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On the first few days in St Petersburg, I was faced with a barrage of language in an alphabet I was still trying to grasp. It took me a long time to decipher signs on shop fronts. Too long for me to continue walking. On the pavement to my left and right, the steady flow of pedestrians parted without adjusting its pace, as if I were a rock on the riverbed and they the water. No one cared, no one looked at me, everyone just continued to walk past. It’s a big city, after all. An occasional pair of eyes peeled off from the crowd to squint at what I was gazing at, but their legs didn’t slow down. I was marked out; mine was foreign behaviour.
At home in Berlin, I have become used to my invisibility on the street. I am that age of woman who no longer turns a head. The only people who notice me are other women my age, an invisible army of the menopausal, who walk with the same angrily gritted teeth. We clock eyes in greeting: sister. A grim nod of acknowledgement. A brief ironic smile. You too, huh? Our anger sustains us and propels us forward.
But in Piter, I didn’t see any sisters. On the streets, women of my age were conspicuously missing. The only groups I saw were young women and grandmothers. Women, I noticed, started to disappear from public view at around 35. Where were they? Looking after the children? At work? Every woman works there, very hard and for long hours. It’s a badge of pride: the harder, the better.
Petersburg women in their 20s and 30s were Instagram-beautiful. Not a wrinkle on a forehead. Full lips and cheeks, insanely smooth skin, tight-fitting clothes. I started to feel very shabby. Now that I didn’t see women my age, it felt like I was slowly being erased. And more: I realised there were no visible queer people on the streets like back home in Berlin. Or many shades of colour – skin, nails, eye shadow. Petersburg was a mixture of practical, leopard print and latex.
Two months later, I had become faster at deciphering the signs. Each time I made it to the end of a word, I got that flash of understanding I last had when I learned to read as a child. Meaning, symbols, and language suddenly fused and made me smile, say “Ahhhh” out loud. But because I was out on the street, there was no one to smile to except myself as I walked on, shaking my head. I might have been taken for a person losing their mind.
Some of the words turned out to be in my language, but in Cyrillic disguise. билайн proved to be “Beeline”, a mobile phone company. Just as I mouthed it to the end, I noticed the yellow and black striped logo, a lozenge-shaped bee. Then there was the cosmetics chain, рив гош, Rive Gauche: French disguised as Russian.
My favourite Anglicism was the ubiquitous бизнус ланч – business lunch – consisting of a soup, main and dessert, plus a free drink, which was offered everywhere, from the shoddiest café to the upmarket gastro pub on the corner. It was never ordered by business people, as far as I could make out, but often by elderly women, who certainly meant business, with their food at least. I never saw anyone going to work on a meal like these Russian pensioners. Normally, they sat alone, hat or headscarf still on. No conversation should distract them from the real business of eating. They studied their plates intently, rather than looking around the room or out of the window at passers-by. They brought their mouths to their forks, never the other way round, not taking their eyes off their food. A stark contrast to the young Russian women I saw in restaurants who played a game of shunting food around on plates, never quite submitting to eating.
One lunchtime, I watched with fascination as a woman in her seventies went on a date with her omelette. She cut it into small pieces with loving, fetishist movements. After a while, I had to turn away from such intimacy.
Soon afterwards I went to the Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad on Chernyshevskaya and saw a lone crust of dark bread in a lit cabinet with the sign “daily ration of a non-working person during the blockade in the winter of ’41.” This hunger sat in the bones and memories of the city. There were ways to block it out: business lunches, or fast cars. Alcohol or diamonds. Lipstick, fur coats, or weight training. The main thing was to put some distance, some flesh, between you and the memory of that hunger.
The elderly women having business lunches had been children during that 900-day siege, in which, famously, the residents made soup from leather belts, their cats, or lipstick. Children were kept at home after dark, just in case.
When not eating, the babushki were shunting their grandchildren about the city, their faces set, protecting them from the outside world as if their lives depended on it. In the metro, a grandmother perched on the only available two inches of seat left while her grandson boy-spread, eyes on his mobile phone where a cat was loudly killing a mouse. Now and then, when he practically disappeared into his screen, his grandma yanked his head back by the hood. Her face was inscrutable but there was a trace of pride there; she had survived, could provide. She paid him the same kind of attention as the other woman had paid her omelette.
The metro stations are all named after men: Mayakovskaya, Dostoyevskaya, Pushkinskaya. Even the cathedral near our flat, St Vladimir. On my forays through the streets, I saw statues and paintings and memorials to men too – pensive writers with pens or quills, military generals in full regalia, Lenin with his outstretched finger pointing to the future. I nearly missed the actual men walking past, unsmiling and unheroic, but often in camouflage-print jackets. Fair eyebrows and lashes made their faces look empty. The young women on their arms outshone them in the crowds. And they looked strangely similar because they often had the same hairstyle: a buzzcut, military style. It took five minutes with a loud clipper and cost around 200 roubles – two euros.
