Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
The next evening was New Years Eve, and our lovely guide, Amabelle, walked my destitute group through an old part of Moscow that looked like it hadn’t changed much since Dostoyevsky ran about there in shortpants. We wound up in Red Square at midnight, but the vast place was nearly empty and there were no fireworks or anything more celebratory than a bottle of vodka being passed around and it wasn’t even Stoly. I kissed a girl at the stroke of the new year, Ellie, who said she hated her name as we cuddled a little in the back of the cab on the way to the hotel, the driver taking the icy streets way too fast so that I thought someone was going to be calling my mom with bad news.
On the train to Leningrad, wastewater was sloshing on the floor, and just like in high school I tried to stay out of the bathroom. Vodka appeared, and a guitar, and we passed them both around sitting on bunks and getting blasted and giddy and singing Cat Stevens songs and “Wild Horses” over and over, which sounded great in the Russian accents of our carriage-mates. Morning started coming up, revealing a wall of birches in the snow out there.
My strongest memory from Leningrad, which is now just Saint Petersburg again, is of getting off a bus at the wrong place and finding myself totally lost as the temperature plummeted below zero and I wandered in my cardboard desert boots through the snow looking for my hotel, whose name on the piece of stationery I had in my pocket looked like: Площадь Восстания. Which was meaningless to me, of course, so all I could do was try to match up the signs with that and hope to recognize the building. A couple of guys asked me something, probably, “Why the fuck are you out here on a ten-below-zero night in those crappy shoes?” I showed them my piece of paper and pointed to the name, and they laughed and said, “Americanets?” I shrugged, not wanting to get beat up for being a capitalist, but they chuckled. “Blue jeans? Levis?” they asked. “Good price.” Just the ones I was wearing, and I wasn’t about to take them off.
Somehow they gave me loosey-goosey directions to the hotel. By the time I got there, I’d been out in the deep freeze a good two-three hours.
Leningrad had colorful buildings and canals, and the Hermitage was impressive even if there were armed soldiers around every corner. I was attracted to the Soviet art, in a strange way, all the dynamic workers with their enormous hammers and their headscarves and rocklike hands. Always shouting things: Книги! We saw the Peter and Paul Fortress and the grim cell where Stalin had supposedly been interned before he was even Stalin, and we climbed aboard the battleship Aurora, close enough to the Potemkin that we could imagine that baby carriage rolling down the Odessa steps. I bought an LP of all the Soviet Socialist Republics’ national anthems, then we got back on the pee-smelling train to Moscow.
At dawn, in the Moscow train station, I played “Yellow Submarine” on someone’s guitar in the waiting hall, most of our fatigue-drunk group singing along and attracting the attention of Russians on their way to Minsk and beyond, thinking, “Who are these foreign idiots, trying to have fun in our colorless Marxist utopia?”
Our Intourist companion, Sasha (actually Aleksander) took our names and addresses. I gave him my London address, thinking he’d drop me a postcard if anything. Nearly a year later, a letter from him was forwarded to me in St. Louis. I hope I still have it in a box. Aleksander Krushanov had written me from Moscow to wish me goodwill and a happy life. I can still see his spidery but formal handwriting and the pale blue envelope and red, red stamps.
A few of us got together in London a couple of months later, including my first roommate, and as the party at one of the girls’ flat broke up early in the morning, I stumbled in on him getting laid again. I’d almost been assaulted by the boyfriend of a girl with a broken leg I was keeping mercy company, who said she dated David Bowie for a while, and here he was getting totally laid.
It’s been a long time since my trip to Russia, but I knew at the time, walking back home from that Finchley Road party, that I would never go back and that’s been true, so far.