The Accidental Homecoming

Bringing Shakespeare to St. Petersburg

2019

A Non-Refusable Offer

“Are you carrying a metal tray?” asked an airport customs officer looking at the screening monitor.

 “Yes, actually, a big one and a small one,” I responded.

“And what is this round object?”

“It’s a teakettle.”

To our surprise, she waved us through, not bothering with a bulky chandelier, also inside an unusually large check-in piece of luggage. Had she persisted in questioning, she would have learned that all the hardware in the suitcase was props for the Garter Inn, the home of Sir John Falstaff, its most famous resident and the hero of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Two renaissance-fashion costumes were also inside. The airport was Pulkovo, the international gateway to St. Petersburg (the cold one), and that we were part of a Boston-based theater troupe bringing Elizabethan enlightenment to the former imperial capital, now dubbed the “northern” and “cultural” capital of Russia.

I was not planning to go to St. Petersburg – again. Too many places I had never seen already crowded my bucket list. Not to mention that I had spent the first 30 years of my life there. Easter Island, for instance, had been sitting at number one on my list for a long time. Then my phone rang in December. It was the artistic director of Theater on the Roof, a Boston area Russian language performance company. They were planning a tour in St. Petersburg in April, she said, but one actor had a family emergency and could not go. Would I be able to step in?  A business trip to my original hometown, as an itinerant jester? It was surely an offer I could not refuse. And now, after nearly four months of blending in with the veteran cast at rehearsals, singing and dancing exercises, and trial runs – we step in through the looking glass.

And beyond that looking glass was the setting of dreams. For years after my family emigrated, one dream occurred several times a year: I am back at some random location in the city and am trying to get to the airport to leave, again. But vague obstacles prevent me from making any progress. Or, I can leave, but I cannot take my child with me. When in 1985 the movie “White Nights” with Mikhail Baryshnikov came out, we saw in it proof that he had the same dream we (I and my wife) did. Mercifully, these dreams did not last forever, only for the first fifteen years. But every once in a while I would still find myself in an obscure alley, a quaint crossroads, or a big thoroughfare, vaguely resembling images of real places still imprinted in my memory. That is, until I would wake up. Now, those images were about to come back to life.

The City of Dreams

Fifteen years have passed since our one previous visit and 40 since the time we left as refugees, presumably never to return. We step into a recently finished airy airport building, which seems a little too empty for a city of 5 million. Our cab enters an ultramodern beltway, now complete with a stretch across the Gulf of Finland.  We exit soon and take a radial road to the city center, as nondescript, as US Route 1, except for an occasional cluster of 25-story tall apartment towers, much like in a provincial Chinese city. While stopped at a traffic light, I spot a billboard, which says in big letters: “The Birth of Stalin.” Looking at the photo later, I realize that it’s a poster for a new controversial play at the most august of old imperial drama theaters – Alexandrinsky.

We are now in the zone of my dreams, the historic part. Lines of buildings long stored deep in memory stream by. After crossing a canal we swing past the most perfect street in the world (so says the French film “The Russian Doll,” where that street is an important character). One of its symmetrical sides houses Baryshnikov’s alma mater, the famed ballet academy, while the Parthenon-like Alexandrinsky Theater stands at the far end. The next canal is where our Airbnb flat is located. It’s in the inner courtyard, removed from the hubbub of the main avenue – Nevsky Prospect. When you come to the former capital of the Russian Empire, you might as well go for the top and stay with the Romanovs, and that is indeed the surname of our Airbnb hosts. The flat is on the second floor, but that is by British reckoning, meaning it’s really on the third, and there is no elevator. Thus the theater suitcase with its kettles and candlesticks, breeches and crinolines will have to be hauled up – and down – and up – and down again, over the course of the stay.

What is the most visible change since our last visit 15 years ago? There were a lot of stray dogs then in the city (40 years ago, when we left for good, I can’t recall any street animals). Now, it’s become a city of cats. As the dissident bard Galich said, “It’s dusk, and it’s free reign for cats.” They are not exactly on the street, but rather in the yards, near sheltered places, like enclosures for trash bins. And in typical feline fashion cats stick to a place. We see them when we leave in the morning, lounging under the unusual for April warm sun and even more unusual for Petersburg blue Italian skies. And we see them in the evening going about their cat business or preparing for a deeper night’s rest. There turn out to be other inhabitants in the courtyard, but that’s a surprise still to come.

