Thursday, October 10, 2019

Saint Petersburg Encounters

This Saint Petersburg (SPB) post will be devoid of pictures. Three years ago, we visited SPB and I posted a blog with a lot of pictures and everything I wrote there about the city still stands. But this post has a description of a few encounters and events which I wanted to tell without being distracted by pictures. All of this happened over a short five days visit at the end of September, 2019.

The encounters started right away at Pulkovo airport as we landed on a bright September afternoon. The taxi kiosk outside of the airport was closed and we were too tired after a long flight to search for the official taxi stand. Being stupid Americans, we allowed ourselves to be picked up and driven to the city by one of the con drivers who always search for people like us in international airports. The chap was super friendly and entertained us all the way. When he found out that we are coming from US, he expressed a lot of concern about our situation with immigration. He was very well aware about caravans arriving through the southern border. It felt like he is listening FOX News every morning. He said that criticality of the US situation with immigration is even worse than in Russia. I mentioned that I am an immigrant myself. He said that I am clearly a different story, because I am an intelligent and educated white woman not a Mexican or Muslim. He compared immigration from Latin America with Uzbeks and Tajiks who take Russian construction and driving jobs. He said that immigrants drive most of the taxis in SPB. And that all of the crime and troubles come from them. Never mind that he was running little illegal business himself. His attitude and arguments were an exact copy of the anti-immigrant attitude in the United States. He recommended that we use a local taxi company which prides itself in hiring only Russians. Unfortunately, the name of this fine company escaped me right away.

Otherwise, he delivered us to our hotel safely and made sure that we were able to get in, since our hotel was on the second floor and the door was not marked. In fact, he called hotel and said that the guests are awaiting downstairs.

Somehow, the shyster driver set the tone for another encounter and couple art events which put me in the anxious state of mind.

I really wanted to get a taste of SPB theater scene and finally decided to see one actor performance of The Yellow Tango (Жёлтое Танго) in the very famous SPB art cafe Wondering Dog (Бродячая Собака). This café is an old time cultural institution which hosted the most prominent artists, poets and writers for over 100 years. The play was based on the life of a brilliant Russian performer and singer Alexander Vertinsky. The actor enacted the stories from Vertisky’s dairies and performed some of his songs. Vertinsky, originally from Kiev, immigrated from Russia right after revolution and lived abroad for almost 30 years. He moved around the world following the Russian immigrant community and sang nostalgic and beautiful songs about longing for illusive home and unrequited love. Very much in French chanson style but in Russian. The expat Russian community was his only audience and way to make a living.  During WWII he finally wrote a letter to Molotov (Soviet apparatchik close to Stalin) begging him for permission to come back to Russia. The permission was granted and when he returned, he was made an example of the prodigal son whose sins were forgiven by the generous party leaders. Most other Russians who decided to return died in Gulags. The main theme and emphasis of the play was about people strong connection to their motherland and suffering of uprooted people. In the intermission I wanted to share my feelings about actor and his performance with an intellectual looking woman sitting next to me and clearly was enjoying the play. She was about my age and I gathered, based on overheard conversation with her friend, that she is part of SPB theater world. I told her that the actor is very brave by attempting to play Vertinsky. While he is good, he always be compared with original and this is a tough act to pull off. The lady immediately engaged in the conversation. We started to talk about Vertinsky special almost French annunciation which he acquired while living abroad. She changed the topic of conversation to Kiev before revolution. According to her, Kiev was an amazing city with booming high Russian cultural scene. Kiev inhabitants were speaking perfect Russian. The unrefined and rude dialect appeared later when after October Revolution when Ukrainian peasants and Jews from the pale of settlements like Zhytomyr moved in and destroyed the high Russian culture. Fortunately, the intermission was coming to the end, I turned back to Patrick who was bored and whispered that I am glad I am not living in this country.

Moving on. The next cultural event was a show of internationally celebrated Russian artist collective AES+F: Predictions and Revelations. The show consisted from three digital movies, photographs and sculptures. It was amazing, thought provoking, imaginative and flawlessly executed spectacle. The overall theme of the show was anxiety about the future. The future brings the end of Western civilization, which is being replaced by inhabitants of mixed races, not binary sexes, and global government. The new world is weird, scary, violent, cosmopolitan and rootless. The images from the show still occasionally come up in my dreams. As I promised no pictures, but here is a link to some promotional videos to get a feel.

The next art event was a sample of something which wanted to appear as a counterculture. The setting was as cool as it could be. A small gallery located on the top floor of one of the charming old SPB buildings. No charge, opened only a few hours a week. The Pigs Snout Gallery had one simple concept to present certain personalities or group of people as a pigs or in other ‘funny’ ways to express artist ironic, satirical cool attitude toward the person or a group. The genre was represented by cartoon type posters and graphics. Some of the images were very funny in a strange Russian idiosyncratic way. Some not so much. One of the popular Russian rock musician (Mackarevich) who is openly critical of Russian government and has strong pro-western attitude, was depicted as a pig with an explanation inscribed right on the image: Trying too hard to please the West. The separate room in the gallery was dedicated to antisemitic cartoons and posters. It started with variation on the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic. The woman on the painting had her jewel necklace replaced with prominent Star of David. I have several samples in photos, but don’t want to post and promote this art.

I have been thinking about these events and encounters for a while and feel that they are all strangely related. The xenophobic, nationalistic driver, the sentimental Vertinsky show about motherland longing, the chauvinistic, antisemitic intellectual lady at the art café, the counterculture antisemitic art and even highly aesthetic futuristic show by AES+F artist cooperative. The connection appears to be that they relate to one very basic emotion - tribal instinct. The connection to people like me, who were born at the same place, the fear and rejection of others, the anxiety about future devoid of the original tribes and relationships. It is easy to attribute it to Russia and its propaganda machine. And while it is definitely part of the story, but only a small one. As I am writing this post the news about killing Jews in synagogue at Yom Kippur is coming from Germany. The recent uptick in these feeling comes as a backlash to the fast changes caused by automation and globalization and anxiety of people who lost and left behind by these changes. The fear and stress as always exploited by unscrupulous, power hungry politicians, but there is nothing new about this as well. Leo Tolstoy more than hundred years ago wrote essay “Christianity and Patriotism” in which he said:  “Governments assure peoples that they are in danger from the attacks of other peoples and from internal enemies, and that the only way to escape from this danger is through slavish obedience of peoples to governments.” How this is different from what we hear from our government about the dangers of immigrations and caravans of refugees coming from the southern border?

How important is the tribal instinct in the modern world? Over the course of human history, the tribes were expanding from nuclear family, to extended family, to villages as people learn to grow crop, to medieval cities and feudal kingdoms and now to nation states. The recent EU entity, while new and flawed, seems like natural progression in the expending idea of tribe. The Brexit is a backlash to the effort to expand the tribe. The borders are becoming less enforceable and people are migrating at the scale unimaginable even hundred years ago. I can only guess that every consecutive tribe expansion was more painful and met more resistance, but humans persevere and found a way. Will they do this time?

With that, the old and intrinsically Russian question comes to mind: What is to be done? And this is where I am going to leave you my friends to think and contemplate if you have nothing better to do…