St. Petersburg, 1992

In the Foot of an Angel

March 1992

In the old Russia, you took your complaints to the foot of an angel.

Three hundred feet above St. Petersburg rises the golden spire of St. Peter’s and Paul’s Cathedral. Until recently, an enormous angel guarded Peter’s city, clutching a cross atop the spire. A year ago, when the angel descended her post and restoration of her copper body began, artists found a bottle lodged in her foot.

Inside the bottle was a letter, written by a frustrated worker critical of living conditions during Stalin’s regime.

Now, in the new Russia, you no longer have to lodge your complaints in a bottle 30 stories above the nearest politician.

It was the new Russia we had come to see. Fifteen high-school students from Lancaster Country Day School, their history teacher, an interpreter, and I were to be guests of the St. Petersburg Intermediate School of the Arts, living in students’ and faculty’s homes for ten days.

A year earlier, when we had agreed to the exchange, we were informed that much of our visit would be underwritten by the Soviet government. Now, after the tumultuous events of last winter, there was no longer any Soviet government, and Leningrad was an obsolete name for our host city.

What we found in the new Russia was an incomparable old-fashioned hospitality. And we discovered both the astonishing: abundant food at our tables amidst widespread shortages, a worship of pre-Revolutionary splendor in an ardently socialist nation—and the familiar: disdain for politicians, dreams for a better life, self-deprecating humor, and a disturbing racism.


We landed at a nearly abandoned St. Petersburg airfield on a Wednesday morning in mid-March, completely exhausted and surprised to find only a small fleet of grounded Aeroflot cruisers at what had once been an international airport. As we taxied into the terminal, we watched a bored firefighter hose down the remains of a smoking fuselage. Although we were prepared for the worst at customs, we were relieved when we brought our caravan of food and extra clothing through without hassle.

For our triumphant arrival I had rehearsed a page of Russian greetings and small talk from my Berlitz, but it was soon exhausted in the melee of my students being assigned to host families. Russian families who spoke a dollop of French were matched with anyone in our group who’d made it to French II. One of our students knew a smattering of German, so she was assigned to a family with similar mastery of Deutsch. Fortunately (and typically), the Russians spoke more English than we spoke Russian.

Alas, I watched helplessly as my students disappeared into this city of five million, borne by taxi or the host’s best friend’s Lada to our 18 destinations. One of my students took his seat beside an exposed engine that groaned inconsolably between his seat and the driver’s. The arrangement had certain advantages—it was easy for the driver to make small adjustment to the engine without leaving his seat—but the engine kept spitting motor oil on the passengers.

None of us was quite prepared for St. Petersburg. We’d read the obligatory travel guides and knew from a map and a National Geographic documentary that the city was situated on 42 islands; we knew that it had been founded by a one-man Renaissance named Peter the Great; and we knew from a tourism brochure that the city was considered “the cradle of three revolutions” and, because of its extensive canals, “the Venice of the North.” It was the home city of Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, and Dostoyevsky, its most notorious novelist.

What we found was a weary, gorgeous, and overwhelming city covered in a layer of winter dust. Rose and yellow and cobalt buildings lined its prospekts, powdered in automobile exhaust. It appeared at once a city of golden cupolas and dilapidated storefronts, of bustling shoppers and numb babushkas in motionless food lines, of a hundred elegant bridges and city parks afloat in grey, muddy ice. Everywhere was the utterly disorienting Cyrillic alphabet, reminding us that we were just barely in Europe.

At last, after a bewildering drive through the city into the northern suburbs, I arrived at my home for the next week and a half: a grim ten-story apartment block that fulfilled my expectations for Soviet architectural despair. A tiny elevator—with just enough room for my driver, my luggage, and me—shunted me to Olga and Slava Polyokov’s fifth-story flat.

The Polyokov’s flat was a typical middle-class Russian home, and when I described their home to one of my students the next day, I proposed that the apartment had been built some thirty years earlier. That evening at my writing desk, however, I was surprised to find the date of its construction vivid on the opposite block: 1990. Had it ever known a week of newness?

Their flat was small and simple by American standards, yet their purple walls had been transformed into a gallery of Olga’s lithographs and Slava’s ceramic works. Peter the Great’s death mask stared from one wall; reproductions of Rastrelli and Tolstoy bas-reliefs graced another. There were houseplants in every window, and the odor of bread and fish and cabbage suffused their home.

