by Roxane Hudon
Take a mythical Russian train and wolf down a small tin of possible dog food, as the express whistles past desolate, icy fields with sparse houses and few trees. Step out of the train station reassured; if Moscow is foreign and giant and circular, St-Petersburg is familiar, reasonably sized and straight. It’s Venice, it’s Amsterdam, it’s Prague, it’s translated into English. Follow Gogol’s footsteps up Nevksy Prospect, past luxury boutiques, fast-food pancake shops, an imposing, columned cathedral and a French café. Use your new talent of deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet after staring at signs for 25 minutes. You know how to find Russian hostels now, just look for the tiniest sign imaginable next to a buzzer and up you go, to the Baby Lemonade, hoping it’s wank-free and clean. Bingo! Only one group of French men too many and a bizarre obsession with Pink Floyd and The Beatles! Offend les cousins with your joual and go on with your day. Head to the pub with a man from Manchester, dive into the biggest pint you can find, get kicked out at two and find refuge from the wintry Russian morning in the Rock Pub, a mock Hard Rock Café complete with Freddy Mercury statue welcoming you inside and a gnarly biker man trying to woo your friend. Gone are the strange spring celebrations, face control and honey booze; you’re in Europe now. Relax, get drunk, mingle and learn Russian from a portly tattoo artist, his gorgeous girlfriend and the emo bartender.
Let a weird, old bald man kiss you on the cheek and hand you a cryptic religious card. You are blessed, go on and discover Peter the Great’s old stomping grounds: Petrograd, Leningrad, Piter, where Catherine the Great made her home, Dostoevsky hung out at intersections and Nicholas II closed his eyes and wished for Moscow, where Germans forced millions to eat their shoes and Lenin and his pals said “how ‘bout tryin’ something a lil bit different?” The birthplace of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, but you can’t imagine him munching on bagels next to the hipsters at the Brooklyn Café or sipping on Old Fashioneds at the ultra-cool Dead Poets bar where the pony-tailed barman promises you an Italian liqueur that you’ll simply love. Maybe he sat in back of the class, fiddling his Stalin doll, while the cool kids laughed at him and he muttered promises of revenge with a capital K-G-B. “Look at me now, ya hip Piter dicks, I am your king!”
Stroll to the Hermitage early in the morning, brushing past Russian teens in trakkies, zipping around on Segways, to take in the full view of the Winter Palace: you’ve dreamt of this place. Take your cue from the Russian ladies, and pose seductively, before stepping inside the labyrinth: room after room of oil on canvas, preserved mummies, Siberian antiquities, French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Picasso, Matisse, Jesus Christ, until you’ve spent hours soaking it in and the colours are swirling inside your head. Kick back in a golden ballroom, where Cat the Great probably had her morning tea. Let your hair down on the Romanov throne, where tsars sat with a view of their luxurious halls, lighting their pipes on enormous chandeliers, thinking, “this will probably last forever.” Find the tiny sign beside the umpteenth Van Gogh telling you where it all ended, shut your eyes and imagine the dream fading away.
Have a laugh and take it easy at the Museum of Soviet Arcade games, because even the USSR is ironic in Piter, especially when you’re shooting toy guns. Visit the Peter and Paul Fortress, an imposing structure where thousands were imprisoned in dark cells, or so you read, because what you see is a quaint, repainted barrack, where wax figurines look on, as you stand in the cell where Gorky and Trotsky supposedly festered in their own socialist propaganda. In the neighbouring cathedral lie the royal corpses of the Romanov dynasty: Catherine next to Peter in opulent graves, under golden crowns, while they tossed the last one and his family in an unremarkable box. RIP, you little twit, the dream is over.
Don the cleanest outfit you can uncrinkle from your tiny ten-day carry-on travel bag and journey to the famous Mariinsky theatre for a four-hour operatic venture into the possibly invented story of how Peter the Great invaded Moscow. Sit in your little lodge, with your little opera glasses and your little semblance of class, and try not to nod off in the last hour as religion, betrayal, rape and epic sing-a-longs echo throughout the beautiful theatre. Shake it off by trying to get in one of the over-crowded student bars on Dumskaya ulitsa, where drunken Russian youths pile on top of each other and tourists are charged to get in. Fuck that, find the most hipster jazz bar imaginable instead, rammed to the ceiling with beautiful, cool people jiving along. Who knew? Jazz is cool again in the East, shake hands with your neighbours. Ivan lived in New York City for years: “you’ve always got to have a bit of business on the go,” he says with the most American accent he can muster, like Christopher Walken imitating a Russian. A fat, drunken man wakes up from his slumber to sit almost on top of you and tell you about Ukraine: “all Soviet states are shit so we can fuck them.” Laugh as if it’s a joke as he puts his arm around you and reassures you that he’s not a Jew. Time to escape and learn how to count with a bunch of guys lead by an ugly man with a fringe who eyes you, taps his belly and tells you “I’m fat too, so it’s okay.” Shimmy on out of there at 7 am, teeth stained grey, because you rebelled against Ivan’s advice to “never accept drinks from strange Russian men.” Whatever Ivan, free wine is my business on the go, and i’m fat, so it’s okay. Sleep, in a few hours, you’ll be drinking straight vodka with four French men and Ben from Ottawa.
It’s International Women’s Day, Russian men carry their girlfriend’s purses and the souvenir shop lady gives you a tulip. Treat yourself, begin your day in the evening, pour beer in your vodka, good job, ladies! Equality for all! Make peace with the French, maybe they’re not all bad, especially after the fifth time you tell them “j’viens du Quebec, j’parle français.” They don’t care, on boit, as they pour shot after shot of vodka and Ben from Ottawa blabs on about hockey games like the Canadian caricature he is. “Oh Montreal’s cool, I guess, except if you’re wearing a hijab, amirite?” he says with glee. Sure, Ben from Ottawa, the most boring person in the world. Yegads, don’t take me back! No matter, “Dumskaya, Dumskaya, Dumskaya” grows from a whispered suggestion to a warriors’ chant as we stumble onto the cold Piter streets and invade the place we swore we would never return to. You just need the right fuel to light up Dumskaya, and turns out it’s not opera, but hours of vodka. Russia has just discovered the 90’s; smash your head against the wall and sing along to Crazy Town’s Butterfly.
Awaken with no head, eyes or saliva, roll out of bed and cry for help. Crawl back towards Nevsky Prospect: this is Russia, you’ve dreamt of this, get over it, force one last pit stop before you leave. Stand over Dostoevsky’s grave, mouth shut to keep the vodka from spilling out, rest your hand on his somber, sculpted face and try to channel his Russia, because this is probably not it. Some say this is Putin’s Russia, but it didn’t feel like it when you were jumping up and down to the Friends theme song, or receiving flowers from strangers. It’s too soon to tell and all you can do is tuck yourself underneath a third class mattress on the overnight train back to Moscow, cross this Russia off your bucket list and come back to it later.