I kneel beside a bag of mulch, digging with a trowel between two stone-encased flowerbeds, when the thought of our future holiday in Russia makes me hum “Vacation” by the Go-Gos. I added the trip to my bucket list after Aunt Masha’s funeral. I’m hoping to visit the graves of my great grandparents. My husband Eric says he wants to see the tattooed man in the Hermitage Museum. He teaches history at the Swedish School of London. Once he’s home from work, we’ll talk more about the possible recovery of real estate that belonged to my family before the Bolshevik Revolution and establish a list of priorities for our weekend in St. Petersburg. I clear away a layer of dead leaves, then scratch lines in the hard-packed earth. It would be brilliant to discover a Roman mosaic under the abandoned flowerbeds. The final step is to slip in a shovel and lift away dirt. But, wait. What’s this? I scrape a bit more and unearth a small, soil-encrusted ball. I rub off the dirt. I’ve found an old marble. Orange swirls through the gorgeous green.
Two weeks later, Erik and I fly from London to Stockholm. After a night in the city, we take a train to Arlanda airport. I strap my violin case to my back and off we go via elevator, following the yellow Departures signs. At the turnstile, Erik meets his son Martin, a second-year university student in Uppsala. The two men greet each other with a great slapping of arms and chuckles of endearment while I jot a few words on a postcard for my parents in San Francisco.
On the walk to our gate, we stop at a kiosk, where I buy a bag of Daim chocolate, some oranges, and the most recent James Bond. Erik picks up the latest issue of Newsweek. As I reach into my pocket to check on Aunt Masha’s treasure map, I lose my balance and trip over a metal bar between the tiled walkway and the SAS passenger lounge. Everything in my arms goes flying: Lonely Planet guidebook, fruit, Death is Forever.
A man in a pale yellow suit powers past, wheeling a suitcase, sleek and sturdy, like its owner. We follow the stranger to a row of connected seats and sit down nearby. I examine his high cheekbones and coarse black hair, drawn into a neat ponytail. Even more striking is the three-piece suit, custom-made by an Armani wannabe. How extraordinary the color, like egg yolk beaten with sugar. The suit hints at privilege and a certain ruthlessness required to achieve high social rank in modern Russia. I watch him excavate a narrow box from a shopping bag. He takes his time fastening the clasp on a gold watch. With a grunt of satisfaction, he extends his wrist and mutters something, no doubt words of gratitude to the Gods of Patronage, who allow such toys.
“Must be a Mafioso,” I say under my breath.
“Today’s robber barons,” Erik replies as he flips through Newsweek.
During the flight, Martin informs his father of his decision to switch from classics to computer science, a field with greater job opportunity. I half-listen, busy twisting open the Matryoshka doll that is our St. Petersburg trip. Nestled inside lurks the possibility of reclaiming my father’s childhood home near the Summer Garden. I’ve entertained the idea of renovation for years, but it never seemed possible, even after glasnost loosened governmental control. Now, in my mind, painters and plasterers and carpenters hammer away in an effort to return the thirty rooms to their former glory.
At Pulkovo airport, the customs official eyes my round face as if he has some detention quota to fill, then stamps my passport with mild disgust, circling the visa expiration date, September 25, 1997. Relieved that he has not opened our hand luggage or my violin case, I hurry after the two Swedes.
“It’s incredible to think we’re this close to Stockholm and one million people starved to death here,” Erik says with a gesture toward the southern horizon. “The Nazis occupied those hills for long-range artillery fire.”
Our taxi speeds past rows of five-story concrete-paneled buildings. Urban sprawl has changed the city my father loved. During the Siege of Leningrad, its citizens resorted to eating bark according to National Geographic. I notice women dressed in dark gray or black, colorful kerchiefs on their head, heavy women whose underarms must smell of hard labor.