Slava showed me to my room, a study lined with art books. “Jim’s room,” he said in rehearsed English. I wondered whose bed I was taking over for the next ten days.

That night, during the last of the traditional four daily meals, the inevitable question came: “Jimya,” they asked me, “what do you think of Russia?”

In my anguished Anglo-Russian pidgin I spoke politely of St. Peterburg’s beauty and the friendliness of the people, admitting that Russia was not exactly what I’d expected.

“Ah,” Slava told me, as if delivering a warning: “Russia is full of paradoxes.”


Paradoxes. Like my trip to the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, the grandiose residence of czars and czarinas, and above all a monument to the Russian rulers’ determination to be Europe’s equal in the grandeur of its architecture and art-objects. In this country that had so sedulously annihilated its royalty, our guide stood in the palace’s Great Hall, boasting that the czar’s architect had promised his ruler that his elaborate ballroom would exceed even Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors in magnificence.

Suddenly I could understand the gilded gaudiness and the Russians’ pride in it when I spotted the photographs in the corner of each chamber: the same room as it appeared in 1945, after the Nazis had systematically destroyed the Russian palaces. It was a triumph of the Russian will to repoint the toppled stones, to mend the firebombed walls, to meticulously recreate the rococo trim. Indeed, numerous graduates of our host school earned their livings restoring such palaces.

St. Petersburg itself was a paradox. With a season of high-pressure water hoses and tankloads of paint, the city could rival Paris in its beauty. Yet this “Venice of the North” was built on the bones of 30,000 workers, whom Peter the Great had forced to construct his new capital on a pestilent swamp.

The people of St. Petersburg were paradoxical, too—at once fulfilling the stereotype of the stolid Russian while riding the autobus, yet defying the stereotype at home by showing us a warmth and generosity I’ve rarely encountered.

To many of their paradoxes I could only shake my head. Take the city’s sleek, speeding metro, where each station’s digital readout assured you that a train never took more than two-and-a-half minutes to arrive. Aboveground, though, the city’s battered, ambling tramways labored till they died, with little evidence of life-prolonging maintenance.

There was the paradoxical rhythm of our host-city’s lives: the frenetic pace of their daytime city streets, where drivers were crazy enough to detour onto the sidewalk if traffic threatened to slow them down—followed by serene evenings at home, drinking tea and talking of art and history, of food and family, of the beautiful summers along the Don, as if the rapid ride home were only for the purpose of making the evening that much longer.

At the heart of the new Russia there lay the essential paradox of their citizens’ existence: the difficulty of survival, yet the enviable quality of their days.


The appliances in Olga’s kitchen resembled the second-hand gear with which college landlords are fond of furnishing their rental units; her stove barely had room for four burners, her spigot leaked, and the refrigerator, though packed, was pint-sized. For all that, I’ve never eaten so much or so well: blini, borscht, red-fish soup, pickled tomatoes, and coffee strong enough to blow the tips off my steel-toed boots. At Olga’s table, every meal was a feast.

Many American women would rightfully revolt at the number of hours Olga spent at kitchen chores. (Naturally, all my sneak attempts to pile dishes in the sink—let alone actually scrub the dishes—were rebuffed.) In addition to keeping house, Olga Ignachova taught drawing classes at the art academy; exhibited her lithographs in Paris, Marseilles, New York, Seattle, and a score of Russian cities; patiently escorted me through St. Peterburg, Novgorod, and the streets of Moscow; and performed a half-dozen unseen miracles every day in an effort to keep me comfortable.

Once, when she emerged from a sleeping berth after an eight-hour train trip to Moscow, I asked her if she were oohstahl—tired. She smiled and declared, “I am Russian woman”—as if that explained everything.


The Russians I met cherished the old—everything built or painted or sculpted by the Giants Before the Flood of 1917. When the Polyokovs asked me which artists I wanted to see at the Hermitage—and any Russian will tell you that it is the largest museum in the world, with more than 350 rooms containing 2.5 million paintings and art-objects—I mentioned Matisse, Archipenko, Chagall, and Gris. My answer must have disappointed them, for it was Rembrandt they took me to see, shaking their heads at his genius, gesticulating and gasping at the beauty of his canvasses.

