Russian Literature: Something Better Not Experienced Personally

Laura Ann Toperzer studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia.

By: Laura Ann Toperzer

The metro token falls through the slot, clinking noisily as it nestles into the depths of the machine, prompting a green arrow to appear so that I can push through the turnstile. A few slow steps pour me into the funnel that narrows the crowd until it’s deposited in a single file line on the right side of the escalator.  Self-consciously, I rub at my eyes, worried that it’s obvious I’ve been crying.

I spent the evening of Thanksgiving, when I’d normally be taking a walk after a dehabilitating meal, or playing games with my family, roaming Nevsky Prospekt mindlessly, trying to stop the tears. Even though I knew it was pathetic to go to a ballet alone, I’d been looking forward to it for a month, and though I tried to distract myself, once the tears started they wouldn’t stop. After being stuck in standstill traffic for about an hour on the bridge across the Neva, I arrived at Ploshad Iskustv more than a half hour too late. The doors to the theatre were closed, the square empty except for Pushkin with his mantle of pigeons in the fast darkening night. I turned and walked dejectedly away; blinded by hot tears, I let go of the sobs I was holding onto, alone in Pushkin’s deaf presence.

A few people brush past me on my left, dashing down the endless escalator, hurrying off somewhere. I stand still, trying not to think, looking at the round white tunnel ribbed like a drain pipe, and lit by strings of lights that seem to float just above the escalators. When I first arrived in St. Petersburg, I thought these round white tubes digging deep into the earth with no end in sight seemed like passages to another world. Maybe the long escalator I couldn’t see the end of would bring me to some sort of Narnia, and I would step off onto crunchy snow, or look up and see that books hang from trees, ready to be plucked and devoured. After a few months, though, I realized that all I really wanted was to step off the smoothly moving stairs onto the uneven gravel of the road in front of my house, it’s curtainless windows glowing with warmth.

Thinking of home, I remember my sister’s Facebook message. I’d skimmed it and seen the normal questions about how I was which I would have to delicately answer with half truths, so that my tears wouldn’t show in the black letters sprawled across the glowing screen of her smart phone. Then I noticed something strange and reread one of her questions. Are you living out Russian literature on the streets of St. Petersburg?

At the time, I couldn’t help but laugh, wondering what Russian literature she’d been reading, unless she actually wantedme to wander through the streets hopelessly depressed and at least half insane, perhaps imagining monuments chasing after me. Or maybe I should just tie a bear to a police officer’s back like Pierre. It seems like a good question until you think about the normal contents of famous Russian literature. Now, though, it doesn’t seem as silly, I did just wander around for hours in the dark, cold rain on the verge of tears—but, at least Pushkin didn’t shake off his pigeons and chase me from the square.

Reaching the bottom at last, I step off, blinking carefully so as not to upset the new supply of liquid threatening to flow over the dam and start a flood I don’t have the capability to stop. As I walk down the huge corridor, all of the iron doors on one side spring open and I pick up my pace so I can slip through the doors instead of waiting for the next train. It’s already late, and the trains not aren’t very full, so I manage to find a seat, and I tuck my purse under my arms and close my eyes, leaning my head against a cold metal bar.

The ride’s a short one, and I soon open my eyes as I hear a calm automated voice announce, “Primorskaya”, my stop way out on Vasilievsky Ostrov. The island is separated by the wide Neva river from Nevsky Prospekt and either the bronze horseman or Pushkin, if they suddenly do decide to chase after me. The station is strangely empty, even though this is the last stop, but I make my way towards the escalator and step on. In Russia, public places are always quiet, but this stillness bugs me. There’s no one coming down the escalator on the other side, turning to each other to talk, or even kiss. So much life happens on these escalators, people pull out brushes to polish their shoes, or fix their make-up, and others talk and joke. Now, it’s just me, and I fiddle with the chain at my throat, uncomfortable, as the escalator seems to stretch and grow in the stillness.

Eventually the end of the escalator comes into view, and I hurry off, just wanting to get home. I trip and fall down in the dark. I look behind me, but there’s no glowing tunnel, just darkness, and cold, rough rock under my hands. I glance up, and through some trees I see the glint of a golden dome, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.

 “Koshmar!” I swear under my breath, “If I’m this close to Saint Isaac’s, I can’t be on Vasilievsky Ostrov.”