These inconspicuous men found their voices at night: the streets were dotted with staggering, mumbling drunkards. People out walking dodged them, barely looking up from their phones as if side-stepping the concrete bins or bollards. They weren’t threatening; the sound of their monologues was eerie and sad.
On Sundays, my partner and I went walking together, taking the metro to the outskirts. We left behind the ornate blue- or green-and-white palace facades along the Neva, the gold onion domes of the cathedrals, the blue mosaics on the mosque. Resurfacing from the metro, the scene change was abrupt. Like a line had been drawn, dividing the Italian renaissance from the Brutalist tower blocks that greeted us. Huge swathes of them dominated the horizon like honeycomb and I imagined hundreds of people inside them, crawling about their lives. Dystopia on a gasp-inducing scale. The view from one of these tiny windows must be simply more of the same uniform tower blocks as far as the eye can see. Which is not very far on a foggy November day.
My partner grew up in one of these blocks. When he talked about it, there was pride in his voice. What I didn’t say: the state who built these blocks wanted people to feel small. In Britain, we also have ugly high-rise blocks. But they don’t seem daunting, like these communist-era blocks, which were as unscalable as mountains. A person walking on the pavement below is a speck.
The statues of ordinary people on Victory Square were larger than life to match their heroism. I had my camera in hand and was trying to squash them into the frame: they were resisting. I was in the underground passage to the memorial, military music blaring from speakers. My eye ran around a circle of gas torches, each with an inscription I laboriously read aloud. Unlike “Beeline”, though, the language was long and inaccessible. I deciphered “glory” and “suffering” and then gave up. The urge to go back up the steps towards the daylight and away from the oppressive atmosphere was strong. To do this, I had to cross a large concrete circle, in the centre of which stood the first statues, this time mostly female. A woman in scant clothes, her nipples prominent through a Greek-style shift, carrying a dead child; another stooping to a dead figure on the ground in a posture of martyrdom; a thickly dressed soldier propping up an old woman. The bare nipples suggested summer but the soldier’s coat, winter. Up the steps and above ground were two lines of figures: partisans armed with crude weapons, soldiers with rifles and flags, a couple of female munition workers pouring liquid steel into moulds. There was no space for your own thoughts. Everything was orchestrated meticulously, intended to overwhelm your senses – music, lights, action. I soon left, a hurrying speck at the feet of these giants, searching for real people.
One night, I went with a friend for dinner on the “Party Mile.” She was one of the hard-working women I didn’t see on the street. A smart, funny business consultant and a single mother who openly used Botox – it was practically expected in her firm. We had dinner in a nice Italian place where I felt I had to watch my manners. My friend snapped at the waiter for no reason. By then I’d got used to it: it was a way of flexing your status. We left to go for a drink elsewhere, past the Mexican place that had cloned our credit cards another night, past a marble-topped jazz bar where guests were expensively dressed, past a wine bar where a glass cost as much as a bottle back home. At the far end of the street, near Nevsky Prospect, two armed guards stood in front of a window draped with heavy curtains inside. The sign over the door this time was very easy to read: Flirt Bar. The guards were dressed paramilitary-style, hands on guns. Now and again, the curtains were pulled back to reveal dancing semi-naked women. The contrast between steel and skin – bare nipples and puffer jackets – was startling. If you lingered, you were asked to move along, or go in and pay.
We slipped into the bar next door, an unassuming place, grungy, with good music. It made me homesick for Berlin, where women can be punks and men don’t all look like soldiers. This bar, my friend told me, was where Paul McCartney had a drink on his tour in 2004. The Beatles are big in St Petersburg, even having a street named Johnna Lennononya. And sitting in the window of a café across town, I’d been shocked to see a very life-like doll of John Lennon, as if his Russian fans loved him so much, they’d stuffed him. As we sat, perhaps, on the same barstools Paul McCartney had sat on, I found it hard to forget the strip bar next door with its armed bodyguards. What about queer people? I asked my friend, hoping that because of her good English, she might be able to give me some insight. Were the laws against queer people enforced? How easy was it to be “out”?
She looked around the room and shushed me. A smile appeared on her face then faded but kept flickering around her face like a faulty neon sign, unsure whether to stay. Her answer was in a whisper.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
We smiled at each other in mutual confusion for a few seconds. And then moved on to safer topics.