Shakespearean Tempest: Buying an Apartment in St. Petersburg


The summer of 2002 my family bought an apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia. The series of undeniable facts associated with this acquisition -- receiving the great amount of cash from the bank and carrying it across the city in a car which kept breaking down at every busy intersection, paying the money, watching how the agent examined every bill to make sure it is new and clean (the process took nearly an hour), signing the documents, receiving the key, and looking in wonder at a dilapidated smelly flat -- all that was hardly factual. The process was like a dream or rather a storm, a veritable Shakespearean tempest. I am still living on the shores of that unquiet sea although I have since returned to Atlanta, Georgia, and entered a very busy academic schedule. The Tempest, however, lives in my mind; its characters speak to me side by side with my University colleagues, and they address me at the busiest of meetings. The worst part is that I do not want this to stop, at least not until I finish this story.
I get most mixed up when I wake up in the middle of the night. I thought I left it all behind 30 years ago when we first emigrated from Russia -- waking up and not knowing where I am, going through a list of living spaces which comprise even the kindergarten of my early childhood, and eventually remembering that I am very much on the other side of the globe. How, then, did I come to this shore? There must have been a whirlwind, or so I think looking at the parched Atlanta trees from my home window.

One lives inside and outside one's mind while always searching for an alignment between these two sometimes very unlikely worlds. In spite of much feminist scholarship of the last 20 years, I have always secretly identified with Prospero's Miranda: to me she is my kind of girl, a child who started by weeping and ended up learning how to play chess. Indeed, the factual biographical correspondences are impossible to deny: I too was brought up by a banished father who had taught me liberal arts. My father, of course, was not a duke from Milan, but a Russian linguist, Yuri Glazov, who in 1968 was expelled from his job at the Academy of Sciences because he had signed some letters in support of human rights. This single act of imprudent courage did not get him a medal of honor; instead it resulted in all of us being stripped of Russian citizenship and in our eventual emigration to the United States and then to Canada. In August 2001 year I returned to the States.
Russia then for me is very much like Italy for Miranda, and the unprecedented changes of the last 10 years in my country are not merely international events: they are always a family story. In 1991 we were allowed to visit Moscow, and already then it was possible to buy an apartment (and to buy it for a few thousand dollars to boot). My father refused. Like the patriarch he was, he made a decision for all of us: "The night after the battle belongs to thieves and marauders. If these are real changes, let my old superiors return to me my apartment and apologize." I did not argue then; I loved him for being what he was, but I wondered already then whether or not he believed his own words. One can visualize the futility of that impossible occurrence with the help of Shakespeare: Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso in The Tempest, just by themselves, without Ariel-harpy, decided to return to Prospero his dukedom, just because it was the right thing to do (and possibly because they were scared of the storm). An unlikely scenario, indeed, not suitable even for a Shakespearean Romance. Thus, no one came to restore our losses or clear away our tears, and the prices rose and rose again.

Since our first permitted visits to Russia, years passed, more than a decade. The last time my father visited Russia was the summer of 1997. He got sick. "This country makes me unwell," he said, but still could not help walking for hours in its streets, taking trains to the suburbs, talking to people on the street with his characteristic carefree lighthearted warmth. "Life begins anew," I thought to myself, "We are returning." But it did not return. My father died from cancer that winter. His sickness and death were very unexpected. A year earlier he skied for hours, was youthful and agile.

As my dad was dying, I saw him assessing his life on his deathbed.... Russia remained his battleground. He did not win the battle, but he did not lose his dignity. And then he left. We stayed behind.

How does Miranda, I always think, enter Milan and Naples and make friends with the people who had banished her father? Does she go to the balls and stately dinners? Is she not afraid of poison in her food? She is sweet, Miranda. I, on the other hand, lost my sweetness long ago, seasoned as it were by the salty waters of the stormy sea. The same salt devoured half of my memory, but what remained began to assume almost archetypal forms in the bitter-sweet landscape of my mind. Only lately then did I begin to understand why by the end of his life Shakespeare wrote tragicomedies and why his battlegrounds were populated by the fauna and flora of the tender tricky youngsters.

