Alexandra Grabbe ~ Buried Treasure

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.