One Russian Man
by EMILY ROSENBERG
I went to Russia this summer because I thought it would teach me something about diplomacy. Unfortunately, my trip to Russia turned out to have no official trips inside government buildings, embassies, or foreign consulates, unless I count driving by them in our program’s shuttle. On paper, my goal for this trip was to become at least proficient in Russian, and therefore increase my chances for studying at an impressive law school, while demonstrating to everyone that I have an impressive pathway of diplomatic travel ahead of me to follow.
I even had a Skype interview for a collegiate forum on Russian politics before a round of shots and a night on the Dumskaia Ulitza bar district. The internship did not turn out, unfortunately, but thankfully that night I was able to have a very international experience. That night would also be the height of my experience with a Russian diplomat… actually the Russian Diplomat, one of the cheapest but not the most painful friends I made in Russia.
Diplomat, in shots and followed by orange Fanta chasers, became my closest ally and worst enemy for a night out with the eight other people my age I’d never have gone out to party with back at college. However, they being the only people I knew in the city who spoke English, everyone decided to put preferences aside and coalesce ourselves into a fragile yet functional group of friends.
Had it not been for the Diplomat, I would have felt alone that night on Dumskaia. Not only did he take my attention completely away from answering complaints of only slightly sensible college students, he made me feel warm on a cold summer night. He let me know it’s not the worst thing in the world to have an English name in a Russian city, and that it wasn’t too bad to be an American in an expatriate bar even if you could only speak broken Russian with a noticeable American accent.
The Diplomat made this night no different than the next occasional nights I’d have with him. We were alone with a bunch of Russians and a few Americans who I would thank later for refusing to leave me, even though it should have been clear to everyone that the Diplomat was already my escort.
That night, the Diplomat led me to Bar Fidel on Dumskaia, a closet space more or less reeking with very unfamiliar Soviet nostalgia. One of the girls in our group, Camille, told me that we were there to meet three British students in our class – who turned out to be two gay men, two very sweet girls who were already muffled by their own favorite name for vodka, and Rachel, the one Brit we already knew from class. Of course, three members of our group had already wandered off to another bar, taking on the role of each other’s inebriated escorts. I figured everyone’s sense of direction were equally mediocre by that time - a later start than usual at half past midnight – but still I didn’t worry about having them go. I didn’t mind being alone with the Diplomat anyway.
By the time the Brits made it to Bar Fidel, there were only two other girls out of our original American group of eight still with us… one had taken a break on one of the tables after dancing on and around the bar for the past hour, and Camille, whose sober smile left me no clue that she was going to forget her real leather jacket in the bar after we’d leave. The Diplomat and I were busy talking to a Russian man named Nicko for as long as we could before he’d find another girl awaken from her rest and declare herself ready for another round of dancing.
I was happy enough that I didn’t have to leave the Diplomat completely to talk to Nicko for a few minutes. There was no reason to think I’d leave everyone for the night, only that I’d leave them all for long enough to gain my sense of independence back. The strangest part of it all, though, was that I didn’t feel independent at all.
Nicko and I started dancing for less than a minute before he asked me to go home with him. I would have agreed in less than a minute to trade my crowded social life at the time with one Russian man if I were back home, but here I couldn’t imagine leaving with him. It wasn’t so much a fear of his other existence as bait for a St. Petersburg trafficking ring, but instead the dormant idea that I was moving too fast. Our friend resting before still sat at the table, black waves of rising hair sprawling over the wood, and Camille would have been too busy with the British people to notice that I had slipped off the bar scene for the night. But since the Diplomat was making me think way too much about such a pleasant offer to leave, I stayed with them both.
Nicko wasn’t the only man I left at Bar Fidel. The Diplomat lost his charm very quickly after following me home and insisting on staying in bed with me the entire night. It’s easy to admit that I forgot about him as soon as I could the next morning, but that would leave the truth behind. Unlike other possible liaisons, the Diplomat did not leave me entirely after the night at Bar Fidel ended.
Instead, he waited in my freezer for the rest of the trip, and his somehow tough glass skin never even cracked.
He came back to me in many guises, sometimes with a green mark on his bottleneck and once even with a stain of cranberry juice on his usually pale, emotionless complexion. It seemed for the rest of the trip, about four more weeks, that he was the one friend I’d make in St. Petersburg who I’d want to keep in touch with over the years.
We had memories good and bad. He helped me find out how I was when I was having fun, and how I was when I wanted to be alone for what might have been an entire day if a field trip to Catherine the Great’s palace wasn’t scheduled for that afternoon. He’d stay around me, sit on the side of my bed, or hover next to my head. I guess I was in luck every night afterwards, when he was only a throbbing memory to me.
The night before, when I decided to leave Nicko and return home with the Diplomat and the girls in my group, lasted longer than any other night in St. Petersburg. Even though I was surprised to find out the Diplomat left the next day earlier than he usually did - in the early afternoon - that one night in a way still hasn’t ended.
For the rest of the program and afterwards, the Russian men I was so excited to meet in St. Petersburg lost almost all of their importance, and my memories of one or two dates in Atlanta became stronger than they’d ever been to me before. These men who I thought I knew so well in Atlanta were so exciting to me, more than I could have convinced myself they were when I first met them.
I started to realize that after all this time with the Diplomat, who sometimes chose other names to call himself the next times we came across each other, I was just too American to always spend my time with him. It was no secret that he was a better match for the more European girls in our group, who knew more about traveling that I would for what could be more than ten years after the program. At the end of the trip, I spend my last night with the Diplomat, just to make the idea of putting on jeans in the fifty-five degree summer night a little less grueling and the air a little warmer to breathe.
The next morning he left early again. Instead of his throbbing gaze, I opened my window to see the grayish fog from last night’s boat ride hovering around me. It was a beautiful night. Again, there was no hint of political education in it, but neither was there art or history or literature. It was just fog, lights, boats, the Neva River water, and the Diplomat doing his job. If anyone paid me I’d be like him. Going out, staying out, letting people test out just how international they are before they carve a global life out for themselves.
It’s not to say that the way he does it – impairing senses and then surrounding one with people who speak no English except for “I don’t speak any English” – turned me away from international policy forever. It’s not to say that now I’ll never go back to Russia because some nights it was cold and confusing. Instead, I hope I can go back alone, and if I ever do, spend as much time with the Diplomat as I did that night. A shot glass or two of him, and the rest of the hours with one or two people who I do know very well, or at least like very much.
Emily Rosenberg is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Atlanta. You can find her website here.
Photographs by the author.
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