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The Lion in Winter

I had no idea what Russia would be. If I thought of it, I saw milky white ballerina legs and craning feathered heads. I saw Stalin's fat mustache, Khrushchev banging a shoe at the United Nations, and the birthmark on Gorbachev's head like ink splattered from a height. I saw heads of state lined up at the Kremlin and people lining up for food, their feet buried in snow.

I stepped off the Tupolev 134 that had brought me to St. Petersburg, and barely two hours later found myself on the tin roof of a house overlooking the Neva, gingerly taking the external route between adjoining apartments that serve as the studios of a young Russian artist called Sergei Bugaev, also known as Afrika. With one hand on the outside wall of the house for balance, I admired the indigo cupolas of Trinity Cathedral while trying not to trip over Afrika's cat, Melissa. The first apartment was inhabited by images etched into sheets of copper; the second, by political "souvenirs"—busts of Stalin, a rug with Lenin's head woven into it, a black-and-white photograph of Rasputin, eyes burrowing luminous holes in the emulsion.

His own wild blue eyes leaping from behind wisps of longish blond hair, Afrika led me on a walk along the twisting Griboyedov Canal. We went by a building where a woman lives with 35 dogs. An imposing blonde in a pink blouse, she was standing in the courtyard with a half-dozen beasts looking up at her respectfully. Later, we passed the bronze griffins of the Bank Bridge and the stone lions of the Lion Bridge. Pale yellow, gold, and the blue-gray of the water seemed to be the city's recurring colors. I hadn't yet seen the burnt red of the Mikhailovsky Castle, the aquamarine of the Winter Palace, or the brilliant turquoise of Smolny Cathedral. As we walked, Afrika told anecdotes: one building was where Dostoyevsky lived before he was sent to Siberia; another was Yusupov Palace, where Felix Yusupov had been dressed as a girl by his mother till the age of five, and where he later dressed himself as a woman to attract men. It was here, too, that he and a group of other noblemen assassinated Rasputin in 1916 because they resented his closeness to the last czar, Nicholas, the czarina, and their hemophiliac son. They laced his cordial with poison, then shot him in the heart three times, and when even that failed, threw him into the freezing waters of the Moyka.

A few weeks earlier, Afrika, who is a bit of a politician and a celebrity in the Warhol tradition, had been asked by a newspaper to write something on President Yeltsin. He made a seven-hour car journey to Yeltsin's dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, and started walking through the woods, picking mushrooms as he went. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his collar and was taken to the police station for questioning. The next day's headlines blared that a young artist from St. Petersburg had attempted to assassinate the president.

In the evening we went to the opening of a vast steel-clad restaurant, discotheque, and beer hall called Tinkoff, owned by a friend of Afrika's who is married to an androgynous Russian version of Brigitte Bardot, with whom he has a child and a sports car. A rock band consisting of willowy men in clinging knit shirts and bell-bottoms sang from behind billowing clouds produced by a fog machine. At the end of a dinner of baked fish, caviar, and very little vodka, we were joined by a grave dandy in a long, flowery green-and-orange jacket who was introduced as Stalin's grandson as well as an architect. While stylishly pornographic videos flashed on monitors above his head, he sang the praises of St. Petersburg—it was a city of poets and artists, he said, and of the possibility of a gently wayward life. Muscovites cared only for money and making deals. He was reminded of this every time he visited Moscow, which, he admitted, was quite frequently.

The struggle for supremacy between St. Petersburg and Moscow was set off by Peter the Great when he decided Russia should have a European capital, a northern Venice, to be built over swamps in the humid, frigid climate of the Baltic. Italy's finest architects of the time—Rastrelli, Quarenghi, Rossi, Rinaldi—were later brought in to help.

The style the Italians used was a no-expenses-spared Rococo, or, as one guide pronounced it, "ro-cuckoo." Catherine the Great's Chinese Palace, on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, 25 miles from the city, is a delicate villa by Antonio Rinaldi with a pleasant lilac-and-vanilla façade of arched windows overlooking a lake. Outside, an old woman in a scarf and peasant skirt tends a big container of felt shoe-covers that visitors are made to wear so as not to ruin the intricate intarsias of the parquet floors. She bangs two together in the air above her head, then places them in an iron wheelbarrow for the next group of tourists. Her stoic efficiency is a remnant of Soviet times. I thought there'd be more like her in Russia but what I noticed instead, peering out the window of my room at the Grand Hotel Europe, was that the women of St. Petersburg have an individual glamour reminiscent of 1970's Parisian women on the Boulevard St.-Germain.

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