Hotel Moscow is convenient to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery but lacks glamour. At least key access cards open hotel room doors. On our return to the lobby, I try out a straight-backed chair, tight against the faded wallpaper and imagine the plump, middle-aged woman in spy novels seated there to keep watch on foreign guests—a dezhurnaya.
First order of business: finding Dad’s childhood home. The sky is overcast, not ideal for sightseeing. We set off on foot through the unfamiliar streets. Past shops, restaurants, and a nail salon we go. Thirty minutes later, I recognize my family crest carved into the stone portal of a pale pink neo-classical building and draw in a sharp breath. Dad was born here. It was his whole world until age fifteen.
Martin explores an adjoining passageway and waves at us to join him. We find ourselves in an inner courtyard, rife with the stench of urine. I sink onto a concrete bench and let my eyes play over our surroundings. What I see deviates from the airbrushed images of my dreams. Cement dust instead of pavement. Faded blue paint peeling off a dilapidated basement door. Walls blackened by soot. I focus in on the bay window that juts out from the fourth floor of the building. The bulge corresponds to my grandparents’ ballroom, which featured prominently in the bedtime stories Dad told in lieu of fairy tales. For eighty years strangers have lived here, strangers like the close-lipped pedestrians who file past on the sidewalk. Are they descendants of revolutionaries or victims of revolution?
“I can’t help but wonder what life was like under the Communists,” I say, moved at the upheaval caused by large-scale emigration and civil war.
Erik packs a wad of chewing tobacco under his lip. His eyes narrow from the nicotine surge. “Oh, there were huge benefits for the common people. Years ago I took a sauna with an anarchist who volunteered to fight with the Bolsheviks. He met Stalin. He met Lenin. I asked whether he felt disappointed in the outcome.”
Martin dribbles an empty vodka bottle across the courtyard. “And what did the guy say?”
“That the Revolution was the first time working class people came to power. The whole idea gave Russians hope.”
“Martin, did you know the new régime called aristocrats ‘former people?’” Doing my best to disregard Erik’s admiration for the Communists who still control my father’s homeland, I continue, “Dad’s apartment was divvied up to accommodate a number of families, like in Dr. Zhivago.”
Our conversation seems to amuse Erik. “Want to go upstairs?” he asks.
“Knock on doors? Say, oh hi. My family owned this building before the Bolsheviks kicked them out.”
“Should you decide to stake a claim, it would be advantageous to know what state the flat is in.”
It’s hard to tell whether he’s being facetious. I hate it when he uses that tone of voice, cloying, sardonic, not supportive at all. As if my ancestors were ogres, rich landowners who oppressed the lower classes.
“I’ve told you. I don’t intend to stake a claim.”
Any claim of ownership would involve lawyers, paperwork, headaches. My parents keep the deed in a steamer trunk. On my last trip to California, I went up into the attic and verified its existence, running fingers across the old-fashioned red wax seal.
We visit the Fortress of Peter and Paul, admire the statue of Peter the Great, tour the Kazan Cathedral, and attend a concert in a theater that has been the center of the city’s musical life for 150 years. Our sightseeing frenzy culminates in the Hermitage basement, where we gawk at the upper arm of a Pazyryk chieftain, dating from the fifth century BC. Two vintage spotlights illuminate the display case. Erik leans in for a closer look at the yellowed skin. The ghoulish artifact shows interlocking beasts, deer with elongated antlers, mountain goats, leaping horses.
“Nice tattoos,” Martin said, stroking his buzz-cut hair.
I marvel at the bluish-gray designs, which seem almost contemporary, like photos on display in an upscale body art studio.
“Discovered by Soviet archeologist Sergei Rudenko, who excavated Iron Age tombs in the twenties. Barrow-like tomb mounds, not unlike in Uppsala,” Eric tells us.
I hug myself, spooked by the dark recesses of the museum basement. “Dear Lord,” I say with a shiver. “Don’t they have a budget for electrical upgrades?”
“He was buried with a Caucasian woman,” Erik adds. “This man once had high prestige.”
