Tits and Class: Porn and Lenin in New Russia

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—A young girl in an A-line skirt and pig-tails stands beside her mother on Nevksy Prospekt, St. Petersburg's main thoroughfare, the equivalent—to borrow from Gary Schteyngart—of New York's Fifth Avenue, Chicago's Michigan Avenue, and L.A.'s Sunset Strip, all in a single package.

On this bright, Russian afternoon, a small moment in the sea of pedestrians, the little girl and her pig-tails whip back and forth as she lunges at a fly, spitting enormously, missing the insect and giggling. She repeats, tongue darting in and out as if I've encountered a soft-skinned, blonde lizard.

Yards away, Pepsi sponsors a tent on prime sidewalk real estate. An underfed, half-assembled Darth Vader serenades a crowd of enthusiastic teenagers in Gucci T-shirts and tight denim.

Meanwhile, in an underground café nearby called the Stray Dog, participants and faculty from the Summer Literary Seminar attend a reading. Refuge for a century of Russia's avant garde, the brick-lined lair seats three dozen of us in the back room. Two men are set to read, both in town for a weeks-long festival celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Daniel Kharms, the preeminent poet of Russia's Absurdist tradition.

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In the subterranean cool, I want Star Wars to feel like a distant cultural meteor shower. But in the constellation of modern distractions, here in Russia as all other colonies of the digital age, another installation of Spielberg Inc. gets bodies into a tent on the street. And few, if any, are thinking to dress up like Kharms.

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"I wrote nothing today. It doesn't matter."

This was an entire journal entry for Kharms one day in the 1930s.

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Kharms's contemporaries in the Absurdist school made money writing children stories to fund a sometimes deadly compunction to write illogical poetry in the wake of Stalin's post-Lenin train wreck. Taking stock of the audience of mostly American writers in the year 2005—a credulous crowd seated reverentially—I find it a crude joy to measure the force of our laughter in response to the Absurdists' work. Their shit is hilarious. But it got them killed.

One of the school's poets has been called an "accidental absurdist." In 1929, as the first bones were broken in the wheels of collectivization, he wrote a book-length piece called "The Triumph of Agriculture," in which Communism was to serve the people by saving animals from sickness and death. A stanza from one section—narrated by a talking horse and a bear with a consciousness—refers to a Futurist who, deceased in 1921, when the Revolution was still freshly (not as much morbidly) bizarre, was known to give readings in this self-same café.

I'm no vegetarian, but you can see how it might be difficult to laugh here without doing meta-historical and -cultural flips of incomprehension. When I can write so easily, and they were executed . . .

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A selection from Kharms:

"To love children is to love embryos./To love embryos is to love excrement./ . . . /I am a good person because I love embryos./I am a good person because I love to defecate."

He wasn't the biggest fan of children. He wrote children's stories.

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Meanwhile, in a restaurant called Lenin's Mating Call, blocks from Nevsky, diners are treated to flat-screen TVs broadcasting video of Lenin, Trotsky, Brezhnev, and all the others saluting crowds. The soviet footage is cut with warm, fuzzed-out clips of pornography. How delicious!

What understanding of Russia's politics makes this fun? Tin busts of Lenin, bare-chested, wearing a biker's leather vest, hold up the main dining room's rafters. The waitresses wear blue miniskirts, red tights, and velour hammer-and-sickle bands strapped around their slim thighs.

Two years ago, I stayed with a pair of new Russians at their sumptuously-appointed apartment outside Moscow. Employees respectively of Accenture (Arthur Anderson's new incarnation) and the Russian stock exchange, the woman and man had a curious relation to the country's history. Stalin? T. thought he was a great guy, defender of Russia's greatness in the flow of history. K. didn't concern herself with politics, preferring to discuss literature.

In Lenin's Mating Call, it's difficult to imagine their reconciliation. It's difficult to imagine the gymnastics of a post-Soviet history textbook.

And what of the people who are still alive, and actually perspired through it all? An older, well-fed formerly soviet couple dances to karaoke in the center of the main room. Red-faced and blissful, the old man holds his woman's haunches and beams. I begrudge him nothing.

On the TV, a woman painted silver, her taut breasts unleashed from a leather vest not unlike our tin Lenin's, holds a Kalashnikov and aims at the screen. The slogan, "People and the Party Are United," flashes across the screen in red letters.

The waitress pours me more vodka, and I take notes.

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Just so you know more about me: I'm an editor at The Village Voice. I helped co-found and still edit Six Billion, an online magazine of narrative journalism. I live in New York. This is my fourth time to St. Petersburg, each and every year as a guest of the Summer Literary Seminars.

Thanks for reading.

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Tomorrow: An Uzbek restaurant with an Uzbek. Arrival at the seminar of author William T. Vollmann, billed by The New Yorker as one of the top 25 writers under 40 years old.


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