White nights, white vodka

Life is one long hangover interspersed with strangeness, women, literature and art as LEON DE KOCK spends two-weeks-going-on-five-years in St Petersburg

IF EXTREME latitudes affect behaviour, then the sharply northern location of St Petersburg, Russia’s great grande dame of a city, may account for the high temper of the place.

During the two-month period of white nights, when it almost never gets dark but seldom gets properly light either, the photo-sensitive human mind kicks into a lateral level of consciousness and the city enters a period of spiralling madness.

Essentially, it works like this: you start drinking, either beer or vodka or both, somewhere in the afternoon, or earlier if your hangover is large and serious. Which it often is. The vodka hangovers feel like an assassin’s bullet that entered the temple at an angle of 45 degrees.

After several hours of recovery drinking, you realise that although the light outside is redolent of a greyish 5pm twilight, it’s been like that for what feels like nine hours.

That’s when you go off to a restaurant and spend another eight hours drinking, eating and talking. The conversation shifts from literature to men, women and sex. When you eventually leave, the light outside tells you it’s still 5pm. And the mind does funny things to you under such conditions: it tells you to go back to the pub. If your own mind doesn’t tell you this, the mind of one of your companions will.

At some incredibly near-but-far moment in the future, another several hours later, you stumble back out into the light and — sure enough — it’s still 5pm outside.

When your head eventually crashes onto the hard Russian pillow, you don’t sleep. You enter the collective unconscious. And then, three or four hours later, when you’re rudely woken up by noise and light that looks like, well, 5pm, you finally feel the Russian bullet. It’s a killer. Grandpa headache powders have met their match.

But there are many more respects in which the drunken city of St Petersburg comes at a loose-vowelled, flat-earth South African with the force of considerable strangeness.

St Petersburg combines neo-classical architectural pomposity — a huge amount of it — with churches, palaces and other shrines to aristocracy which are of an extreme order of the baroque. Strikingly overdone in the beauty department.

Then it throws streets at you impelled by killer-drivers, sidewalks so grimy and wetly potholed, so full of striding humanity, that you end up dancing. And you’re lost, in more senses than one. And all around you there is a decaying closeness of matter, and an enclosing, thrusting awareness of human ferocity that makes one thing plain: this is a place of high temperament.

A Russian told me that Americans who spend 12 months in Russia end up ageing by 10 years. In my two weeks of teaching (ha!) in St Petersburg, I think I aged by five years at least. The dimples around my mouth very quickly became bags. I contemplated suicide at least once.

It’s that kind of a place.

Whatever’s inside you will be exposed — to yourself. It’s not the kind of city that lets you get away with all those working alibis, all those lies we tell ourselves about why we’re doing what we’re doing, which is, essentially, not what we should be doing but what we do for now because we have to, for the time being, because . . .

. . . oh no, that won’t do in a city as ferociously fat-stripping as St Petersburg. All the young women — or 95% of them at least — are as sleek and svelte as cats in the dark, and dress like porn-star auditioneers, showing as much belly, ass, crotch, feet, bosom and varnished fingers and toes as possible, and as outrageously as possible, without actually taking their clothes right off, right there in the street.

Try proposing some standard feminism to them, about the “patriarchal order” or some similar gender-studies cliché, and they will simply laugh at you. Or wrinkle their beguiling brows. They like feeling beautiful. They trade on the adoration of men. St Petersburg is the nightmare, the ultimate horror, for the flat-footed gender-meddlers of the Western world.

This is no mere digression from the topic sentence — although severe digression, followed by severe depression, is something else that happens a lot in Russia. It serves to illustrate the point . . . what point? Another vodka please . . .

. . . it serves to illustrate the point that illusions, like the few, carefully selected items of clothing on St Petersburg women, get stripped fast. And the women of St Petersburg, knowing that they outnumber the men by a factor of anywhere between five and 20 (depending on who you ask), go to the heart of the matter.

If they’re not married by the age of 25, they are destined to remain in the clammy apartment with family, usually with mother and siblings, where — for the other nine months of the year — life is cold, dark, pinched, sickly and close.

So, during the tilted summer twilight, the never-never time when humid and cloudy days run into each other with no dividing mark, like spilt light that cannot be held in any known structure, people go out there and grab what they can.

There are swarms of people on the streets. Walking down the more spacious sidewalks of the Nevsky Prospekt, where the Church of the Spilt Blood of Christ and the Kazan Cathedral loom at you, along with other instances of forbidding antiquity, you find yourself striding. A lot. Nervously.

Because it’s not safe. There are bands of gypsies who will swat in and around your space, take your dollars away in a matter of seconds and leave you with a knife-stripped bag. Late at “night” — say 3am when it finally gets a little less light — policemen will stop you, especially if you walk alone, and harass you until you part with several hundred roubles.

