In Search of the Soviet Soul

Words and Photography Jacques Marais

Rockabilly-punk. Not a musical genre that I’m particularly familiar with, but everything I’ve heard indicates that Russia’s hard-rock clubs top the must-do list when you’re navigating the dodgier sections of this post-perestroika urban landscape. So here I am, wandering the back streets of St. Petersburg hopelessly lost and in search of a nightspot by the name of Honey-Money.

Now I know this sounds dubious, and to be honest, I’m not totally convinced that I won’t end up at some infamous strip club. The problem is, due to the dastardly Cyrillic alphabet, I find the signage here, in Russia’s most beautiful city, just about impossible to decipher. Cs, Ps, Rs and Ys pop up in the most unlikely places, lurking amidst jumbles of upside-down Ns, Ss and Es. Add to this a whack of downright confusing characters, and what you tend to end up with are pronunciations sounding as if you’re in the process of sucking gnocchi up your nose. 

I’m about to turn tail and scuttle back to my hotel when I spot a blond girl packing a mean guitar, and a nice pair of legs. The good news is that I am on the right track, and if I follow her she’ll lead me to Honey-Money. She plays there regularly, and smokes 30 cigarettes a day in order to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. “Anytime soon,” she rasps, “I’m sure to be famous.”
With a gravelly dasvidanya (see you), she slips through a dimly lit door, leaving me to face a couple of KGB-type bouncers. They grimly extort a couple of hundred roubles from me. I’m finally in, it’s hazy with smoke and populated by a rag-tag of rogues, scoundrels and vagabonds reminiscent of a scene from a Hunter S. Thompson novel. A biker, seemingly held together by tattoos and body piercings, lumbers in my general direction and for a split second I’m not sure whether I should run for the door or just hide.
  
Fortunately for me, Molotov Dog (or whatever his name may be) is only interested in getting another mug of vodka. I order a beer from the bar but there’s no way I’m going to sit down—available seats might belong to other scary Russkis. I hang on in a shadowy corner of the bar, trying to look both inconspicuous and at least moderately tough. I make up my mind to finish my beer and then scoot but the music starts, and I realize this spot is bang on the Money, Honey.  

The band, a hard-edged gang of retro-punks going by the name of The Barbulators, slots in somewhere between Bon Jovi and Sid Vicious, but they have axes to grind and they know how to do it. The lead singer is a gaunt dude by the name of Stanizlav, but on stage he transforms into a whirling dervish of a werewolf, growling and snarling to the howl of guitars. Very soon I find myself rocking with the rest of the regulars, a diverse lot covering the full gamut from Dalek drone to a Billy Ray Cyrus clone. Dancing ranges from folksy, line-dancing moves to brain-curdling head banging.
The guys from The Barbulators wander over to order a beer after their first set, and we start chatting. Tequilas are on me and very soon I’m hanging with their groupies, consuming obscene amounts of Stolichnaya while getting the inside track on what’s hot here in what used to be Leningrad until not so long ago. It is well past the witching hour when I eventually manage to negotiate a roundabout route back to my hotel.

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A pounding headache plays havoc with my sight-seeing plans for the following day, but I eventually haul my butt out of bed after much nagging from my long-suffering travelling companion. There’s so much to see in Russia’s second city though, with churches, monuments, museums, palaces, markets and lots more vying for our attention. Near the top of our list is The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, and as it is only a few minutes from the hotel, we join the masses to gawk at this example of medieval Russian nationalistic architecture.

Also called the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, it was built (according to popular myth, anyway) upon the spot where Alexander II was mortally wounded by an anarchist’s bomb. Be that as it may, the celebrated church boasts a 7 500 m2 of painstakingly detailed mosaics, and is the sister church to the famous St Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square. Turrets, towers and spires soar above the wide canal. The walls and roof arch several stories high, and just about every square inch of it is covered in intricately tiled panels depicting various stages of Christ’s life. It is almost impossible to capture the scope of it all on camera, but I don’t let this deter my shutter finger too much.

Our best day in St Petersburg sees us heading to the Neva River to catch a ferry to Peterhof. This must rate as the jewel in the crown of Russia’s ‘Venice of the North’, and the palaces of the great King Peter I are a sight to behold. Neither the Gardens of Versailles, nor in fact any of the other seats of European monarchy, holds a candle to this rapture of lawns, streams, hedgerows and fountains. Floral abandon unfolds around the Grand Palace, surrounded in turn by pavilions, lesser buildings and hermitages. Gold-plated turrets, extravagant waterspouts, and myriad monuments and statues of incalculable value rise up amidst the garden-scape.

We end our day at ‘The Idiot Restaurant’, apparently a favourite haunt of Dostoyevsky. And then it’s time for a final dasvidanya to Russia as we say good-bye to the heartland where the great Communist dream was sparked. The Bolshevik revolution blazed here in all its glory in 1905. Still, the collective blood, sweat and tears of this once invincible nation flickers within the soul of the hardy people walking the streets. Even though the past has grudgingly given way to a rather turbulent present, a new reality is sweeping the Motherland.

For more information visit the official Russian Tourist Office at http://www.geographia.com/russiaor the Russian Embassy at http://www.russianembassy.org.za/ .