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Russia's Treasure-House

Searching for the past on the eve of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, a former foreign correspondent finds the future

By the time of the Russian Revolution, the café had disappeared except in the memory of Leningrad intellectuals. When glasnost came to Russia in 1986, Vladimir Sklyarsky, a theater director, descended into the old Stray Dog basement. “It was full of water and rats,” recalls his wife, Evgenia Aristova. “I thought it was Utopian to think about restoring it.”

 

The undaunted Sklyarsky, who was ill the day I visited, managed to enlist colleagues, along with arts students and preservationists, to his cause. He stripped the café’s walls to bare brick, and in a whitewashed passageway encouraged St. Petersburg artists to draw caricatures, scrawl autographs, write a line of verse. It took 15 years, but in 2001 the Stray Dog reopened.

 

Most nights now there’s a poetry reading, a one-man play or a musical performance. The night I was there, three actors staged a stark, biographical drama surveying the life of the poet Osip Mandelstam, a contemporary of Akhmatova’s who perished in Stalin’s camps. The little basement room was full of people, young and old, holding hands, sipping drinks, smoking furiously and applauding the performers.

 

But by 9:30 p.m., the café was largely empty. “Poetry lovers can’t afford to eat and drink enough,” Evgenia Aristova sighed. Sometimes, she added, they bring their own vodka in pocket flasks, rather than buy drinks at the bar.

 

Founded in 1738, the VaganovaBalletAcademy has occupied the same creamy white-and-gold complex of neoclassical buildings since 1836. In 1957, the academy, whose graduates include such dance giants as George Balanchine, Nijinsky, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev and Anna Pavlova, was renamed in honor of Agrippina Vaganova, the legendary teacher who presided there from 1921 to 1951. In her memoirs, Pavlova described the school as a “convent whence frivolity is banned and merciless discipline reigns.”

 

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