Back From St. Petersburg

Indeed I am back, back to the land of boiled cabbage and queues. In the White Night of St. Petersburg’s summer, blogging, surfing and generally keeping up with the world receded in importance. The hangovers did not help for that is a land where beer is considered a soft drink and seeing some dude taking delicious little sips of ‘Russian Standard’ vodka at … well at, breakfast. But for the first time I was living in an idea, a conceit that killed millions, a city built by the will of a single man. Russia, and particularly St. Petersburg, I found, is a place that has been cut, ploughed, planted and whipped by a ruling class that has been determined to turn national life into an expression of philosophical ideas. It has, as M. Epstein says, been treated as a tabula rosa on which foreign ideas can be writ with all the necessary violence. Being in St. Petersburg, taking in my favourite building, Kazansky Cathedral, I knew that its beauty – and indeed greatness – reflected the relentless succession of projects that has blighted the lives of millions and destroyed lives past count. Projects, national projects kill. When the determination of Peter the Great to Europeanise Russia is considered, then the soviet period is soon understood to have merely been a version of this project. Russia, for we of 5-year development plans and nationalist aspirations, serves as a warning beacon. I will come back to this in the coming weeks, once I have gotten my feet under me.

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Putin and His African Cannibalism Take

Being in St Petersburg and only now learning that Putin said that Africans had a history of cannibalism made me laugh till the tears rolled. Not because what he said was really funny, but because of the knee jerk outrage that poured out of my own folks over the statement and not the promise of aid he made. Here is a guy who on one hand calls you a cannibal and on the other promises you money, and you accept! That is so hilarious because the only other thing it could be is tragic enough to make me cry for days. This is what Trevor Phillips, the UK’s government-appointed commisar of racial equality, had to say: “What a preposterous thing to say. He is at best insensitive and at worst a downright racist”. Insensitive? How hopeless. The brother is trying to spin some poltical correctness game in the midst of madness. Putin knows perfectly well that he doesn’t give a shit about Africans but needs to play ‘the game’ which over the years has come to include merciful gestures for the doomed Africans. For the last week, I have been staying in the city where he was born. It was here that almost a million people died so that I could take admiring photos of the city and in this country that Stalin killed at least 20 million Russians not to even mention the millions that Lenin and Trotsky murdered. There is no need for outrage from the usual coterie of African guilt mongers. Who the hell cares that Putin says Africans are cannibals when he comes from the cruelest place on earth? I think he was joking and actually really didn’t give a damn how it came out. Two minutes in St. Petersburg will show you that political correctness here is absurd.

The Vodka Haze and Related Matters in St Petersburg

Never ever try and blog as a Kenyan in St Petersburg, Russia. It is not possible; it is beyond the bounds of credulity and possibility. They have this clear, tasteless substance called Russian Standard Vodka and it really has been sad for this particular African. The toasts don’t stop, or the misplaced sense that you are in a familiar space when you are actually in the strangest city that was ever built. Throughout my life Russia has been a constant: its politics and, most importantly for me, its literature. After a week here, despite the haze, I have come to realise the self indulgence of my politics. Russians must be the toughest most stubborn people on earth because the cruelties leveled on them – by the Peters and Stalins – had to be a response to the size of their spirits. I want to live here and learn Russian and how to be a writer because this place speaks to so many things that I have never consciously articulated. I went to Kutuzov’s tomb yesterday. It is in Kazansky Cathedral and was my best moment in Russia. A country that prays while displaying the captured standards of Napoleon who brought death here and did not understand that Russians could endure more than he could wield. When I am reborn, I hope it is as a melancholic Russian writer who used to be a soldier.

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Graffiti outside the flat that Raskolnikov supposedly lived in. Raskolnikov is the most famous of Dostoevsky’s characters. The dude basically offs old ladies believing that he is beyond the bounds of good or evil, and of course this has made him madly popular among angst-hungry western intellectuals.

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This is a picture of an African scalp outside Kazansky Cathedral in St. Petersburg. I am living just up the street and have spent an inordinate amount of time seating in a small park next to the cathedral. It was, I am told, built at the beginning of the 19th century by Alexander I. It was during one of the Russian-Turkish wars thus the decision to build a large duplicate of St. Peter’s in Rome to prove that Russia was a serious superpower that Turkey shouldn’t mess with. It amazes me how notions spring up in a Czar’s head and they are brought to life at such horrific costs. One look at the huge looking mass with its dark stones is enough to let you know that folks done died putting it up. Anyway, word is that the project succeeded though I cannot really understand how. The Turks surrendered before the cathedral’s completion and therefore it was decided to not build a southern colonnade to match the northern one facing Nevsky (the main avenue where to be a woman not wearing high heels earns you an instant mob beating).

