St. Petersburg days

( Russia, 1990s )

( ‘Smolny’ by Mikhail Timokhin )

“It is so nice of you to bring me some chocolate. All the other guys are running around town to get some potatoes and bread to feed their sweethearts.” I did not have a sweet tooth and was too busy for flirting anyway. But chocolate kept arriving at my doorstep, together with my uninvited admirer Ivan.

“An advent of a new economic system in Russia has seen a blossoming of get-rich-quick schemes that have turned out to be get-poor-quick schemes. About 200,000 St. Petersburg citizens have been burned by companies promising large profits, cheap cars and other benefits. Unemployment has climbed to about 9% of the work force, not counting thousands of workers on involuntary, unpaid leave or shortened workweeks. Or paid with  the products  of their hard labour.  Fancy getting a hundred  of toothbrushes as your monthly wages.”

( from   “The St. Petersburg Times” )

( by Stringer-RUS )

A sharp aroma of perestroika woke me up early in the morning. I rushed to the toilet. Here it was – another blockage. The loo was overflowing with sewage sipping on the floor and slowly creeping towards my feet.
“Emergency services? I need a plumber urgently.”
“Do you have a male at home?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Then find one in your neighbourhood.” The guy on the other end put the phone down. I dialed Ivan’s number.
“Ivan, I need a male right now.”
“That sounds sexy.”
“That looks even sexier.”
“My blood is getting hot.”
“It will get even hotter here.”
“I’m on my way.”
“Don’t forget your tools.”
“My tools are always with me.”
“And a bucket.”
“A bucket? …”
Ivan appeared in ten minutes and started unblocking the pipe, accompanied by my happy chattering.
“What is your favourite food? Fried Bush’s legs with some rice would be nice.” People used to call cheap chicken thighs imported from USA “Bush’s legs” after the famous George Bush senior. In the Great Patriotic War it was Roosevelt’s eggs – powdered eggs from America, with spam.
“One more word about food and you’ll be splashing in the loo yourself, Miss Chatterbox.”
“All right, all right. How about some Shakespear then?
    “If music be the food of love, play on,
    Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
    The appetite may sicken and so die.
    That strain again! It had a dying fall;
    O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
    That breathes upon a bank of violets,
    Stealing and giving odour! Enough no more.”
“No more!!!” Ivan did not seem to share my passion for Shakespeare either.
A few days later my computer crashed, then washing machine, TV – the list kept growing by the day.

“There are 80,000 homeless youngsters living on their wits in St. Petersburg. Penny-pinching Swiss businessmen have rated this city more expensive to live in than New York or London in a worldwide poll of the cost of living.”

( from   “The St. Petersburg Times” )

( ‘a beggar’ by Anatoly Lijasov )

Ivan opened the door of his family’s apartment and a big dog jumped on me.
“Sit, Rex, Sit.”
Rex ignored Ivan and started licking make-up off my face. Suddenly I felt something wet on my legs.
“Oh no, Rex. Stop it.” Rex could not resist and happily pissed all over me.
“Welcome to my place,” Ivan laughed.

He lived in a small cramped apartment with his mum, a younger brother and four dogs that they had rescued from a miserable homeless life on cold St. Petersburg’s streets. I felt sometimes like one of those dogs sheltered by Ivan. 

I carefully sneaked into Ivan’s room. His room looked more like a garage, with tools, nails, wheels, and drills scatters all over the place. I looked under the bed.
“What’s that?’
“My motorbike.”
“Gosh, it looks so old. An antique dealer might pay you a fortune for it.”
“It is running. I have a moped in the wardrobe as well.”
“You are kidding.”
I opened his wardrobe – sure enough, an old moped was neatly packed inside.
“I’m starving. Can I raid your kitchen.”
I rushed to the kitchen and opened the fridge. It was full of emptiness and stink.
“What’s that?” I asked, pinching my nose.
“Well, my mum is into urine-therapy, you know?”
“Urine what?”

