Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Young Russia vs. Old Russia

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Young Russia vs. Old Russia

Article excerpt

Our first night in St. Petersburg, Russia, led us to Dumskaya, a lively collection of bars and nightclubs that are stuffed into a decaying facade about a mile from the Winter Palace. The Russians had just sent soldiers into the Crimean region of Ukraine. The West was just awakening to this unfortunately timed power grab by Russian President Vladimir Putin, only days after his Sochi Winter Olympics had ended to international applause, and there was no doubt how it would be received back home.

My friend Sam and I, to be honest, were unaware of what was happening in Crimea. We had traveled from Moscow by train that day and were in a traveler's haze. We walked down Dumskaya and were drawn to a small karaoke bar. When we approached the bouncer at the door, he asked us where we were from, and we naturally assumed our night would be starting elsewhere.

"The U.S.," I offered hesitantly.

The young man smiled.

"Come in!" he urged us.

*

We shouldn't have been surprised. During our four days in Moscow, we had been treated warmly by the Russians we encountered, especially those in the 35-and-under crowd. But even after seeing the true heart of this complicated country that spans nine time zones, we hadn't quite been convinced by the openness that wafts freely in the cities, within blocks of Red Square or the Winter Palace.

Later, Sam and I would sing our way well into the morning at another karaoke spot called "Poison," which was packed with locals singing only American and British hits. At one point, a Syria-born student put his arm around us, said "our countries do not like each other" and then asked if we would perform a Bob Marley song with him. It was just that kind of night. Sam and I opted for a performance of Blink 182's "All the Small Things," which had the entire joint crowding around us and singing along.

Until that moment when we unleashed our distinctly American air guitars, a few locals had been skeptical that we were actually from the United States (apparently Russian men have been known to try to trick women into thinking that they are from America).

After our performance, we had their attention. I told them that I was a journalist who had covered the Sochi Games for a newspaper in Pittsburgh. These were college students in St. Petersburg who considered themselves modern-day revolutionary thinkers, smoking their cigarettes in a side room away from the chaos. They did not like their president, they did not appreciate the $51 billion he spent for a two-week public relations show in Sochi, and they were unafraid to say it.

When the night came to an end - well, our night, anyway - one of the students pulled me toward him with an uncomfortable urgency. …

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