Now I quote and will put up more pictures the moment I am recovered from my lack of sleep:

In socialist times the cathedral housed the ideologically-slanted Museum of Religion and Atheism and had a graphic Spanish Inquisition exhibition in the basement, complete with a pair of legs jutting out of a cauldron. The current exhibition has a small section (in Russian only) on the history of Catholicism and a larger section on Orthodoxy which includes church art, historical paintings, and various religious knick-knacks.

Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, hero of the Napoleonic War, is buried in the cathedral and there are monuments to him and to General Mikhail Barclay de Tolli in Kazan Square, facing Nevsky. From a certain angle, General Barclay de Tolli seems to be doing something that he shouldn’t be doing in public; this is revenge on the randy general for sleeping with the sculptor’s wife.

An African in St. Petersburg: The Arrival

From today, I will try and keep a kind of diary of my two-week trip to St. Petersburg. Hopefully I will be able to find a computer that I can use to upload the pictures that I am taking.

The Arrival

I flew into St. Petersburg yesterday evening on a flight from Vienna. I have always wanted to put those cities in a sentence that involves me. As is the usual case for The African, immigration was a complex matter. It never ceases to amaze me how suddenly, when you are in an immigration queue, the crushing power of the State makes itself felt. While aloft, I was an international traveler, a privileged being that has taken flight. My troubles were behind and below me; ahead was possibility and optimism. When I landed, it was like being in a Toyland. The rows of planes, the terminal building and the little trucks zipping here and there all appeared a bit unreal, like a kind of children’s Lego set.

It is the immigration form that brought me to earth. It made no apologies for its demand of information: when was I born; where was I going; why was I going there; for how long; where did I come from; what was I carrying, weapons, acids, sharp objects, animals, plants…; citizenship; residence; date of birth; maiden name; address; passport number and date of issue and expiry; other? It is ‘other’ that gets my goat. What else could I tell? That I was carrying drugs or planning acts of terrorism? That I may have left behind heartbreak and that I hoped to one day win the lottery and that the expiry of my life, not just that of my passport, was a constant worry? Well, I filled the form. It is habit. I have been categorized, measured, weighed and credentialed so often that it now feels normal to squeeze my life into forms. And I also filled it because not doing so always has unpleasant consequences. 98.5% of all forms are a way of avoiding punishment, pleading and justifying. So I filled mine and got in line to speak to the most important individual in my life at that moment, the immigration officer.

By the time I inched up to the desk behind which sat, as always, a grim faced official my happy feelings of having been magically transported had dissipated. I was gripped by an inexplicable guilt, that I had committed some crime that the official would spot instantly. This is why I clutched my passport a little too tightly, and glanced repeatedly at the page with the visa to make sure that it was actually there and has the correct dates. Also in hand were my ticket, insurance form and the schedule of the writing conference that had brought me to Russia. I half expected that I would have to re-apply all over again for permission to enter. My overly active imagination started making up scenarios of the official ordering a search of my baggage and a joint of marijuana being found. I worried whether the friends I have lent my suitcase in the past could have left such damning evidence in it.

The Russians and Europeans ahead of me briskly stepped up to the official and were processed quickly and efficiently. She barely looked at their passports, seeming to be satisfied on the basis of the country that had issued them. The Austrian that I spent part of the flight conversing with kept up a lively chatter that I could not concentrate on. He had few worries; this for him was just a small irksome procedure. And that it is how it appears to Africans as well, after they have been successfully admitted. Before then, you can tell who they are by the silence that envelops them in the queue and their solemn expressions.

Finally it was my turn and as is my wont, I brightly said hullo taking special care to pronounce the ‘hi’ with a distinctly American accent. It was better, I calculated, to say ‘hi’ instead of hello or habari or niatia. Such greetings may mark me for some kind of rent seeking, asylum declaring African. The dirty little secret of the African in line is that he attempts to reduce his Africanness in every possible way. The passport from Kenya or Uganda and, heaven forbid, Nigeria, is trouble enough. Thus my chirpy ‘hi’ which evidently had been tried before since it was met with silence and a searching glance.

OK, have to run and meet the group for dinner. The Petersburg diary shall continue later.