But, when you exit the yard through a typical Petersburgian tunnel-like gateway you can see two wonders with one glance: the Kazan Cathedral across the canal and the Church of the Savior on the Blood further down the embankment (officially it’s translated as “Savior on the Spilled Blood”, but I consider it superfluous: obviously the blood had to be spilled for something to stand on it, besides it’s a more direct translation). And the human crowd has also changed. It’s mostly young and well dressed and looks like the crowd in any major European capital. As for the city itself, its historic center is livelier, shinier and cleaner than even in 2004 when they had just finished tidying up for its 300th birthday celebration a year earlier.

In the Footsteps of John le Carré

The first full day is free and we start with the sights that were not accessible 45 years ago. The “Spilled Blood” church was used as a warehouse during Soviet times and was off limits. After all, it memorialized a czar murdered on that spot (albeit the most progressive of his ilk, Alexander II, who abolished serfdom), whereas it was his assassin that had to be revered under the Soviets. Plus, the faux Russe romantic nationalist architecture was considered decadent and hence worthless. But tastes change. The pendulum swung all the way in the opposite direction and the church has become the number one tourist symbol of the city, as the quaint and wonderful Czarland. And finally we get to see its interior. Floor to ceiling it’s covered with mosaics depicting Hebrew prophets, post-Hebrew apostles and post-apostle sainted Russian princes. The small space is mobbed. Interesting as a unique historic artifact, it does not quite have the impact of a Giotto’s Capella Scrovegni. Having located Elijah and Moses, not a trivial task given the highly ornamental Church Slavonic script and spelling used by the artists, we can check this item off our list.

In his spy novel “The Russia House” John le Carré takes his hero, a world-weary British publisher (played in the film by Sean Connery), to St. Petersburg to seek a clandestine meeting with a Russian scientific genius (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer; more on this character later). The rendezvous takes place near Smolny, the mansion where Lenin proclaimed the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. Connery takes trolleybus #7 to get there from the city center. Le Carré is always thorough in his research: this is indeed the route to use. I know. I grew up in the Smolny (tar) District, on Degtyarnaya (tar) Street and rode #7 or #5 every day. We take #5. Like in the old times, you need to ask other passengers to pass money for the tickets to the conductor and get back the tickets with change. Except instead of 4 kopecks, the fare now is 40 rubles. Nominally, it’s 1000 times more, but thanks to the inflation it’s not much more expensive. We get off at the vast Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship. The name is not surprising. It sits right in front of the Smolny Institute building, where that very dictatorship was announced for the first time in history. It’s still the seat of the city government and there is more police guarding the entrance than even in the communist times. I was admitted there once. As a Young Pioneer (member of the boy scout-like Lenin-Stalin version of the Hitler-Jugend) from the host (Smolny) district, I was standing honor guard by the door of the hallowed Lenin’s office (some say it was Trotsky’s office), saluting pioneer groups from other city districts filing in on a reverent pilgrimage. Fifteen years later, trying to submit a complaint against low level functionaries, who refused to give me papers necessary to apply for emigration, I was sent back to the same lower level hacks I was complaining about. (I ended up writing a letter to comrade Brezhnev himself, just as the handwritten underground guide for emigration hopefuls instructed. Eventually, that worked.)

We walk past the seat of power, because our goal is a jewel of the 18th century baroque Smolny Cathedral. Originally, Bartolomeo Rastrelli designed a slim bell tower to stand beside the five-dome church. The tower was never built, but one of the four domed side towers has been opened to the public. The building with its five parts looks so graceful and well-proportioned that the height to climb seems moderate compared to the recently conquered by us 12-story pagoda in Kaifeng, China, or the soaring bell tower of Igreja dos Clérigos in Porto. The impression is deceptive. There are almost 300 steep steps to the viewing chamber. Breathtaking vistas all around with the blue of the building matching the hue of the cloudless skies. This is also our first look at the faraway Lakhta-Gazprom tower, an almost finished 462 meters tall exclamation point.

