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A St. Petersburg Christmas

Later I meet my friend C. at the new and hip Dacha club near Nevsky Prospekt. Picture the most crowded joint in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and multiply the body density by 10. I know it's the weekend, but people are having way too much fun: overheated twentysomethings crashing into one another's beer mugs, wide-collared hipsters raucously losing their cool as their girlfriends manage to look like Pat Benatar without even trying. Otherwise all the signs of a tenuously progressive atmosphere are here: Kraftwerk on the sound system, NO MORE PUTIN! graffiti in the bathroom, sarcastic foosball loudly played in the back room. The décor, I must note, is complemented by the fine Belarusian wallpaper in a jaunty peacock motif; say what you will about Dacha, but you can't find that in Williamsburg. Over the roar of the local multitudes, my friend C., a long-entrenched expatriate, tells me that the new Petersburg is becoming way too rich for his blood. "Why don't you leave?" I ask him. Yes, of course, he wants to leave, but then his flash new Russian girlfriend in the woolen hat is just so damn cute. I swill my beer and nod along. He's not going anywhere.

On my last day in Petersburg, I have a solitary, nonalcoholic lunch at a restaurant simply called Moscow (Moskva). I nibble on the perfect veal kidneys in port wine while looking out the window at the perfect panorama of the icy Neva River. Waiters in perfectly distressed jeans and T-shirts dash around tossing plates of $20 foie gras to the perfectly coiffed new elite. Who wouldn't be happy?And yet somehow, this is not how I want to end my visit. So I take the metro down to Moskovskaya Ploshchad, the enormous Stalin-era square where I spent the best part of my childhood.

A model of Soviet "gigantomania," the square is centered around a statue of Lenin with his coat sexily unfurling in the wind (some locals have dubbed him the Latin Lenin). The architecture is held up by an endless array of heavy Stalinist columns, one building's façade featuring workers, peasants, and soldiers marching eternally toward the bright Socialist future. If the year was 1979 and you were a child playing hide-and-seek with your father in the square's cluster of pine trees, there was the glorious feeling that you were a part of something bigger than your winter-red nose and fur-trimmed galoshes would indicate. More recently, the square's dramatic impact has been somewhat lessened by the Citibank branch down the street, the slot machines around the corner, the produce stand hawking bright oranges, ethereal red peppers, and glossy pears. At night, the square is at its most festive and imposing, with the columns lit up, the pine trees illuminated purple, blue, and green. If you close your eyes and stand still you can almost hear the whirring of bank machines, the revving of a Ford engine at a nearby car dealership.

My favorite building in Petersburg is just a few blocks from here. The raspberry and white candy box of the Chesme Church is an outrageous example of the neo-Gothic in Russia, made all the more precious by its location between the worst hotel in the world and a particularly gray Soviet block. The eye reels at the church's dazzling conceit, its mad collection of seemingly sugarcoated spires and crenellations, its utter edibility. Here is a building more pastry than edifice. Once, drawn by its candy-cane domes, I committed the ultimate sacrilege by getting my toy flying helicopter stuck in one of them. Today there are no children out on the streets, only beat-up-looking workers trudging toward a shaky tomorrow. Their faces wear an overcast gruffness that I remember all too well. Their strange new experiment with winter sloth is coming to an end. It is January 10, and in a few hours the holiday season will at last be over.

gary shteyngart's forthcoming novel, Absurdistan, will be published this spring by Random House.


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