Letter from St Petersburg
Rosetta Allan goes to Russia in search of monsters.
The view from the aeroplane window had been blue, blue, blue – underscored by white, white, white – for several hours. Then there was grey, and the white banked away. Below was a stretch of land – black barren winter trees, brown frost bitten countryside contrasted by white snow thin and beautiful and melting in the spring sun.
I was like a child looking out the window, my heart in my mouth as we descended into Pulkovo air terminal. I was prepared for anything. Well, I thought so anyway. I donned my brand new Kathmandu feather-down jacket and pulled on my most practical leather boots, expecting the cold to rush in as soon as the airplane doors opened. I had come to take up my position at the St Petersburg Art Residency – my first journey into a non-English speaking nation, as well as my very first writer’s residency. I was ready and eager to get started.
The Pulkovo terminal was a surprisingly small airport for a city of six million, and somewhat basic. Hands-on in a way that I would later realise is one of the idiosyncrasies of a country still adjusting in many ways from the era of Soviet-style manpower.
My first lessons were: All interiors are heated to a subtropical temperature. There are no English signs, anywhere. There are no smiling assistants. If you need help, don’t expect anyone to care. There is no special queue for foreigners. In fact, you get the feeling that although St Petersburg is a tourist destination, the place as a whole really doesn’t want you there, except perhaps the young man/boy who keeps winking at you from the next queue.
When the green light buzzes you can make your way into one of the enclosed boxes that look like portable lunch rooms from a construction site, where a miserable security person considers for quite some time, without speaking, whether she will let you enter the country. If you have brought NZ honey with you as a gift, the declarations officer will look at you as though you are an absolute twit for wasting her time with it. Don’t hug the intern waiting outside with your name on a placard – she will freeze and stare back at you and blink. Don’t expect the woman at the currency exchange counter to speak English. Don’t expect her computer to work when it’s your turn to exchange your money. Don’t assume the swarms of men outside with laminated taxi signs hung around their necks are official taxi drivers.
Within five minutes of landing, and for the first week of my stay, I experienced culture shock – or, in writer’s mode, I was the ‘other’, floating around in a foreign city, unable to communicate my needs, unable to figure out the metro, the bus system or even the street layout. I was stuck, happily, in some kind of Gothic space-warp, and loving it.
Outside the taxi window, every surface looked brushed with a dirty brown taint. Barbed wire and barren soil. There was a pared-back kind of existence I hadn’t expected, and even though my accommodation was right in the middle of the city, this gritty existence was evident in the crumbling balconies of the beautiful buildings, in the dirty streets that followed you indoors on your boots, in the sudden foul rush of sewer odour, and in the note above the tap advising you to drink only purchased bottled water.
Pushkinskaya Street was lovely though. Pretty and quiet. A statue of the poet Pushkin in the centre of a street lined by two consistent rows of the 18th century northern baroque style architecture with elegant detailing, elaborate figurines from Greek mythology, scrolls and carved doorways, all coloured in warm autumn hues.
The St Petersburg Art Residency is situated at number 10 Pushkinskaya Street in the building that houses the Centre for Non-Conformist Art, located to the south west of the inner city. The centre is a living commune/museum/art gallery/music hall/music studio, with many, many doors: you may enter only if the artist who lives or works there invites you in, by way of leaving their door open.
The back entrance of the Centre passes through two arched tunnels, one belonging to their building, the other to a red/brown seven-story block of apartments with twin turrets, a common feature of the area. This side is situated on Ligovsky Prospekt, a main artery with the busiest metro station in St Petersburg right across the road, and right next to the Galeria – an exclusive mall that has been evacuated several times this year due to bomb threats. The street of Ligovsky Proskpekt is a constant flood of people clenched against the cold and six lanes of traffic, all of them in a hurry.
