by Hank Leukart
October 13, 2012
Prancing on rooftops
In St. Petersburg, Russia, every night can be New Year’s Eve.
Seva and Nastya look at the view from a roof in St. Petersburg, Russia.
This is the fifth essay in a series about living like a local in Russia. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.S
T. PETERSBURG, Russia — “Okay, I know this is hard for an American, but we must be very quiet,” Seva whispers as we enter the building’s courtyard next to the Fontanka River in St. Petersburg, Russia. “We’re not allowed to do this. It’s illegal.”
Seva — an 18-year-old, iPod- wearing, St. Petersburg tour guide with wild, curly blond hair, a youthful wit, and a subversive edge — quietly leads me and my newfound friend Nastya into an 18th-century, yellow apartment building with a grid of rectangular windows, up five flights of stairs, through a dark attic with a coarse, concrete floor, and across a wooden walkway. Nastya — an ambitious, smart, fashionable, 23-year-old Russian woman working in advertising with a round face and dirty blond hair — has generously agreed to show me around St. Petersburg after our mutual friend, Alina, had to travel out of town for work.
Nastya and I follow Seva toward a blinding light shining through an opening in the slanted roof until we’re climbing a rickety, wooden staircase. Suddenly, we’re standing on the building’s tin roof, looking down at tourist boats cruising under green, arched bridges crossing the murky waters of the Fontanka, flanked by the white, yellow, beige, and red waffle-like fronts of 18th-century buildings. In the distance, I see St. Petersburg’s most well-known landmarks: the golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the green, blue, and grey onion domes of the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.
“Try to step only on the ridges,” Seva advises as the three of us walk across the roof and then step onto the roof of an adjacent building. “You don’t want to fall through.” Immediately, I imagine myself unexpectedly crashing through the ceiling of a Russian family’s living room and onto their couch while they’re watching the Russian team compete in the Summer Olympics.
When I ask Seva if giving rooftop tours is his fulltime job, he tells me that he’s simply giving tours for the summer until he leaves to join the Russian army.
“The army?!” I ask, surprised. “But aren’t you too rebellious and fun for the army?”
“Russians can be conscripted for one year when we’re between 18 and 27 years old,” Seva explains.
“If he didn’t do well on his standardized tests to get into university and he doesn’t have the money to bribe someone important, he may have no choice,” Nastya whispers to me when Seva is out of earshot. “But the Russian army can be horrible.” I think of the estimated 40,000 Russian soldiers killed in the Second Chechen War during the last decade, and a haunting image of the disappearing men in Yuri Norstein’s Russian animated film Tale of Tales drifts through my mind. Looking at Seva, a talented and creative entrepreneur, I feel sad.
“I expect they’ll promote me to General immediately,” Seva jokes.
I see Nastya, prancing barefoot in a leather jacket and designer jeans from rooftop to rooftop, her blond hair tousled by the wind and her aviator-style sunglasses sliding down her nose. Near her, on two buttresses emerging from the silver roof next to two rusty satellite dishes, I see a spray-painted mural of the silhouette of a loving mother, holding an infant above her head, masking neon-green light seeping through horizontal blinds. I see that the graffiti artist has tagged his work with his signature. Ahead of me, Seva and Nastya climb together onto a raised section of the roof, teetering on the unguarded edge of a final plummet.
“They’d never let you do this in America,” Seva says. “In America, we’d be wearing seatbelts and helmets!”
He’s right, of course, but America’s idiosyncrasies are far from my mind. I’m entranced by the experience: the primal graffiti image, the satellite dishes, Seva’s iPod, Nastya’s fashionable clothes, and the fact that, 20 years after the fall of Soviet Russia, an American, a Russian conscript, and a Russian advertising executive are dancing across rooftops above a 300-year-old Russian city. In a single snapshot, the scene seems to tell the entire story of Russia’s complex recent history.
“Tonight, Father Christmas will come to deliver gifts from Lapland, Finland, where he lives. He’ll bring Snow Girl,” Olga says, as though this is a perfectly normal thing to say.
It’s not New Year’s Eve, and yet, my friend Olga — a graceful, always-smiling, red-haired, music act booking agent — and I are sitting with her friends Emil and Marina in the St. Petersburg dance club Purga, waiting for the New Year’s Eve countdown to midnight. Purga is a special, two-sided dance club; on one side, the club celebrates a fake Russian wedding, and, on the other side, the club celebrates New Year’s Eve — every night of the year.
“Uh, what?!” I say, utterly confused. “First, Santa lives at the North Pole — not in Finland. Second, who is Snow Girl?!”
“He definitely lives in Finland,” Olga, normally the most easy-going person I know in Russia, sternly insists. “And you don’t know Snow Girl?! We call her Snegurochka, and she is the granddaughter of Ded Moroz, who is Father Christmas.”
