Russia, after all these years. The word that meant the fears of childhood, the romantic past of movies, the cruel shadowy adversary, the drunken poet, the exquisitely cultured composer, the man in a capsule circling the earth and the princess stabbed in shabby basement. The other. Just enough of the West to make you think you are close; just enough of the East to let you know better. I am here, and they want my papers.

They wanted my papers before we got here, actually; unlike any other port, you get your forms the day before. Papers that need to be filled out with your vitals and numbers. It’s all in Russian.

It is 6 AM by my body’s clock; been up since, oh, 4:45 AM or so. It’s seven AM by St. Petersburg time.

 

I’m having a cigar. All the rules are gone. If someone handed me a glass of champagne right now I’d drink it. Every day we head east another hour is shaved off and stored away, returned to our care when he head back. But we wake and talk and walk and go to town and come back and nap for two hours, then wake and eat and talk and sit outside on the grand veranda and wait for night to come. It never does. The sky is always light when the book slips from my fingers at the end of the night and it’s light when I wake, no matter when that is.

We’re docked, and the loudspeakers were playing Tchaikovsky when I walked outside blinking in the Northern Sun; now it’s playing “String of Pearls.” I must be punchy; it’s enough to make an old anti-Communist Russophile weep. For a moment here it’s 1945, a few days before the handclasps loosened and the smiles faded.

MIDNIGHT

It’s still light out.

That’s the most important thing. The second thing on my mind is that I have a cold; sore throat being the first warning. Not surprising - no sleep, general exhaustion; can’t be any more run down and vulnerable. Exposure to a new continent and all its germs. Hurts to cough.

So, don’t cough, then. Unfortunate, but we’ll just have to plough through.

Most of the day was spent on the ship; laid out in the sun and read. Strong sun, too - records set these days in St. Petersburg. Got up to 30 centimeters, or something. The ship was empty, since everyone got off to stumble around town, but we had a late night excursion. Rather than subscribe to two pack-it-in trips that shoved everyone around and dragged you through the Hermitage with 100,000 other tourists, we opted for the Evening at the Hermitage, wherein you are one of three or four groups of 40 passing through the palace. It’s quiet. It’s cool. You have it all to yourself.

It was astonishing. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. As a palace, it’s unparalleled. As a museum, it is exceptional. And it’s both.

En route we passed a late-period Soviet mistake - two gargantuan blocks of apartment blocks flanking a four-wing hotel on a pedestal.

 

 

But the old city asserts itself quickly, then it’s the signs of universal progress: grocery store billboards, a McDonald’s (I leaned over to by daughter and said “See that? It means we won!” Rolled eyes) and then over the bridges to the Hermitage. We had a tour guide named Vera with a heavy accent and a high screechy voice and an unfortunate habit of eating the microphone. We were all connected by radio with earpiece receivers, and no one could understand anything she said. Every sentence began with this loopy-sounding upward inflection, and words came out pre-tweaked for minor confusion - “Staircase,” for example, was “”Stake Ace.” In context you understood, but when combined with the inflection? the coory-osss emPHAsis on see-labels, and the fuzz of the mike, it was a mess. The big stout British woman across the aisle on the bus snorted in disdain and started making jokes, and I agreed with the first, but the fifth was tiresome, the tenth was cruel, and when she brought it up an hour later in the Hermitage I wanted to say “you’re reinforcing my previous generalizations about middle-age Britons on Holiday, so if we could stop now? Grand.”

Words don’t work when describing the Hermitage. Below, the drive to, and views of, the Hermitage. There's a little Vera tossed in for fun.

 

 

The tour was 2 1/2 hours, and I was ready for another hour at least. But it was almost eleven PM. Not that you could tell from the usual cues. Vera, the tour guide - whose speech turned out to be like the language of a Shakespeare play, something you eventually understood - was apologize, because it is for so late, but no! Keep going. By eleven it was cool. I’d worn my cream-hued dinner-jacket to the museum, because A) I am a fool and B) did not want to walk around the elegant place looking like a bum.