On the Spilled Blood (and lots of it)

Back to earth, where the equally splendid women’s monastery complex surrounding the cathedral is now occupied by the university, in particular the political science department. Remarkably, it’s located next door to the building, where much of the politics of the 20th century and beyond were determined. Lenin did not neglect the monastery building either and delivered a speech there as well, though not to the nuns, who had been promptly expelled. The Smolny complex is facing Shpalernaya Street, at the other end of which stands the notorious “Big House,” the KGB headquarters in Leningrad (I spent some of my childhood years almost across the street from it in my grandmother’s apartment). It’s called FSB now, but its function has not changed much. The first building on the right is a witness of another ruthless purge – 300 years ago. Alexander Kikin, whose red and white mansion later served as the Smolny District’s headquarters of the Young Pioneers, was executed by Peter the Great, having barely any time to enjoy his beautiful palace. It was the first place where I played the violin for the audience as part of a Pioneers arts festival. But purges remain a constant theme of the street. A few hundred yards past Kikin’s house stands a monument to none other than Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB. It’s only a mile away from the striking memorial to the countless victims of the organization he founded.

The imposing Tauride Palace, a stone throw away, is another exhibit for a political science class. Built by Catherine the Great for Grigory Potemkin (of the infamous villages), it served as the seat for the short-lived All Russian Constituent Assembly in the wake of the Red October Revolution. The majority of deputies wer not Bolsheviks, hence a Bolshevik affiliated militia simply kicked the whole lot out of the building. It never assembled again, giving the power to the Soviets. In this palace, too, I was once at a Pioneer function. Now, it’s a sort of headquarters of a sort of conglomeration of some former Soviet republics, called Commonwealth of Independent States.

Walking along Tauride Street, on the left is a famous at the beginning of the 20th century salon of the Silver Age literary elite, called The Tower. Most of its habitués later either emigrated or were sent to their maker for the sin of not figuring out that they had to emigrate. On the right, the Tauride Garden, whose alleys would become ice skating lanes in the winter. However, it was more famous for a crocodile from a children’s poem, who used to stroll there with his young sons called Totosha and Kokosha.

Turning right we pass the Suvorov Museum. One of the two huge mosaics on its wall depicts Russian troops under Alexander Suvorov’s command crossing the Alps in 1799, during the Napoleonic wars. 25 years ago we crossed the Alps in the same place, albeit with considerably more comfort and saw the monument to that military feat hewn out of a massive rock.

Parade Street continues our itinerary. Its name comes from the drill grounds of the oldest imperial guard regiment, Preobrazhensky, founded by Peter the Great. But our memories go back to the research institute where by a curious coincidence both our fathers had worked since way before my future wife and I met. My father brought me there a few times when I was five and showed me strange looking samples of rare metals he was studying. Astoundingly, the same institution, with the same sign and the same entrance lobby is still there. But my pre-school day care, conveniently located a few more steps down the street, is gone. The huge, beginning of the 20th century “Northern Moderne” building, in which it was located, is now a prestigious address. Across the street lies a small garden memorable for two events. One was hearing a new for me obscene word, which my more advanced elementary school classmate called me while on a field trip gathering leaves. I was naïve enough to ask the teacher what it meant. The other one, many years later, was a rendezvous with my former coworker, who only outdoors in the dead of winter could tell me that the KGB was questioning some people about my behavior and plans (I was indeed already planning to emigrate, but had not revealed my intentions to anybody, including him).

Boarding a trolleybus again, we are passing a small square next to my primary school that used to have a green patch in the middle. Now a massive almost completed building occupies this place. It’s a “restored” church after which the surrounding streets used to be named (1st Christmas Street through 10th Christmas Street). The church was demolished in the Soviet times and the streets were renamed (1st Soviet through 10th Soviet). The hallowed neighborhood place in those times was an apartment-museum on 10th Soviet Street, where Lenin once stayed. Stalin stayed there much more and wooed the host’s daughter – his future wife – but this was not advertised after his death in 1953 and the subsequent denunciation by Khrushchev. As one Internet wit noted, the most famous place where Lenin and Stalin were lying side by side for a time is the Mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow, but this is another lesser known such place. Now the definition of hallowed changed again. Residents of the block protested in vain the loss of a rare green space, but the official Orthodox Church has become the present government’s equivalent of the old party ideology department. As a result, churches big and small spring up like mushrooms all over the city.