If you open your mouth and let English spill out, the response you get is a narrowing of the eyes, a darkening of the Russian brows. “Nyet!” or “Just leetle”, (with a gesture of thumb and index finger almost touching) is the answer you get when you stupidly, helplessly ask the question about whether they can speak English.

It’s so obviously a stupid question. English is so obviously a stupid language. It so clearly lacks Russian verve, the high temper that sweeps aside the silly, padding politeness in which the English temperament so circumlocutiously indulges. English is such a waste of time when Russian can be had. It’s like eating strawberries when there’s caviar. Drinking lugubrious gin when there’s the silver bullet of vodka.

But the Russia of St Petersburg is no Switzerland, nothing like the chocolate-box, ain’t-it-dainty feeling you get when you finally make it to the safety of Zurich or Geneva, where the common people don’t regard English like a fleck of shit on the toilet seat, and where the world doesn’t close in on you quite so menacingly.

No, the Russian world — and its language — is one of great and multiple intensities. Great, multiple and intense histories of suffering. The very city of St Petersburg was built on the death of multitudes of serfs, who were commanded by Peter the Great to clear, with their bare hands, the swamp on which St Petersburg now stands.

The story goes that the serfs — executing a grandiose vision of aesthetic beauty lodged in the dreamy head of the king — carried the swamp mud away in the folds of their shirts. They suffered in the bitterly damp cold, they became inflamed with fever, their skin cracked. They died like flies.

For many hundreds of thousands of people, across several different epochs of political manipulation, not to die in Russia has meant having to endure the agony of consciousness. Of being awake in a world that is dark, heavy and hungry.

Few writers capture this essentially Russian flavour of suffering as strongly as Dostoevsky, who the Western world has turned into an even greater Russian writer by translating him, endlessly writing about him and ceaselessly valorising his work. But Dostoevsky’s tortured and twisted characters, the most famous example being Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov, are less happily entertained by the Russians themselves.

Real Russians think Pushkin a greater luminary, and herein lies a moral. Pushkin, I was told by Russian-American writer Mikhail Iossel, is all soufflé. The content matters less than in Dostoevsky’s bitter gruel of fiction. It’s Pushkin’s beautiful rhyming patterns and his beguilingly charming tales of love and disappointment (such as in the famous verse novel, Eugene Onegin), which endear him more to the Russians. Ordinary Russians have enough desperation without also having to read Dostoevsky.

The Dostoevsky-Pushkin parallel is informative. Go out into the streets of St Petersburg and you see a coexistence of rich and poor, ugly and beautiful, wretched and sublime so pronounced that it makes even South Africa’s “disparities” pale by comparison.

South Africa may have the Kruger Park, but St Petersburg has the Hermitage, just to begin with, where you will walk through roomfuls of Picasso originals, alongside works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir, Monet, Matisse . . . the list is endless. The Hermitage is approximately 23km long in terms of floorspace, the guidebook tells you, and it would take you 14 years to see all the treasures of human art and civilisation kept in this former palace of the czars — that is, if you spent a minute before each exhibit.

OK, OK, but now try getting in there. It takes at least an hour. That’s when you discover the more Dostoevskian side of the Russian world. That’s when you encounter the phenomenon of a Russian queue. Well, “queue” is not quite the word. “Queue” suggests a line of sorts.

In Russia you don’t queue, you wrestle with your elbows, backside and legs. You take possession of enough space in the “queue” — and this means 360-degree space — to make sure no one can push in past or around you. And you do all this in a menacing, hard-but-restrained-breathing sort of silence. With great dignity and that high, northern temper.

Going in there, as I initially did, with vowel-swallowing South African politeness and quasi-chivalrous intent, gets you down on yourself very fast. Because you get walked over in a matter of seconds. That’s when you learn to do things the Russian way.

For example, at the airport, going home — when I was about to embark on another suicidal trip on another fifth-hand Pulkovia Boeing 707 — a security official roughly informed me that he was compelled by international regulations to confiscate the Swiss Army knife I had bought for my son. He said this while lovingly inspecting the brand-new knife, opening out its silver array of points and angles with a hard gleam in his eye.

That’s when I finally learned how to become Russian. I threw a loud scene. I gesticulated with arms and hands. I refused to move. I held up the queue and would not let up arguing.

The Russian security machine began to panic. They called for various supervisors. With the arrival of each new manager, I became ever-more obstinate. I made statements about the inalienable rights of property and the violation of theft. I could see they were starting to sweat.

Eventually the security official himself overruled his superiors, who were standing around in a frenzy of indecision. “Here, here, take it,” he said, gesturing with the hard side of his hand and thereby contradicting everything all of them had been saying to me about international onboard safety regulations.

I didn’t argue. I took what I could get and made off with it. That’s Russia for you.