Samarkand—I walk down Kronverk Prospekt to the mansion of the scandalous prima ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, lover of the ill-fated Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia. Imperial lovemaking aside, the Kshesinskaya mansion played a pivotal role in the history of the revolution: the Bolsheviks set up a base camp here,and Lenin took to haranguing agitated workers from its balcony. Inside, fittingly enough, one can find the Museum of Russian Political History, a collection of artifacts tracing Russia's miserable experiments with monarchism, Communism, capitalism, and any other ism to come along. There is a copy of the famous Soviet poster showing a gaggle of happy blond children thanking Comrade Stalin "for our happy childhoods." To get the gist of those "happy childhoods" I walk to another part of the museum where, resting eternally under glass, one can find a simple homemade doll in a black dress sewn by a female labor camp inmate for her young niece.

Luckily, Russians are adept at turning their political misfortunes into rich, sibilant laughter. A kitschy new restaurant called Lenin's Mating Call (Zov Ilicha in Russian) brings the whole Soviet era into perspective by interspersing Communist party speeches with Western pornography on a series of flat-screen televisions. If you're a budding grad student looking for a post-structuralist dissertation, look no further. My friend and I toast the portrait of a young red-goateed Lenin in a biker jacket hoisting a beer our way, then we make short work of the appetizers. Lenin's Mating Call may be a theme restaurant, but the food, surprisingly, is excellent. The zakuski, which are essentially vodka chasers, include a delicate salmon in vodka, slippery marinated black mushrooms, and a comforting plate of homey boiled potatoes in a thick mayo sauce. For our entrée we have the bear-meat pelmeni (Russian ravioli)—soft, buttery, and rich, imbued with a vague hint of winters comfortably spent in a lair. Our Komsomol uniform–clad young waitress smiles at us with all 32 of her beautiful teeth, a hammer-and-sickle armband snapped tight over one of her creamy thighs, while a woman's voice over the intercom breathlessly describes the revolutionary things she wants to do to a young pioneer boy. Brimming with vodka (and sundry desires), I head for the bathroom, where an LCD screen has been set up over the urinal. I never thought I would relieve myself while watching Andropov pinning medals on some Kazakh shepherd intercut with footage of buff California porn stars pinning each other to the mattress. I guess you could call this closure.


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