There’s a certain amount of formality that ought to apply, if only out of respect for the ghosts and the general idea of “not slouching around a palace in slob gear.” There’s just something about this that makes you sigh:

 

 

 

The ubiquitous sneaker treading on the art of the past. If I didn’t take as many pictures as I might have liked - and I took a lot - it’s because sometimes the moment has an import that needs to be absorbed and understood. This, for example, made me smile:

 

 

 

They walked up and took pictures of the Tsar’s throne - as did I, obviously, but I was trying to get them - then walked away. Check it off. No. You have to walk up to the throne and imagine. Fill the room with nobles, imagine a hundred bright invisible lines of electrical politics sluicing from duke to prince to ambassador to functionary, picture the snow heaped outside the windows. The nod, the look, the smile, the dismissive cough. The weak knees, the swallowed bile.

Anyway, it was back to the hotel on the bus while Vera related a story told by other passenger, of friend in Iceland, who was not used to the sun and did not close drape to sleep, but wake up in morning with sunburn. Whereupon Vera cackled hysterically.

“Best time of year,” she said when she calmed down. “The people luff the time more than any other, after six month gloom? And so they come out, they stay up, they enjoy. White nights,” she said, almost to herself. “White nights.”

Back to the terminal to have our papers examined. On the way in our passports were examined, along with the port entry papers, with a blank-faced official who took just enough time to make you think something was wrong. When she was looking at my papers she looked at the computer screen, looked at the passport, then picked up the phone. Uh oh. I’m in the system. Something I wrote, long ago. Or recently. I’m in the system.

But she was probably just phoning someone to complain that she was overdue for a break.

Compare to Estonia: walk off the ship and walk into town. Hello! Welcome! Try the Skype!

DAY TWO IN RUSSIA

“Is the ship going to sink?” Daughter asked.

“Nonsense,” I said, thinking she’s made of iron, sir. She will sink. But of course she did not, since we had not struck a berg, and were not taking on water, which would spill over the bulkheads in a mathematical certainty. We had simply taken one hell of a blow from a 55-knot gust that listed the ship starboard enough so the horizon disappeared. Which is disconcerting. Nervous twitters in the dining room, growing to a hubbub, as people noticed; then the Captain came on, explained that we were heading through a squall, and it would be over in a few minutes. Nonetheless I went up to the cabin to see if daughter was unnerved by it.

She was sprawled in the bed watching "Ratatouille" for the eleventh time, half asleep.

Earlier she’d fallen asleep when we returned from the shore expedition, as did my wife; I laid down for a good two-hour restorative, only to find myself distracted by the sounds of the ship as she made ready to leave - the Captain, announcing that he was the Captain and we would be going; JC, the irrepressible Brit who’s the cruise director and ends every message with CHEERIO, and then the screeches and thumps of people next door arranging their veranda chairs; the laughter in the hallway, the thrum of the engines, and all the rest of the ordinary audio furnishings. I slept for half an hour and woke to see - but no, not yet.

We were up at the usual preposterous hour - neither wife nor child can sleep past six. I went across the hall to the First Class lounge, where the proper coffee for Inner Party members is kept; an espresso machine that also makes a smashing cup of wake-up jake. Breakfast with daughter, talking about the day to come, then waiting for the day. Four hours until the excursion. Basking in the hot heavy sun. Come 1 PM, we shuffled down to the main stage - where I will be standing and performing in a few months, and where I stood last November; it’s a very odd sensation - and off to Bus #2 for A Day Among Teepical Rooshians. Unlike the tours that give you the main tourist high points, this one shows you the ceety, eh? So we chuffed past the Soviet slum into the city, and past the signs of VICTORY!

 

 

We were let off in a shopping mall. Five stories, big atrium, coffee shops.

 

 

 

Small boutiques, no chains, all selling that ghastly Russian womenswear. There was a food court; there was only one vacant store.

 

 

Out of business, everything must go! Out a window, a look at the backside of the glittering mall:

 

And this was interesting.

