I am spending two weeks in St. Petersburg, attending a literary conference in the company of 50 other writers from America and around the world. It isJune and the sun barely leaves the sky. The Russians fill the streets eating ice cream, de-thawing from their frozen winters. Hot water is scarce, as are fruits and vegetables, but the town buzzes with relief. As part of the literary experience, I would like to comment on this place, this culture. I would like to fancy myself a critic and inform.
But Russia – what can I say? If we presuppose (and I feel we must) that critics must be experts, then a trip to Russia – a swollen thicket of curiosities – leaves me without much to critique.
Let’s face it; my expertise, it is slight. A quick rundown: All things myself, (except knowing what I don’t know.) My own cooking. Who better to describe my free form inventiveness with cottage cheese and Swiss chard? But Russia?
I visited the magnificent Church on Spilled Blood, a church erected to honor Tsar Alexander II who was assassinated on the very spot where it now stands. The tiles in the church depict Bible stories in amazing color schemes. I stare in wonder at their Technicolor dreamscapes, but I don't understand building a church on the spot of your leader’s assassination. Could you imagine a cathedral in Dallas near the grassy knoll, JFK starting out at Abraham slaying Isaac from where the goat now waits and watches?
How about cartoons? I watch “Vinny the Pooch”—an approximation of Winnie the Pooh complete with Piglet and Eeyore. Except here, Vinny is a chubby black bear with a 60-year-old smoker’s voice. In Russia, men are men and Vinny the Pooch could kick your ass.
Or the TV show, “The Burden of Money,” where three people compete for cash by presenting the sorry state of their personal tragedies. “My son needs an operation but we have no money since a flood wiped out our modest home in which my deaf and blind mother slept.” A jury of their peers votes to confer the prize on the most pathetic. How can I compare this to American game shows where we reward mental acuity, nerves of steel or the ability to eat giant beetles that explode when you bite into them? We don’t decree riches on the pathetic; we kick losers off the island, immediately.
I see cramped living spaces and the sad eyes of men in ill-fitting jackets and the tinted windows of racing Mercedes filled with perfectly slicked men with expensive watches and large fists. I’m an expert on none of this, so what else can I do but marvel at the sights while I struggle to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet under a sun that needs only two hours of rest per day?