I am ready to write about Russia. I needed time. I needed distance. I went to Russia in September, yet I required six months, a trip to the southern most point in Africa and multiple return visits to Copenhagen before I had the distance enough to look back at Russia and reflect. That’s how big Russia is. One needs a vantage point to match.
I did not forget about it. Oh no: the Babushka shawl I wear on a near-daily basis, the matryoshka dolls that look across at me from my mantelpiece and my sour-cream filled dreams of hearty Slavic cuisine. Russia is inexhaustively fascinating.
I spent a lot of time alone – in St Petersburg and in Moscow. A country as wild, cold and unapologetic as Russia is not easy to be alone in. There’s no sauntering down side streets and sipping coffees as your browse quirky boutiques and strike up conversations with gallery owners and the local passers-by. It is intimidating for the lonesome foot-soldier staring up at its colossal history, transgressions and politics. Everything on the surface looks familiar and quasi-European, but the soul if it is anything but. It is Russian. Which means it is like nothing else.
I’d sit in odd cafes that were trying to be sophisticated but ended up looking tacky to these eyes, grown used to Danish design. I’d sit and sip tea and write in pencil on pieces of paper about my impressions and imagine I was some undiscovered Dostoevsky – miserable and misunderstood – creating the thoughts that would be turned into something greater long after my death. Here are just some of those impressions.
St Petersburg – as Leningrad – suffered a siege that killed it. And now it feels dead and derelict like the flaking walls of its once illustrious centres: castles, museums, fortresses, churches. It is suffering the loss of its ego as nation’s capital. It is smaller and more regularly laid out than Moscow, yet I get lost and feel forlorn in its cobbled streets and among the picturesque canals.
It is one of the most isolating places I have visited. A depressing atmosphere despite its purported beauty compared to many other Russian cities. I constantly feel the presence of a ghost – a taint leftover from the bloody history that haunts the place and gets inside you. You can not escape or ignore it wherever you may go – outside or inside yourself.
There are great craters in the roads between tram lines, public newspapers stuck up on notice boards (control over the most easily accessible form of news), smells of strong paint and odours of dampness. Russian men standing in the rain – drunk – having emotional breakdowns and leaning against each other for support, vodka bottle standing sentry on the pavement across the street. I don’t know why but my instincts told me to steal it.
I felt small and overwhelmed and exhausted. I didn’t want to explore, just hide in the comfort and warm of my friend’s family home, perched high up a block of flats on Yuri Gagarin Prospekt in Petersburg’s outer suburbs. It was welcoming, hospitable and cosy – I had jumped from standing in the cold outside Russia into its very beating heart: the hearts of its passionate people. A number of old flats huddle around green atriums with free outdoor gym apparatus, swings and sandpits and here people congregated in the evening times with their dogs to chat. It was exactly how I imagined things would have been like in those by-gone years where the courtyard and your neighbours were possibly the furthest you would go without feeling unsafe.
Russian individuals, when you come to know them as individuals, are warm and kind hearted despite an initial impression of coldness. Today Russians often put up barriers to things unknown, to their own admission.
I wondered how they would have been like before Soviet times, before they had the concept of a right to individuality stamped completely out of their psyches.
Now they are legitimately allowed to do as they please (to a certain extent), they make up for lost time by concentrating heavily on appearances. Hence the glitz and the glamour and all things designer. The obsession with the material, the superficial and the physical beauty result from a yearning for grounding and stability – a right to exist – that comes from oppression and a long history of institutions uprooting those rights.
Walking through St Petersburg it was rare to find ostensible signs of any sort of underground/youth culture that usually line the back streets of many Western cities and towns.
Curtains are drawn, no one can see in, fabrics are heavy. Things are garish and glassy, dusty and shabby, tacky and cold, mismatching and out of sync, flamboyant and haphazard. In St Petersburg I got to witness the ugliest shop in the world – one of the few which one can see into. It seemed to specialise in an odd mixture of embroidered cats in various shapes and forms, hideous shawls and bits of jewellery, with the aroma of cat litter. If owners are said to look like their pets, then perhaps they can also start to resemble and reflect their shops as well. Most modern things in Russia are hideous and even the high-end places have a distasteful and cluttered veneer.