12.26.18: Listening for the Heartbeat of Leningrad

Today a trip to the Moskovy District to check out some serious Soviet architecture and monuments to Lenin and the Siege of Leningrad.

First up, the big Lenin in Ploshchad Moskovskaya (Moscow Square). One of more than 50 Lenin statues sprinkled around the city, this one apparently used to be paired with a big Stalin “but all ‘Man of Steel’ statues were removed a long time ago.” Behind him, the House of Soviets (“the finest example in St. Petersburg of the grandiose monumental architecture of the Stalinist era”) still looms large but how would Lenin feel about facing a giant Christmas Tree adorned with festive pinecones and sets of ice skates?

The House of Soviets was completed in 1941. In early September of that year, the Siege of Leningrad began. It didn’t end until late January of 1944: 872 days. The goal of the Nazis in surrounding the city was to completely destroy it and its citizens; it’s been said that the siege caused the greatest destruction and the largest loss of life ever known in a modern city with over a million and a half people killed due to bombardments as well as the lack of basic necessities such as heat, water and food, especially in the extreme cold of winter. Diary entries from the time detail the horrors–including cannibalism–people experienced in their fight for survival. The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad looms impressively out of the landscape at Ploshchad Pobedy (no statues dedicated to the cats who helped save the city; those are located elsewhere…) but what I was most intrigued by was under the ground: the Heartbeat of Leningrad, a metronome ticking that played over loudspeakers and radio that assured people their city was still alive in the bleakest of times. We’d read somewhere that you could still hear the heartbeat in the Museum beneath the monument but alas, it’s closed on Wednesday with the only action around being a small army of snow-shovelers making sure the past remains accessible, seven decades later…




12.25.18: Christmas Not Christmas

When is Christmas not Christmas? When you’re in Russia, where they follow the Julian calendar for religious holidays which means Christmas here is celebrated January 7. There’s still that festive holiday feeling in the air of course (although it’s really more directed at New Year’s Eve/Day, which became the really big holiday after Christmas was banned post-revolution and Christmas Trees became New Year Trees) but otherwise it’s business as usual so after a meeting with Alexey and Alexander and Lera and Nastya about the SWS soundtrack, what could be more wintery than a visit to the Arctic Museum? There’s a whole wing dedicated to penguins plus enough taxidermy, dioramas, maps, odd ephemera and weird paintings to captivate one for hours. Points off for the fact that aside from one very kickass photo of a woman steering a sled pulled by a passel of reindeer, indigenous people are pretty much entirely excluded from this story of Arctic “discovery” (surprise, surprise). Throw in a snowy stroll down Pushkinskaya, a dog in a sweater, a cat picture frozen in ice, miniature snowmen, coffee in the world’s tiniest cafe, a hoppin’ babushki market, an opening at Borey Art Center and a delicious dinner with Cynthia at Bekitzer and that’s a pretty much a perfect Not Christmas Christmas.


12.23.18: From Ballet to Bohemian Rhapsody

If you’re going to go to the ballet for the very first time, you might as well go to Saint Petersburg’s historic Mariinsky Theater.  And if it’s almost Christmas, you might as well go see The Nutcracker, which premiered in this very theater on December 18, 1892 with music by native son Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And if it’s The Nutcracker, you might as well go to the Sunday afternoon matinee so you can imagine an alternate universe run by nattily dressed and vaguely melancholy children.

Afterwards, you can walk the tranquil snowy streets, stopping for the best borscht in the city at a little family-run bakery where the grandma fake-scolds you for tracking melting snow onto her freshly mopped floor and then ruffles your hair and gives you some golden christmas tree ornaments in the shape of hearts, and the daughter laughs in the nicest possible way when you try to say “Everything was delicious!” in Russian. Not to be outdone, the guy at the other bakery on the block gives you some free bread just because you stop for a minute to look in the window. And then you can continue on your way, popping into the Pushkin Library which is filled with books about crafts and animals and artists who illustrated books of Pushkin’s stories, scoping out the Saint Petersburg Miniature Museum on the sixth floor of the very weird half-empty mall, and enjoying the folks enjoying themselves in big public squares and parks around the Hermitage before eating a piece of chocolate cake and catching an evening screening of Bohemian Rhapsody in the swanky conference room/”cinema lounge” of the fancy Angleterre Hotel. The people surrounding us spend the film’s duration talking loudly, playing games on their phones, and making out. Okay, so the Freddie Mercury story may not be high art but where are those kids from the ballet to teach these boors some manners?

