A St. Petersburg Christmas
Returning for the holidays to the city of his birth, Gary Shteyngart finds a town in thrall to new money and old traditions, covered in ice and snow—and well lubricated with vodka.
Some countries live off collective memory—rough-hewn stone monuments, mournful anthems, goats ritually slaughtered in honor of some lunar god—but here in Russia the national pastime is forgetting. After being in St. Petersburg for less than four hours I can no longer remember many things: my reason for being here, the Russian word for "taxi" (it's taxi), the name of my hotel, my own first name and patronymic. There are little snippets of consciousness floating in a sea of black. At one point I am sitting on a glacial bench with a friend breathing in thimbles of cold night air; now I am falling down in the marble vestibule of a familiar metro station, my galoshes making comical half-circles above my head; and finally I am parked amid the Art Nouveau curlicues of the Grand Hotel Europe's Lobby Bar with a lit Cohiba in one hand, a glass of Fonseca port in the other, and several bewildered young women across the table listening to me pontificate.
And then it's all coming back to me. I'm here in St. Petersburg, Russia, to witness the holiday season to end all holiday seasons. According to a new law passed by the country's insane parliament, Russian workers now enjoy a 10-day respite (from January 1 to January 10) from whatever employment they may still have. This extended winter break, centered around the Russian Orthodox Christmas—which, according to the Julian calendar, falls on January 7—was greeted with alarm by conscientious citizens. Some Petersburgers feared an unprecedented booze binge, others a crime spree that would rekindle the city's reputation as an Al Caponeera Chicago. In actuality, after all was said and drunk, the city's criminals mostly stayed home with their loved ones, while the number of residents hospitalized for alcohol poisoning increased a meager 10 to 15 percent. My trip to Petersburg was an attempt to partake in this mad winter carnival without somehow joining the merry band in the hospital. On my first night, I nearly did.
It all started with a perverse case of jet lag and a chest cold that would outwit the Western world's most powerful antibiotics. When my friend K. picked me up at the airport, I was performing the unique trick of somehow coughing and sneezing and hiccuping at the same time. "We need to get you well," K. said, and I knew exactly what he meant. The Russian cure for any ailment ranging from stomach ulcers to delusions of grandeur is 150 grams of vodka (about three shots). But for a cold this serious K. prescribed two bottles of gorilka, a Ukrainian firewater blended with honey and pepper.
K. and I have a tradition—the first thing we do when I get to town is head to the Mountain Eagle (Gorny Oryol) restaurant. The Eagle used to sit humbly by the Petersburg zoo; it was an ad hoc outpost of plastic chairs and wooden tables that served the best Georgian cuisine and the most delicate mutton kebabs in the city. But all that humility, wood, and plastic are now gone, replaced by an overlit gaudy palace fit for a minor Romanov. In its size and style, the new Mountain Eagle's entry hallway recalls an abandoned train station at midnight, and the rest of the place is a kind of architectural guide to New Russian taste—columns, pediments, fountains, fortress towers, massive unexplained outcroppings of stone and marble. The once eclectic clientele has been replaced by midlevel biznesmeni conspicuous by their shaved heads and fatalistic expressions. "We are in the land of Zurab Tsereteli!" I sneeze at my friend, referring to the sculptor who in the past decade has disfigured the Moscow skyline with a 310-foot statue of Peter the Great that looks like a baroque Russian Godzilla. I am faced with two possibilities: either the tasteful, stoic city of my birth is gone, or I have accidentally landed in Moscow.
And then the bottles of Ukrainian gorilka are brought out. We toast our friendship, our families, Ukraine's recent Orange Revolution and the hope that a similar one will someday sweep Putin out of power in Russia. The Ukrainian alcohol has a bright and chewy taste, the honey and pepper coating one's tongue with thick sheets of sugar and spice. We chase the gorilka with a plate of pickled peppers, cabbage, and garlic, and follow that up with khachapuri, a Georgian flat bread filled with soft ricotta-like cheese. Soon, with the first bottle of gorilka safely inside me, the jet lag, the unvanquished flu, and the alcohol combine to rob me of what little sense I had cleared through customs. I fall victim to what I call Dostoyevsky Disease: the need to be overbearingly kind to some person in lesser circumstances, which in poverty-stricken Russia presents a fairly wide tableau. So when the homely young waitress brings the bill I hand her an unheard-of tip: $20.