“Sic transit Gloria mundi,” Martin calls from the marble staircase.
“Something about how glory is fleeting?”
“Di dearest,” says Erik, “you took the words right out of my mouth.”
Later that day, we enter the grounds of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, a Lonely Planet “top choice.” I bring my umbrella and strap on my violin case. Erik and Martin wear their raincoats. It begins to drizzle as we pay the admission fee. The air is raw. Mist hovers over the trees. After a few false turns, we locate a marker fashioned out of shiny black marble, impervious to the weather. Cyrillic lettering explains the cemetery layout. Unfortunately, there’s no translation.
Erik has been reading the guidebook. He tucks it under his arm. “This is, and I quote, where visitors pay their respects to the most illustrious individuals in Russian music, literature, art and theatre.”
With extreme care, I withdraw the treasure map from my pocket. “We’re looking for a brick mausoleum.” I lower my voice. “Before she died, Aunt Masha told me her mom buried a jewelry box there in 1917.”
“Did she say what was inside?” asks Martin.
“A ruby tiara. We’ll dig it up.”
Erik cocks a finger at me “You, my dear, are going to get us into trouble.”
“Rubbish.” I hand him my umbrella before unfolding the map, tattered at the edges.
Martin moves in for a closer view. “Super cool.”
“Aunt Masha must have carried this map throughout her travels. She lived in Paris, Shanghai, San Francisco, London.”
“Did she say where to look?”
“Near … I think, Tchaikovsky.”
But we have taken the wrong path and find ourselves in a part of the cemetery abandoned to time. The graves are jammed together. Wrought-iron railings surround individual plots. Crosses hang here and there, askew or knocked off pedestals. Tree trunks push through cracks in tombstones, dislodging slabs of granite. I feel as if we have entered a house of mirrors and each curved surface reflects back more horror. A deep sense of sadness overwhelms me at the evidence of neglect. No one has cleared away weeds. No one has brought floral sprays or even a sprig of wildflowers. I dig my nails into my palms, unsure whether I want to own property in a country with such obvious disrespect for its past.
Backtracking to the marble marker, we proceed counter-clockwise along a mulched path with pruned hedges. I pass the map to Martin, who turns it upside-down and scratches his head at the arrows and crosses and illegible words scrawled in black ink.
The western quadrant contains celebrity graves, maintained for tourists. The monuments are pockmarked by acid rain. Many of the crypts look as if their plaster walls must have suffered damage during the Second World War.
Martin studies the epitaphs much as a visitor to an art museum might absorb information under random paintings. We trudge past a statue of Dostoevsky with a protruding stone beard.
Erik opens the umbrella. He hands it to me. “I’m going to see if I can find the monastery beyond the hedge,” he says with a salute.
Meanwhile, Martin has located Tchaikovsky and claps his hands in appreciation at the massive winged angel holding a cross behind the bust. A second angel sits reading on the grave itself. To our frustration, no brick mausoleum stands nearby. We follow the circular path a second time, return to Tchaikovsky.
“Damn!” I say. “I promised my cousin Vanya pictures. Our great grandparents must be buried here somewhere. Everyone famous before the Revolution is in this cemetery.”
“Your relatives were famous?” Martin asks.
I do a slight wobble with my hand. “Famous enough.”
Five minutes later, we meet up with Erik who points us toward a footbridge beyond an opening in the hedge. This must be the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Sentinel-like trees flank a paved lane, slick with fallen leaves. The sun emerges from behind a cloud, and shafts of light angle on to the pavement. In the distance, a six-foot wall protects the monastery grounds from the city like the exoskeleton of a snail. A bearded man in clerical robes enters a small church. On the steps, two janitors unroll a threadbare, wine-colored carpet. A bell tolls.
“St. Nicholas,” says Martin, head in the guidebook again. “If I’m not mistaken.”
“Let’s go in,” Erik says.
“No! We need to keep searching. And there’s a service going on.”
