Russia's Treasure-House

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

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(Continued from page 10)

Tonight, in the hotel café, we order shrimp and beer, catching up on old times. He has divorced and remarried and now has grandchildren. He also has a new apartment he wanted to show to me. We walked up Nevsky Prospekt in a chill rain, first turning from a side street to the building where he maintains a studio. Inside, he pulled from the shelf a recently published book of his photographs, spanning the 1970s to the late ’90s. Valery specializes in portraits of people in the arts—actors, writers, musicians. As I leafed through the pages, it struck me that the book could be seen as an elegy to the last generation of Russian artists to mature and work under Soviet power. Baryshnikov was there, looking very young. So were many others who had never gotten out of the country, never been permitted to flower.


We left the studio, walking through a courtyard to arrive at a new six-story apartment building with spacious terraces. “This is my new place,” Valery said with obvious pride. His apartment is on the top floor. In the foyer we remove our shoes. He shows me the bathroom, with its Jacuzzi-style tub; the big kitchen; the sleeping alcove; the large main room, still barely furnished. He turned on the stereo: Ella Fitzgerald, a mutual favorite. We stepped out onto his terrace.


The rain had let up, but the night air was still misty. Valery gestured across the street to an old building, its windows gaping. It was, presumably, a candidate for either renovation or demolition. It reminded me of the building his cramped Moscow flat was in. “You remember how in the Soviet days, all the reporting from America always called it ‘a land of contrasts’?” he asked me. “How they always showed there were poor people next to the normal people?” I nodded.“Well,” he said proudly, gesturing from his new building to the one across the street, “now we’re a land of contrasts!”


I smiled. The old “land of contrasts” theme had, of course, been little more than journalistic jargon, about as valid as any assertion I might make today that St. Petersburg has become a normal European city. A century of calamity and misrule cannot be overcome quickly, not even in a decade. But as we stood on the terrace of that new building, looking out over the city’s roofs, it seemed possible to believe that in its fourth century this stately, resilient city might finally become a place where its gifted, courageous people could lead the lives they deserve.

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