Back in our central neighborhood in the evening, we visit some old haunts that have become official cultural heritage treasures. The Pyshechnaya, a donut shop opened 61 years ago, is now a must stop not just for the local devotees, but even for foreign tourists. It sells made on the premises special recipe donuts with tea or coffee. The donuts are small – you need at least four with a coffee cup – but they are only 18 rubles (30 cents) each. Incidentally, the café is located next to the former office for visas, where many were refused exit permits for years (but we were unexpectedly lucky to succeed on the first try). We ended the day having dinner with a friend at a book store. No ordinary store, it is the House of Books, an Art Nouveau fantasy, originally designed for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, but for a century now the temple of books. The café on the second floor is no sterile coffee corner of a Barnes & Noble either. Its huge semicircular window opens up on the Kazansky Cathedral across Nevsky Prospect, a classic monument modeled after St.Peter’s in Rome.

Brother, can you spare a bottle of vodka?

But the day had more than one nostalgic theme. The other one made a spicy counterpoint to visiting architectural wonders and childhood mementos. When I looked out the window in the morning, I saw a beach-like picture. Amid a pile of plastic bags and other belongings, next to a shopping cart, right by the curb separating a little garden from the pavement lay a man, taking advantage of a tanning opportunity in April at the 60th parallel. His shirtsleeves and pants were rolled up the better to catch the hot rays of the Alaska panhandle latitude sun. He seemed to be dozing away. The peaceful idyll was completed by a red flag, attached to the cart, with the order of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) on a black and yellow St.George ribbon pictured on it and a caption “May 9th”, the date when victory in the war is celebrated in Russia. When we returned in the middle of the day, the yard dweller was awake and very alert. Sizing us up on the fly, he made a compelling proposal in Russian. “Give me money,” he said, “and if you have any spare liquor in your apartment, bring it down and give it to me at once.” Knowing that we had neither spare nor non-spare liquor in our Airbnb flat, and being reluctant to start a contentious dialogue with an iffy character, we did not stop and did not turn heads. A few hours later we headed home again. This time, there was no diddle-daddling.  “Fuck you!” he announced in English, showing an admirable, though unexpected command of the 21st century’s lingua franca. Needless to say, it did not encourage more communication than before, as we walked stiffly by.

That was not, however, the end. At 10 in the evening, it was dusk in St. Petersburg, since the white nights were not quite there yet. Still, our court guardian recognized us instantly, as we were returning home for the night. And whether through research or miraculous enlightenment he now knew exactly who we were and what should be done to us. “Ah!” he screamed, “you, dirty kikes, you leave for Israel, then come back here with all the money and give yourself airs. Just wait, the time is coming when we will shoot you yet!” Waiting was the last thing on our minds, as we were only a few steps from the entrance to our entrance. Safely in the flat, we messaged our Airbnb hosts. Within 15 minutes, they, a father and a son, came over. Having heard the story they launched an animated debate whether to call the police. The son was for it, but the father hesitated. Nothing physical was done to us, he argued, just a verbal threat, which may not be enough for the police to bother. The need to undergo physical abuse as a prerequisite for intervention held limited appeal to us. Not having come to a decision, the hosts said they would think more about the next steps and left. 

I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a loud commotion in the courtyard. Our resident Cerberus was screaming and gesticulating animatedly to a much more reserved and calm person wearing what appeared to be a police uniform. “So, the hosts called the police, after all,” I thought. The strange conversation kept going and going, and I decided to go back to sleep: I had to go to the theater in the morning and take the giant props suitcase with me. On getting up next day, the view from the window was radically different. Two workers in red vests were gathering up the pile of belongings and hauling away the cart as well. Yesterday’s nuisance-maker was nowhere to be seen. A few more minutes and the roadway was clear. Talking to the host later, we thanked him for the help, but to our surprise, he said he had not called the police. It remains therefore a mystery, whether one of the neighbors made a call or the police discovered a problem on their own, possibly paying more attention to a central part of the city, highly visible to the tourists. Given the recent news about troubles for visiting Americans, we were, understandably, reluctant to deal with the police directly.

