St Petersburg, day 2

We walk to the waterfront again in the morning. In the daylight we can see how shabby all the buildings are.

It was once forbidden to take photographs of the bridges; they were considered military targets. Nobody seems to care now.

We go in to a featureless shabby building. It turns out to be the bank; there’s a guard behind a screen in the outer lobby. Everything looks typically Soviet—faded painted official notices, dim lighting, institutional color paintwork, bored clerks. However, on one wall is an electronic display showing exchange rates.

Today’s official rate is 1416 rubles to the UK pound. We walk back out again. A soldier sitting in a jeep watches us, and makes a note of something on his clipboard.

Once we’re a discreet distance away, we suggest to Olga that an exchange rate of 1000 rubles per pound sterling seems very reasonable to us. She protests, and starts trying to work out the right amount on a piece of paper. I hand her £15 and badger her to hand me a round 15,000 rubles. She gives in.

A private currency transaction like this is still strictly illegal, though we suspect nobody will care too much for such a small amount of hard currency. However, we have other police business to attend to. Olga must report that we are staying with her, or she will risk a hefty fine for harboring foreigners illegally.

We call in at the police station, and check the times for reporting ourselves. Wednesday and Friday, 10-12a.m., so we’ll have to come back another time.

We cross the bridge to the Hermitage and the Winter Palace, now a giant museum of fine art. In spite of the peeling paint, the buildings in this part of the city are beautiful and majestic. The gold-coated domes of buildings in the distance glint in the sunlight.

I feel like I’ve landed on Mars. Having grown up during the Cold War, Russia has always been the distant enemy you’ll never see unless they invade… and now here I am, standing in Russia, surrounded by the enemy—and their children at play. It doesn’t seem real.

Olga has a word with a man standing guard at one of the rear doors of the Hermitage. He offers to let us in for free. Olga’s mother says it’s God thanking us for our earlier generosity.

The art collection encompasses European and Russian art, including Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet and DaVinci. I hear an American tour group go past; their guide says “These paintings are by Monet. He’s famous.”

Olga is our tour guide; she worked as an official guide for Intourist during her student days.

The building is incredibly over the top inside, and it reminds me of St Peter’s in Rome. There are dinner tables made of solid slabs of lapis lazuli, giant columns of green malachite, that sort of thing. And of course, there’s gold leaf everywhere.

The Golden Room, incredibly, has even more gold. It almost looks as though the Czar must have had King Midas as a houseguest. There’s so much splendor that it winds the dial right back around to tasteless again.

I find myself understanding why there was a revolution. OK, so Communism sucked, but the Czar wasn’t much better. At least after the revolution the people could look at all this stuff, even if they still lived in poverty.

For an afternoon snack, we have open sandwiches. Apparently Russians typically have breakfast, an afternoon meal at 3 or 4 p.m., and an evening meal at 8 or so.

We head into the middle of the city. At the Metro station there are women selling kotyonki, grey fluffy kittens.

The large state-owned shopping mall (like the famous Gum store in Moscow) has been privatized. The space is now taken up by hundreds of independent franchised shops. LEGO, VRs, Philips TVs, Tampax—you name it, you can get it. Assuming, that is, you can afford it.

The difference is stunning to XQ: “Mathew, I don’t believe it, they’ve got Toilet Duck!”

We consider getting some nice coffee for Olga, since we drank quite a lot of her Russian coffee the previous night. We decide that she would be insulted, and would assume that we were really buying it for ourselves because the Russian stuff tastes awful. Besides, unknown to her we have all kinds of non-perishable treats in our suitcases, including coffee—we’re hiding them until we leave, so she won’t serve them to us.

We walk down Nyevsky Prospekt, which is Leningrad’s equivalent of Oxford Street. (Officially renamed or not, everyone still calls it Leningrad.)

We pass a shiny new hotel, sticking out from its surroundings like a Rolls Royce in a junkyard. There aren’t any Rollers outside it, but there are a few BMWs. It’s a joint Russian-Western venture.

The skyline of the Square of the Uprising has been enhanced with a huge illuminated neon Philips sign. You can still see the Communist red star on the top of the obelisk, though.

We decide to visit a hard currency shop, as XQ has forgotten to bring shampoo. The idea of a hard currency shop is simple: it’s a place which actually stocks all the things you can’t get in a state-run store. The snag, if you’re Russian, is that they won’t take rubles in payment. To avoid time wasters, there’s a bouncer to keep out the riff-raff. He checks that we both have credit cards. This establishes that we have access to hard currency.

We look at the array of goods on offer, and fight off waves of guilt. We leave with shampoo and nothing else. Later at a kiosk we give in and buy two Snickers bars, and a hair band for XQ.

We notice that most of the people going into the hard currency stores look decidedly iffy. I wonder if there’s a special clothes store for con-men and crooks to buy suits at, as they look exactly like you’d expect a con artist to look like at home. Come to think of it, Boris Yeltsin looks like a used car salesman.

We visit the University where XQ stayed during her months here studying. In those days, it was still CCCP. I still can’t really believe I’m here. Everything seems so…normal. Well, apart from the crazy alphabet, anyway. XQ says it probably doesn’t seem strange because Leningrad is such a European city. In fact, walking along the wide streets of Vassilivski Island, I’m reminded of Boston, Massachusetts more than anywhere else.

Dinner that night is a big improvement on the first night. It’s a Siberian dish consisting of bits of meat wrapped up in tiny parcels of…well, pasta really. It’s basically Russian tortellini. They taste great, presumably far too good as they are served with vinegar. I make up for my inability to eat the previous night; this is one special treat I don’t have to force down.

Olga seems much happier once I’ve eaten, and so am I. For a while the day before I had been worrying that I’d find everything inedible, and end up raiding McDonald’s in Moscow.

I’m offered some genuine Russian vodka. Soviet issue, in fact. I feel obliged to try it. I imagine gasoline must taste quite similar, and I cough a bit. I decide it’s an acquired taste, and that I’d really rather not acquire it.

We watch the famous “600 Seconds” TV show on St Petersburg’s local TV channel. The camerawork is incredibly amateurish, like a bad home-made video. Afterwards, there are two episodes of a Mexican soap opera dubbed into Russian. The man providing the dubbed voice just speaks the words in monotone over the top of the original soundtrack. As the characters play out their drama, their voices remain completely deadpan. XQ finds it hilarious, and I probably would too if I understood Russian.

Olga tells us a Russian joke:

A tourist from the west is walking down Nyevsky Prospekt, looking at the architecture, when he falls into a pit in the pavement. Some workers are standing nearby.

“Hey,” he says, “this pit is dangerous. You should put some red flags around it to warn people.”

“What, didn’t you see the red flag on the boat on the way over here?”

The sun is still shining at 11p.m. when we go to bed.