 

 

Terminal Bar. Familiar. Times Square? Yes:

 

 

Then we walked a few blocks to a Soviet-era produce and meat store, totally different in style and comfort. Shabby, cracked, careworn. Hammer and sickle on the wall, CCCP on the manhole covers. It’s there if you look for it, but you have to look hard.

 

 

 

The old glories have been restored so well they blare out like golden trumpets; the dour grey past slinks back into the shadows. At least in the city center. But not in the subway. (token) That was our next stop, and the reason I wanted to take this excursion: down into the metro. And I do mean down: after you go through the People’s Palace Entryway through the People’s Token-Taking Gate to the People’s Glorious Escalator down to the bomb shelter - er, the train platform. Da! Train Platform.

 

This station had been built in 1955, and no one’s going to crowbar the old symbols off the wall.

 

 

Let me admit something here. As I may have noted before, I was never an easy traveler. Not one of those grab-a-backpack and hitch a ride to a hostel in Katmandu. Let the road-gods provide, dude! Ever since the panic attacks struck in the bad old days I had the twin demons: claustrophobia, and lotsaphobia, the latter being an anxious reaction to situations one cannot UTTERLY CONTROL or stop if you wish. Unchecked, this leads to a life defined by habit and routine and familiarity.

So finding myself grinning inside with glowing happiness because I am riding the subway in Russia is just a great good thing. There was a time I never thought these things would happen. Anyway.

The cars seemed to hail from 1955 as well. Fast trains. We went four stops and got off without any of the members of the group getting stuck on the car. This station looked different -

 

. . . with unconvincingly heroic Soviet Type People carved everywhere.

 

 

 

Back up the escalators, which are incredibly fast and steep, and up to the Glorious Entrance Rotunda, the ceiling decorated with the symbols of the Party.

 

 

Ready? Let's go down.

Outside, the flip side of the glittering mall, the kin to the sad produce market: a miserable Soviet-era sculpture.

 

 

And an enormous green triumphal arch symbolizing the victory over Napoleon. They got a lot of mileage out of that one.

The bus took us to someplace where we got off and got down: vodka sampling time.
In a dim cave, a bar whose owner no doubt owned the excursion line, or paid off the owner of the excursion. Three shots. One was horseradish, the other was pickle, and the third was cranberries. The horseradish did wonders for my cold. The pickle vodka informed me that I need not wonder ever again whether vodka could, or should, taste like pickles. There was a bowl of pickles to chew and some black bread topped with a slice of lard. Most people thought it was cheese. Most people were less than pleased to learn it was not.

Outside, a big vacant-looking structure, a strange temple:

 

 

I asked what it was: the old Stock Exchange. No wonder it stood apart and seemed asleep - it had spent decades as the equivalent of a church devoted to Satan, and opprobrium still seemed to hover around it like a pack of wolves circling prey. The bus took us past the enormous slum-plus-hotel complex, And then we were back. The aforementioned nap attempt, then I woke to see . . .

 

Kronstadt. The home of the Soviet Navy. An enormous facility. You could see the channels from which the subs left to prowl. As we left the last light the clouds piled up beyond, a mountainous terrain with the sun blaring through. Glory beyond: come!

 

 

It’s okay if you think of good “Hunt for Red October” Russians.

 

 

 

It’s a quarter after eleven now; the skies are still light. The squall is past. We are off to Finland, where I expect every word to have double Ks. My drink is finished and I am dead, dead tired. Sleep would be nice.

So sleep it is.

12:35 AM

So sleep it wasn’t. We sailed into another storm, which lit up the sky with great sheets of tremulous panic, and raked the sea with ceaseless gusts - right into the storm we sailed, and I looked forward to some rocking and pitching and other reminders that we are a fragile vessel that can be smote by Neptune should the mood take him. But we sailed around it, and I saw the most extraordinary thing:

 

 

That was taken at 12:30 AM. I haven’t seen a dark sky since we lifted off from Minnesota, a million years ago.

NEXT: Finland.