 
The Ghosthouse

In the morning it’s time to start cracking. With my huge props and wardrobe suitcase I trudge down from the third floor and ride across the city to Theater Ostrov (The Island),

which is indeed located on an island called Petrograd Side. But so is most of the city. (I happen to have been born on an island with the official name of Nameless.) The building, whose cellar the theater occupies, is, however, very special. Besides a street number it has a name – Benois House, after the three architects from one of the most illustrious families of Russian arts, who designed this striking example of the early 20th century Style Moderne. The edifice is so huge that it faces three different streets. It has a creepy history and an impressive list of celebrity residents. Some celebrities are more celebrated than others. Shostakovich wrote most of his 7th symphony here, when the city was under the German blockade, in which close to a million people perished.

Sergey Kirov, the city party chief and a potential Stalin’s rival, lived here and left the building for the last time on the way to Smolny to be assassinated there, an event that served to unleash the Great Purges of the 1930’s. The street bore his name for the next 57 years until the fall of the Soviet Union. His apartment is still a museum. Three more city chiefs, of which another Stalin’s rival Grigory Zinoviev was the most prominent, lived there and were executed in subsequent purges. It was not a lucky home for top Soviet honchos.

While their ghosts may still be hovering over the compound, the most visible establishments in the courtyard behind a row of polished granite Doric columns are about beauty: Juno (Yunona) School of Beauty (this is Juno the wife of Jupiter, though she lost the most famous beauty contest in history to Venus) and the more scientific-sounding Cosmetology Center Benois Medical Spa. As I snap photos, a burly man in black accosts me and demands to know why I am taking pictures, implying that it’s prohibited. This is a strong whiff of old Soviet times. He of course has no right to prohibit taking pictures of a residential building on a public street. Even under the Soviets there was a specific limited list of objects banned to photograph, like bridges and railroad stations. But I don’t want any confrontation. I explain that I am an actor invited to perform in the theater around the corner, and right now I am just killing time waiting for other actors to come and open the theater for rehearsals. Fortunately, he believes me and relents.

 
The Boheme

The fact is, I did come early when nobody was in yet and the door was still locked. Since it was several steps down from the street level, I put my bulky luggage next to it, and seeing that it was not visible from the sidewalk decided to explore the surroundings. Returning 15 minutes later I had a scare: no suitcase. But the door was now unlocked and whoever did it figured out that an itinerant performer had arrived, and pulled the suitcase in without checking with the bomb squad first. I come in too. Company veterans are starting to hang scenery – long pieces of cloth impersonating half-timbered English inns and castles. They know which of the many pieces, quite a few of them coming out of my suitcase, go where. Still, they have to work under the supervision of the theater manager, who knows the limitations of his stage machinery. The trickiest item is Herne’s Oak, the main attribute of the bacchanal and torture of poor Sir John Falstaff by cruel elves and fairies. It too is an agglomeration of hanging cloth pieces that need to be hidden until brought forward for the final scene. I am commandeered to take the delivery of a wooden bench, something we could not bring with us across the ocean, and then assemble it. It’s the most important furniture item, the centerpiece of several scenes, some very physical, and it should be sturdy, stable, and reliable.

I also need to prepare for my Garter Inn guest services. Not for nothing have I hauled trays and other tableware all the way from the cradle of the American Revolution to that of the Bolshevik one. My main task is to assure the delivery of copious amounts of Sherry to my most important customer, Sir John. Luckily, there is a well-equipped buffet at the theater. I produce the treasured potion, known as “burnt sack” in the times of the Bard, by brewing tea to the exact shade of color required (“no Earl Grey” – was a subtly menacing message from the good Sir). A hospitable lady buffet manager puts all her facilities at my disposal. I am also invited to choose anything I like from a collection of exquisitely delicious pastries on the counter to go with the surplus of “Sherry.” The ticket office lady and the theater manager stop by as well and pull up barstools. They and I are mutually exotic birds. The locals are very curious about how I got to America (it was so long ago, people here don’t know that history anymore), how American pensions work and what the amounts are (I feel free to give the figures, which stun them, but expenses also differ on two continents). In turn, the theater manager tells some of his story. His parents founded the theater just before the fall of the Soviet Union, almost 30 years ago. He grew up with the family business. The father died three years ago, the mother is now the artistic director (she came to check out our preparations and one of the performances), but the son is managing the enterprise day-to-day. He wishes he had left, probably for America, many years ago, but the theater business kept him anchored in Russia, and now he feels it’s too late.