“Exactly. It’s an opportunity to witness Russian culture. Martin, you know the Bolsheviks banned religion, right? After perestroika, the government reversed the policy.”
A wave of incense hits as we tiptoe past a wooden rack filled with prayer candles, which shimmer in the half-light. Candelabra hang from the vaulted ceiling. In the middle of the nave, several dozen worshippers bend their heads in prayer. A priest’s deep voice intones liturgy, and the faithful respond at appropriate intervals. The deep-throated voices of choir members add a solemn note to the experience.
I stick close to Erik who has meandered halfway around the inside perimeter. He sidles into an empty spot near an alcove and goes into observation mode, arms crossed. At the opposite side of the nave, Martin follows suit, as rigid as an undercover agent in his beige raincoat. I let my mind wander to earlier in the day. Tires squealed as a thug drove his BMW onto the sidewalk, plowing into window shoppers, including a terrified babushka. A Mafia underling, executing orders, I concluded, or collecting protection money from the restaurant owner. My next thought is of Hotel Moscow and our lousy breakfast, open-faced bologna sandwiches, topped with a curl of sweet pickle, and not even a sweet roll worth filching. With its lumpy mattresses and 1950s plumbing fixtures, our hotel barely deserves its three stars.
Erik’s nudge ends my ennui. “Over there,” he whispers. “It’s your Mafioso.”
In the middle of the worshippers stands the elegant man from the SAS passenger lounge, a votive candle in one hand. The gold watch on his wrist sparkles in the candlelight as he makes the sign of the cross. This time the ponytail fits right in with his pressed designer jeans, white T‑shirt, and navy blue blazer.
I am meditating on how religion must have comforted my paternal grandparents after they lost their country, when a barrel-chested Russian in a belted raincoat whispers something in Eric’s ear.
“I’m sorry but I don’t speak Russian,” Eric responds.
Alarm flashes across the stranger’s face. He elbows his way through the worshippers, grabs the ponytailed man, and propels him toward the door. The extinguished votive candle rolls across the floor in their wake.
My imagination shifts into high gear as Erik signals that we should follow. I picture machine guns ablaze, spotlights like on a movie set, a ZIL-115 to whisk the men away. To my relief, the lane is deserted except for a lone monk, hurrying past.
“I almost expected gangsters and a bulletproof limousine,” I say with a self-conscious laugh.
“Someone has been reading too much James Bond,” Erik says.
I aim a playful punch at this stomach. This second sighting of the man in the pale yellow suit feels like a revelation. In modern-day Russia, gangsters show up in church, accompanied by bodyguards. The St. Petersburg visit has made it abundantly clear that any attempt to recover real estate would be a waste of time. The deep sadness I experienced in the cemetery returns. The painters, plasterers, and carpenters in my mind give a slow wave and disappear into the mist.
We retrace our steps to the footbridge. Erik suggests dinner.
“Mind if I make a request first?” Martin asks.
“Be my guest,” I say as we enter the cemetery again.
“It’s stopped raining. Why not play something for your ancestors?”
“Indeed,” Eric says, a twinkle in his eye. “Do give us a concert.”
After a moment of indecision, I open the case and ruefully show Martin the trowel cushioned on the velvet lining.
I glance around one last time and say a silent prayer for the souls of my great-grandparents, then another for the other “former people,” crowded together in that wretched space, prominent aristocrats in their day whose lives have been reduced to a couple lines in a guidebook.
After dinner, we walk over to the Alexander Nevsky Bridge, where the city lights reflect off the water like millions of rubies.
Alexandra Grabbe is the author of Wellfleet, An Insider’s Guide to Cape Cod’s Trendiest Town, and the editor of Émigré, 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count. Her recent work has appeared in The Washington Post, Better After 50, The Compassion Anthology, and is forthcoming from Unity. She is revising a novel about a freedom fighter during the French Resistance who was a Russian émigré.