Part Six: Angels Welcome
Monday, November 25th
My hotel room is my safe space. When I close the curtains and write to you, I feel lighter. The terrible situation here can weigh you down; I can see it in the eyes of the people I’m with each day. I went to a supermarket down the street and bought a lot of cookies and I munch on them while I type; there are crumbs everywhere. The room is very warm, the air dry and I have the occasional nosebleed, sometimes a sneezing fit. Earlier I sneezed so many times blood got on my keyboard.
Bard has called. Juliya, another Side by Side volunteer, has offered to be our guide today. We take the subway across the city and meet her at the top of the escalator. Like everyone else, she is young, vibrant and committed to the festival going forward, no matter what the obstacles. She says she’s taking us to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest church in St. Petersburg, and that from the top of the colonnade we’ll be able to see the entire city. We’ve gotten one of the sixty-two sunny days mentioned in the brochure in my room. The sky is flawless, the air clear and very cold. The rain from last night has turned into frozen patches of ice.
We walk very quickly through the streets, crossing bridges over canals, into neighborhoods that look like Amsterdam. When the cathedral appears, it’s massive, like a mountain. We buy a ticket for the colonnade and start climbing up a narrow stairway. Up, up, up. The number one hundred is written on one of the steps and I begin to slow down. I haven’t climbed stairs like this in a long, long time. I can hear my knee surgeons in San Francisco shouting at me. “What are you thinking?”
We hit two hundred, squeeze through a narrow passageway, and we’re suddenly outside, completing the final journey to the top. Two hundred and thirty steps.
And indeed, the view of the city is spectacular. We can see the fast moving Neva River, the Gulf of Finland, dark woods way off in the distance. I feel the longing to see more, to explore what’s out there, but then come back to the situation at hand and why I’m here. I’m struck again by the thoughtfulness of the festival organizers, who have made sure that a volunteer is available so that I can have my tourist experience along with everything else they are doing.
The afternoon sun slips behind a large hotel and the air becomes even colder. We head toward another narrow stairwell. The two hundred and thirty steps are more difficult going down. I remember the mantra I used during the many months of physical therapy when I was on stairs. Step up on the good knee, step down on the bad. “Up with the good, down with bad.” A good strategy, I think, for us all.
We’re cold and in need of some warmth. We see a café and cross over to it. Above the entrance are the words “Angels Welcome.” We go in and see pastries as ornate as the Faberge eggs at the Hermitage. We order coffee and cake. Juliya asks for a kiwifruit and tells us she’s vegan. It’s a sudden reminder of home.
There are several chalkboards with English slogans written on them. “Believe in your dreams,” says one. “You’re amazing just the way you are,” says another. There’s a black and white photo of two women kissing. It’s so surprising and moving I’m suddenly on the verge of tears. How can this be here?
We talk about the festival, and whether tonight’s screening will happen. Bard keeps checking his phone, in case a text comes through with any updated information. Juliya attends the engineering program at a university and will have an opportunity to study abroad next year. She hopes to go to Prague to pursue her degree. There’s a part of me that wonders if she wants to get out of Russia altogether, but I can tell, from the way she speaks about her life here, that is not an option.
We make the long walk back to the subway and say goodbye to Juliya. The rush hour has begun and the escalators and tunnels underneath the city are filled with commuters. When we return to the hotel, I fall onto the bed.
The plan for tonight is to meet up with a volunteer who will lead us to the new venue where tonight’s film, appropriately called “Keep the Lights On,” will be screened. I’m amazed at the resourcefulness of the festival organizers to find alternative venues and then get the word out to their audience so quickly.
When I go down to the lobby there is Marcia, the woman who did the translation for “We Were Here.” She and her girlfriend and another jury member, Vika, will take Bard and I to the screening. We travel to yet another part of the city, a circuitous route involving several train changes and a long walk down some dark streets. We arrive in front of a large building; a large number of police stand outside. They go through everyone’s bags and purses. I pull out my camera and show it to them and then head for the entrance. I see a young man standing just off to the side. He’s painting his fingernails bright red.