My two children came to study in St. Petersburg in 2001, just when I returned to the United States. My son Yuri looks physically very much like his no-longer-living grandfather. When he comes to visit our friends in Moscow, they feel that they are seeing their lost friend. "But not for long," quips Yuri, who fortunately has inherited some of the family's sense of fun. "When I open my mouth," he says, "they roll their eyes." "This one is not Yurochka," they say, "this boy is a naïve fool from Canada." And Yuri laughs as if our seasoned friends have just complimented him on his intellectual achievements. In 2002 Yuri was not returning to North America, Instead he began his graduate work in a Russian University and supported himself by publishing his travel diaries in the Canadian newspapers. His style was funny and light, but had enough poignancy to please even his mother's worried ear. Indeed, it was not just my heart he soothed with his breezy air. His slightly accented Russian speech disarmed the listeners, and thus he got the cheapest fares from the cabdrivers (I am usually charged double for all my hard-nosed bargaining). In Petersburg he knows all the bus routes around the city, flirts with the Russian waitresses right in front of my incredulous self, and only too obviously enjoys all different brands of Russian beer. He has even been arrested for entering the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg at the forbidden hour, to read and think, he told me. These are the true wages of adapting to a new, and for me, an old and ghostly country

My daughter matched her brother's pattern of adaptation with striking grace and wit, and with something more to boot. For one, she had astonished all of us who, mind you, should have known better. She fell in love with a young Russian musician of Jewish origin. It is indeed a fact, foreshadowed by many a Chagall painting which I had so unknowingly hung in her old room. Shocked by the development, I succumb, watching in disbelief how she has inhabited the Russian youth from which I was so irreversibly banished many many years ago.
Walking hand in hand, my children and their friends disappear between the stony buildings of this 300-year-old city. In season they go to concerts every third day, know all the best musicians and all the artsy rumors, and my daughter loses her customary cool when her Romeo performs. She reassumes it though in Mariinsky., pointing out to me with very knowledgeable air which of the sopranos go too high without ever attempting to pay attention to the notes.

This is the world from which for me there is no waking up. Yet I also know I could have not imagined this if I were writing fiction. My careful and anxious imagination would have failed. Life guides this book and straightens my mistakes by adding further challenges and complications.
Whatever my daughter as a child lacked in her Russian language training (my old fault) has been now more than amplified by her newly found unanticipated friends. Her life in Russia, of course, was by no means the East of Eden. By labor and sweat of brow did our young inheritors assume their rightful place. Accepted in the piano program in St. Petersburg Conservatory, my child had to work and work, repaying for her unguided days in front of North American TV. Nevertheless, she knew how to shake the pressures off. No one, not even Yuri could beat her at bargaining for the cheapest taxi fares, the fact that made my hair turn yet another shade of grey. The meek, but feisty seemed to have inherited the earth.
The summer of the apartment-buying was like a challenge and a puzzle that I was unable to resolve. While looking at my children, I forgot my own life, and yet my father's aversion to buying anything in his beloved country was like a spell which totally neutralized my will. We clearly needed another player to enter the impasse... and lift it or dissolve it. My husband Kevin arrived at Pulkovo (St. Petersburg's international airport) on July 8th. We had a month before our return to Emory, but he said he thought best when under pressure. And the storm began. We needed an apartment, he decided within a day or so of his arrival, for both of our children while the prices in St. Petersburg were still so low. "Would not you want, Elena," he said to me, "an apartment with internet and a piano near the conservatory? Perhaps, then you can be forever young and know that no unregistered taxis are carrying your children at some unearthly hour." To be truthful, these were not exactly the words he said, but... My father, by contrast, would have never approached this issue so simply. For him and me there were too many very real ghosts. But Kevin and children, they came from a very different world.