 Nothing could surprise me in Russia now.  Only yesterday three men were arrested for trying to sell weapons-grade uranium-235 they had been keeping in glass jars in their refrigerator. At least urine was legal. Besides urine therapy was in fashion. It was cheaper than conventional medicine I guess. No reported side effects, once you get used to it. I shut the fridge.

 “Would you like some soup?” Ivan pointed at the big pot on the stove.
“Anything eatable will do me.”
I grabbed my plate of soup and opened the microwave. There was a pair of old socks inside.
“What’s that, Ivan?”
“My socks.”
“I see, but what are they doing in the microwave?”
“Microwaves are good for drying socks, didn’t you know?”
I did not have a microwave, so trusted his opinion. We had some soup. Next day Ivan phoned to say sorry for feeding me with dog’s soup.
“Are not your dogs lucky to be served such a yummy soup. There was even a big piece of meat in it…”

“The city’s prison for juveniles was so short of funds that it could no longer feed its inmates and was appealing to parents for help.  Public hospitals require patients to provide their own bed linen, food and medication.”

( from   “The St. Petersburg Times” )

( by Igor Goldberg )

Loaded with groceries, I came to my brick skyscraper. The elevator, like always, was out of service. I was counting the steps to my 13th floor:
“132,133,134 – oh, shit.” The staircase was very filthy, with excrements and piss in every corner. It was a pity I did not have a torch.

“City elevator engineers reported that 7,000 elevators a year are being stripped of valuable metals such as bronze and copper. At any one time, 400 are out of service as a consequence.”

( from   “The St. Petersburg Times” )

( ‘Old house’ by Daiquiri )

Ivan was ‘bombing’ at night. In the local slang it meant earning cash by giving people a lift around town. A sort of private taxi service. That was Ivan’s only income, as well as the main source of income for thousands of other motorists. A very dangerous trade, especially at night time. Quite a few of our friends already had near misses.

“Do you really need to go ‘bomobing’at night?” I usually pleaded. “Please, don’t. We’ll get through without that or take a mate with you at least. What I’m to do on this planet if something happens to you? I want you to live.” But the competition during the day was way to intense – night shifts were bringing a more decent income.

That day Ivan returned from ‘bombing’ earlier than usual.
“Guess what. I gave a lift to a young lady with shoes from Gucci and a ‘loin-cloth’ (commonly known as a mini-skirt) from Vercace.”
“So what?”
“I took her across the whole city, wasted heaps of petrol. She offered to pay me with her body. She didn’t have cash, you see.”
“Well, that sounds hot. Was it worth the wasted petrol?”
“You are kidding. She must have paid so many times by now, that she surely deserved a free ride.”
“Never thought you’d be interested in charity work,” I started giggling.
“But wait. She was too proud to be a free rider, so she tried to insist on paying. It was not easy to kick her out of the car. I feel like taking a shower after such a “romantic encounter”.”
“Feel free to use one at my place.”
“Do you have any disinfectant, by the way?”
“I might have some chlorine.”
“Would you mind disinfecting my car?”
“You are too fastidious, Ivan!!!”

“According to the latest poll, men wanted more sex, while women wanted more bread.”

( from   “The St. Petersburg Times” )


( by Gunpowder )

Ivan invited all of us to a party.
“What are we celebrating?”
“Come and see.”
When we all gathered at his place, Ivan got out a Diploma.
“I’ve got my first Bachelor degree.”
“Bachelor of what?” I did not know he was attending University.
“Bachelor of Sex Arts.”
“What you have heard.”
I grabbed the Diploma. It looked genuine with lots of stamps and signatures issued by the School of Sex Arts.
“What have you learned there I wonder?” I felt really puzzled.
“Well, you know, different styles and techniques…”
“Whom did you practice with, may I ask?”
A smile faded from Ivan’s face, while my friend Victoria and her fiance Alex were slowly sliding under the table, chocking with laughter.
“You didn’t seriously believe all of this?”
I promised not to talk to Ivan ever after. I even managed to keep my promise for the whole two and a half minutes.