I go up several flights of stairs and then into a large room full of festival-goers. I see the organizers, Manny and Gulya and Tanya. I hug Sasha, the man who met me at the airport; it seems so long ago now. I check my coat, buy a Side by Side t-shirt, and meet a man named Valery who is the director of LaSky, the gay center in St. Petersburg that was attacked earlier this month. We make a plan to meet the following day. I go into the theatre and take a seat. A woman with a microphone makes a few opening remarks and then the film begins. Finally, it seems, the festival is able to proceed.
The movie is about a relationship between two men, one of whom uses crystal meth. It draws me in at times, but mostly I’m aware that at any moment, someone could come rushing into the room and stop the screening, or worse. With only fifteen minutes left in the film, it happens. There are shouts from the lobby and the lights suddenly come on. The film stops. We’re told to get out of the building, there’s the possibility of a bomb. By now, this experience is becoming routine and the audience is more frustrated than frightened. But the police are loud and vocal. “Keep moving, get out now,” they say. The checkroom is a long narrow closet and it’s difficult and time-consuming to retrieve your coat. It takes a while before we all make it out onto the street.
We stand in the cold. At least half of the audience wanders away into the night. The situation is especially frustrating because one homophobe making a single call can so easily disrupt the festival. Since the police checked everyone’s bags as we went in, we’re not sure why they take the call seriously. I speak to Gulya and tell her how calm and patient she’s handling this difficult situation. She says there is no other choice.
Someone joins our huddled group and says there’s a gay club nearby which has arranged for the audience to come and watch the end of the film. We walk through a dark alleyway, up a stairway in the rear of a building, and into a long narrow room. There’s a stage and projection screen at one end. The film suddenly appears and we watch the last few minutes. The gay couple decide to end their relationship and the film ends. The audience applauds for the owner of the bar who let us come in out of the cold.
Back on the street again, we say goodnight to the festival organizers. They tell us there’s word that tomorrow’s screening may attract a crowd, some of whom might hassle us as we enter the theatre. The may even throw things at us. Bard jokingly remarks that we probably shouldn’t wear any Prada, in case there are eggs and tomatoes.
Our guides offer to take us to a bar near our hotel. As we ride the subway, the atmosphere and conversation becomes very somber. Bard is so visibly shaken that I put my arm around him; I don’t care what anyone might think. He asks me not to do it, he doesn’t want to cry. We find The Fish Fabrique Bar, order drinks, sit around a small table, are quiet. The young woman who translated “We Were Here” says that the hopelessness they all live with is very difficult. There are so many obstacles. Public opinion that homosexuality is unnatural and unhealthy, governmental policies that stifle freedom of expression, apathy of the queer community itself. When asked if she ever thinks about leaving Russia, she says yes.
I tell them about the first gay pride parade I ever marched in. It was 1972 in New York City. I don’t remember how many of us there were, but it wasn’t like the parades today. We began to walk and there were people on the sidewalks who shouted and yelled at us. I watched several men leave the march at a busy intersection where there were a large number of people waiting to jeer at us. Once in a while someone would step down off the curb and join us; there were no barricades back then. We didn’t know where these parades would really lead to. We didn’t know if the crowd on the sidewalk would ever stop yelling at us. But we kept going and going and going and going.
We’re all tired and despondent and draw the evening to a close.
When I get back to my room I feel the heaviness in my body. My legs are throbbing because I’ve walked so far and so long today. It becomes clear to me that while I’ve come to St. Petersburg to be a part of the festival, what I’ve discovered is that I can walk again.
I sleep for four hours and wake up with a start. I’ve left my laptop on. When I go to turn it off I see a Facebook post that says there’s been a fire in the building that hosted Saturday night’s screening. There’s nothing to do for now but try to go back to sleep.
This article previously appeared in The Believer here.