How Saint Petersburg, Russia Inspired me to Write Magical Realism

artwork by Nikita Klimov

Before I left for Russia, when I’d tell Americans where I was headed, they’d say, “why the hell are you going to Russia?” And, I never was able to answer, as much as I wanted to. I was only curious and even more curious about what made people quite so afraid. Were there monsters in Russia? Were there spies down every alley and primordial bits of darkness that I’d have to navigate in order to avoid being lost forever?

On the plane, I began reading a book called, Russian Fairy Tales (The Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library) by Aleksandr Afanas’ev.  I’d traveled before, read fairy tales before. I have sat and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales then got off a train in Berlin where blue skies and a clean and orderly Starbucks greeted me.

When I closed “Russian Fairy Tales” and exited the airport in Saint Petersburg I was greeted by a heavy gray sky and a crumpled-up man who skulked toward me, hand outstretched and said, “cigarette?” Even as I remember it now I remember that he certainly had wooden teeth, a long gray-green beard, and probably only one ear and certainly his left eye was completely black.

A Leshy if I ever saw one.

I hadn’t slept much on the plane and I was full of mostly tomato juice and anti-allergy medication. From the airport, I found myself on a bus where an old woman in a vest with iron teeth and a limp demanded from me the tokens I had exchanged my money for back in the terminal. She spoke a language I didn’t know and smiled in the same fashion as a leather jacket, or a boulder.

Something was afoot.

When I started to meet Russians and they found out I was American they’d say, “why the hell did you come to Russia?” And, I was never able answer, as much as I wanted to. This made everything even more curious and I had to wonder, is there a secret that everyone doesn’t want me to know? Are they protecting me from getting eaten by the Baba Yaga? Do they not want me to inform the rest of the world that they are using Domovoi to spy on foreign ministers?

Not long after getting settled, fearing a tartar invasion and wondering if the curator at the water museum was a Rusalka KGB agent, I was rescued by an artist who said,

“I wonder if you could float down the Fontanka River to Finland.”

And I replied, “No one would survive that.”

And he informed me, “a babushka could.”

From there we took refuge in the grounded reality of the internet. We started working together creating art and stories every day for a project we called Flash-365. I was drawn more and more to finding stories and I looked in all of the usual places you find stories; walking along canals, on the broken-off noses of old statues, and just behind the fake-teeth of the elderly.

Just as an old man or woman will have more stories to tell than a child, so I found that Russia–being old and somewhat senile–had more stories tucked away than America, and with age comes a frailty of reality that brings to the surface superstitions and ideologies that are deeply rooted and deeply felt.

In the end, magical realism became a coping mechanism for myself as an observer of a multifaceted and emotionally complex culture that I can never hope to fully understand.

Maybe if I had slept well on the flight, or if I’d been reading Sherlock Holmes, or if I took a taxi rather than the bus; or if it had been a light summer day rather than a thick fall sky, if Saint Petersburg had bike paths instead of canals, if Peter the Great fell in love with Asia instead of Europe, if Ghengis Khan had gone South instead of West, or if some important someone somewhere along the way choked on a peanut and the city where I now live had been changed, I may have gotten off the plane and written a comedic teleplay instead.

3 thoughts on “How Saint Petersburg, Russia Inspired me to Write Magical Realism

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