Slava’s and Georgi’s love of modernism seemed to extend no further than Monet, though Slava praised van Gogh’s genius. “But he wasn’t professional,” he told me, shaking his head. “He worked too fast.”

Later that week I began to understand why they so admired training and “professionalism.” One night at dinner Olga told me that she had studied art for 23 years, her artist father for 25.

Their passions were the passions of the 18th and 19th Centuries: ballet, opera, Rastrelli’s architecture, and their favorite son, the poet Pushkin.


For me, one of the most impressive structures in St. Petersburg was unabashedly modern—and a site our hosts had not actually included in our itinerary: a monument to the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. We teachers convinced the bus driver to pull over and allow our students a quick visit.

Despite its strident modernism, the monument seemed to me typically Russian. Its exterior was stark, but if you were willing to brave the squirrely traffic and approach the facade, you found yourself entering a secret passage to the sad heart of the city.

A heroic anthem played as we descended from the massive concrete ground level to a circle of eternal flames. In the grey mist we found a bride and groom laying flowers at the base of an anguished sculpture that depicted besieged Leningraders easing a corpse to the ground. As if we’d inadvertently stumbled upon a funeral, we entered a cavernous memorial lit with 900 electric candles, commemorating the 900-day Nazi siege of the city.

The Russians who waited for us on the tour bus seemed indifferent to the monument, and I was surprised that they hadn’t joined us for our visit, as they had at every other stop.

Later that week, though, I saw Olga’s version of the monument, a lithograph whose figures seemed to struggle in the eternal torch-flames. Olga, I learned, had lost a grandmother and a great aunt to the siege. In fact, there was hardly a family in St. Petersburg that remained untouched by the 900 Days and Nights: more than a million of the city’s then 2.5 million citizens died during the 1941-45 siege.

At times St. Petersburg’s agonizing history overwhelmed me. The day before our scheduled trip to Moscow, our American contingent was shaken by rumors of tanks rolling into the Russian capital and of imminent counter-revolution as Communist hardliners threatened to establish an alternate government. Our attempts at verifying these rumors were frustrated by our embassy, whose workers refused to answer their phones. I wondered if St. Petersburg were about to become the cradle of a fourth revolution during our visit.

As I listened ineffectually to the morning radio, Olga assured me that I had no reason to worry. “These things happen,” she said, and I thought of the newsreel playing at the Siege monument, in which smiling Russian women dug trenches to half the advancing Nazis. “The tanks will pass through, and that will be that,” Olga assured me. “Americans hear on the news that people are starving here, but you see plenty of food. Don’t worry, Jimya.”

This from a woman who last August had watched from a studio window overlooking the city’s main plaza, where her husband made his armed stand during another uprising. We Americans just weren’t used to such a rich political diet.


One evening I told the Polyokovs about Ronald Reagan’s claim that in the Russian language there was no word for freedom. Swaboda, I knew, was the Russian word for freedom, and I toasted swaboda at dinner.

Slava asked me if I had encountered swaboda in Russia.

“It’s very difficult to tell,” I said.

“What does freedom mean to you?” he asked.

“Freedom of the press, freedom to criticize your leaders,” I said.

Olga and Slava spoke together: “We have that!”

Olga spoke of her difficulties exhibiting her work and earning membership in the revered Artists Union. (Such membership, I learned, entitled an artist to a private studio and made possible the impressive array of summer homes and dachas that privileged artists were entitled to.)

Olga Ignachova’s great themes were Russian history and the Church, rather than the glories of socialism, so her work did not receive praise initially. Her lithographs were haunted by angels and devils; in one print, a demon lay buried beneath the soil while a circle of women danced about a blooming tree. In one of my favorites, she and Slava crossed a canal, both of them centaurs, half-human, half-horse.

One frankly political print depicted Jesus bearing a cross with the Russian word terpeniya—patience—over his head; in the corner, Lenin on a pedestal hovered above a crowd of protestors and the word neterpemost—impatience.

“At first the officials told me I couldn’t exhibit my work. That ‘the time was not right.’ And so I went home and cried. But I kept trying. And because I am a woman, because I can go my own way, because I have money to live on from my teaching, I finally saw my works exhibited.”

She told me with pride that the director of Leningrad University had a print of her Alexander Nevsky hanging in his office—hanging, by the way, more prominently than the obligatory portrait of Lenin.

