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A Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip to Russia

As Car No. 1 rolls to a stop in St. Petersburg, there is a young woman in a billowing navy overcoat and another Hermès scarf who seems to know just where to stand to greet us. There is not even a moment to feel lost.

"Hello, hello," she purrs, averting her eyes. "My name is Marina."

Already I adore Marina. Just as Natasha personifies Moscow, Marina is St. Petersburg. She is no street fighter; she is reserved, decorous, with that aloof eastern European manner. She has long straw-colored hair, which she wears up like a Russian fur hat, and speaks in a mellifluous voice that comes to life over the microphone on our bus. Her passion is Bulgarian culture.

Marina's reserve camouflages her considerable energy. A couple of hours after arriving, our group is at the Hermitage, the former Winter Palace, for a two-hour tour of its highlights. I can now say I have seen the most famous da Vinci (the Benois Madonna) and Rembrandt (Flora, as modeled by his wife, Saskia) and van Gogh (Cottages) and Cézanne (Mont Saint-Victoire) and Picasso (The Absinthe Drinker) and Matisse (Dance) that the Hermitage has to offer, in the same detached way I vaguely recall once cruising past the Pietà as if on a conveyor belt.

But what do I really remember?The malachite urns that I could have hidden in. The eerie surgical-gown green that the Hermitage is painted, against the flat gray light of this northern city. The balcony overlooking Palace Square on which I have seen Nicholas and Alexandra greet their subjects in countless foxed photographs. This is the square where the October Revolution played out its final act in this very century.

City tours lay ahead, afternoons in which all I had to do was sit back and be taken to the various pieces of the St. Petersburg puzzle: to St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Fortress of Peter and Paul, the Admiralty, the Summer Garden. We shook hands with many an icon, but I often preferred the bus ride, listening to Marina narrate as we wound past the canals through Neoclassical streets painted in pastels.

For those of us who were inconsolable, Marina arranged a quick walk around the Summer Palace, too gold and too blue and absolutely shut tight, and then moved us on to a building that was open. She could not quite tell us with a straight face that Pavlovsk is an equally palatial palace, but it is an important one nonetheless. We visited many a ballroom and picture gallery and oohed and aahed on cue. And I forgot it all even before I was back on the bus.

A walk on Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main thoroughfare, isn't so easily forgotten. On this one street you come face-to-face with all the players in modern Russia: pensioners who haven't had a good day since perestroika, New Russians barking at cell phones in their Mercedes 600's, young people carrying shopping bags printed with pictures of the stars of the soap opera Santa Barbara, and foreign businessmen hungry for the Deal. Here, in a few short blocks, you can review current Russian fashions (bring your sense of irony) in the arcade called Passazh; walk through Dom Knigi, a bookshop where all the books are under glass; find a store selling very red posters of Lenin wagging his finger; and see tins of osetra caviar stacked like Bumble Bee in the Art Nouveau halls of the Yeliseev food shop.

Also on Nevsky Prospekt is the Grand Hotel Europe, where I stayed. It is the match of any of the world's great hotels and, for Russia, a miracle, really. It too is a theme park of New Russia, with metal detectors at its doors, and the Caviar Bar, and a disco where men pass out drunk on the tables, and maids who make themselves at home in your room while you are out, and ravishingly beautiful young women who sit for hours in the lobby, staring at any and all available men with impunity.

Marina rescued us from all this decadence with a "folkloric evening," that standard building block of the package tour. Such events invariably include attractive young singers, costumes suitable for photographing, a hearty meal served family-style, and a great deal of dancing and hand-clapping and mating ritual, all of which culminates in getting a few members of the loosened-up audience onstage and embarrassing them. This particular evening took place in a dacha reconstructed in a St. Petersburg basement, and as hard as I resisted, going so far as to refuse to perform a peasant courtship dance, I enjoyed it thoroughly. The vodka helped.

By our last day in Russia I only wanted to be escorted. Marina agreed to lead a tour of the Yusupov Palace, one of many owned by the richest family in Russia, and not usually on the short list. It was all ours, every ghostly bombastic room in it, from the marble staircase to the private theater to the basement where Rasputin, the mystic who virtually controlled Nicholas and Alexandra, was shot and clubbed before finally being tied up and thrown into the Neva River. For those who lack imagination, Rasputin is there, in wax.

The trip deserved to end on a higher plane. We attended a concert at the Philharmonic Hall, and this being late April, when the sun sets around 11 p.m., sunlight streamed in through the clerestories during the whole performance. I don't remember the program, but I do remember the face of the 20-year-old pianist as he attacked the keys, as well as the young woman who moved herself down from the balcony to the empty sixth-row seat next to me. Everything about her was achingly shabby. She borrowed a program, which cost pennies. But she clearly understood that music far better than I ever would. It was nice to have company.

We were tired, we were overstimulated, but on the ride to the airport Marina proved herself incapable of passing the new public library, or the old city hall, or the monument to those who died in the Great Patriotic War (World War II), without telling us all about them. And we were incapable of not listening.

She stayed with us until the very end, when our passports were stamped and our visas were seized and there was no chance of our being turned back on Russian soil. And then came that awkward moment when there was nothing to do except shake hands with someone you don't really know at all, reflect on a somewhat new shade of the meaning of the word farewell, and hear your well-meaning self say, "Come visit us in America."


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