Russia wasn’t somewhere you went to in September 1998. It was somewhere you fled from. The clues to that were written all over the TV set whenever Steve switched it on. The only surprise he noted when he saw the hundreds of forlorn looking people queuing to take out their savings before the ruble plummeted even further was that most weren’t wearing rabbit-skin hats and heavy coats, but light clothing as the season demanded, it being August.
Despite fetishising Russia for much of his life, the notion that the country had seasons just as any other had never managed to impress itself on Steve. The sight of them in t-shirts, shielding their brows from the sun while they watched the queue move snail-like to the liberation of their money from their cursed accounts, jolted Steve as almost as much as the news that the country had plunged into chaos.
There came a point that he just did not want to go, with so many of his friends and workmates giving him earache about how Russia was a no-go land. He seriously hated the visa he’d applied for, wherever it was and whatever it was doing, perhaps lying somewhere in a dusty office with his passport. He had redundancy money, so he didn’t need to worry where he was at this juncture. The lunacy of St Petersburg raged a long way outside Steve’s door, for now.
Yet a couple of weeks later he did turn up in all trepidation at Pulkovo airport, laden with luggage and wondering whether to get back on the next plane home, a thought that would dog him in the weeks to come.
As it turned out, leaving was not an option. It would take something drastic to pull him away from the flat he ended up in where he could suit himself completely. He was renting it from two kindly pensioners who had moved out from the place after the crash had almost ruined them. Give or take those periodic days of darkness when the hangovers made him loath his students, particularly on a Monday, he also seemed to be putting on a real show at the school where he worked. Whereas every class he gave at the college was a lesson in conflict management, the language school’s ‘clients’ were models of motivation and, at times, admiration at Steve’s, frankly, often lackadaisical efforts in front of the white board. Despite the mood swings, Steve was these days blessed wherever he walked.
The country he’d landed in was going through yet another period of rotten luck and Steve felt it keenly, if only because he was heading in the opposite direction. The 1998 crisis in Russia when most of the population saw their salaries and savings halved overnight was a Godsend to Steve’s pocket, bulging with the cash he’d gained from his voluntary redundancy settlement. He’d go to empty restaurants with his new girlfriends and treat them to a meal they could only dream of if they hadn’t met him, and to him the whole thing cost nothing. Then, occasionally, he would even get to fuck them. Compared to back home, it was joy.
Then it was onto Nevsky Prospekt, the pavement after the bar or restaurant. The limbless war veterans, the elderly beggars weeping, the guys hawking CDs. Dodging them seemed like a week’s energy, but it was also a wake-up call, one he could deal with by dousing his troubled mind with drink yet again.
Sex was the best thing about St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia, at the end of the day, not the booze. Okay, he would give a nod and a wink to the galleries, architecture and concert halls, but if Steve could have expressed himself openly then he would have pointed to some mini-skirted woman as the most vital cause of him wanting to stay close to his new home. He didn’t feel at all crude for thinking so, either. Steve was finally face-to-face with freedom.