“A popular Soviet-era slogan about the police in the 1920s declared: “My police are there to protect me.” Now, six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many city residents thought of the police as those same criminal elements they wanted to avoid. City residents who wished to report crimes often found they were met with a wall of indifference and hostility. Others who were stopped for document checks or pulled over by traffic police at random found that the encounter could cost them a bribe – and sometimes even a hospital bill.”

( from   “The St. Petersburg Times” )

( by Mikhail Zeleny )

We were stopped by police on the way to Victoria’s dacha. Luckily Ivan got Warrant of Fitness for his car the day before. He still had all the necessary gear in the car. Even his hand-brake was fixed and seat-belts were in order, wich was quite unusual for most cars in Russia at that time.  Desperate for cash, the diligent policeman asked Ivan to show his first-aid kit. Every car should have one, you see. After a long search in the box full of bandages, syringes and medications, the policeman’s face lit up.
“What about a condom?”
“A condom for first aid? You must be kidding!”
“According to the latest directive, there should be a condom in the First Aid kit.”
The well-prepared policeman got the latest directive out of his pocket. We all started digging in our purses and pockets in search of cash.

At last we got to Victoria’s dacha – a little 600-square-meter block of land with a log-cabin and a small garden. I started feeling dizzy. Not surprising, since the air in the countryside was almost 50 times cleaner than the air in the city. By the time we finished digging Victoria’s potatoes and picking her apples, it got dark. We quickly packed everything in the car and went to sleep. I was woken up by the sound of rain tap dancing on the tin roof.
“Ivan, what are you doing?’
“What?” Ivan jumped up on his bench.
“Isn’t it pleasant to listen to the sound of rain?”
“What time is it now?” Ivan tried to find a torch. “Damn, it’s only 3 am!!!”
He didn’t seem to share my passion for rain dancing on the roof.

A week later I was invited to the theatre. Don’t remember the name of the play. Something about a husband, a lover and a blonde girl: usual set up. The lover was supposed to kill the husband, or vice versa, who cares. Eventually, however, they both killed this poor blonde. She had a habit of waking them up at 3 a.m., asking the same question: “What are you thinking about, my darling?” I did not get the hint. I was not even blonde, you see.

“America’s “Rescue 911″ has ridden a wave of popularity.  Inspired by its success, local authorities have decided to add the three-digit distress call 911 to the local roster of emergency numbers. Unfortunately, changing a telephone number did not mean the Americans will show up and save the day on they fast roaring police cars. Try doing that in an old rusted Lada – you can practically outrun them on foot.”

( from   “The St. Petersburg Times” )

( by Choga )

I was standing in front of the mirror, when Ivan came for a visit.
“What are you doing?”
“Practicing self-defense swearing. Even got a dictionary of swearing words.” I pointed at the big book on the desk.
“Impressive. Never thought that our native language is so colourful and rich.”
“Do I look convincing?” I asked, continuing my practice.
“Mmm, it might help if you put your hat on.”
“Your ears blush.”

“Braving blizzard-like conditions, nearly 110,000 angry demonstrators took to the streets in St. Petersburg as part of a Russia-wide protest against a grinding crisis in federal wage arrears, where monthly salaries of $50 dollars were routinely delayed for periods as long as five months.”

( from   “The St. Petersburg Times” )

Still looking for a job.  At last got an offer to be a secretary in a small office next door to my University. Three days later got ‘promotion’ – from the secretary to a secretute. ‘Secretute’ in modern slang meant a cross between a ‘secretary’ and a ‘prostitute’ – essential for ‘smoothing’ contracts, you see. Why bother with my Masters degree? A page of Kama Sutra would do the trick. I left without pay.

