COUNTRY OF PROVENANCE
I ended up at Vladya’s place in the centre of Saint Petersburg during my Transiberian journey because he was a friend of Sasha, my host on Couchsurfing.
Sasha and Saint Petersbourg - Transiberian
Sasha opened the door of his house to me one morning at the beginning of August at 7 am. He presented himself, tall and very thin, at the door of his palace in fuchsia sweatpants, slippers, and a garbage bag in his hand. He hosted me in St. Petersburg, he wrote to me spontaneously when I published my travel dates on Couchsurfing and, despite having no references, I immediately trusted his kindness. I didn’t expect him to be very funny.
After throwing the trash, he invited me to go up by the elevator, one of those claustrophobic typical of the Soviet blocs. His apartment at the 8th floor is made up of small spaces: a small bathroom, a 2 by 2-meter kitchen, a bedroom and a living room with a sofa bed for me. All the furniture is old, it was his grandmother’s house and he did nothing to improve it. As he prepares breakfast for me, he observes me with surprise and amusement, I am the first foreign person who enters his house.
He proposes to be my guide, it’s Saturday and he doesn’t work, he wants to show me his city, St. Petersburg. Elegant buildings, the river, the gardens are the backdrop to our chat. He wants to give me an idea of where I am, he is very proud to be Russian. After passing the Winter Palace he tells me that it’s time to eat “Russian fast food“: chorba – the soup – and pirogy, a sort of stuffed ravioli.
We walk a few more hours and then he proposes to me to go to the house of a friend of his who lives in the centre, Vladimir (but this is another story and you can read it here), and upon returning home after dinner he says he wants to take me to see the bridges. It is now one o’clock at night and the countless bridges of Saint Petersburg (tips) are raised to allow merchant ships to pass. He starts talking about the war, the war between Russia and Ukraine for Crimea.
– Crimea was a Russian territory until Khrushchev decided to give it to the Ukrainians. One of my best friends is Ukrainian, well, the Russians feel Ukrainians like brothers, and they would never have imagined this war, Sasha says sadly.
Crimea is now back in Russian hands, but it is not a reason for national pride. Everything is done for economic power, for money, and this war also has that purpose. Sasha continues:
– It is difficult to know the history because the books are continually rewritten according to what is the official version of the moment, it is impossible to know the truth. The whole past is a great maze.
Once in Moscow I will have a better understanding of what Sasha is saying to me. St. Petersburg is so European, its inhabitants so close to us, but in Moscow I will realize how much the communist symbols are taking over again. St. Petersburg celebrates Peter the Great, founder of the city and emperor of the nation (Radika). Communism and Greater Russia are celebrated in Moscow, the difference is abysmal.
Sasha talks to me about his emptiness, the emptiness due to breaking up with a girlfriend that loved Italy. He still loves her, you can see it from the expression on his face, the eyes that become shiny and the cheekbones that blush to pull back the tears. He tried Couchsurfing to fill that void with something new, even going against the rules of his profession.
Hanging behind the front door of the little apartment I notice a military uniform; I hadn’t noticed it before. Sasha works for the army and the military must protect state secrets, so it is forbidden for them to travel or contact foreigners. Hosting me at his home is illegal! That’s why he motioned for me to keep quiet when we got into the elevator, probably the neighbours don’t have to know.
Sasha is deeply Russian, a man under 30 whose features may resemble those of a Soviet worker, an astronaut, or an experimental physicist. I see the struggle within himself for the fact that he is breaking the rules, but at the same time he is happy to experience that openness that we, in Europe, take almost for granted.
The roofs of Saint Petersbourg
The people of St. Petersburg have a passion for roofs.
– Do you want to go to the roof? Sasha tells me.
– The roof of your building? I ask.
– No, the one opposite to mine.
The building opposite to Sasha’s block is a former abandoned textile factory. We enter through a window that does not have a railing. Inside is a disaster: shards, pieces of furniture and machinery, dirt at will. The path Sasha knows is blocked by a kind of refrigerator placed sideways. I suggest that we get out of what was once an internal courtyard to find another entrance.
So we do and enter another door. There are stairs that go up, many steps are broken, there is no handrail, but concrete holds up. We climb. We reach the third floor and I place my foot on a dancing step, I go forward fast and Sasha stops me:
– If something strange happens, don’t react. He tells me serious.
– What do you mean? Can there be other people? I ask him.
I’m scared of course, but I give him my hand and keep going up. Sasha sheds light on his cell phone. Here, we are practically on the top floor, there is a window on the right, we must pass from there … but below there is the void! I think “something will need last year’s climbing class!” Because that’s exactly what we have to do, go up the windowsill and climb a piece of wall to the right to get on the roof next to it.
Too bad that Sasha is at least 20 centimetres taller than me and has much longer legs! I won’t back down. Go ahead and I’ll follow him. We are on the first roof. Obviously, it is not enough because we must get to the top of the main tower, which will be at least 12-13 floors high, so we are only halfway there.
We walk on the roof and arrive at another window, but it is too high. There is a kind of staircase, or a metal structure similar to an iron staircase in which there are the lateral handrails where the hands rest and two other parallels immediately below which for the feet (no rungs!). We can hardly get up, climb over the window of the tower and only a few floors of a steep wooden ladder are missing to get to the top.
Finally, we are on the highest point of the tour and we sit on a small space. There is a full moon. From up here you can see the centre and the illuminated Saint Isaac’s Basilica stands out among the lights. The whole city is around us, invisible, on that roof of a factory to be demolished.
We remain an indefinite time in silence, then we go back down.
– Why did you decide to be a soldier? I ask him.
– Family tradition, tomorrow I’ll show you the photos.
Sasha doesn’t really want to talk. The fact that he cannot leave the country or that it is out of law to meet me is inconceivable for me, too great a limitation of personal freedom! And what is a person without his freedom?
Sasha wanted to accompany me to the station upon departure. We arrived at the platform of the night train to Moscow, we hugged and gave three kisses on the cheeks, Russian style. I got into the coach and he waited there until the train left. The man with me in the compartment greeted me saying “You leave a good friend here“.
Bye bye Sasha. I can continue the journey, discover your country, while you – same age as me – should remain here, in an unforgettable Soviet bloc, wearing your ironed uniform and the cap on your head, with a big heart full of kindness, to serve the your nation. All that glitters are not gold but the nights in St. Petersburg yes, gold and magic remain in my memories.