A Russian Valentine's tale

It is well known that we Russians don' t find it easy to talk about such delicate matters as love. So when we call to ask what kind of vegetables to buy on the way home, we are reluctant to add : " I love you, honey." We need a more serious reason to express our affection. And St Valentine's Day seems to be the perfect excuse to allow ourselves to be that little bit more sensitive and romantic.
Ron was a successful American lawyer. He had a wife he adored, wonderful kids and a big house. His life followed clear-cut rules, like his legal documents. But when he was almost 50 the paragraphs suddenly went haywire. His wife left him for a much younger man. The world around him collapsed.

Like many facing grief, Ron sought refuge in his work. His next scheduled business trip was to join his colleagues in Russia, and in a very short time he had packed his suitcase and was on his way. St Petersburg greeted him with all the splendour of its palaces and squares, but Ron barely noticed it. He kept his nose firmly to the grindstone until one day. His schedule took him to a small radio station. There he met a girl with long dark hair and eyes as clear as the sky.

And who did Olga see? A serious, lean, tall, youthful man with grey hair. A somewhat tired, somewhat sad, but elegant and pleasant gentleman. Her heart was touched. The girl invited the guests to join a sightseeing tour of the city conducted by her friend.

Ron managed to break away from his party and go on the sightseeing tour. Of course he was aware that the nice girl was 15 or most likely 25 years younger than him. He made an effort not to think about his ex-wife's reaction.

They split away from the sightseeing party. Ron asked Olga to show him imperial St Petersburg: the Bronze Horseman, Palace Square, Smolny Cathedral. When Olga showed him the Smolny Cathedral from the Neva River he asked her to take him to her favourite spots in the city. Olga replied that she was sorry, but she was a newcomer to St Petersburg and her favourite places were not the places that appear on candy boxes. So she showed him the Chesmenskaya Church and the Kryukov Canal.

The girl saw beauty with her own eyes, choosing spots that do not appear on postcards. She introduced a note of charm and cosiness to the imperial splendour. She was so touching, beautiful and young. She made Ron forget about his wife and his rival.

In Russia, when a lady feels cold on a chilly summer evening her male companion is expected to offer her his coat. Ron, however, was not a Russian. Instead, he wrapped her shoulders in a fur he had bought in a souvenir shop. She appreciated the gesture.

Olga liked the scale and solidity of the St Petersburg bridges, as if they were passages from one world into another. But sometimes, looking down from a great height, she felt a vague sense of anxiety and wanted to hold somebody's hand. They were standing on the Troitsky Bridge over the Neva River. They watched the slow and powerful flow of the river beneath them. Olga suddenly realised she felt no fear and wished there were no railings so that she could stand on the very edge. She knew that Ron, who was standing by her side, was as reliable as a rock.

The nights in the north are almost as light as the days, and it was the season of the White Nights in St Petersburg. For them, nights blended into days. They were missing for three whole days; they had vanished. They were in their own space where there were no borders or distances. They strolled through the city, looking at the drawbridges that were raised for the night to let ships bound for the sea pass.

They resurfaced briefly, only to vanish again: Ron put Olga on his project and took her to America. They have been a happy family for several years now.

PS: It must be said for fairness' sake that many Russian girls, and indeed many Western men, have a secret dream similar to the one just told. They mail their CVs, visit dating websites and start up correspondence. But not all such dates have a happy ending. In fact, 98 out of 100 end in tears and sadness. But then, why tell sad stories on St Valentine's Day?

The author is a winner of the Andrei Sakharov Award for Journalism as an Act of Conscience

Drawing by Pyotr Perevezentsev

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