I look around again, and now that my vision has cleared, I can see that just across the street is the Neva, wide and cold...and there are the bridges, both of the bridges to Vasilievksky Ostrov are up, their lighted lengths point up to the sky. Off in the distance I can see the lights of a few huge cruise ships, moving towards the gaps. I’m stuck here, for a while, wherever here is, until those bridges go down again. I’m stuck with no way home, and no one to care if I do come home regardless.

I sit down and pull my knees up, covering them the best that I can with my long wool coat. It’s cold, and windy, but I’m thankful that at the very least it isn’t raining, but that never lasts long in Saint Petersburg. I should probably try to find a twenty-four hour cafe, but at least if I can see the bridges I can’t get lost. I’m not very good with directions, but if I’m between Palace Bridge and Blagoveshchensky Bridge, I should know where I am. I lay down and look upside-down at the dome of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral again and see huge flapping wings, like the angels broke free of the roof and are flying about.

I sit up and look around, I think I should be near the hermitage and the Bronze Horseman, but I can’t see either from my perch. Not to mention that I don’t remember a gigantic tower of stone in this area at all. I get to my feet and shuffle down the steep angle of rock until I fall and tumble off into some low, leafless shrubs that encircle the stone. Getting up and walking around to the side of the thing, I see metal letters placed in the stone far above my head, it says “Petru pervomu”, or “To Peter the First”.

I back up a little, worried that I really have gone insane. This is where the Bronze Horseman should be, but he is nowhere to be found. I hear the sound of metal dragging on stone, a sound that makes me shudder. I turn around, terrified, and am relieved when I don’t see the shape of Peter the Great looming down at me from a great horse. But I hear the noise again and look down to see if maybe there’s just a loose chain rattling somewhere. My eyes slowly come to rest on a pair of lions stalking towards me, their tails lazily brushing the sidewalk. Their green manes, pickled by the constant wind off of the Neva, ripple easily in the wind, although I know that even a strong wind can’t move their sculpted metal fur.

I was frozen for a minute, but as one of them opens its mouth, seemingly to yawn, I regain my senses and flee to the low side of the stone. Maybe if I can get back up to the top, it’ll be hard for them to follow. I scramble up, trying not to look back until I’m on the flatter part at the top of the huge stone. The lions seem to have followed at a leisurely pace, and they are standing at the base of the rock, placing their paws on it. I expected their metal paws to slide off, maybe sending up a few sparks, but they climb onto the rock and easily ascend.

I look behind me and realize that I have nowhere to go, the rock is much too tall to jump from if I still wanted to be able to run away when I reached the ground. I drop down to the rock, holding my knees as I shake with terrified laughter. I look at them, and can feel hysterical tears rolling down my cheeks.

“Really, I’m going to be eaten by, by pamyatniki?” I exclaim in disbelief. “You’re just statues. I see you all the time, and statues don’t move, I know this!”

By this time my head is already buried in my knees, and I feel a cold touch on my face. I look up and see a huge feline face looking down at me in concern. Another brushes past my elbow, and I can sense it walking around me. It lays down heavily and nudges it’s nose against my elbow. It’s much stronger than I am, and it manages to work it’s head under my arm and then looks at me. It’s warm by my side, and it’s fur, though metallic, moves softly under my hand. I’m still afraid, but it’s reminding me so much of my dog that I stroke the side of it’s monstrous head out of habit. A deep, metallic purr, like jingle bells, emanates from the one. The other, seeing that attention is being doled out, tries to lay on my legs until I whimper from the weight, and he settles on curling around my back on the other side.

I sit there, entwined in a warm pile of living, breathing, purring metal for a while. They both close their eyes as I pet them, and I start to lose my fear a little bit. They’re just very overgrown kitties, harmless, even though dogs are more to my taste. At least I’m warm now, in fact, I’m sweating crazily, drops falling onto the green coated fur all around me. I look up at the sky and notice a tiny black blob that is swerving and bobbing up and down, but it seems to be getting bigger.

As it approaches, I see that it’s actually a tiny bird. It doesn’t seem to be able to fly in a straight line, but it’s flying towards us really fast. I see that it’s going to hit me, but I’m rendered immobile by my metal blankets, and it careens into my shoulder, hard. I gasp for air, wondering how much such a tiny bird could weigh, and something’s pulling at the back of my head. I look down and see that the thing is clinging to my braid, it’s weight dragging my head down. It see that it seems to be made out of brass, which explains the weight.