I soon learned to take the chidings of shop assistants, and security guards in my stride, apologising through sign language while they shook their heads. This was certainly the case at the Kunstkammer, the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, one of the oldest museums in the world, founded by Peter the Great. I went to see the anatomical specimens, skeletons and assorted freaks pickled in jars, and possibly even Rasputin’s penis (unfortunately not on display). It took me ninety minutes to walk there in the rain because I was so overwhelmed by the underground metro system that I just couldn’t figure it out.
After finding the front door, locating the right counter for foreigners, and securing my ticket to enter the museum (without any signs in English), I ventured upstairs to enter the exhibition halls. There I was accosted by an extraordinarily cross woman, who pushed me back down the stairs. At the bottom sat a security guard, an older man, miffed at having to get up from his stool. He seemed to be telling me off too. I shrugged my shoulders and meekly said ‘English’. He pointed to a set of stairs that went down into a cellar, and I wondered if there was a different entrance for foreigners too.
Down there was the largest coat-check area I have ever seen. Women moving along a stretch of wood and windows, all of them uniformed with aprons in a retro fashion. There my jacket, scarf and gloves were taken, and I was finally free to experience the exhibits without trouble. Until I tried to exit through the entrance, by which time I couldn’t help laughing: even the security man smiled as he ushered me through a warren of narrow hallways I would never have found on my own, out a small wooden latch door and onto the street beside the Neva, once again in the pouring rain on my own.
As much as I like the exotic sensation of difference, I have to admit that my first week was tough. Mary Shelley wrote that nothing ‘is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.’ But nothing is wasted either, in the mind of the artist, and it pulled something completely unexpected from within me that poured into my art.
Before leaving for St Petersburg, I’d completed an online MOOC on the Gothic revival. While on the residency I couldn’t help perceiving the strangeness of my experiences inside a Gothic frame. It became a mind game, and when I was invited to participate in the St Petersburg Annual Poetry Convention, I let it loose and wrote poetry full of the play of Gothic tropes.
Actually, being invited wasn’t exactly what happened. One of the founding poets and artists of the art centre, Sergey Kovalsky, interviewed me. Initially he seemed unimpressed (in a typically aloof Russian way). I was presented with his book of poetry, based on his theory of ‘parrallelosphere’, which encompasses the struggles of the centre in times of Soviet rule, and the fight artists like himself took part in for the freedom of expression. He asked if I understood what it meant. I didn’t, though I said that I did, and asked for the book overnight so I could try to figure it all out before we next met.
That was a difficult task. Although the residency is run predominantly in English, the book was in Russian. I did find one essay in English in the back of a solid book published about the Pushkinskaya-10 centre, and I discovered two very helpful assistants at the visual arts gallery who spoke English. By the time we met again at the poetry convention, I was filled with respect for the artists and their fight for artistic freedom, as well as the right to occupy the building in which I was resident. The artists had squatted in that building for decades, refusing to give up, though some of them were exiled, some killed in deliberately lit studio fires, and some jailed for so long that their exhibitions were banned and carried out in secret ‘apartment shows’ that would shift throughout the city.
The Centre is now a monument to the victory of free culture over conformist Soviet ideology, and is the sole independent and self-organised artist commune that has survived for over 25 years. I was the first New Zealand art resident, and the first also to attend the St Petersburg Annual Poetry Convention. It was such an honour to stand on that stage and speak about the importance of poetry in our country. The residency provided me with a translator who brought my poems to life in a completely different way than I have ever experienced. They fizzed like sparklers in her hands, and I was free to watch the audience listen and respond.
Afterwards I felt more comfortable. I stopped projecting my fears into my surroundings and instead opened myself up to the uniqueness of St Petersburg. In turn, I felt that St Petersburg opened itself to me. I figured out the metro and the bus system, how to order food by pointing and smiling; I left secret tips for cleaners under plates, and wandered the streets for hours babbling on in English as though I was being understood. I’ve read recently that joy is the opposite of fear, and that’s what I think happened: I simply stopped being afraid, and realised that the monsters I had come looking for were all my own.
