A structure as colossal as St. Isaac's Cathedral imparts yet another level of grandeur; the exotic riches of the Russian Orthodox church are showcased here in this cathedral preserved by the communists as a museum (now serving as a church again!). From the outside the streets and ant-like cars on them are dwarfed by columns that stand unmoving, a mountain of granite in a sea of swirling change.
Such pre-revolutionary architecture makes downtown St. Petersburg a living museum, a pearl in the oyster of today's city. Beyond the center, one finds the so-called "sleeping districts," the "neighborhoods" where the populace lives (or at least sleeps; living seems to be too relative a term).
More housing has been thrown up overnight in the last 50 years than in all of the preceding 250. The reality of that statistic is mind boggling. A Soviet tour book reads: "The city has extended its boundaries. Excellent residential districts with much greenery have grown up." Excellent if you like horrific concrete squares surrounding you like prison bars. Excellent if you are color-blind, have no sense of aesthetics, don't know what a front yard is, much less a picket fence, or privacy. Excellent if you've already waited 10 years for an apartment so you, your wife, and child no longer have to sleep in your in-law's kitchen.
The name "sleeping districts" seems apt insofar as I always felt my brain go numb among the stark high-rise apartments--cut outs from some horrific science fiction novel (so they seemed to this country boy). They loomed in my nightmares. And yet they swarmed with life as common and warm as in any Kansas farmhouse. This paradox prompted me to write the following poem:
Oxymoron lovers tell me she is a beautiful city.
Unnatural eyesore, her cinder block breasts rise like cancer from the swamp:
Malignant Eggsacks of Armageddon
Gutted Lunar Landscape
Schiaparelli's Martian Canals
Garden of Ruined Stone.
Nearer, one realizes countless millions inhabit them.
People, in fact,
nursing their young
I felt very privileged to be writing what I pleased. Others have not enjoyed that luxury. Jewish writer Isaac Babel once quipped: "...but wasn't it a mistake on God's part to settle Jews in Russia where they live like in hell? Why couldn't He have settled Jews in Switzerland where they'd be surrounded by first-class lakes, where they'd breathe mountain air and be surrounded by nothing but the French?" This he wrote during Stalin's reign, and one day mysteriously disappeared, never to be heard from again.