Palace Square 2

Palace Square, St.Petersburg

When I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg last month, I saw more people in a span of a week than I did in a span of a year here in the States. While most folks who live in large cities groan at the thought of navigating through throngs of human bodies on the way to and from work and accept as a necessary evil the crowded living conditions in Russia’s two largest cities, I was relishing the experience of being there among them.

In Moscow I stayed with family friends who lived in an apartment on the 18th floor of a giant 25-story cement block, hundreds of which proliferate on the outskirts of the capital. My friend bemoaned his living situation, comparing the residents of the building to ants living in an anthill: small, cramped, impersonal, insignificant. But I was warmed by the thought of being surrounded by other people, hearing them living out their lives all around us, above us – clanking of the pipes (someone fixing his faucet), next to us – doors opening and shutting (a mother bringing in groceries and her baby). In the morning if the shower water suddenly ran cold, I knew I was battling over it with the gal across the hall whose bathroom was just on the other side of the wall. It was heartwarming and silly to think, “Ah, bet you’re just waking up too, getting ready to go to work…or maybe to school…” After a few more spurts of HOT!! and COLD!!, I’d turn off the shower, thinking happily, “Well, I’m on vacation and I don’t need to shower that badly anyway. You can have the hot water…”

Riding on the metro was quite an adventure as well. During post-work evening hours we’d pile into the train cars so tightly that when the car would take off with a jerk, we wouldn’t even need to steady ourselves by holding on. There was literally no place to sway, much less to fall. I thought that it was nice that people here were getting a lot of human contact – the whole thing contrasted sharply to life in America, where you can easily go a whole day without touching anyone, without seeing them or smelling them. And yet, even through my giddiness I understood that physical proximity did not warrant emotional closeness. In fact, as I’d try to read the many blank expressions of faces inches away from my own on that train, quite the opposite seemed true.

In St. Petersburg another friend took me and my grandma for a ride through town. As they chatted in the front seat, I mostly listened and soaked in the sights. Looking out, I felt a tug of curiosity and a sense of kinship luring me outside to explore the streets, to paint them, to stroll along them and discover half-abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated squares, warm, inviting cafes and lots and lots of people. There was that tug, but there was also a feeling strangeness, foreignness, hostility, almost. Or at least of an oppressive sort of indifference. People bustled down the streets, in cars and trams, crammed in those same metro cars where they stood like jellied sardines packed into one big mass, but totally isolated from each other.

It turned out that because people were forced into physical proximity, they made a deliberate effort to not connect, to ignore each other, to not meet another person’s eye, certainly not to smile. Maybe it was for their own protection, after all, engaging with hundreds of people every day is fatiguing. Maybe it was because they had grown so accustomed to the crowds, that they perceived them not as individual people in a group, but as part of the city-scape, as integral and inanimate as an obelisk, a lamppost, a bridge.

Whatever the reason, each person weaving in and out of the crowded street was moving through his own, personal space where no one else existed. If their destination was a meeting with another person (date with a girlfriend in a coffee shop, father picking up his kids from school), they still moved through that personal space and there was no chance that this route, this parallel universe, would intersect with any other. There was no chance for serendipitous encounters, unexpected conversations with strangers, random acts of kindness. As such, the city I beheld from inside the car seemed a lonely place.

Perhaps this is characteristic of all large cities. But I felt it particularly strongly in Russia.