“Ok, and she lives with him in Finland?” I ask. “What does she do? Does she help deliver gifts, or what?” It occurs to me that demanding to know the specific job requirements of a fairy tale character — as though it’s essential to root-out corporate inefficiencies in Fairy Tale World and lay off characters nonessential to the bottom line — is offensively American.
“I don’t think she really does anything,” she explains, bewildered. As if on cue, one of the club’s cocktail waitresses, dressed as a particularly sexy Snow Girl in a white miniskirt and white stockings covered in blue snowflakes, gives us all white rabbit ears to wear on our heads. In a flash, she forces Marina into a Christmas tree costume and arranges us all in a circle around her. Immediately, everyone in the dance club begins singing in unison, and it becomes clear that I am the only person in Russia that doesn’t know the lyrics to “The Forest Raised a Christmas Tree,” a traditional Russian folk song. I attempt to lip sync, but I’m not convincing.
After the song, as we drink cocktails, Emil tells me that he moved from Baku, Azerbaijan to Russia for his job at a construction company, and Marina tells me that she trains American Bulldogs for Russian dog shows. My brain already feels like it’s about to explode from the incongruousness of it all, when a shirtless man wearing a fake, long, white beard, red nose, and black-rimmed glasses appears and demands that each woman in the bar sit on his lap. I realize that it’s a perverted Father Christmas.
“He doesn’t normally look like this, of course,” Olga says. “Usually, every father dresses in a more traditional Father Christmas costume to fool the children.”
“The way he looks is the least of my confusion,” I confess. “In America, he visits on Christmas Eve instead of New Year’s Eve, and the children never see him. He pilots a flying sleigh powered by reindeer, which land and prance across your roof. Then, he enters through your chimney, eats cookies, and leaves gifts under the Christmas tree — all in secret.” As soon as I finish my explanation, I realize that I sound insane.
When a television screen above us begins showing a speech from Russian president Vladimir Putin, the crowd starts yelling.
“Desyat! Devyat! Vosem! Sem! Shest! Pyat! Chetyre! ” the crowd chants, led by Father Christmas’s sexy granddaughter. They’re counting down to the fake New Year, and Olga tells me that the Russian president always gives a televised speech minutes before the real New Year’s countdown.
“ Tri! Dva! Ahdeen! S Novym Godom!” the crowd screams as though they have no idea that it’s not the real New Year.
“I’m so happy that I’ve gotten to celebrate the New Year with my Russian friends,” I say to Olga, Emil, and Marina, as we light sparklers in celebration. Feeling sentimental, I make a New Year’s resolution to continue my Russian friendships long after leaving Russia. Always-gracious Olga smiles.
“Our country may have corruption problems, but you can’t buy friendship in Russia,” Olga says. “Especially in Russia.”
Then, just as though we were celebrating a real New Year, a familiar feeling of melancholy nostalgia and regret overcomes me. Likely because of the intense nature of Russian friendship, I feel, more than usual, acutely aware of the ephemeral nature of travel-born friendships and New Year’s resolutions, real or fake.
Yet, I find myself wanting to capture our mutual feeling of friendship in this fleeting New Year’s moment and stretch it, like a rubber band, along the train tracks back to Moscow, across the 6,000-mile flight path back to Los Angeles, and over the months beyond my trip’s end.
Read the grand finale of this series about Russia, in which I transform into a real Russian while lying in a 200-degree room while a friend beats me with a tree branch.
Russian sculptor Baron Peter Klodt von Jurgensburg’s horse-tamer statues appear throughout St. Petersburg.
Snow Girl and Father Christmas visit patrons to dance club Purga during a fake New Year’s Eve in St. Petersburg, Russia.
How to Take a Rooftop Tour and Celebrate the Fake New Year in St. Petersburg, Russia
- ROOFTOP TOURS: Sneaking onto a St. Petersburg rooftop is a great way to see the city, and the easiest way to do so is with an experienced tour guide. Fly to Myasokombinat airport in St. Petersburg, Russia or take the 4-hour, high-speed Sapsan train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. When you arrive, contact charming, English-speaking Vsevolod “Seva” Mitrofanov by phone at +7 921-893-92-17 or by sending him a message on his VK page (in Russian). Seva charges €15 per person for a simple rooftop tour, €30 for a professional rooftop photo shoot, and €75 for a romantic, rooftop picnic dinner for two.
- PURGA: Purga (the Russian word for “blizzard”) is a special dance club in St. Petersburg that celebrates a Russian wedding and New Year’s Eve every night of the year. The club can be found at Fontaka River 11 (набережная Реки Фонтанки, д. 11), close to the Gostinnyy Dvor Metro station.