The scenery finished, a general meeting of the cast and crew is called to discuss blocking and other logistics. Although treys, kettles and chandeliers arrived in our suitcases, one prop is missing. It was decided that carrying Sir John’s sword on the plane may not be a smart idea. Hence, it was arranged to borrow one from another local theater. But the company member, the jack of all trades (light, sound, logistics), who was responsible for procuring the sword is not here and neither is the sword. The discussion still proceeds – we need to designate all entrances and exits for each character in each scene – and the doors and paths here are different from those at the home stage. But all channels of communication – voice messages, texts, email – are tried to reach the sword bearer (I have most of the contact info), yet there is no response for the next tense couple of hours. Finally, a WhatsApp message from the wayward wizard of props shows up on my phone, and the long and busy first day rolls to an end.

The next day is a whirlwind of rehearsals, runs-through, voice warmups, and more runs-through. And lest we become too relaxed while prepping for the evening performance, a wardrobe maladventure is threatening the integrity of the production. The suitcase with the costume of Master Ford and some other pieces of clothing, mishandled in New York, but presumably now on its way, has not arrived yet. A deputation is sent to the nearby studio Lenfilm, famous for its Shakespearean adaptations (Sir Laurence Olivier said their 1964 Hamlet was the best he had seen). The hope is, their wardrobe department might have a suitable Elizabethan outfit for rent (as it is, they don’t have anything comparable to match the opulence of our other costumes; our theater leader had created them herself based on renaissance models from a museum in England). To a huge sigh of relief the luggage is delivered just two hours before the curtain.

It’s All a Stage

Except there is no curtain in this theater. It’s only our half-timbered hanging fabric that allows dramatis personae to be hidden or exposed, as needed, thanks to the clever blocking. Still, it’s the nominal “curtain” time. We retreat into the actors’ quarters, while the audience takes over the front of the theater, the buffet, and the auditorium. This evening, about a dozen of my high school classmates are expected to watch the performance. That does nothing to relieve the pressure. In addition, I, being a newbie in the cast, don’t yet have the sequence of scenes and the details of the start and finish of each one in my muscle memory, like the veterans apparently do. And I am in 14 out of 17 scenes. To cope, I have created a cheat sheet. For each scene I have described when, where, and how I enter and exit, with whom, what I carry, and other such sundry tips. Fortunately, my strawberry red embroidered in gold Shakespearean britches have pockets, from which I pull out and study my crib every moment I am not in front of the dark void beyond the edge of the stage.

Miraculously, I pull through all 14 scenes to the grand finale, with requisite song and dance, without much of a hitch. After the last bows, fraternization with the public begins. In my case it’s classmateization. People who last knew me decades ago as a math geek (which most of us were in our math and science school) now take pictures with a budding thespian in archaic getup. They have an advantage: they know who I am, while I need an introduction to recognize most of them.

The scene repeats the following evening, except this time my college classmates watch the performance. I have a chance to see them briefly before the show. We meet at a café near the theater, called “Happiness.” The most celebrated classmate is expected to show up any minute. He is the busy dean of a big faculty in our common alma mater. His main claim to fame is the training system of student teams who frequently win International Programming Olympiads. During our last visit in 2004 he proudly showed us Sun Microsystems workstations donated to his department by the oligarch Khodorkovsky (already jailed on trumped-up charges by the Russian Government, but eventually released). The workstations were not, however, used for their computing power, but as dumb terminals for student tests. A Big Character poster on the wall of his office announced: “Why go to MIT? Come to us – we are number one!” That year, the college student team had again become champions and was congratulated on TV by President Putin himself, who admonished the young geniuses to employ their talents for the benefit of the motherland. Immediately after, the news anchor reported that three out of four team members had already accepted positions with western companies. That was back when there still were independent TV stations.

