Defenders of the Fatherland Day… my memory is a blur. The day started off quite normal, minus school, and after asking Natalia present ideas for Yevganey and getting the answer, "Beer. He likes beer." “Um, anything else?” “No.”, I ran out and picked up a couple of nice German brews from the local alcohol store. Dinner was insane. Yevganey insisted on sharing the beers, and then commenced distributing shots of vodka – one to the Red Army, one to the officers of the Red Army (Yevganey’s former occupation), and one to continued peace between the US and Russia
. It’s less treasonous than it sounds when you consider that the Red Army no longer exists, they never fought US troops, and they are largely responsible for defeating the Nazis – at least that’s how I’m rationalizing it. Dinner included pate (which I was intoxicated enough to actually try), massive amounts of bread, some fish, meat, pasta, fruit, pretzels, and a large assortment of mayonnaise-tastic salad combinations. After several shouts of “Ya pyanaya!” (I’m drunk!) from Natalia, we proceeded to the living room to watch two hours of home videos, including: Yevganey on his ice breaker ship (incredibly cool), footage taken in Murmansk (his port), and a great deal of the family at the datcha in summer time (surprisingly warm and very green). Lastly, the night was crowned with an astounding red, green, blue, and white fireworks display shot off of a barge on the Neva – less than a mile away. It was all absolutely glorious, and so exceptionally Russian that it doesn’t even seem real – but life is often stranger than fiction.
I crawled into bed, slept through my first class the next day, and was just recovering when two days later a student’s 21st birthday hit, followed the next night by another, and then Natalia’s birthday on Sunday, and then the Baltika tasting on Wednesday. I think my body is now 25% alcohol, and that this country is fantastically insane
. Natalia’s birthday was absolutely wonderful. Her and Yevganey’s oldest friends, a couple who they lived in communal housing with during the Soviet days of four families to an apartment, joined us, as did their daughter, granddaughter, and another friend of the family. The husband of the couple is an ex-Communist Party bigwig, and the family friend just fled her job teaching windsurfing in Egypt – seriously. We had another wide assortment of mayonnaisey salads, cold cuts, raw salmon, cucumbers, grapes, rice, and deliciously cheesy meat. Tumblers of champagne, glasses of wine, shots of vodka, and shots of cognac were copiously distributed. By the grace of god and most likely the look on my face, Yevganey finally just started giving me small shots of wine to take instead of vodka –there were seven guests, and Russians continuously circle around the table for toast, after toast, after toast. I thought I was safe, until cake and shots of Baileys arrived, and I began to pray for some sort of natural disaster to spare me, my liver, and the large amount of homework I still needed to do – being as all of this is happening at three in the afternoon. The third shot of Baileys I point blank refused, but was able to make up for it later by helping Natalia upload all of the pictures I took for her to “kontaktya”, the Russian version of facebook. This officially earned me the title of her “American daughter”, and we have been quite buddy buddy ever since.
The Baltika tour was a surprising combination of stress, terror, intrigue, awe, and hilarity – with an extra heaping of hilarity. Due to a scheduling error, the entire group of 40 students had to speed walk the two miles to the metro, and the actual Baltika bus was not there to meet us, so we piled, standing room only, into marshrootkas (ultra sketch privately operated transportation vans, like the ones in Huangshan in China)
. I was lucky enough to be in the marshrootka with the driver who decided it wasn’t worth his time to drive all
the way to the brewery, and instead dropped us off on the highway, ¾ of a mile from the factory – in the middle of absolutely NOTHING. To the right: barren snowy wasteland. To the left: barren snowy wasteland. To the back: barren snowy wasteland. And, to the front, the six foot wide, one way road leading from the brewery, continuously occupied by massive, zooming, smog spewing semi-trucks. We formed a single file on the side of the road and proceeded to leap frog to the brewery, throwing ourselves up onto the snow bank each time a truck flew by. From the outside the brewery looked absolutely terrible – ancient white and blue rusted paint, giant smokestacks, mud roads everywhere – but inside it was like the Wonka Factory of alcohol. We checked all of our coats and cameras and were led inside by a hysterical pot-bellied Russian man who spewed out astounding facts, “Produce over a billion bottles a year. Largest brewery in Europe. Producing at maximum capacity 24 hours a day. Two dozen18 meter high tanks. Awarded world’s best beer. Etc.” as nonchalantly as you would read a grocery list. The tour was fantastic – the wonderful smells, the clink of thousands of glass bottles on an assembly line, the beeping of forklifts, the copper beauty of the microbrewery – all amazing. But, the most amazing came at the end, when the man pulled out a set of keys, unceremoniously announced, “There are, of course, sections of the tour that not everyone
gets to see…”, and opened a set of inconspicuous double doors to reveal a massive and fully equipped bar positioned directly in the middle of the factory
. Two dozen wooden tables were lined with bags of chips, peanuts, plastic cups, and rows and rows of Baltika’s many many beer brands. “Help yourselves.” Needless to say, a good time was had by all. If you can track them down in the States, it is my pleasure to recommend Baltika 9, Baltika 6 (porter), and Old Bobby (English-style).
