When Scots Share a Laugh in Leningrad
WE fly into Leningrad toward midnight with the same sense of excitement as on our first visit seven years before. Our friends are waiting at the airport - Yasha, who stayed with us in Scotland in the spring, his wife, Larissa, and her brother, Oleg. They have a bouquet of roses and a surprise for us. Guess what? they ask. A long-awaited miracle, a car! It will be our magic carpet in Petersburg. It is ancient, but it goes. They call us the next morning. We are booked through Intourist, at the same hotel, the Moskva, as we have been for the last three years. It lies opposite the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, looking down over the river Neva.
For years at Alexander Nevsky, there have been no services in the Church of the Annunciation or in the Trinity Cathedral. They were nonfunctioning, under remont. ``Remont, repair! The most-used word in Russia,'' says Oleg. Now we can stand together in the candle-lit dimness, in the presence of mysteries. We seem to pass through a whole cycle of life in the Trinity: baptisms, marriages, funerals. Priests in glittering robes chant the Orthodox litany. Ancient women lie prostrated o n the ground, kissing it. Young communicants come forward to receive the bread and wine.
Each day we go driving off down the Nevsky Prospekt, over bridges, past canals. We flew so high, almost airborne, over the vast potholes of Petersburg that we call the car Pegasus. It is Indian summer weather, crisp and sunny. Dry leaves lie in golden drifts in the parks, float down the Moika and the Fontanka rivers. Our friends have thought up all kinds of treats for us - first a visit to the Writers' Cafe. At the very table where we sit now perhaps the four Nightingales - Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmato va, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetaeva - sat in their time.
Peter the Great never is far off in this city of his, and when we enter the newly restored Menshikov Palace he is there, along with General Menshikov, his inseparable comrade. Menshikov began life humbly, selling pies in the streets of Moscow, fell in love with the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in Riga, but Peter took her over and even made her his tsarina. Menshikov's end was like so many others, exiled to Siberia. A grim-faced guide leads us around the palace, refusing to unben d. Suddenly she gives a great cackle of laughter - the Russian we speak has evidently tickled her. ``She has never been known to laugh till now,'' our friends tell us.
After this we drive far out to the suburbs of Leningrad, to the home of Larissa and Oleg's parents. The friendship we struck up with them in Yalta seven years before has reached out to all the family. Those suburbs are a desolate and concrete wilderness. Peter, with his vision of prospects and palaces, would have deplored so much bleak ugliness.
The moment the door of the flat opens we are at home. Nothing can equal a Russian welcome. A warm, floury smell comes from the kitchen where Alevtina is preparing treats for us - blini (pancakes), pelmeni (dumplings), pirogi (pies). It becomes a wonderful autumnal Christmas as we exchange presents.
They wish to hear, over and over, every detail of Yasha's stay in Scotland - how he gave a seminar at the university in perfect English, how he came to my Russian class and met my fellow students, how we drove him to the sea and found a ``haunted'' castle there. ``What else?'' they ask. Our local justice of the peace, who signed his official invitation, dressed Oleg in his kilt and jacket, with brogues, sporran, Glengarry bonnet, and lace jacket. An adopted Scot, Yasha walked down the village street, ex claiming, ``Long live the kingdom of Scotland!''
A LIFE-TIME is crowded into our brief stay in Leningrad. We go to St. Isaac's Cathedral, wander about the Summer Gardens on the banks of the Fontanka, visit the Hermitage Museum. There, a British child, bored and exhausted, sits down on the polished floor and yawns. An incredulous guide pounces on him. ``Ne nado! You must not! How could anyone, however young, look on all these treasures and not be enraptured? No Russian child would dare sit down and certainly would not yawn in th e Hermitage.'' We believe her.
Yasha's next treat is the Yusupov Palace. In Russian history, everything seems larger than life, truth beats fiction hollow. Here the assassination of the evil genius, Rasputin, took place. We go round the palace and into an exquisite little theater where Chaliapin sang, where a young girl in white satin now sings Rachmaninoff.
WE return to the outskirts, to Yasha's home, to his mother, his small son, to cousins, and their children. High up in their eyrie, we tell each other stories of how, far below in this concrete wasteland, packs of wolves howl, the wolves of the Stalin years, and the time of the monsters Beria and Derzhinsky. Up in this sanctuary, we are quite safe. ``The wolves still howl, but less loudly,'' they tell us. ``We can talk more freely - listen to us! - we read books that for years have only been passed around in secret. Certainly we need courage, but we can still laugh. Laughter is the best weapon against wolves.''
Time runs out. We have still to pack and catch the overnight train to Moscow. We talk with our friends for the last time - until next year. We promise to return. Perhaps life will be easier by then. We toast to an end to the wolves, to better times as we move out of our violent and cruel 20th century toward the 21st.
We board the night train, ladened with a samovar, books, records, shawls with red roses, painted wooden tubs. At home in Scotland, there will be the delight of the postman arriving - ``Another letter from Leningrad'' - his most exotic mail. Sometimes we ring them. Dial 14 numbers and there they are. In a second, we have abolished space between the great city of Peter and our small Scottish village. They sound so near that they might only be a little further up the street. We are indeed in touch.