This time I laugh for real, “Chizhik-Pyzhik, where have you been?” I ask, reaching down to pull him off of my braid and set him in my lap. I think of how he flew and the song people sing about him and ask, “Did you drink a lot, is your head spinning? I didn’t even touch any vodka, and my head’s spinning.”

I reach out a hand to him, and my guests look down at the smallest pamyatnikin all of Saint Petersburg. He pecks lightly at my hand, and I realize he must want food. I open up the purse that’s slung over my shoulder and show him that there isn’t any food, and he pecks at the front, where I keep my change for buses. I open it up and take out a handful of kopecks and roubles to spread on my legs, watching him in amazement as he pecks at them, leaving shining pits in the coins as he slowly consumes them.

After Chizhik-Pyzhik finishes his snack I pick him up and try to get up despite my sleepy blankets. They yawn, and reluctantly give way, getting up to follow me. As he ate, I’d realized that the bridges might go down soon, the sky looked just a little bit lighter. Chizhik-Pyzhik perching on my shoulder and the two lions walking beside me, I walk out of the circle of rather trampled dead bushes and onto the sidewalk, towards Blagoveshchensky Bridge, and home. As we walk, the bridge starts to lower slowly, bit by bit, and then the whole ground starts to shake.

It seems like an earthquake is approaching us from behind, and I look back to see shining horses tearing up the street. In the lead is the Bronze Horseman, huge in comparison. He definitely has the advantage because his horse has the longest legs, but four smaller, wild horses run beside him, nudging his withers, galloping wildly and freely with their riders barely clinging on. Suddenly I realize they’re Chizhik-Pyzhik’s neighbors on the Fontanka River, they frame the bridge on Nevsky Prospekt. The horse tamers, I never could tell who was winning, man or horse, but now as I see them before me, it’s obvious. The riders have no control whatsoever; the horses run joyfully, free as the wind. One of these horses dashes ahead even as his rider tries desperately to reign him in. He’s coming up on the side of the Bronze Horseman, and almost passes him, but slams into a light post on the side of the road, his huge mass bending the light post down towards the earth. Bringing up the rear are a few others, probably other Peter the Great statues and later tsars are riding them, and they pass up the dumbstruck horse as he stumbles to his feet. As soon as they pass the giant stone, they slow down and start to walk in circles. It seems that this is the finish line, but they appear unconcerned about the winner except for the one, who beats the pavement with his heavy hooves, leaving gouges as big as potholes.

As I watch, they all nudge each other one more time and slowly trot away in different directions. The three from the Fontanka bridge gather up the fourth of their group and gallop away. I feel a sudden cool breeze on my sweat soaked legs, and realize that the lions are making their way slowly and sadly away from me. The bridges are nearly down, soon the city will be alive again. The others disperse and the Bronze Horseman leaps up onto his stone pedestal. Chizhik-Pyzhik wakes from his little nap and flies off frantically, trying to reach his tiny pedastal on the Fontanka.

I silently watch them all go in the darkness of a November morning in Saint Petersburg. I’m so amazed that I don’t think I can move, even to say good bye. As the bridge lowers and becomes whole the Bronze Horseman rears, the horse letting out a ringing neigh that echoes in the cold air as the statue freezes in it’s classic pose.

“Uvazhamie pasazhiry...,” an automated voice washes over me, waking me from a deep sleep. “Respected passengers, please don’t forget anything, look around you carefully and attentively....”

I get up and stumble out, the train seems to have stopped a while ago; it’s empty. I guess it’s a good thing that you can’t miss the last stop, or else I don’t know where I would have ended up. I head to the escalators, starting to wake up as I walk. One other sleepy person is on the escalator ahead of me as I step on.

Everything comes back to me the moment I’m on the escalator, and I’m sure it can’t have just been a dream, even though I know it must have been. All the same, as I’m carried upwards, I remember Chizhik-Pyzhik and pray that he doesn’t vomit up everything he ate when he gets back. If hitting him with a coin makes your wish come true, then what happens if he eats it? He just can’t vomit it back into the river, I desperately want this wish to come true.

My wish isn’t to be back home again. Sometimes I get homesick and lonely, seeing all the people walking past me on the street, silent and solemn as pamyatniki. I forget that when you get to know them better, they are kind and warm, and wonderful; they fit the city they live in. The truth is, although I sometimes miss home, at others, Saint Petersburg feels more real, more like home than anywhere else. So I wish to stay, and come back again and again.

Coming back to real life, I dig into my purse to find change for the bus, and discover that not a single coin remains....