Despite the depredations of the old regime, the Russians I met were not fond of perestroika. Before perestroika, they said, the taxis would pick you up. Before perestroika, you could buy a cow for three rubles, a house for twenty. Now a modest house cost 6 million rubles.

There was no love lost on the Socialist Party, either; Olga referred to Lenin’s tomb in Red Square as a place of “devil worship,” while Gorbachev, the darling of the West, seemed all but universally despised, accused of being the slyest of communist foxes whose “restructuring” of the Russian economy benefitted only him and his Russian cronies.

“What we have now is a little perestroika, Slava explained.

The Polyokovs were among the first in their apartment block to own their flat. Their old communal flat in center city offered, according to them, living conditions little better than those available during the Siege of Leningrad.

“What we need is complete perestroika,” he declared.


While food was plentiful at the Polyokovs’ table, I knew that the rest of the country wasn’t fairing so well. Though America had donated its leftover Desert Storm rations to Russia, I heard rumors that the food was being sold on the black market rather than being equitably distributed.

On one of our bus tours, we were offered American orange juice and tiny boxes of Sugar-Frosted Flakes—apparently being fed our own country’s leftover war rations.

The black market at the Polyokov’s metro stop was a testament to the city’s desperation. Every evening the marketers hawked their wares—a carton of cigarettes here, a pair of shoes there, a couple light bulbs displayed eagerly on a crate. As we passed a fisherman’s catch of the day piled on a sheet of newspaper, Olga remarked that what he sold was merely “fish for cats.” Even so, she was sympathetic to the workers’ recent need to supplement their meager income on the black market.

It was strange for me, looking so obviously American and carrying around my neck the equivalent of two years’ salary in Russia. And it was only a hundred American dollars.


As a few of Russia’s paradoxes began to resolve themselves, I realized that we Americans are not so very different from the Russians I met; there is, for instance, a “Russian Dream” remarkably similar to our cherished American Dream.

Slava spoke repeatedly of the improvements promised for his block: a new metro station that would put him ten minutes from center city, a new supermarket within walking distance, a park in place of the bulldozed lot beside their apartment tower.

As is sometimes the case in America, the Polyokov’s street bore the name of the landmark it had destroyed. “Long Lake Street” it was called in Russian, but the only lake I saw was in the middle of the road, where every morning another car was sunk up to its rocker panels in muddy water while attempting to navigate the roadway.

But for all that, the Russian Dream is not the American Dream writ in Cyrillic. Russia has not embraced First-World culture to the degree that we might imagine. Yes, you can buy Pepsi on the street, but native soft drinks remain far more popular. Yes, you can hear American music in Russia, but it’s by no means the St. Petersburg soundtrack. I did see M.C. Hammer’s name scrawled on the art school’s front-entrance sign, and on a restroom wall I read the words, “I love the Beatles.” Interestingly, Georgi Polyokov compared the music of Slayer and Metallica to his beloved Bach.

Russians love movies as well, but it was a Russian émigré’s films my host family loved, not Rambo. I was astonished to hear 13-year-old Vanya rhapsodizing about the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, whose Stalker and The Sacrifice constitute the subtlest of arthouse fare. He knew all six of Tarkovsky’s films in chronological order.

Regrettably, America and Russia share a dangerous racism, too. Graffiti was rare in St. Petersburg, but the little I found too often featured a swastika. Hitler Jugend was etched in the window of one subway car, and a swastika scratched in an escalator handrail made its tired circuit, hour after hour, like an old song that wouldn’t fade.

What I found most refreshingly familiar in my hosts was their humor. When I gave them a coffee-table book about Pennsylvania, Olga came to a photo of Milton Hershey’s statue at the Hershey School for Boys. She pointed to Hershey, his hand on a lad’s shoulder, and joked, “Ah—Lenin and a Young Pioneer.” And when we came to the inevitable photos of the Amish, whereupon I explained that the plain sect lived without cars, electricity, and telephones, she wryly boasted that her family, too, lived without a telephone, and ever since their Lada’s brakes had failed, they were living without a car as well.

At the beginning of each packed day, Olga would greet me at my bedroom door with Lenin’s immortal question, “Are you ready?” To which I dutifully replied with a salute, as any Young Pioneer must: “Always ready.”


It was my thirtieth birthday.