This time the big man on campus is running late. I can’t wait any longer and have to rush to my place of work to get ready for the performance. Hence, unlike the characters of John le Carré, we don’t meet this time. Ironically, le Carré made his Russian dissident genius an alumnus of my alma mater. It tickled me no end when in the film Sean Connery hears Michelle Pfeiffer (his Russian connection and love interest) explain what the abbreviation of my college’s name stands for. It may have been the school’s star turn, but of course, Putin’s stamp of approval trumps that.  (Le Carré responded to my question about his choice of university: he did not want to use a famous “Russian ivy,” but rather a strong second tier technical school. A Russian friend of his recommended this one.) 

The Lions of Presidential Lyceum #239

The stage rush over, we have some time left to see the city. We can’t resist revisiting its greatest hits – the necklace of central squares and the river Neva embankment. But my number one goal is the palace, which my high school occupied in the middle of the last century. It’s a 200-year old princely mansion with an Ionic portico and a pair of marble guardian lions by the entrance, sculpted in Italy. So prominent was it that Pushkin notes “the new building” with “life-like” lions in his most celebrated poem “The Bronze Horseman.” He also has his going insane from grief hero mount one of the lions for a joust with the monument to Peter the Great on his bronze horse. In the early 1960’s, the school was evicted in favor of an organization with better connections in Moscow. In 2004 those occupants were evicted as well, and the whole building including the lions was wrapped in white top to bottom, Christo style, and thus invisible. Christo, however, had nothing to do with it. It was the hand of Putin, who pays particular attention to his native city. He simply ordered the building to be converted to government offices. That plan was later shelved and today it’s the luxury hotel “Lion Palace,” intended initially for hosting participants of G8 summits. Best plans can be derailed – G8 has been downsized to G7 (minus Russia) – and the hotel is now simply one of the jewels of the Four Seasons Hotels group.

I also have a burning question. Legend has it that during the German blockade of the city in 1941-44, the marble tail of one of the lions broke off, was picked up and saved till the end of the war by an old lady custodian, and was later attached back to the beast’s rump. I want to know which of the two lions was thus rehabilitated. But I see that both tails have clear junction lines with the lions’ backs and the pediments. Apparently, Maestro Paolo Triscorni did not risk sculpting a tail from the same piece of Carrara marble as the rest of the lion. Hence, either tail could have broken off along the joints. The enigma remains unsolved. I dearly wish I could mount a lion, like Pushkin’s hero or indeed we ourselves did ages ago, but I fear a man of advanced age climbing a life size lion by the busy entrance to a posh hotel might be misunderstood. The school has been in a different place for many years now and has been granted the exalted title of Presidential Lyceum. It serves as a feeder for those programming teams that win championships, meet Putin, and then go off to make a buck.

In the evening, it’s class reunion time. We walk to it along the street, where, as a poet wrote, “Dostoevsky still wanders” in spirit, if not in flesh. But I marvel at the street signs, which in the center of the city are now spelled in both Russian and English. The spelling of this one is a killer – Razyezzhaya. A more pronounceable, for non-locals, Dostoyevsky Street intersects with it near our destination. The reunion site is Khinkalnaya-Khachapurnaya, a bistro named after its mainstay Georgian dumplings and pies. Once, there was only one Georgian restaurant in the city called Caucasian – synonymous with decadent indulgence. I doubt I went there more than one time in my life. Now there is a khinkalnaya in every neighborhood. Sixteen people, 40% of the class, are already gathered around a long table. A good turnout, especially considering that six others had departed for a more permanent reunion and a similar number moved far away. As Pushkin said, loosely quoting Saadi, some are already gone, while others – distant.

The table is packed tightly and there is no room in the rest of the place to schmooze and talk more intimately one on one. I suggest that we go around and hear a few words from everyone about where they are in life. I start the chain by explaining how I ended up on such an unlikely voyage. People stand up and introduce themselves, which helps me connect them to faded images from memory. Some are simply happy to be retired. Some enjoy family and grandchildren. Some still work – at non-profits or continue a love affair with physics and mathematics. For one, the most important fact of life is that his son has a BMW. Another proudly states that his children make oodles of money. One scion of a professorial family is a scholar of poetic theory and a new utterly loose approach to poetry translation. There is a world class master of orienteering, the most popular sport in our school days. One man at the end of the table is reluctant to stand up and speak. When he does, he vaguely mentions work editing some journals, but he sounds embittered. He quietly disappears later halfway through the reunion. It occurs to me that he was probably bitter in the school days as well, overshadowed by larger personalities. Apparently, high school is not over yet.

