Russia Day 6


Petrodvorets is amazing. There are huge fountains everywhere, the weather is beautiful, clear blue skies and it’s hot enough to dispense with sweaters and overshirts. I don’t have much more to say about the place, except… look at some photos.

In the evening we go to the ballet. The Kirov is away on tour abroad, but we get to see what I’m told is the world’s second-best ballet. The music is all Tchaikovsky—three pieces, one of which is part of Swan Lake.

I’ll admit I’m not big on ballet, but I’m irritated by the behavior of a Japanese family in the next box. They talk through most of the performance, stand up and take flash photographs of themselves with the stage behind them, and have a brat of a kid who leans out and obstructs everyone’s view.

Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful evening. Even a fairly uncultured oaf like me can tell how incredibly skilled the performers are.

Afterwards XQ and I go into a bar. It’s another “hard currency only” place—they give you a card to buy drinks with, and you settle your bill in hard currency on the way out. If you lose the card, you pay 90 Deutschmarks.

The bar is smoky, and naturally it’s full of foreigners. I can tell because they’re all speaking English. I find the place offensive and unpleasant. When we leave, XQ mentions that she and the other students used to go there all the time. I find this hard to believe, and ask why—and she explains that it was the only place you could get into without queueing for hours. Oh well, fair enough then…

Nowadays there are many hard currency establishments, and we try a small “Gino Ginelli” ice cream and coffee shop. We buy 4 small scoops of ice cream for 8 DM. It’s ridiculously expensive, even to us. To Olga… a week’s wages, pretty much.

XQ: “Do you fancy anything else?”

Me: “I still feel guilty about the ice cream.”

XQ: “So do I. Funny, isn’t it?”

I’ve not been carrying any hard currency around with me, and I suddenly realize the subconscious reason why not: I feel it would be wrong for me to be buying things that Russians can’t get for any amount of rubles.

I learn that Alexei wanted to visit Europe, but was denied an exit visa. He’s a trained engineer and has worked on Russian nuclear submarines, and is still a marine reserve. He shows me some of his books, stuff like how to recognize different types of American warship through a periscope, and reference guides to Cyrillic ‘Morse’ code and naval signal flags.

Alexei’s visa refusal is perhaps the reason why Olga was able to visit us the previous year—the authorities knew her family would be in St. Petersburg, and therefore she wouldn’t defect.