LENINGRAD: A Kiss On The Neck
published in Esquire
If Russia were a movie, you'd have to say the casting was too heavy-handed: the louts over-loutish, the leading ladies too lovely to be real. Bit players play their parts the way central casting stipulated they should back in 1930, so that the drunken professor who suddenly clutches your arm in the overheated restaurant will not fail to reek of borscht with cucumber. Public relations (which is really just central casting, 1980s style) may have taught government spokespersons to lighten up since the Cold War, but the man on the street still lacks leavening to an ominous degree.
You notice it when you cross the border from any point west but especially from a place like Finland, where the opposite is true: reserved Finns are not given to wearing their character traits on their sleeve, Stanislavski style. Still, a mere nine-hour train ride from Helsinki is all it takes to bring you face-to-face with the heavies of Leningrad. That the birthmarked conductress in the green Russian train is redolent of gym class is as inevitable as that the entire journey takes place in a grey drizzle. Both details seem written into a script decades old, as immutable as the "Dr. Zhivago" landscape (all birch and pine), as the water bubblers on the blink, as the border guard who stomps into your compartment right on cue. "Seet down. Do not jump," he commands two irrepressible eleven-year-old American boys hacking around on the top bunk. Irrepressible no more, they hardly dare move the rest of the trip.
None of which means your sojurn in Russia is a bust. On the contrary, for a short-term visitor whose free spirit can withstand a week or two of this treatment, it is invigorating to see the cliches borne out. Emerging from the Finlandski Station, you are stared down by the father of the revolution glowering from statues, book jackets, sides of buildings. (With the obvious exception of Khomeini’ ghost, is there any leader's face with less levity than Lenin's?) Walking down the Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping drag, you feel it more deeply in the utter absence of eye contact and smiles among those silently queued up two hours for ice cream. Going backstage after a circus, you will rejoice at meeting the performers who were so lighthearted in the limelight -- the aerialist who defied gravity with such grace, the clowns who so daintily pummeled each other. But this is Dostoyevsky's town, after all. They glare at you as stern as Lenin, swathed in cheap velvet.
What no cliche prepared you for, what takes you totally by surprise, is the astonishing beauty of the place. So far north, Leningrad has been called "a Lapland in stucco" -- the pink and yellow plaster of baoque palaces contrasting with the aquamarine of the Hermitage, with its rapturous array of French impressionists on the top floor. June is the time when horse chestnuts are in flower among the hundred islands that make up the city, lilacs are blooming against the nearly four hundred bridges, and the days are divided by the most delicate of dusks. "White night" means you need your Ray-Bans after the ballet, at midnight it's darker inside than out, and toward morning the golden cathedral spires still pick up the twilight to bounce it back shimmering along the Neva River.
Too pretty, you say? That's the problem. Russia the movie lacks subtlety. Never is the symbolism more overbearing than at mealtimes. At breakfast the omelet you didn't order is egg gelatin, a glutinous square with cold onions strung along the top, plunked on the table whether you're ready for it or not by service that is not so much hostile as profoundly, unfathomably, indifferent. And at dinner! Amid the violins in the hot smoky restaurant (there really has been poor ventilation since the border, hasn't there? Not just metaphorical but a conspicuous lack of cross draft), the maitre d' wants to smuggle you eighty-four grams of Beluga in exchange for blue jeans. During drinks, the actress you met this afternoon weeps mascara down her cheeks. During dessert, the drunken professor (complete with black bow tie askew) invites himself to your table, sobs bitterly that he teaches geography but is forbidden to travel, rails at a system that interferes with people's happiness, and just as suddenly kisses you on the neck.
When finally you retire for the evening it's more like nap time than night. Carefully you close the curtains so no chink of light gets through. But of course in a minute you're on the street again, your head swimming with mystery. The simple fact is that shadowy figures with hats in alleys here are like shadowy figures with hats nowhere else in the world, backlit as they are by white night. Discreet prostitukis, their backs against the wrought iron of the canals, smile at the colonel across the street. Black marketeers, who are librarians by day, sell Wham! tapes to Air Force officers over by the Kiev. Now even more than in daylight, police are everywhere, hustling people into subways and interrogating them behind barricades, but at this hour it seems not so much menacing as mischievous, a cat-and-mouse game. Under cover of middle-of-the-night dusk there's eye contact aplenty, people winking, people blinking, as if everyone is in concert that the crepuscular light is too beautiful to be dangerous. Even the police seem to feel it: oppression seems surreal, when played out against the pastel palaces gleaming in the twilight, their thousand windows glistening under a sky as pink as poached salmon scales.
Do you know any painters? Any real painters, who aren't smashing plates or designing sweaters for Ralph Lauren? You'll want to call them to get here quick, to experience this Leningrad light, to be enraptured by this heartbreaking moment of sunset suspended all night. Right off the bat you'll tell them: it's better than the Pissaros and Monets hanging in the Hermitage. Without even thinking you'll say: Russia shouldn't be a movie. Eternally, it was meant to be an oil.