As we learned from her Random Nomad interview with us in May, Charlotte Day is torn between three countries: Australia, USA, and England. As if this weren’t enough, it turns out she harbors an obsession with Russia, going back to when she discovered classical Russian novels in 8th grade. Here she spins a travel yarn about the her month-long sojourn in Saint Petersburg this summer, where she studied Russian language while living with a homestay family. So, did the real Russia live up to Charlotte’s expectations, or had her overactive imagination led her astray? Let’s find out…
Bolshoi Kazachiy Pereulok is not a notable St Petersburg street. It is a bent elbow between Zagorodniy Prospekt and the Fontanka embankment.
Emerging from Pushkinskaya metro station, one walks past a travel agency of sorts, a faded basketball court and Kazachiy Bani, a green-tiled 24-hour bathhouse from which emerge oiled men, rubbing their hair with threadbare towels. Peering through the open door, one can just about discern a gleaming ticket window, half plastered over with out-dated rate notices.
In the crook of the elbow stands Number 9, a magnificent turn-of-the-century apartment building, with geraniums tumbling over the serpentine-patterned grilling of occasional balconies. The building’s green façade, tinged as if by an eternal sunset, smiles mournfully over the street — watching as beer bottles clink and smash on the pavement, cats stalk along beneath decades-old cars, and the high gates open and shut in a kind of eternal song.
The plaque outside Number 7 reads: “In this building lived and worked Vladimir Ilich Lenin,” and on a rack beneath, three red carnations wilt.
I lived for a month at Number 5 — past the automated bell at the gate; through the courtyard, painted a warm, yet exhausted, yellow; up the shallow, concrete steps; and behind two locked doors — in the home of Nadezhda Skarinova, her husband, Kirill, and their son, Vladimir.
Striking up an acquaintance with the Skarinovas
While in theory I shared a home with entire family, the two male Skarinovs managed to be absent for the majority of my stay. Kirill, a chemical engineer, offered a smile — sometimes a privyet (hi) — whenever we met in the hallway.
But as he left for work as I was getting up, and had dinner immediately upon returning home at 6:30, we saw very little of each other.
Vladimir, or Vova, had been a source of much speculation before I set off — in the way that only unknown 21-year-old sons can be — among my well-meaning friends and relatives. (I am only sixteen.)
But he turned out to be largely taciturn, spending his days facing a computer screen (he was studying to become a programmer).
We had one two-sentence exchange — when he helped me down with my suitcase, on departure.
The only stories I can spin about my month in Petersburg involve minutiae. Such had been my idea of the perfect adventure before I left for Russia, in anticipation of what it would be like to be free from parental dictates for the first time.
Indeed, I did very little.
Not prone to escapades, I spent my evenings, after class, wandering along the Griboedov Canal Embankment (where I saw a drowned corpse—lying, swollen, neglected, and only haphazardly covered by a tarpaulin), or taking the metro into a far-flung, neglected suburb to spend ten minutes looking at an exquisite church.
But if my journey had less geographical displacement than those of most adventurers, my nightly dinner conversations with Mrs Skarinova made up for the lack by advancing me along the path of greater understanding of that strange thing — Russia.
A series of stove-side conversations
The first time I heard a bang on my bedroom door, and a gruff mozhno uzhinat? (roughly, “is it possible to have dinner?”) at 8:00 p.m., I hurried a nervous da, closed my book, and sidled into the kitchen.
The news was on, as it would be every subsequent evening — the twin anchors of channel Rossiya speaking too quickly for me to understand, their journalistic jargon blending into an unvarying mumble.
There sat Nadya, looking terribly bored, with large bags under her eyes. She poured me some tea from the eternal teapot. (Russians make tea by brewing a pot, which can keep, it would seem, for over a week—and then pouring a small amount, diluted with hot water, into your cup.)
Kuritsa — normalno? She presented me with a plate. As it was chicken, I nodded in assent.
Sitting down opposite me, shelling sunflower seeds — aimlessly, it seemed — she began to comment on the news.
Before I knew what had hit me, we were traipsing through the hardships of the 1990s — lining up outside an empty supermarket, clutching a prescription for baby formula. Mothers would rush from work during their lunch breaks, Nadya said, to secure a ration of bread for their family’s evening meal. And she’d had to bring up the infant Vova without the help of her mother — who died in her early sixties, from exhaustion.
And this was not the only thread Nadya spun over the course of our four weeks together. Another was the Orthodox Church. Her grandmother, who had lived through both world wars and the Russian Revolution of 1917 — and consequently wasn’t afraid of anything — spirited her granddaughter off to a church to be baptized, at a time when any hint of religion could make you a social pariah.