I imagine that I still make some of them laugh, especially at the knife store in the Galeria. I was preparing for my end of residency show: I come in search of Monsters – the kiwi poet’s Gothic perspective of St Petersburg. There were to be five poems in both English and Russian with objects to speak to each of them. For the poem The monster with the bread and the knife, I required a hefty-looking knife to be thrust, rather didactically, into the head of a loaf of bread on a plinth. At the knife store I asked if they understood English. ‘A little,’ one of them said. So I rambled on about my knife and motioned how I wanted to jam it into the top of my loaf of bread. The assistant nodded, unlocked a display and handed me a rather brutal-looking titanium hunting knife while he attached its holster to my belt and Velcroed the straps around my leg. I felt very Lara Croft, but I’m sure whatever it was he thought I wanted to kill, it wasn’t a loaf of bread.
During the last week of my residency I noticed my smiles being returned. Even Sergey’s eyes lit up when we greeted each other. There were definitely still times of frustration and misunderstandings. Often I would return to my room feeling battered by the difficulty of simple things. Like the exchange of a jacket I brought for my husband in the wrong size, which took half an hour and five attendants to figure out, one of whom was definitely berating me in Russian, but came up to me later, between aisles of coats, to apologise. Fortunately apologies are universal. As is gratitude and joy – not hard to understand in a foreign language.
My residency was a deliberately short one – three weeks in all, but still one of the richest experiences of my life. The two staff of the residency, Liza and Anastasia, were amazing. On my last day they drove me an hour out of St Petersburg to the Nevsky Bridgehead site, where the Siege of Leningrad was so intense that every square metre is the burial/death site of at least 12 men. In all, 29 villages were destroyed in this one area, one of the most vital positions to be held if the Russians were to win the fight against the German invasion – which, of course, they did.
In that field we discovered WWII helmets, shovels, hand-grenades, and bombs lying about, some of it displayed by diggers who had come and gone before us. There were broken bricks and porcelain from the old villages that no longer exist. I sensed the presence of an entire other ‘other’ while there, and acknowledged them out of earshot of Liza and Anastasia. Right at that moment, I felt my current novel-in-progress shift, just as it did when I visited the site of the Finnegans in my first novel, Purgatory. Somehow, visiting the sites of my stories brings my characters to life, and on the drive back to the residency, I knew that two or possibly three of my novel’s characters would be spending a great deal of time situated in that small village, and that the Neva itself had just become a very important character itself in the story.
I found my way into the residency through the novel I am currently writing, but I found my way into the city of St Petersburg through poetry. I hadn’t come to write poetry: I had come to research my novel. But there was something about being in the strangeness of this foreign environment that drove me inside myself in an investigative way, in a melancholic way. I found an absolutely unexpected focused energy, and the decision to allow it space alongside the research for my novel was the right one.
My end-of-residency show was exhibited in the small gallery of the Centre and attended by Friday-night visitors, as well as several of the original artists who fought for the establishment of the Pushkinskaya-10 Centre for Non-conformist Art. We drank Georgian wine and devoured six bags of pineapple lumps. I discussed my experience of St Petersburg and read one of the poems, after which the audience were free to read the poems on the walls in both languages and view the objects I had collated to speak to the poems. The most popular items were those from the field of fallen soldiers. A shoe with nails hammered through the soles, a piece of broken porcelain from a ruined village, wire from a barricade fence, and a thickness of greenstone brought from New Zealand and given to honour the digger who has dedicated 18 years of his life to recovering bones of the lost soldiers.
What I have on my return home is an idea of the character of the people of Russia, an understanding of the layout and history of St Petersburg for my novel, and the unexpected start of a new collection of poetry. I plan to return to St Petersburg when the poetry collection is complete, this time not as a stranger with monsters in my head.
Rosetta Allan is the author of two collections of poetry, Little Rock (2007) and Over lunch (2010), and the historical novel Purgatory (2014). She received a Creative New Zealand Arts Grant in 2015 towards writing her second novel, set in post-Soviet Russia and Kazakhstan.