St Petersburg ladies on a park bench
St Basil's cathedral

Russia

First impressions (1986)

My recollections of our entry into the Soviet Union are strong: the incredibly young soldiers in huge uniforms at passport control, whose sole function seems to be to intimidate the hell out of anyone who dares to come in; the starkness of the empty corridors that go on forever throughout the airport; the sour-faced officials to whom we had to surrender all our documents as soon as we arrived; the absolutely endless journey from Sheremetyevo Airport to more or less downtown Moscow. It was not a comfortable ride; Moscow is not a comfortable city. My impressions gathered from that bus ride have not changed over time or with more exposure to the place; Moscow is still, to me, a cold gray dreary giant city with no real heart (forgive me, Arkady). The cement Stalin-era architecture seems to stretch out everywhere, forever, and the people (in my memory, anyway) remind me of New Yorkers, their faces like stone, looking only down or straight ahead, rushing along the streets with their packages, pushing slower walkers aside.

Russian drivers reinforce the resemblance: They are scarier than any I’ve ever encountered (well, maybe with the exception of the Nepalese). Because it is, or was at that time, such an unbelievable trial to get a car, and families were often on waiting lists years long, people didn’t really pay too much attention to the finer details — such as, for example, actually knowing how to drive the car. Or that there are (supposed to be) traffic regulations, and that it’s possible to violate them. The risk is about the same whether you choose to walk where there are cars or to ride inside them. It’s common practice to flag down any old vehicle if you need a lift; taxis aren’t always easy to find, and will rip you off if they know you’re a foreigner, which you can’t help but appear to be. Sometimes a driver will ask where you want to go and will name a price; I got several lifts from kind gentlemen who liked my accent and charged me nothing. But it’s an adventure; you never know whether you’ll reach your destination unharmed.

The palace (1989)

Eventually we did reach our destination: Dvoryetz Molodyozhy, the Palace of Youth. A palace it wasn’t. But the rooms were relatively big, clean, and cockroach-free, and what more could we ask? So what if the hot water was sporadic, the walls were made of cardboard, and members of the housekeeping staff were wont to “accidentally” barge in at odd times without knocking? The thing to get used to, though, was the dezhurnaya, the “key lady.” This was usually a large, rather imposing woman with the ever-present handkerchief on her head who sat at a little desk in the center of every floor of the hotel. (Note: the handkerchief itself is not the babushka. The word means “grandmother,” and is used, by extension, to refer to any old woman, who, most likely, is wearing one of the head scarves anyway. If it’s cold outside she’ll scold you for not wearing anything on your own head.)

When you leave, you give her your room key. When you return, you ask her for your room key back. It doesn’t matter how many times or days or weeks you ask for the same key — she pretends not to know you, and you always have to ask for it by room number. (An exception is made if she decides you have something she might gain from the interaction. One very sweet little old dezhurnaya in a hotel in Pskov suddenly stopped being sweet when I told her I could not give her the shoes off my feet — literally; I didn’t have any others — as a gift for her granddaughter.) Her main function seems to be not the keeping of the keys, though, but the guarding of the rooms: Despite the fact that she never evinces recognition of the residents, she’s quick to detect an alien presence. American friends not living in the hotel are suspect; Russians aren’t allowed at all, and have to be snuck in.

Sparsity

There wasn’t much to be had, even for those who did have money; several foods and products were defitzitny and had to be obtained with special coupons. Sugar and coffee were severely rationed; soap wasn’t to be found anywhere. Walking into a store I saw lengths of empty counters and glass cases. Maybe one container of milk, and a few feet away a couple of blocks of generic cheese. That was it. Only the bakery was different. Bakeries were ubiquitous, and always full. Of customers, and of bread. Bread came in many forms. There were rolls in all shapes and sizes, and bubliki, Russian bagels, that were strung up in bunches around the shop. Almost without exception, the bread I ate that summer was delicious, and lifesaving. (The exceptions occurred only at the hotel, where every once in a while our bread was days past its prime.)

Ice cream

Another treat was the ice cream. When I was first in Russia, in 1986, I had learned that morozhenoye came in two flavors — beige and purple (turning out, a little surprisingly, to be vanilla and chocolate, respectively). It tasted wonderful — it was smooth and creamy, and utterly unlike the plasticky stuff available here in thirty-one flavors and more. In the summer of 1989 I was initiated: There are more flavors. The fun, though, is in the entire ice cream eating experience. Felix took me to a few of his favorite parlors. There were no red letters stuck up on Lucite boards to announce the flavor of the week. There was never a large selection. But if you were there you were already in the know, and just walked up to the front and ordered your scoop. It was delivered in a metal cup of questionable cleanliness, with chocolate powder and sometimes strawberry compote on top. (Felix always ordered for me — he never taught me how. But it was always a delicious surprise.)

We sat down at a table that clearly hadn’t been seriously wiped down since Brezhnev’s time, and this was when Felix presented me with my very own silver spoon. He carried several with him, in a cup, in his huge black bag, in which he also carried art supplies, a knife or two, and assorted articles of clothing (I’m fairly sure I never saw the complete inventory of the bag’s contents). With the gift I was told sternly never to use one of the pieces of metal cutlery that was provided on each table in a glass; I must, from then on, carry my own spoon with me at all times.

(It was a good lesson. I had already learned to bring a bottle opener and a knife with me everywhere; it gets very warm in St. Petersburg in the summertime, and in those days it wasn’t a simple matter to get something to drink. Most stores had nothing to offer, and the bottled mineral water that appeared every so often tasted awful — more mineral than water. At intervals on the sidewalks there were giant tanks of some sort of beverage, either limonad or a mead-like fermented drink called kvass, and for a few kopeks you were given a good swig from the same cup that everyone who ever came before has also used. The most appealing option was to look for the occasional bottle of Coke, even though I don’t drink it at home. The problem, though, was that for some reason the person who sold the drinks was usually either unwilling or unable to open the bottles. So toting your own utensils was imperative. This practice of carrying with me an enormous bag containing everything I could conceive of needing for any reason in a foreign country has been a worthwhile one. In Tibet, where general everyday things that we take for granted aren’t easy to find, I was a popular attraction at a market when I kept pulling nifty things out of my backpack while searching for my dictionary, to the great delight and wonderment of the locals.)

I still have the spoon.