St. Petersburg: the Fairy Tale City by the Bay

2 Feb

I'll give you my 2 cents on Agent 6 once I'm done reading it

Until I bought this book, I could only see Russia, specifically St. Petersburg, through a window—a very thick, almost Plexiglas-type window. From my vantage point I could witness the hustle of people burying themselves against the cold, head into the unforgivable Baltic wind, on their way to work. Smoke swelled from smokestacks and oil refineries. The city winked with an Old World charm that could have only been captured during the 18th century.

But then this little gem fell into my lap, almost literally, as I was reaching for another book at the time, and that proverbial window opened, allowing the scents and sounds and feelings to waft into my Mind Apartment. It must be said, however, that the book is almost 10 years old, but I’ll be damned if I can find any other book that captures the grit and nuance of this city and country outside the non-fiction category.

(I hesitate to exclude novels, as most novels I find about St. Petersburg to…“gain inspiration from,” turn out to be schlocky political polemics. There are two, going on three exceptions, I can think of, and I’ll touch on those more at a later time.)

Black Earth hasn’t shown me the soul of Russia—that’s something I probably won’t discover that until I actually go there, and probably not until several trips, if at all. But I was seeing glimpses…and I liked what I saw. Meier’s writing certainly helped. He weaves exposition with flashbacks, interviews and historical back story. It’s descriptive without relying on purple prose. The people he interviews—however brief we know them—are enchanting and, like a candle in the wind, it’s hard to look away. Forgive my horrible analogy, but Black Earth reads like one of those documentaries on the History Channel, complete with Morgan Freeman as the narrator.

Part five is called “West,” with a subtitle of “the Skazka,” the fairy tale. Meier opens this chapter with a short, but rich anecdote of a train coming into the Northern Capital. If there’s anything I enjoy re-reading again and again, it’s his description of his red-eye trek. I certainly couldn’t do it justice through summary, so consider this excerpt something of an incentive to buy his book:

“It was a routine secretly beloved by all. Swaddled in the communal conveyance, travelers tried on new roles. Strangers flirted; military men became gallant; illicit lovers played coy. Yet as the heavy sheets of snow fell softly outside, all aboard shared a rare moment of release, a balance, however temporal, between the worries at their back and the troubles ahead. At the end of the corridor, beside an electric samovar that steamed and hissed like the brass ones of old, the attendant retreated to her hovel to keep a reluctant vigil.”

Andrew Meir, page 313


The theme of this chapter that’s repeated again and again is that of hope and dreams and idealism; whether it is the corruption of the ideals (the second chapter recounts the assassination of Galina Starovoitova) or the entrenchment of waiting for miracles in the culture (“‘You see, in Russia, everyone’s always believed in miracles. Before 1917, it was the Miraculous Tsar. Under the Soviets, it was the Miraculous Collective…Today…we have no more miracle workers (337).’”). There is a sense, from these various episodes, that Russia—and St. Petersburg in particular—is waking from a dream, or realizing that there was no dream, but in fact only a “town [full] of semi-lunatics (333).”

There is an obvious connection between modern Russia and modern Germany—two nations that have recovered from two World Wars, devastating revolutions and governments that committed atrocities against humanity. How does one reconcile the past, to be able to say, “Yes, it happened, but we’re moving forward, not without recognition, but without it holding us back.” I won’t make any judgments to either nation, that’s not my purpose here and I feel like I’m running my credibility thin in the site of this Great Question. Essentially, what we have on our plates is an identity crisis. I can empathize.

Only twenty-one years old, there have been enough events in my life where I’ve stared at the mirror, hair matted and luggage under my eyes, gripping the sink asking—“Holy Jesus, what the hell am I doing with my life? Who am I?” (My friend Matthew shares this Youtube clip when I get to this point, and it always brings a smile to my face. Whenever I doubt, he’s shouts this line and I remember the basics: good person, good grades, good future. But for nations, that knowledge of a good future, that in the end everything will be alright—is not that simple.)

In his notes for City of Thieves, David Benioff writes that he gained most of his information from Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days, saying it was his constant companion. Black Earth is my 900 Days. It’s always in my bag. When I have five minutes, I highlight, dog-ear, underline and write in the margins. And hopefully, one day my skill will reach Meier’s and Benioff’s. One day, my St. Petersburg will be my realized dream that I can share with my readers.


Black Earth: A Journey through Russia after the Fall was written by Andrew Meier, and published in 2003 under Norton Publishing House in New York City, USA (Inc.) and London, Great Britain (Ltd.)


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