Wednesday, July 11, 2007


There is a Russian joke about Chapaev in which you walk into a Soviet museum. A row of dusty glass cases of various sizes stand in a row, dimly lit. A drunken ballad can be heard playing somewhere. The drunken ballad is always played on an accordion; the words:
Мне немного взгрустнулось
Без тоски, без печали.
В этот час прозвучали
Слова твои
are always there in some form or another. The song is both tender and annoying, like an old lover who calls in the middle of the night. Or a dead relative you can't get out of your head, like an advertising jingle. Or a child incessantly asking the same question: "Why do I have to?" And so, in the dusty museum, near the glass cases, sits an old woman in a faded blue blouse. Her breasts are placid on her stomach. Something slowly moves in her hands; you look closer and discover a small kitten: grey, tired, possibly dying. Only the dust keeps this scene from being dangerously maudlin; the skeletons are standing in the glass cases. Yes, that is what this story is all about. It is because of the skeletons in the glass cases that the old woman is sitting in her faded blouse on the creaky wooden chair. As you approach the dusty glass she says:
"Those are Chapaev's."
"All of them?" you ask.
"Yes," she says, "That small one is Chapaev when he was a 6 year old boy; that one over there is from when he first joined the Red Army; and this one was discovered in 1937 in an old hut, still covered in his Red Army uniform, actually moving, drinking tea. They had a hell of a time excavating it."
When you live on Mayakovsky Street the Chapaev scenario is familiar. When you walk like an American you walk up another set of crumbling stairs at three o'clock in the morning. You walk past a door with fake red leather upholstery, and your friend says: "See this door Petka... behind this door lived Mayakovsky and Lilya Brik." You ask, searching for a name, "What was her husband's name again?" The next day you go out again, with another citizen, and they point to a derelict building saying, "You see that building over there Petka...that is were Lilya Brik lived with her husband, and Mayakovsky." You again inquire, "What was her husband' s name again? Was he an aristocrat? What exactly did he do?" The next day you go out by yourself, and walk up your own flight of stairs. It is day, this is the first time you have walked up these stairs sober enough to care about what’s written on the walls. Near a crooked swastika drawn with burnt matches you read: Здесь бухал Владимир Владимирович Маяковский.
The same thing happens with Blok, whose favorite two activities were: walks and whores. Pimping is illegal in contemporary Russia, but prostitution isn't. Which leads us to an interesting question: what is prostitution? I would imagine that legally it is a pretty hard thing to pin down. When does one cross the line from simply slut into genuine whore? Does one need to advertise? Place an ad? Have a pimp? What if one is a free agent? What if one sleeps for money only when the proposition is made? What if I pay my wife to sleep with me? No, the last one is a clear case... So there is Blok and there is Mayakovsky, and they have lived, drank, whored in every piss stained alley in St. Petersburg. Like Chapaev's skeletons they are peroratory, they perambulate.
My own walks include walking the dog. The dog is a St. Petersburg dingo named Baxter. I live next to a Мегафон business center; I walk Baxter along the small patch of grass in front of Мегафон were various people in business apparel park their Mercedes. Now, no one in Russia adheres to the "put the dog shit in the dog shit bag" rule which is understandable. I myself rarely adhere to this rule in the states, but here I wanted to show the Мегафон business people how a civilized person walks a dog. So the dog shits. I take out my small clear bag, which I received with my purchase of razors. There was more shit than usual I had to make several scoops, attempts, etc. Finally, I raised the bag to eye level, inspecting it if you will. The security guard was eyeing me suspiciously. I tied a knot, and for good measure gave the bag a good 180 degree swing so that the knot firmly tied. With this action I underestimated the strength of the vessel --that is, the bag ripped-- sending the shit flying in the way of the business people. I noticed a glob of shit on a shiny black shoe. The guard’s suspicions had been corroborated. I ran. I didn't look. I didn't take the time to wait for the cars to clear the street. I ran across the street, with the dog, through the traffic, and away, away from the Мегафон business center.