From Russia With Blood, Beauty, and Beasts

Call Me Pete
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 27 2009 3:00 PM

From Russia With Blood, Beauty, and Beasts

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"It is much better to live in a city that bears the name of a saint than that of a devil."—Joseph Brodsky

St. Petersburg has a variety of stop-you-in-your-tracks fabulous churches. While it was difficult to pick a favorite—St. Isaac's has that massive dome and the Church on Spilled Blood its historical resonance—I finally went with the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan.

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In part, this choice must have been a subconscious Catholic boy's affection for a structure that was inspired by St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. On a conscious level, I was happy to visit a church that, even on a weekday morning, boasted more believers than tourists. Although the church's walls are covered with hundreds of icons, everyone was lined up—60 people back—to worship and kiss the image of Our Lady of Kazan, presumably because she has the highest prayer-to-miracle ratio.

Even for a Catholic, this scene was at first uncomfortably idolatrous, until I thought about the location. While the Soviets turned most churches into warehouses, Kazan was converted into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Oh, how I wish I could have seen its main exhibits. "Over here we have a blank canvas called No God Not Creating Man. It was not painted by Friedrich Nietzsche after he killed God and went bat-shit crazy."

Religion is the worst form of worship, except for atheism. It is one thing to make everyone celebrate Christmas, but quite another to steal it. Since it has become a cottage industry to mock, ridicule, and condemn the beliefs of the faithful, I'm waiting for an enterprising author to best-sellingly describe the horrors of anti-religion. Obviously, there is the terror of the French Revolution and the killing fields of Cambodia, but for the Bolshevik chapter, one detail I hope he or she includes: Traditional dolls were taken out of circulation for inspiring the "hypertrophy of maternal feelings" and replaced with "fat, repulsive priest dolls" in order to elicit anti-religious emotions. That's right, they stole little girls' dolls.

My last plan for the day was to lunch at the Literary Cafe, despite guidebook warnings that the service was tetchy and the food mediocre and overpriced. But, hey, how could that be any different from the Algonquin or Elaine's? The main attraction was that it was the favorite haunt of Alexander Pushkin, my favorite Russian writer. This is not so much for his writing, but because his life serves as a cautionary tale for what happens to a man who marries a woman too beautiful and charming for him to handle.

Pushkin's lovely wife, Natalya, drew male interest like bees to honey. Terrified that one of these suitors might stick to her, Pushkin often flew into fits of insane jealousy. Knowing this, a ne'er-do-well cavalry officer, whose overtures to Natalya had been rebuffed, sent a letter to Pushkin awarding him the title "Grand Master of the Most Serene Order of Cuckolds." Pushkin challenged this officer to a duel and discovered, as he was shot down, that he was a far better writer than a marksman and that the pen is not actually mightier than the sword.

I stood in the lobby of the Literary Cafe next to a mannequin of Pushkin while the restaurant's only two employees sat directly in front of me and talked on their cell phones for 20, 30, possibly 40 minutes. It's hard to say. At a certain point, my fantasies about challenging both of them to a duel built to a Gladwell tipping point, and I decided it was best to leave.

In a huff, I threw financial caution to the wind, Obama-style, and went to the Grand Hotel Europe for lunch. By far St. Petersburg's finest, the place is so extravagantly tricked out and has such a smokingly hot staff (Natasha, e-mail me) that you need an oligarch's money and balls to not feel like a serf when you walk into the lobby. I had only anger and a nearly maxed-out credit card, but that was enough.

For the record, I swear that I tried to order the salmon rather than the Beluga caviar, but my waiter dropped his eyes and shook his head. For the record, Beluga caviar stuffed into hard-boiled eggs are like multiple mouth orgasms. For the record, when the bill came ($300), I realized, with the same sinking feeling a man gets when he discovers that the condom broke, that I would have to confess this infraction to my girlfriend.

My only consolation, as I downed more vodka shots than I should have, was a conversation at the next table. A corpulent, mouth-breathing, elderly Westerner, who I'm ashamed to admit was clearly American, was loudly discussing his bride-buying plans with a voluptuous, dyed-blond Russian yenta, who had clearly learned English at Porno U.

"I'm very shy."

"Un-huh!"

"But I'll be good tomorrow with the gals."

"Yes, yes, yes!"

Finally escaping from this repartee, I headed off to the Mariinskiy Theatre in a Midwestern effort to cram in as much culture as possible before my departure. I have no idea what the name of the ballet performance was, but best I could tell, it was the Russian version of West Side Story. The female lead was a snow-white Slav barely sheltered by a diaphanous dress. The male lead was a ruddy Mongol, decked out in gaudy Song-era attire. My only experience with ballet was a high-school production of Swan Lake, so I was completely captivated by the first act. But I must admit that during the second, I started to think that the story could be much better advanced if only they had included speaking, singing, and subtitles.

By time the curtain dropped, I was dangerously late for my plane. There were no marked taxis, and the snow was so thick that I didn't think I could walk back to my hotel in time, so I did what I had learned to do in my week in St. Petersburg: I simply raised my arm in the air and waited for a private citizen in need of cash to stop. Through a series of primitive hand signals, I secured a ride for an extravagant price. It turns out I should have saved my money. My flight was delayed for so long that I missed my JFK connection and found myself Trapped in Helsinki—which really should be the name of a Beckett play. There were five of us, myself and four Russian women of a certain age, politely yelling at a beleaguered Finnair employee.

"For those of you who have American passports, we will take you to a hotel," Finnair's rep told us. "For the rest, you are not allowed to leave the airport."

Only one of the Russian women had an American passport. The others cried, "But we have green cards!"

"Green cards are not enough."

I'd like to say that I made a principled stand and stayed with those women at the airport. But Finland is one of the few countries my government has never invaded, and I was very tired. Still, it bothered me. The next morning when I saw them, I said, "I am very sorry that you had to stay here while I was at a hotel."

"It pleases us that you would say that," one said.

And then she asked the question I was most frequently asked while I was in St. Petersburg: "What did you think of our city?"

"It is the most beautiful city I've ever seen," I said. "But also the saddest. It took four days before I saw someone laughing in public."

"Were they young?" she asked.

"Yes, teenagers."

"Well, they've had a very different life than we did."

What's in a name?

Sankt Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, and St. Petersburg again. So many names for one city in such a short period of time.

But all of them were the result of parents who hoped their children would have very different lives than they did.

It is what unites us all.

That said, if the city ever becomes Putingrad, it is time to rearm the nukes.

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