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Don't be afraid

Leningrad, 1989

When I first arrived, I was in awe. In those first few days, I spent most of my time walking around town, taking in the exquisite sights. I strolled the Nevsky Prospect, the wide boulevard lined with fabulous eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings and bustling with a mass of people who seemed to move at a rapid shuffle. I wandered along the quiet canals, and poked around the old working class neighborhoods where the stories of Dostoevsky had been written and set over one hundred years ago. Like all visitors to Leningrad, I was charmed by the magnificent French and Italian architecture, the formal gardens and squares, and the sprawling parks filled with duck ponds, statues, and old oak trees so thick they virtually recreated the old forest. 

But after a few days, I began to notice something: no matter how clean I left in the morning, I was always filthy at the end of the day. The ring around my collar was more like a black line. My shoes were caked in dirt. My hair had a gritty feel to it. It was a bit strange, because there wasn't any litter on the streets, or big piles of dirt, and even if my brother's housekeeping left a little to be desired, I wasn't spending enough time in his apartment to get be so soiled. But there could be no doubt: something was fouling the air. And then I began to realize. It was the city itself - the dust of a city slowly crumbling, and the dust of the constant work going on to try to keep the buildings that remained from falling apart, and the dust of construction to replace the buildings they'd lost. 

I arrived with barely any usable Russian, but this did not seem to disturb most of the people whom I met on the streets. They were hungry for western contacts, western culture, western t-shirts, western consumer items, and of course, western dollars. Language was an insignificant barrier; through a combination of my fractured Russian, their English (sometimes fractured, sometimes excellent), occasional forays into French (which I speak) and Spanish (which I don't), and newly acquired skills of mine, communication was almost always possible, and so too, was misunderstanding. 

So it was easy to make friends, and it never took long after the beginning of a conversation until they opened up. You could almost bet on the fact that within minutes, they would take advantage of the more relaxed atmosphere in the era of glasnost to complain about the underachievements of perestroika. It didn't really seem to matter whether they were students or professionals, politically active or apathetic, old or young. The unifying emotions were cynicism and frustration. 

As I wandered around town, I often stopped by the big square out in front of the beautiful Kazan Cathedral - a building reminiscent of a scaled down St. Peter's in Rome, except that it had been converted into The Museum of Atheism and Religion under Stalin. This was the place designated by the authorities for street performances, political speeches, and just plain hanging out. It was nearly always crowded with a fabulous cross-section of the Leningrad counter-culture: here and there, little knots of teenaged hippies and university students; on the steps, a political speechmaker, running on about private property while the crowd heckled and argued the merits of his platform; bunched together between the massive columns of the semicircular portico, a group of scruffy long-haired teenagers singing Beatles songs, accompanied by a twangy guitar; over there, an accordian player with a hatful of money on the ground, joined by a toothless and probably homeless old woman who swayed and danced for the amusement of the audience. 

One day I stopped by and came across a huge crowd clapping in time to drums and percussion. When I pushed my way through the crowd, I discovered four men dancing and chanting: "hari krishna, hari krishna, hari rama, hari krishna." It was, indeed, a place with the feel of the sixties - in energy, in outlandishnish, in political energy and political naivete. 

It was on the first day or two of my 
visit, as I was walking through the square, snapping photos, that I met Leonid for the first and last time. He seemed amused by my camera. "It's interesting for you?" he asked, and we began to talk. He barely spoke English, but he did speak Spanish. As I indicated, I barely know enough Spanish to order a burrito, but somehow we did manage to communicate. He was an art student at the university. He was curious about America, and about my impressions of Leningrad. I told him I liked the city, and that glasnost seemed to be thriving. "Glasnost - I don't believe it. It's always the same, except now the economy is worse," and then he told me about the Jazz Club, which is where I met Lena.

Lena was sweeping the floor, but she was the only person in the place who could speak English, so I ended up talking with her. She was only forty, but she had a look of fatigue about her that I later realized was common among the women of her generation. Her hair was dirty blonde, her eyes a misty shade of grey. One day, after I'd gotten to know her, she showed me her passport with a picture of her taken when her hair was dark and shiny and she was a pretty teenager. Now she was missing two teeth, and an angry-looking growth the size of a raspberry protruded from her neck. 

She'd been to the universities in both Leningrad and Donetsk, where she'd studied English and nursing. But now she was sweeping the floor at the Jazz Club, a small but elegant old theater that the Ministry of Culture had provided to a leading jazz musician. That evening I took my brother to the jazz club for a show, and Lena joined us. A few days later, she called me and we arranged to meet in front of the club. "You're late," she said sternly when I showed up, and then she took me to her flat at Number 8 Socialism Street. It was a shabby old building in a very working class neighborhood. "Don't be afraid," she said as we walked through the entrance. It was not until several weeks later, when I'd heard this warning from several other new friends, that I realized that she hadn't really been talking to me, but simply reassuring herself.

We walked up two flights of stairs and into a long dark hallway. "Look how I live," she said, with a voice that could not conceal the shame and embarrassment of her situation. "One, two, three, four, five , six rooms - and this is my room." Actually, she wouldn't show me her room, but seated me in the kitchen, where onions were growing out of containers set in the window, and offered me some kefir. "I live very simply," she told me. "It's because I'm very lazy. I have many talents but I don't want to work." Perhaps that's the confession that cemented the friendship. She told me that with utilities, her room cost about 6 rubles a month, which was just ten dollars even at the absurdly inflated "official rate" (the price in black market rubles was more like sixty cents.) "Do you like gifts," she asked, and without really waiting for an answer, she presented me with a beautiful Russian art book. 

As I was about to leave, her 13 year-old son came into the kitchen. He was tall for his age, with pale skin and eyes that looked older and sadder than they ought to be. "How-are-you,?" he asked stiffly, at his mother's urging, to demonstrate his competence in English. Lena told me she had another daughter who stayed with with her mother in her hometown of Stavropol - the town of Gorbachev, she noted with a curious smile. The dirty air of Leningrad was not good for her daughter's health, she explained.

A few weeks later, Gigi had arrived, and I was anxious for her to meet Lena. We arranged a rendezvous in "Kate's Place", a little garden on the Nevsky Prospect in front of the Pushkin Theater, where a monumental Katherine the Great, supported by her entourage of lovers and national heroes, watched over a lovely rose garden, a small brigade of portrait painters just outside the gate, and a constant parade of Leningradzi of all types seeking refuge from the crowds and bustle of the street. "Here is a gift for you," she said, and presented us with a toy army truck. "This is the truck that helped us to win the war," she explained. "I'm very tired," she said. "I'm working so hard - in fact, I do the work of two people!" she exclaimed.

"Just how many hours do you work," I dumbly asked. "Four hours a day, every other day," she told me, with no trace of a smile. 

And that simple statement, perhaps more than any academic study or political analysis, revealed to me the truth about the terrible problems facing the Soviet Union. What they've got there is not so much a social or a political problem as an attitude problem.

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