12.22.18: St. Dogville

Today’s excursion adventure takes us to the far side of Vasilievsky Island, to the Sevkabel Port  a new “urban renewal” project where hipsters meet to ice skate, buy artisanal sausage while Bruce Springsteen’s  version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” wafts around in the background and, for two days this weekend, check out the Seventh Independent Contemporary Art Fair, an installation-based gathering of the city’s coolest creators curated by art collective North 7. Subtitled “St. Dogville: a city of artists, a city of dogs”, we don’t see any actual dogs in attendance (although there is a shy tabby kitten cruising around) but there are certainly plenty of artists, including our favorite creative family The Katz-Shvetsovs who are providing provocative prints and festive holiday cookies to get everyone in the spirit of giving. Afterwards, it’s a cozy vegetarian dinner at Botanika while the snow falls daintily outside. When the waitress finds out we live in California she say “Oh, that’s why your faces have such a happy glow!” but really it’s St. P that’s putting the spark in us these days…

12.21.18: The Shortest Day

Winter solstice in Saint Petersburg means sunrise at 9:58 AM and sunset at 3:52 PM. We celebrate the light by each shooting a roll of Super 8 over the course of a six-hour “dawn to dusk” ramble. At times we get so cold we can barely hold the cameras and the cameras get so cold they can barely move the film (Hang in there, Number Five!) but there’s sunshine and snowflakes, there are sweet old ladies selling kalinka berries (bought some to process the film with later) and handmade socks outside the Dostoyevsky Metro Station, there are Diane Arbus-y old ladies in furs waiting for gentlemen friends in a Proletarskaya cafe (and one of those gentlemen steals your seat when you’re at the counter getting coffee but hey, you snooze you lose!), there are grandmas walking slowly along the slippery streets with grandchildren whose mittens are hanging off, and there are tiny old ladies who move flowers around and clean up the candle wax at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery (PS: if anyone knows where they get their amazing clothes–smocky ankle-grazing dresses in grey and black with a long dark sleeveless thick cotton vest overtop and some little ankle boots and a flowered headscarf…you’re not allowed to take pictures so you’ll have to just take my word for it that they look both pious and adorable and ferociously competent at the same time–please let me know where this store of my dreams is located). There’s weird buildings and pretty parks and lonely bus stops. And there’s an opening of a show called “I Brought You A Christmas Tree” with work by Ivan Sotnikov and “Novye Khudozhniki” (“New Artists”) friends at the Museum of Urban Sculpture (thanks for the heads up, Lera!) where the people look like the art and the art makes you feel happy to be alive and there’s some singing and you have to wait for the coat check guy to finish eating a cucumber before you can get your coat back. And when you finally get home, there’s a gathering of the dynamic Art Prospect curators next door and Liza just opens the magic portal that connects the two apartments and you don’t even have to put your shoes on to join the party.


12.20.18: The Best Artist Is A Dead Artist

Now that The Sound We See: St P is all spliced, telecined and assembled (and it looks amaaaaaaaazing!), the participants are searching for musicians to do the score and we have time to visit–what else?–more artists in their natural habitats.

Climbing many many flights of stairs in an old apartment building and entering the studio of Petr Shvetsov is like being welcomed into a secret sanctuary of wonder and possibility. Everywhere is evidence of a fantastically creative soul and a constantly curious mind: piles of past sculpture, sketches, installations, etchings, prints, assemblages and framed objects, current paintings in progress on the theme of Tex-Mex food and the mysterious 1959 Dyatlov Pass incident, taxidermy, postcards, ballet slippers, ancient pickles, a sacred tub of brown goo of and even a self-portrait of himself in a coffin because, as he tells us with a smile “The best artist is a dead artist, no?”

In the evening we find ourselves literal and figurative miles away at a strange office building where curator Anastasia Skvortsova has invited us to an exhibition of paintings by Dmitry Margolin. There are framed reproductions of Art’s Greatest Hits all over the lobby and down every corridor. As advised by a watchman at the front desk, we take the elevator to the fourth floor and emerge into what is apparently a scene from a Russian remake of Day Of The Locust… wine flowing, dignitaries emoting, giant garish paintings on every wall, arty people in showy clothes posing for photos, and two young men running, shoving and shouting, getting in people’s faces while haphazardly brandishing empty glasses and somewhat menacing metal bars. Is it performance? Situationist comedy? Party crashing? Bad drugs? Good drugs? No one pays the wild lads any mind at all and the party rages on while we retreat to the tranquility of the late night Metro…