Today was intense on many levels.
We walked over what seems like it must be the entire city but in reality was only about 1/5 of it. St. Petersburg is not like other European cities. It has enormous, wide streets that put California to shame, blocks that go on forever, with oddly repeating buildings so that one feels like one is on a loop, and the distances are just vast. I guess there was room enough in Russia not to skimp on the mileage here, but ye gods, my feet are killing me. Not!Leningrad combines the walkability of suburban Ohio with indifferent subway coverage. We have not tried the trolleys yet, as the scale involved only became clear to us today. The maps make it all look so close, but truly, they cajole and lie and make a fool of human hearts. Once you start walking, the city telescopes and all of the sudden you're staring down three miles of long, icy thoroughfare. Oh, look, it's only a block away! MWA HA HA. BLOCK IS INFINITE. CITY MOCKS WESTERNER.
It also started snowing today. Which was beautiful, and soft, and lovely.
We started out at the Anna Ahkmatova museum--now, normally, I hate museums. I am skirting the idea of skipping the Hermitage. I know this makes me a bad person and fit for reviling, but the thing is, museums are dead, enshrined culture, and I would so much rather make my way among the living, tasting and breathing the real and alive city, trying to scry out its heart. I see images online all day. The difference between that and a long white antispetic hall with more images hung on it, often the same images I've seen in other media, is less than you might think. With so little time in any one place, I'm always loathe to spend it in a closed space where I cannot touch anything, or smell anything, or even hear anything, usually. I live enough of my life in a purely visual realm.
But for my darling poetesses I make exceptions. Because it's her house. Where she lived, when she lived here, before the war, before she was evacuated in 1941. My passion for Ahkmatova's work has only grown over the last several years, and sitting in her room, looking out on the golden autumn garden with the first snowflakes drifting down past flitting crows to settle on glistening red rosehips--I had to go. I had to be there. It is an amazing place. I try to imagine it filled with people, with writers making inside jokes and getting drunk and being afraid and giving each other jokey awards and just being kids, the way I and my writerly friends are kids, only Anna and her friends were under a shadow, and most of them were killed, including her husband and son. Everything about Russia seems to start out as a story Americans would find familiar--raconteur writers, dashing, charismatic poetess at the center of it all, city on the verge of war--and then goes to a place so unimaginably awful that even telling the story of what happened here in those days is an act of bloodletting that most westerners avoid entirely.
So after that we went to the Siege of Leningrad museum. Now, there's almost no translation there, but I've seen all those photographs before in my research, and I knew what most of the exhibits were. We saw Tanya Savicheva's diary, and a preserved bread ration which made me feel ill--so tiny, and made with little more than sawdust. But that's what you expect in a museum dedicated to an atrocity committed in wartime.
I didn't know that the guides, the guard, even the coat check woman were all Blockade survivors. (Or as the guard kept calling it: the Affair of Leningrad.) We sat quietly by with Dmitri whispering translation as a PhD student (who turned out to be a fellow Edinburgh University grad) interviewed the guard. She laughed at some of the questions: didn't they teach you about the war in school? I was only a child. Ask the tour guide, she remembers more. Then we followed her to the coat check room, where the woman who remembers the most, having been a teenager, had the day off, and Galina, who was three, and evacuated with the children of Leningrad, told us the very little she remembers, and much more about her orphanage and life bouncing from one family to another after all but her much older sister were killed in the Blockade.
It is very, very hard to keep from crying when those stories are told. When Galina herself teared up talking about the first victory day celebration twenty years later. How she doesn't remember her parents' faces. She was so beautiful and serene, and yet this thing that happened when she was three dominates her entire life.
We walked in the cold after that, down into the impossibly deep subway, where underground, marble pillars and bronze stars shine, polished and bright. Through the streets on Vasilevsky Island, with their sherbet-colored cathedrals and apartments, everything ice-cream and custard colored, yellow and pink and pale green with white piping. We ate solyanka and cabbage and sausage and looked out at the Neva, which is close enough to freezing to have that extra sheen of water that wants to go to ice but can't quite manage it yet. I thought a lot about how much I hate American WWII movies and the whole narrative of that war for us, which ignores so much and rearranges everything else so that it all ends with a lantern-jawed GI hero stomping a cartoonish Hitler single-handedly. American cinema and politics love WWII because it was an easy war for us--the bad guys were nice enough to wear black and twirl their mustaches. It wasn't an easy war here, and people are still living in the same places, the same apartments where it happened. Galina told us that after the war she and her sister just came back and lived in the same apartment. Palimpsests on palimpsests, writing and rewriting a city.
We watched streetdogs all day, handsome black gentlemen, nosing carefully for bones. We watched the night fall suddenly, utterly, and talked about the old days, how they never really end, or begin, but just keep going, forever, like a dark street.