Russia. Not a pighole (honest)

By Brian Eno

From The Observer, 10th August 1997

Mr Kuskov trained as a nuclear physicist and is now a sound technician at the Philharmonic Hall. We met because he agreed to show me the inside of the gilded spire at Peter and Paul fortress. Later, he faxed me a synopsis of his thesis: The Experience of the System Approach to the Teleological Aspect of the Anthropic Reasoning of the Cosmology. This is a grand, unifying theory which he would like to publish in the form of a reading against a piece of music. He pointed to the example of Lomonosov, who published one of his theories in the form of a poem.

Mr Kuskov exemplifies something you notice a lot here: people who've moved through extensive specialist trainings and have ended up doing something com-pletely unrelated. So you meet girls with five-inch heels and four-inch skirts who qualified as geologists or space engineers, or mobile-phone salesmen who started their careers as gynaecologists.

At Pavlovsk Palace, I set up a Generative Music installation as part of the New Academy exhibition (it's a benefit show for Timor Novikov, the founder of the New Academy, who has recently gone blind from meningitis). My piece was a self-generating neoclassical quartet, a sort of endless slow movement. I set up the equipment in a beautiful circular room with a high, gilded dome. It didn't take me long, so I spent several hours wandering around the palace on my own.

The richness is overwhelming: deeply fluted columns of composite green malachite; cream and black marble set against walls of pink flecked marble, with fireplaces of lapis lazuli and onyx and gold; false perspective trompe l'oeil peacock patterns on the ceilings; every inch of the floor inlaid with different woods.

In one particularly gorgeous room, I came across a large black-and-white photograph of a ruined building -- a burnt-out shell with shattered walls. I was wondering why the picture had been left there, just propped up in the corner, when I suddenly realised it was the room that I was standing in -- as it was in 1945 after the retreating Germans had dynamited it. Then I realised why all these palaces look so amazing: they're brand new! They were rebuilt -- largely by volunteers -- from original drawings, photographs and memories.

Timor arrived, looking Messianic on the arms of his helpers -- his blindness has somehow dignified him -- and when we left, a lot of people were lying on their backs listening to the music. We went on to Rinad and Lena's house at nearby Pushkin, to eat a delicious home-smoked fish. Rinad is a young Bahkiri businessman who, for the last year, has been paying for Timor's treatment, advised by Lena, who uses the Internet to research his illness.

Then to Kristofsky Island with a mad taxi driver who laughed and shouted non-stop in several languages: 'Paquito! Ish libber dish! Bon jew!' We took a picnic with us. There weren't many people on the island -- strange in such a lovely place on such a lovely Sunday -- and the few there were sitting and thinking. No one was reading. Imagine a comparable scene in a London park, where most people would have a paper or a magazine. Maybe such casual reading is just another form of consumption -- and people here haven't learnt to be consumers (yet).

It's catching on, though: Tomas said he'd made friends with a girl here and things were going well between them, so he finally asked if they could go out together. She replied: 'I earn $300 a month and my expenses are $1,000. I would expect you to make up the difference.' Such arrangements are apparently not unusual.

I've been here now for four months. During that time I've not been mugged, shot, poisoned, irradiated or run down by a mad driver. I've had my pockets picked once. Yet when I read the Herald Tribune I only ever see articles about how dangerous, toxic, corrupt and generally awful Russia is. It makes me wonder whether there's some retroactive propaganda campaign going on: 'You see -- we were right all the time. It really is a pighole.'

Petersburgers are great animal lovers, to the extent that a standard way of begging is to sit out on the street with a box of kittens and to beg for money for them -- not for yourself. Today in Nevsky Prospekt, I saw a gypsy-ish lady with a variation on this. On the pavement beside her lay a small, black-and-white dog, suckling three very fluffy kittens.

© Brian Eno 1997

Brian Eno is currently living in St Petersburg. His e-mails appear monthly in the Observer.