To me my husband's decision meant that I was coming home after the 30 years' break. It also implied some very practical details: we had, for one, no time to waste. I had a month and a limit of $30,000 for the apartment hunting. So I began to look. The frightening reality of Russian poverty met you at that price without delay. In 1999 we could have bought with $30,000 a Russian Tajh Majal, but now I looked and looked and thought that I was literally going back to the world of Dostoyevsky's novels. At least half of places that I saw had many icons in the main room, but very ancient plumbing and no hot water. Those who had hot water placed the showers and the bath in places I would never have imagined, like in close proximity to the kitchen sink. Thus, after 10 days I was about to conclude the search ... with nothing.
But with this decision I underestimated my Russian friends. On the computer late into the night they searched and found a new listing that seemed too extraordinary to be true. They called and made an immediate appointment. The next evening (alone without my foreign husband, not to confuse the new sales agent) I looked at a three-room flat and found, to my surprise, that the bath tab was neither in the kitchen, nor in the hallway, and that the rooms had light and height. Within the ten minutes I told the agent I would buy this. She asked me to call her later, wrote down my name, and continued to show the apartment to a crowd of people, coming in droves to the door.

Later that night after two hours of busy signal I finally heard her voice. She had 4 other offers. But this time I was first (because she put down my name in her notebook as everyone else was coming in), and strangely she had no desire to organize the bid further. Next morning we found the agency and gave them our deposit (in cash: Russian market does not know cheques), and then my husband Kevin went to see the place. What he actually saw I do not know, but I had a feeling that he was deeply shocked and thought that I had finally and genuinely lost my mind. The clever lady-agent, however, told him that all the problems of the apartment were purely cosmetic. This was a lovely word and covered a lot of things. And then we waited for the bank's transfer of the money.

My luck, like I myself, has at least two sides. The transference of money was simply a disaster; the sum had been lost en route. I talked for hours to London office and to New York, I talked daily to the Russian bank and at the end no longer winced at the girl's rudeness. The money did arrive 5 days before our return to the US, and we still needed 4 working days to register the flat to our name. When the Russian bank called that the transfer finally appeared at their system, my sides were hurting as if I had just delivered yet another child.
Then Kevin and I walked by the Fontanka. I wondered how he, an Englishman, had got himself so mixed up in this. He, I was surprised to hear, was happy that he could return my home back to me. It was really the first quiet moment since he arrived.

Before our departure we went through many moods. The bank having received the wire did not have the necessary cash. We waited in the lobby for 3 hours for a suitcase of money carried by a man, who was accompanied by two policemen. The money, $30,000 in hundred dollar bills, was given to us by a teller, while my friends demanded to examine every note. The agency, they said, would not take old or dirty bills. The ensuing chaos attracted what to us seemed to be almost a dangerous amount of attention. My friends would not give up; the tellers began to shout. A scene in question was definitely not to Kevin's taste. He, I am sure, questioned all our wits and was not exactly sure of his own. Then still in something of a quiet shock or rather in a state of quiet horror, my foreign husband carrying the whole sum was ushered into a very ugly looking taxi . There was simply no way to switch the whole scene off and to return to his beloved England. Meanwhile the sales agent waited, the taxi breaking every hundred meters.

Long ago now, as I have said before, I have returned to Emory to teach Dostoyevsky and other Russian writers to my students. In 2003, having spent a year in the flat while it was being fully renovated, my children moved to the US, and the apartment now is rented to our friends. Yet in the middle of the busiest moment of the term, I have a mental exercise that gives me peace. At first, I go and sit by my father's grave and look at the crosses near the monastery entrance where my father had found his final resting place. And then I think of my administrative leave. What if I can take my younger daughter Sarah and go back to Russia? My step-mother will join me then, Kevin will visit me and possibly stay one term, and no longer my older children, but I myself will go to concerts at night and write and think during the day. Then my second self, Miranda, will not go for the state parties or lavish dinners. Her every third thought will be a grave, but she will be forever young.