As a member of the Komsomol (“because everyone was in the Komsomol then”), Nadya hid her crucifix under her pillow. She told me that when religion resurfaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, young couples longing for a church wedding were in a dilemma. How could they know if they had been baptized or not? Perhaps their grandmothers, like Nadya’s, had had it done in secret.
Nadya scowled as Patriarch Kirill appeared on the screen, leading a service in Kiev. His cardinal offense was the purchase of an expensive designer watch, several years back.
Many don’t like Patriarch Kirill so much… I’m an Orthodox person, but Patriarch Kirill… And he’s just one of the problems: for instance, why did they have to make Tsar Nikolai* a saint? What did he ever do? In his youth he was just a normal young man — women, alcohol, all that. What should I pray to him for? And his wife? Nothing wrong with her — German princess, worked in hospitals… And her little boy had that illness. But go to church and ask them for help? Yes, it was a tragedy, a crime — to kill all those children, too. Yes, the revolution oughtn’t to have happened. But Nikolai II a saint?
*With his family, Tsar Nicolas II, Russia’s last emperor, was recognized as a martyred saint and canonized as a passion bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1981.
A samovar too big for the kitchen
On my last night in Petersburg, Mr Skarinova came into the kitchen bearing a large 1830s, wood-burning samovar — complete with chimney.
Nadya was not certain about this new addition to their lives.
It’s going to the dacha. No question about it. Wouldn’t fit in the kitchen anyway. And what am I going to do with a samovar like that? Put it in the bathhouse — na dachye. There’s no electricity in there.
The family had been to their dacha — a few hours south of the city — once while I had stayed at their apartment. They came back laden with berries: bitter and smelling of evergreen.
“All the men want to do there is drink,” Nadya told me one night. “I personally don’t drink — only wine. But Kirill…”
And another evening —
At least Kirill’s never come home drunk in the evenings. On holidays, yes — New Year’s… But the rest of the time — I don’t tolerate that sort of thing. What would have happened with Vova, a child, if dad kept coming home drunk? But it’s a common thing…
And judging by the beer bottles littering the street every morning when I walked to school, I doubt not that it is.
But this seems a catalogue of complaints — when my own experience of Russia was quite the reverse.
There was a moment when, crossing the Neva River on my last evening wander, I saw the spectral moon, blooming into fullness over the Winter Palace embankment.
And faced with that glut of unabashed beauty, I made an inarticulate noise — half of despair, half of exaltation — as people do in Russian novels. (It was only my English reserve keeping me from falling to my knees and weeping: the truly literary gesture.)
As it was, I left the next day feeling I would like to spend the rest of my life in Petersburg. But before I advance any further along that path, I must brave a winter without being killed by a falling snow drift. (“It happens,” says the Voice of Wisdom…)
But no matter how many tracks I beat in Russia, it is somewhat sobering to think of Nadya sitting, through endless reports of train crashes, patriarchal visits and state holidays, in that desperately uncomfortable chair, shelling sunflower seeds and passing the time.
img: The Skarinova kitchen, where Charlotte’s nighttime chats with Nadya took place.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post taking a parting glimpse at summer’s millinery enchantments, by our Alice awardee Sebastian Doggart.
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What a writer–sixteen???? Impossible!
Yes, and she’s very self effacing: a pleasure to work with!
Having been held hostage, as it were, several times by natives who were eager to use me as an “ear,” I can relate very closely to your story. And yet, these kinds of encounters, while painful at times (you’re not always in the mood, or the topic isn’t to your liking), can teach you a vast amount.
That you are open to this possibility at such a young age I find truly impressive!
What’s more, I feel that Mrs Skarinova’s stove-side chats should go down in the annals alongside President Roosevelt’s fireside chats — don’t you? Too bad they weren’t broadcast instead of whatever was playing on Channel Rossiya.
Also like you, I’ve been a young women who was enchanted by Russian novels. Does any nation do fiction better? I think not… Though sometimes I wonder why that is — because people feel an overwhelming need to escape from reality? There’s a hint of that in the ending to your yarn. I’ll be curious to hear how you find Mother Russia on future encounters…
One last point: have you read Mary Morris’s description of Leningrad in her book, Wall to Wall? I considered including her in my recent post 6 celebrated women travel writers with the power to enchant you — but didn’t as she’s still alive and kicking… Anyway, I’m sure you’d enjoy her account of her “visceral” connection to the city, even if your relations might not entirely approve(!).
Well done Charlotte. Very evocative writing with an expert eye for detail. I’m green with envy that you got to experience St Petersburg.
Your conversations with your Russian host mom really remind me of my experience in Italy living with a elderly couple. The wife and I would spend most of my days in Florence talking about Italy and the way of the world.