“St. Petersburg metro officials morbidly announced that they had fulfilled their yearly average of deaths on subway tracks in just the past 12 days after a string of 3 unexplained fatal passenger accidents. They also offered a bit of practical advice to anyone contemplating suicide in front of trains, which was often chosen as a means of self-inflicted death. “We would not recommend suicide to anyone on the metro’s rails. If it is urgent, jumping from a tall building is better.”

( from   “The St. Petersburg Times” )

( by Vladimir Ivanov )

I never understood why people could be so inconsiderate to others when they wanted to finish their lives. I kept a box of sleeping pills instead. I was in one of such ‘sleepy’ moods when Ivan came for a visit.
“Hey, it is the middle of the day. Why are you still in bed? Are you unwell?”
“I’m fine.”
“What are you doing tonight?”
“What about tomorrow.”
I had a holiday break from Uni.
“OK then. Get organized. I’ll wait for you in the car.”
“I’m sleeping. Bye.”
Ivan did not wait long. He wrapped me in the duvet and dragged me to his car. My protests were not heard. Six hours later we were at his ‘countryside estate’. His family used to own the whole village there a century ago. Now they had a tiny room in an old hut with rusted roof, rotten walls, and bullet-holes in the windows. There was a smallish garden as well. Ivan got a spade and a wheelbarrow.
“Ok. We need to get some natural fertilizer for the garden. Horse manure is better, but cow’s will be fine.” For the next couple of hours I was cheerfully running around the field looking for manure. Soon our wheel-barrow was full and we happily trotted home. Life can’t be all shit when you are collecting it!!!

The End

* * *

“How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event – tidal wave from a ripple – is cause for endless astonishment…

First, a piece of news about something said or done travels quickly, more so than usual, because it is uniquely apt; it fits a half-conscious mood or caps a situation… On impulse, perhaps to snap the tension, somebosy shouts in church, throws a stone through a window, which provokes a fight… As further news spread, various types of people become aroused for or against the thing now upsetting everybody’s daily life. But what is that thing? Concretely; ardent youths full of hope as they catch the drift of the idea, rowdies looking for fun, and characters with a grudge. Cranks and tolerated lunatics come out of houses, criminals out of hideouts and all assert themselves.

Manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal, inkeeping with the rest of the excitement, buildings defaced, images destroyed, shops looted… Angry debates multiply about things long since settled: talk of free love, of priests marrying and monks breaking their vows, of property and wives in common, of sweeping out all evils, all corruption, all at once – all things new for a blissful life on earth…

Voices grow shrill, parties form and adopt names or are tagged with them in derision and contempt. Again and again comes the shock of broken friendships, broken families.”

(from “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of Western Cultural Life”
by Jacques Barzun )

Musée du Louvre, Paris

5 thoughts on “St. Petersburg days

  1. Two of my daughters grew up in St. Petersburg departing in 1997. The younger reminisced fondly until she returned years later. The Russians are a people made of good stuff. And out of the furnace of these tough times, i pray that they will emerge from its flames prosperous and free.

    • Otrazhenie says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Larry. There are lots of wonderful people in Russia. I left in 1999 and have never been back, though I do have relatives and friends there. What did your younger daughter feel when shereturned to St.Petersburg years later?

      • It’s hard to go back. When your a preteen your world is fairly protected. On her return she had mixed feelings. Glad to see that her friends were doing okay. But way too much poverty.

      • Otrazhenie says:

        If it was just poverty, I could live with that. I hated most of all unfairness, lawlessness, corruption, helplessness.

        Russia is a beautiful country with lots of wonderful people. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we tried there to build a more fair society, we never got far. No matter who is in power there, the power always gets concentrated in the hands of a few, without constraints, checks and balances or “rule of law”. Economic institutions are then structured by this elite to extract resources from the rest of the society, keeping the majority of people in poverty. I wrote a brief post on that at Very sad 😦

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