Vodka Toasts to the Past
Irene and I both knew what a rare opportunity this invitation was but showed up without expectations. We arrived by cab to find an unkempt gray complex with a dark crumbling staircase that seemed typical of public dwellings here, left over from Soviet days when the state assigned people a home. Its location, less than a mile from the fortress of Peter the Great, implied that Natalia was better off than the average local citizen.
The rooms were tiny as expected. Her husband was also tiny but unexpected, because I had been told he was rarely around. She introduced us and immediately began to point out her wall of photos of relatives, all in military uniform; all from the "Great War" that is still a preoccupation in the minds of older Russians.
The apartment told me more about her life than she did, small and spare; the only decorations being photos of relatives and plastic flowers. The credenza, aside from the enormous television that seemed an altar to Perestroika, was filled with books on Russian history and photos of her husband with various people unknown to me. Tiny figurines of Lenin, and Yuri Gegarin, sat next to a line of American movie DVD's.
From the window I looked over the bleak gray neighborhoods created under Lenin and Stalin, at the towering golden spire of Peter's fortress, a constant reminder of the divided classes.
She seated us on the sofa in front of the gigantic LG screen and proceeded to show Irene a photo album of her boarders from around the world, obviously a source of great pride to her. Her husband, who spoke only a few words of English, then popped in a DVD and we spent the next half hour watching endless expanses of ice and barren ocean: it was a personal video of his former work as an engineer on a Soviet ice breaker in the far north. The one entertaining moment came when it showed crew members tossing cans of condensed milk to the polar bears that exploded when they bit into them.
While the bears crunched cans, Natalia disappeared into the tiny kitchen and finally called us to eat. The meal was thinly sliced strips of fresh local trout, bright pink and served raw, covered with chopped scallions that tasted just like very salty lox. While Natalia produced dozens of tiny round pancakes, her husband would plop dollops of sour cream on them and then fill our shot glasses with vodka. We participated in the most important ceremony in daily Russian life: tossing back shot after shot, and with each one, offering a toast to whatever common ground came to mind. Russians drink vodka like water and to not do so is to offend them. By my fifth shot I think I was toasting the television screen as the day's events began to blur.
Finding a Way Out
When she asked about my work she could not understand making money as a travel writer, saying, "Who would pay for this?" After my lengthy description of what I do she said, "No wonder America is so rich." I tried to explain that I was not wealthy, but a working writer who had to hustle to make a living. It fell on deaf ears. To her, anyone who could afford to travel was very rich.
I commented on how scantily clad I thought the women of Saint Petersburg were in the frigid wind that sweeps in from the gulf of Finland, and how brazenly forward they seemed, openly flirting with me even while I was with my wife, and this made her laugh. She said that the mentality of most Russian women was to marry a rich foreigner—anyone not Russian—and to move away. This explained why the young girls looked like Vogue models while their temporary local boyfriends dressed like homeless lumberjacks.
I came away from Russia with the belief that there are only two classes, the very rich who made fortunes in the black market after the collapse of the Soviet union and still run the country through intimidation, and the very poor, who were left behind by a corrupt government that cares nothing for its people in its relentless pursuit of power.
Natalia seemed to be one of the few left in between, leading a rather nice life by local standards, but always wondering what might have been. People no longer cringe at the mention of the KGB. Now it is called the Federal Security Force and seems to be on a somewhat shorter leash, but Big Brother is still listening if its subjects step too far out of line. My time with Natalia was an open window that answered many questions about a society long closed to most of the world.
There is no true ending to this story yet as Mr. Putin just assumed another six years of power, apparently against the will of the majority, and if he leaves then, he will have ruled for 16 years.
Some would call that a dictatorship, but in Russia it is simply life.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
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