Democracy, Literature, and the City at Night


October 11, 2012 by dsalkowski

Russians think that Americans need to get their act together – how can we have our election in a month and still not know who is going to win? While our conception of democracy is pretty novel in Putin’s Russia, it was a peculiarly empowering experience to cast my vote in St. Petersburg; not only do I hail from a country where we have not one, but two political parties, my consulate even provides free hamburgers and hot dogs to encourage voting!


Call it an earmark, if you will, but it made me proud to be an American, and it probably will be the only Federal Postcard write-in ballot from Russia that the St. George, SC election commission will receive. It might be the only blue vote they’ll receive, too, incidentally.
As a citizen-scholar, I have also been involving myself in cultural activities. I took the Crime and Punishment walking tour, seeing where Dostoevsky lived and where Raskolnikov killed those unlucky babushkas. I also happened upon that tricky devil, Major Kovalev’s nose, from Gogol’s The Nose, which, as it were we just read in Russian in my Lit class.

The Mushroom Festival

But the culture doesn’t end there; this past weekend was also the annual Mushroom Festival! Very interesting, indeed. These people have a real passion for hunting for organisms of the fungal variety. They also love a hunt for a good bargain; we made a little junket to a flee market on the northern edge of the city. Much to our surprise, they had a huge cache of U.S. Military apparel (I don’t want to know how they got it), and a great selection of Confederate Flags. So much for authentic Russian souvenirs.

I have been keeping an ear open everywhere for the music of Peter, and I am still far from comprehending the essence of the contemporary Russian aesthetic. Their relationship to Western music is varied. For example, the Jonas Brothers will be here soon, and most of the bottom-shelf American pop enjoys pretty solid success here, while we also heard a pretty obscure Chick Corea tune in the convenience store on the edge of town the other day. This freestyle rapper is a regular at our metro station. (Notice the rabbit in the right-hand corner; I think this does almost as much as the basketball to enhance the operation’s prestige.) He certainly makes a lot more rubles this way than do Tadhg and I busking.

On a slightly more established level, I have also taken advantage of a couple free concerts at the conservatory.  The first of the two was an illustration of the proverb that you get what you pay for: over two hours of traditional Russian folksong.  Wow, talk about strident vocal technique.  A cultural experience, nonetheless.  The next concert was an evening of brass music, which was right up my alley: Bach, Glazunov (the concert hall is named after him, as well), Poulanc, Richard Strauss.  The finale was the kind of performance you would only see in Russia; a fantasy on themes from Wagner’s Ring Cycle arranged for 16 French horns.  Bombastically lovely.

Glazunov Hall at St. Petersburg Conservatory

Since there is no word in Russian for “fun,” I was at first at a loss as to what young people do in their free time here.  A cultural remnant from the Soviet era is that you often have to know where to look if you want to find something, often down a sketchy-looking alley and a couple flights above (or below) street level.  Once you know where to look, you can find some cool things and meet some cool people, like our friend “Joe” (his girlfriend told us that his real name is Sasha, but he wanted to be a little more western), whom we met at the foosball table at Fish Fabrique.  He just moved to Peter from Moscow, but he wants to go to Austin Texas someday to follow the path of his idol, Stevie Ray Vaughan.  

There is also a pretty active “roofing” scene in Peter, which is actually pretty much exactly what it sounds like.  Young people find vacant buildings with good views of the city and turn the walls into their canvas.  Social life in Russia is congruous with everything else in Russia: all or nothing.  Today, we drink tea and talk about the weather; tomorrow, we climb a 15 story vacant building in the rain.

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One thought on “Democracy, Literature, and the City at Night

  1. Jay says:

    Sounds like you’re enjoying life. This is good to do. I received your postcard. I will also cast a blue vote. My classes are rough. These sentences are short.

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