Cecile and I found ourselves in a crowd of beaked babushkas, their perfume reeking nostalgically as we passed, calling to mind stuffy tea times in my grandma’s living room, surrounded by porcelain knick-knacks dusted with age. We found ourselves in a crowd of grim men with their bejeweled knuckles and leather-clothed backs—reminiscent of cinematic villains demanding ransom in foreign tongues whose frightful presence softened with a bitter sip. We found ourselves a short way away from the homes of superfluous gentlemen, sugar plum princesses and revolutionaries. We found ourselves just 30 minutes from Saint Petersburg.
Our taxi driver greeted us at the airport—his name was Nikolay. Wobbling ever so slightly with the same Russian enthusiasm that glittered in his eyes, he helped us hoist our luggage into the car, and we were off.
“What is the address?” he inquired. I offered him my phone. “Oh, yes,” he smiled. “You are right next to the clubbing street.”
“Excuse me?” Cecile said. “Clubbing?” She looked at me, horrified. I was the one that booked the hostel and had been more attracted to its price than its location. My shoulders responded, “I dunno, man!”
Conversation fluctuated between tidbits of Saint Petersburg informatica and quotidian vignettes of Nikolay’s life. He would mention that his son was studying aeronautics, followed by a cursory wave at Stalin’s home, its architecture lining the boulevard that connected the airport to the city. He recommended visiting the city’s art collections, housed in old palaces. “Saint Petersburg has been voted first in Europe for its galleries, you know.” When I complimented his English (a shocking level of fluency relative to the general Russian population, as we would learn in the ensuing days), he revealed he spent many years in Namibia working for the Russian government.
An imposing building passed on our right.
“You see that guy? On the building? Lenin. A former Communist building. He’s pointing to the West, an architectural mistake.” A teasing grin.
His openness slightly surprised us, as we were anxious about our apparent Americanness, an anxiety that did not lessen throughout the trip. Nevertheless, as a dutiful pair of now-relaxed government majors, we peppered our new friend with questions to learn more about this country so prominent in the news back home.
“What do Russians think of their Communist past?”
“We generally think of the Communist past as the past.” He turned on his blinker, made a turn and a white Orthodox nunnery with golden cupolas appeared. “The current Communist party is relatively strong,” he gestured with his hands to say “so-so,” “and relatively old. They are ready to fight for the rights of the working class. The rich are getting rich, and the poor are getting poorer—you have this too, from what I have heard.”
“But now,” he added, “you will see that we have many nice buildings. But some of them need to get painted. They won’t get painted by the government like in the old days; they have to be painted by the owners. Like Moses, he took Jews to the desert. So, someone needs to take our stuffy parliament somewhere to the sand and get rid of the Communist mentality. People think, ‘Why must I pay for things? The government will pay for me.’”
“And the younger generations? What do they think?”
“Ah, the younger generations. There are two types of youth. One wants to study, in order to get a nice job. We don’t have enough hands for work because of the wars and revolutions. Our unemployment rate is low because of our growing population. My son, who is studying in the aerospace university, wants to make a lot of money in the future. He was working the computers at a large bank last summer. If you do well in school, the government will pay for your life at university, beyond tuition. Our universities are good and free.”
We passed some children clutching to their balloons.
“You see those balloons?” He flicked his head. “People go to balloon stores and suck up all the helium out of those machines for fun, to get high. Our country is advanced, so we have all the fun in the world!” he added sarcastically.
“And the other youth?” I reminded him, hoping he would finish his thought.
“Yes, the other youth. The other believes that if Putin goes, we will have a good life. A revolutionary with no idea. They would run after the police to get a picture for Western television, so that the European Human Rights Committee has a case. They take photos with iPhones paid for by their parents. They provoke the riot police by protesting in the city center. They are loud, but without pride. All of this noise, we already had. Everyone will have a good life here if you work.”
Noise—I thought of Facebook posts, Instagram captions, Twitter hashtags encouraging resistance. But what is the right way to resist? In a span of three weeks, I will have listened to the phantom ticking of the wound-up clock in the Hermitage frozen at 2:10 a.m., marking the Bolshevik Revolution in Saint Petersburg; walked the Tuileries gardens, grown on the ruins of the Tuileries Palace, where King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded, starting the Reign of Terror; and strolled Karl Marx Boulevard of the former East Berlin.
When does resistance spur violence? I thought of a conversation I shared with a friend’s father over dinner this past summer. He had been an artist, a photographer and revolutionary himself at a former time and different place. “You need to extinguish every other possible option before you’re willing to bleed,” he said.
The taxi slowed as the fluorescent lights of our hostel lit up through our windows. Nikolay helped our luggage to the curb and wished us a nice stay. Then, the outline of his back receded into the bustling crowd that filled the street. Just another in a crowd amongst the beaked, the grim and the rebelling.