Ten days earlier, on my first day at the family table, they had asked me my age. “Twenty-nine,” I’d said. “But almost thirty.”

“When thirty?” they’d asked.

When I told them, their eyes lit up, as I’d just provided them with another excuse for a celebration.

My birthday party was as paradoxical as the rest of the trip had been. In a country where prices had risen a hundredfold in a matter of months, where a pound of sausage might cost more than a month’s wages, the table was spread that evening with caviar, cucumbers, pickled tomatoes, beets and sour cream, a variety of fish (not for cats), and Olga’s savory soup, steaming beneath a shell of pastry.

Gifts appeared from behind backs and from beneath the couch that Slava had pulled up alongside the makeshift table that filled their entire living room: books of Pushkin’s poems; a perfect painting, offered for some reason with an apology for its size; a calendar of Russian icons. And the most generous gift of all: one of Olga’s lithographs, which I had admired earlier that week.

And then the music began. Slava, master of the house, was, is, and ever shall be a Cossack. I don’t entirely understand all that Cossack-hood means, but I wondered if being a Cossack in Russia was something like being a hillbilly in America. It was like belonging to a little empire that had grown poor of late but was forever proud of its ability to endure.

They sang “Happy Birthday” to me three times in English, then three times in Russian. The Russian version seemed far graver, but everyone was smiling through the dirge offered for my thirtieth year.

Then, inevitably, the toasts began. I had girded my loins and prepared a place in my guts for all that I was about to receive. For someone as skinny as I, there was only one strategy for surviving the onslaught of vodka: eat plenty, sip, and substitute water in my shot glass when no one was looking.

First came a toast to my birthday. The glasses clinked; an invited colleague from Pennsylvania raised his eyebrows as if he were about to crest the first hill of a roller coaster. Then came a toast to my family. (By “family,” they meant my wife and daughter. My parents were to be attended to in another toast.)

And we ate. When had I ever eaten so well? I had come to St. Petersburg carrying a suitcase heavy with rice and beans, powdered milk, and pasta, but I’d long ago slipped my stash of staples to a former resident of the city who knew to take it where it was needed. At the table of Olga and Slava, my well-intentioned donations had no place.

When I was certain I could eat no more, the musicians began playing. They were friends of Slava’s, members of a folklore ensemble who, if I understood correctly, had played in some of St. Petersburg’s finest venues. Olga Chernikova, a brassy woman who played guitar and knew a hundred songs, was the master of revels. She was accompanied by Nikolay on accordion and an angelic soprano who hung a descant from the living-room light and wove it like a ribbon through the evening. They sang love songs, war ballads, and what must certainly have been a bawdy number, judging from the rascally grins on the races of the Russians at the table. Slava rose from his seat and clapped, singing songs that he had likely learned as a boy.

Later that night, after I’d toasted the great Russian writers, after my American friends had struggled halfway up the mountain of food heaped before them, and after they’d been extravagantly gifted themselves, the party broke up. That is, it broke up for everyone who didn’t plan to spend the night at the Polyokovs’.

The rest of us remained tableside for the second half of the concert: Nikolay on the accordion. Georgi, the Polyokov’s 15-year-old son, sat faithfully translating while Nikolay spoke of his music and his home. Like everyone at the table, Nikolay was spectacularly educated. He had studied for several years at a prestigious musical institute, but his first love was Cossacki folk songs.

He played on, filling their flat with impassioned music.

“Improvisation,” Georgi announced, as Nikolay lay his cheek against his accordion and began playing a song I knew I’d never hear again. It seemed to contain a thousand years of Russian grief and pride. Suddenly, I felt a tear spill down my check and Slava’s bearlike arm upon my shoulder.


The morning of my departure brought one last ceremony. Olga, Slava, Georgi, and Vanya joined me in my bedroom.

“Old Russian tradition,” Georgi explained.

Slava drew an icon from his pocket and set it on my desk. The five of us sat silently for a moment.

“It is for your safe trip home,” Georgi said.

They rose without a word, crossing themselves.

And so I boarded the wheezing tram one last time, wedged myself into St. Petersburg’s metro, and took one final hair-raising taxi ride to the airport, certain that I was in the safety of the finest prayers I could hope for.

A shorter version of this travelogue was published in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania Sunday News, May 3, 1992, under the title “Old ways meet new days on a trip to modern Russia.”