I had intended to write a wry travelogue about visiting Russia, America’s great on-again, off-again rival and enemy, for the second time in as many years. My husband teaches Russian language and literature; the last time I visited, he was finishing up a months-long fellowship in Moscow, and I joined him in that gargantuan, rushed, imposing, alternately gleaming and crumbling city in the bright, warm, final days of spring turning into summer. This time we went to Saint Petersburg, Russia’s great northern metropolis, over New Year’s in what has been one of the warmest winters in memory: dark, six-hour days and clouds so low you could stand on the parapet of a seawall looking out over the Gulf of Finland and hardly tell where the water ended and the sky began.
We had arrived at that spot on New Year’s Day through our own bad planning. That morning, we took the metro from our small hotel on a canal in the historic center of the city, a tourist’s heaven of palaces and cathedrals, damp parks and shining stone canal-fronts, to Vasilyevsky Island. Vasilyevsky Island is part of a westerly district of the city that transforms quickly from a crowded riverfront overlooking the rather extraordinarily mint-green Winter Palace — the former residence of the Tsars that now houses the Hermitage Museum — and the immense Peter and Paul Fortress, Peter the Great’s original stronghold against the at-the-time mighty Swedish empire, into middle- and working-class neighborhoods. Neighborhoods, however, showing the unmistakable and universally recognizable hints of coming gentrification: the first flowering of Instagrammable restaurants and pour-over coffee bars among the 24-hour bodegas, cafeterias, and hair-and-nail salons.
We’d hoped to visit Erarta, a contemporary museum with a collection of works by mostly regional Russian artists, but found that it — like most of the city whose New Year’s fireworks began at three in the morning — was silent, abandoned, and (obviously!) closed until late afternoon. I had the bright idea that we could go out to the end of Kretovskiy Island, itself relatively recently gentrified and just a few kilometers north, where some hasty Google mapping had shown an attractive esplanade overlooking the gulf beside Gazprom Arena, the city’s major soccer stadium. We’d spent Thanksgiving in Northern California (I am aware of the irony of all this traipsing around, given that my second column for this very publication was called “Traveling is an Elitist Nightmare”), and I had a vague idea that we could create a cold-weather of replica of our first gale-swept day at the gorgeous end of the world out on Point Reyes.
So we called a cab, and our Uzbek cabby drove us out to the city’s own end, slightly befuddled by our destination but game for it. He chatted in Russian with Trevor about the relative merits of New Year’s in Petersburg and Tashkent; asked us — as, you will not be surprised to learn, Russians often will — who really won the Second World War (Russia, of course; no argument from us); and he commented on the strange, rainy weather in a city that would usually be covered in snow by now. But, he said, it was perhaps a good sign. Russians, he said, because they were only ever invaded in the harshest of winters, had a saying that a warm winter means there will be no war. I smiled at that when Trevor translated for me. When we finally got to the waterfront, after winding around a series of confusing security cordons and fences around the stadium, he dropped us off in an icy, empty parking lot beside a metro stop. We shuffled to the promenade and looked out at the sea. It was beautiful in a very Russian way: vast, lonely, romantic. But there was nothing else to do there, so we hopped back on the metro and went back into the city.
It is not a pleasant feeling to be abroad when your country does something so violent and stupid.
Saint Petersburg’s beauty came at a terrible price. Built by conscripted serfs, often by hand, on an inhospitable swamp, tens of thousands — possibly 100,000 — died in its construction. It’s been said that it is a city built not on water but on bones. In 1931, the Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, recalling this price in human souls while also prophesying the city’s even more terribly near future, wrote a brief poem that concluded with the inspired, desperate line: “to live in Petersburg is to sleep in a grave.” Only a few years later, he was arrested and sent to a labor camp, where he died. And only a few years after that, the Nazis invaded Russia, and Leningrad, as the city was then known, became the site of perhaps the longest and deadliest siege in human history, in which after almost 900 days, more than 1,000,000 Russians died.
Modern Russia is not nearly so unlike America as the Russiagate conspiracists of MSNBC, say, or the so-called “intelligence community” would have you believe. If it seems at the scale of geopolitics another paranoid and militaristic power intent on using smaller, weaker countries as proxies for its geopolitical ambitions, then it is still, on a personal level, a friendly and hospitable place. If its border-crossing and visa requirements are complex and intimidating, then its people are, as individuals, often open, welcoming, and curious — at least that is the impression in the larger cities where foreign tourists are likely to go. If you have ever visited Paris, for instance, and sat for an hour in a restaurant trying desperately to flag down a waiter who absolutely, almost zealously, does not care, then I’d urge you to visit Petersburg, a city of equal beauty, where your waiter in even the poshest restaurant will stop by your table unsolicited to ask if everything is okay, apologize sheepishly for being hungover after partying too hard over the holiday, and tell you in English that the dish you are about to eat has “a helluva lot of things and textures in it,” whose names in English he can’t quite remember in that state.
And while the city center of Petersburg is lovelier than any city in the United States, the feel of the city beyond, the normal quarters where people live and work, also feels distinctly similar to the USA. Moscow was the same. The drive back to the airport, on gritty urban highways past factories in need of new fences, sprawling self-storage units, and under overpasses in need of concrete work and a coat of paint, looked and felt surprisingly similar to the drive we took 12 hours later from JFK to LaGuardia along a New York expressway in bad need of pothole patches and a power wash — another country whose explosion of urban wealth and global ambitions have ignored, or come at the expense of, the regular needs of the people who have to live there.
It was an early and unsettled drive that morning. We’d gotten up in the dark to finish packing and check out, and the first thing we learned from our phones when we woke was that the US had assassinated Qasem Soleimani, a prominent and powerful general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It is not a pleasant feeling to be abroad when your country does something so violent and stupid, when its awful leaders blow up another enemy-du-jour out of what seems like the personal pique of our grotesque president over the embarrassment of an Iraqi protest-cum-assault on the American embassy in Baghdad. It is not pleasant to sit in a tin can tracing a great circle route 30,000 feet over Greenland to wonder whether or not there will be a new war on when you land. Fortunately, there was not — not yet, anyway. It was raining in New York, too, when we landed: nearly 50 degrees in January. A warm winter means there will be no war. Let’s fucking hope so.