Our group trip to Peter and Paul Fortress was incredibly snowy, but spectacular. The fortress was the first major building constructed by Peter the Great, for the purpose of defending the new city against potential attack by the Swedes, but expanded to include a small but glorious cathedral, an incredibly notorious prison, and a massive armory museum. The cathedral now houses the tombs of all of the Tsars since Peter, the most famous being himself, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II. I cannot even tell you how immensely tinglingly cool it was to be standing two feet away from the marble encased bodies of Peter and Catherine the Great. And, to be walking the same prison hallways that Pushkin, Gorky, and Dostoevsky wandered during their respective incarcerations. We have been reading a great deal of Dostoevsky in Civilization, and Pushkin in Arts – and both are addictingly fantastic. Pushkin’s description of St. Petersburg in the introduction to Bronze Horseman, “I love thee, Peter’s proud creation. Thy princely stateliness of line. The regal Neva coursing, patient, 'twixt sober walls of massive stone. The iron lacework of thy fences. Thy wistful, moonless, lustrous nights, dusk-clothed but limpid. I love thy chaste, inclement winter with its bracing and moveless air. The lusty bite and pinch of frost, the sledges racing on Neva’s banks, the bloom of bright young cheeks. The ballroom’s noise and glitter, and, at a bachelor’s get-together, the hiss and sparkle of iced champaigne and punch bowls topped with bluish flame
.” perfectly captures the beauty and majesty of this city – and yet the tale in its entirety is one of sadness, doom, and frustration meant to cause the reader to question the glory of both St. Petersburg and Peter. Dostoevsky, as well, when taken at face value or quoted out of context can be used to trumpet causes and beliefs which he is actually condemning. We’ve been using “Brothers Karamazov” to debate the nature of man, and the role that religion and politics play in controlling, influencing, aiding, and hampering this nature. I love and strongly believe in Rakitin’s statement, “Humanity will find in itself the power to live for virtue even without believing in immortality. It will find it in love for freedom, for equality, for fraternity
.” But, Rakitin is the villain of this story - and Dostoevsky believes man is naturally evil and cannot be good without a true fear of god, “If there is no immortality there is no virtue and everything is lawful.
” Russian writers are complex, unique, and incredibly thought provoking – and the “Peterburgian” school simply takes this to an entirely different level
So, that’s skimming the surface of the last two weeks. Hanging out in St. Pete’s, exploring museums and fortresses, reading mind blowing literature, touring breweries, meeting intriguing people, trying to stave off alcoholism, trudging through -22 snowstorms one week, and taking advantage of +33 degrees the next to lace up the Chucks, pull on a t-shirt, and skip to the metro in the sunshine (in all honesty, there was a jacket on over the t-shirt, and it was more of a joyful stroll than a skip - but still). Three days until Women’s Day, twelve days until St. Patrick’s, twenty days until Moscow, and twenty-three days until Rome. This may just be a March for the ages. A belated happy Men's Day to the twelve men on this mailing list (especially you, Poppalopalous!), and all of you non-mailing list male readers as well!
Another fantastic two weeks down, and time is beginning to fly by at a degree that only be described as bafflingly terrifying. And, what a two weeks it was: Men's Day, Natalia’s 65th birthday, two more 21st birthday parties, Peter & Paul Fortress, Baltika Brewery, and temperature highs in the low 30’s. Russia, you do know how to make amends!