But the reunion is over and we rush to the next event, a banquet with the theater folks. It’s also in a Caucasian restaurant, but Azerbaijani rather than Georgian, appropriately called Baku. It’s on a luxury side, several notches above the casual Khinkalnaya. The amazing thing is, we have been there once before – 45 years ago at a wedding. Some establishments are really durable, though the management has certainly changed (somebody whispers that they are actually Chechen). No need for introductions at this feast. The real surprise and pièce de résistance is a dish that surely was not served back in the USSR – the flaming pilaf. It’s a sizeable globe of sticky rice with a burner on top. The waiter lifts the burner, theatrically cuts the globe, which opens its petals, like a lotus flower, revealing a juicy bounty of lamb and fruit. Unlike on stage, real Sherry is served at the request of “Sir John.”

“Which millennium are we in, my dears?” (Boris Pasternak)

On the last day, old friends take us to see a new marvel – a shiny spire-like skyscraper on the Gulf of Finland called the Lakhta Center, the intended headquarters of the all-powerful government-owned oil and natural gas monopoly Gazprom. It is the tallest building in Europe and it’s truly striking, especially against the background of the historically low-rise city. It was originally going to be in Okhta, not Lakhta, that is in the neighborhood much closer to the city center. But in a rare victory for a grassroots protest movement, the mighty Gazprom had to retreat. The protesters did not want a giant tower to ruin the famous UNESCO-recognized skyline. The building’s new location is in the distant Seaside Administrative District, yet it is visible from many faraway city points. I did not find its presence very jarring. The notorious internet troll factory is also nearby, but as a tourist attraction it is not particularly impressive.

As we walk with friends, we talk, catching up on random topics. These are people, whose mentality and views on the current situation are similar to ours. Still some things surprise us. They for instance don’t dismiss the possibility that the current person presented as Putin is in fact some sort of double, whereas the fate of the original Putin is unknown. Conspiracy theories apparently thrive even among the level-headed. (Upon return I read a Yeltsin-era novel by a popular absurdist-surrealist writer Pelevin, in which the neo-Russian world is manipulated by a mysterious supercomputer-wielding cabal that digitally generates images of all public figures, including Yeltsin. Their computers are provided by a cutting edge American company Silicon Graphics. Maybe that’s the source of some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories.)

Time to head back to Boston. At baggage control in Zurich, we are stopped to examine a suspicious item in one of our carry-on bags. It’s a crystal bowl, a present one cousin was unable to give us at our wedding 47 years ago, but preserved and handed it to us now. The cousin and her husband live in the same small apartment as 50 or 60 years ago in what was then a new high-rise residential development. It is still standing but visibly much the worse for the wear. That is why when a wine glass taken from a cabinet to celebrate our reunion was dropped on the floor, a memory synapse was triggered, the bowl was retrieved from its never changed storage drawer and triumphantly presented to us. Just one more reason the trip was a smashing success. We are cleared to go home. 

A few days after our departure comes Russia’s WWII Victory day. One of my classmates posts a breathless report about a suburban celebration at which kids get ice cream, adults – military-style porridge from a battlefield kitchen, and everybody has a chance to learn how to assemble and disassemble an automatic rifle. To my tongue-in-cheek question whether this is training for a future People’s Militia, he super seriously responds that the US just announced a plan of a nuclear strike on Russia from Europe and hence not being prepared would not be right, though admittedly, just rifles would be of little help. A nuclear rocket launch disaster in the Russian Arctic three months later confirmed that rifle assembly is indeed not the only area of preparation. Plus ça change…

P.S. Three years later we know now what the country and its population were being prepared and brainwashed for.

* Here is the exact response of John le Carré to my question about his Russian genius hero.

‘I simply asked a Russian friend for a good middle-ranking technical
college, rather than an obvious ivy-league one, and the LITMO was what he
came up with. Simple as that! Sorry I can’t supply a more interesting
answer, but thanks a lot for taking such a close interest in my work.’

John le Carré