"What, are you crazy?" K. says.
The waitress blushes, her little red nose twinkling. "Thank you!" she cries. "Thank you, young man! This will be my New Year's present!"
"O-ho, life is short, life is short!" I happily intone. "We must be good to one another, dear one!" And after those words are uttered we cut to the episode I have already described: my tenure on the ice-crusted bench, my stumble down the metro, my lost evening of Cohibas and port and pontification at the Grand Hotel Europe Lobby Bar. Throughout the ensuing night, covered with an immense winter comforter, I am atremble with happy fraternal thoughts and sunk deep into my own forgetting. A fairly typical start to most Russian visits.
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 uniformclad 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.
Kitsch and minimalism are locked in a daily struggle throughout St. Petersburg, and at the Triton restaurant, on the banks of the Fontanka River, kitsch is winning. It's a seafood restaurant, you see, but just in case you missed the point, there's a porpoise hanging from the ceiling, a waterfall dripping above your bouillabaisse, and actual aquariums set into the walls, floors, and even the toilet's water tank. Upon entering the joint I see a fat rich kid, about five years old, in a Dolce & Gabbana outfit sullenly gawking at the prized osetra sturgeon scurrying underfoot. I'm not sure who his parents are, but the restaurant is filled with several "proactive" Russian men in gray sports jackets and black turtlenecks, as well as the nine-foot-tall women in yellow leather pants who love them. Passing through, I catch snatches of conversation from two fellows at another table:
"What do we do about Sergei?"
"It's a delicate question."
Indeed. Meanwhile, as Sergei's future is settled, the outrageously priced food takes both good turns and bad. The tartare of salmon and tuna is pleasantly rife with spring onion and sea salt. The grilled Scottish salmon in cream sauce—the most simple dish around—is succulent, but the lobster is so tough it should be taken out back and roughed up a little. Possibly so should Sergei.
After the daylong gorging process is complete, it is time to turn to the spiritual. Tonight is Christmas Eve, according to the Russian Orthodox tradition. The date is not the only thing that differentiates Orthodox Christmas from our own. Unlike the dollar-denominated shop-a-thon back home, Christmas here is still a low-key affair, an austere meal of honey-soaked wheat kasha being one of the highlights. For the midnight mass, I head to the city's main functioning church, the Kazan Cathedral, an elegant early-19th-century rip-off of St. Peter's in Rome. Approaching the church past the snow-covered empty streets, I am mesmerized by the yellow-lit cupola and the sound of the bells slowly rising in pitch and purpose. Inside, the proceedings are suffused with a lavender glow, flickering amber candles, and overpowering incense. I see women in woolen scarves, their thick purple glasses hiding the kernels of blue eyes. On the previous day I visited the church to get permission for a British photographer to take pictures of the midnight mass. I spoke to an angelic-looking young priest with a small flaxen mustache who gladly gave us permission. On the night of the mass, the mustached priest is conducting the services, and we are confronted by an elderly church worker, his face as red as a beet, a single tooth in his crooked mouth. We tell him that a priest has blessed our request to photograph the service, but the old fellow's not buying it. "This is our holiday, our Orthodox holiday," he says, staring down my Jewish nose. "We don't need your people here."
"Merry Christmas," the British photographer says to him.
My Christmas does get merrier the next day when my friend K.'s girlfriend, Yanna, invites us to a holiday dinner in a small apartment in the southern suburbs. Yanna's family is from Yakutia (also called Sakha), a Russian republic that occupies most of the northeastern part of the Asian continent and is home to the Pole of Cold, the absolute coldest point in the Northern Hemisphere. As freezing as their land may be, the Yakuts receive us with a warmth, openness, and hospitality I find genuinely touching. Yanna's mother is a shamaness, and after I walk through the door she whips me with a white horse's tail to drive out evil spirits. After my whipping we are treated to an incredible meal of pony rib meat practically falling off the bone, salty iced fish, and a smooth horse-blood sausage that takes me as close as I've ever come to experiencing the essence of an animal. By the end of the evening, thanks to either the horse-tail whipping or the medicinal bear intestine still sticking to the inside of my cheek, I emerge from the Yakuts' cozy lair with my flu finally vanquished.
My health restored, K. and I decide to finish off Christmas day with a trip to the Colorado Father strip club on the far side of Vasilevsky Island. Most of Petersburg's nightlife can be characterized by Susan Sontag's dictum on popular culture: "So bad it's good." And by that measure the Colorado Father (Koloradsky Otets) is very good. It's hard to tell why the club's owners decided that the great state of Colorado somehow represented their brand of melancholy vice, but the walls are indeed covered with huge murals of mesas, cowboys, cacti, and (fairly or unfairly as far as the female population of Colorado is concerned) women with gigantic asses. Before heading into the Amsterdam room, where the actual stripping takes place, we give the disco a shot. Here girls of roughly student age release their Slavic pheromones to the music of 50 Cent, their flea-market miniskirts held together by bobby pins and sheer will. In the Amsterdam room, desperation and testosterone tickle the nose in equal measure. After several vodka shots chased with beer, I settle into another Dostoyevskian moment—feeding the G-string of some poor damaged blonde a series of 100-ruble notes whilst mumbling something about life and beauty and redemption. On Wednesdays, I'm told, the members of a male strippers' collective called the Colorado Stallions shake it up Western-style. Luckily, it's Friday.
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.
WHERE TO STAY
Grand Hotel Europe
Doubles from $350
1/7 mikhailovskaya st.
800/223-6800 or 7-812/329-6000
Doubles from $280
39 Bolshaya morskaya st.
800/223-6800 or 7-812/313-5757
WHERE TO EAT
Mountain Eagle (Gorny Oryol)
Dinner for two $30
1a Aleksandrovsky Park
Lenin's Mating Call (Zov Ilicha)
DINNER for two $70
34 kazanskaya St.; 7-812/571-8641
DINNER for two $200
67 Fontanka River Embankment
Dinner for two $90
18 Petrogradskaya Embankment
WHERE TO DRINK
Colorado Father (Koloradsky Otets)
72 maly ave., vasilevsky Island 7-812/355-0859
9 dumskaya st.; no phone
WEATHER Winter in St. Petersburg, while relatively mild considering its northern latitude, is quite cold.
GETTING THERE Flying from the United States requires a connection in Moscow or another European hub; Helsinki and Frankfurt offer the greatest number of options.
VISA INFO Tourist visas, required for American visitors, may be obtained at the Russian consulate or through an authorized travel agency such as Go to Russia (888/263-0023; www.gotorussia.com). tours Greg Tepper at Exeter International (800/633-1008; www.exeterinternational.com) can help arrange a guided tour.
WHAT TO SEE
12 Lensoveta St.
Church of the Savior on the Blood
2 kazanskaya square
Mikhailovsky Palace and the Russian Museum
4 Inzhenernaya St.; 7-812/595-4240
Museum of Russian Political History
2/4 Kuibysheva St.; 7-812/233-7052
St. Petersburg's version of Fifth Avenue.
Mosque of St. Petersburg
7 Kronverksky Ave.
Mosque of St. Petersburg
Museum of Russian Political History
Mikhailovsky Palace and the Russian Museum
Church of the Savior on the Blood
Colorado Father (Koloradsky Otets)
Lenin's Mating Call (Zov Ilicha)
Mountain Eagle (Gorny Oryol)
Belmond Grand Hotel Europe
National landmark with neo-Baroque façade and Art Nouveau interiors that is the perfect base from which to explore the city's cultural attractions: it's near the Russian Museum and the Mikhailovsky Theatre. At the hotel’s Art Nouveau lobby bar—once frequented by Dostoyevsky—order your vodka neat, the way the locals do.