Baltimore Sun, Aug 20, 1999.
Revolutionary way to show off a Russian city
Change: Peter Kozyrev has put his country's communist past behind
him, striking out on his own as a tour leader who seeks the adventurous
to glimpse the city from rooftops.
By Kathy Lally
Sun Foreign Staff
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- For Peter Kozyrev, the past screeched
to an abrupt halt and the future took over in 1992, when a St. Petersburg
artist produced and moderated a television program about Vladimir
Ilyich Lenin and mushrooms.
Both are holy in Russia. In the Soviet days, the
first thing children learned in nursery school was how much Lenin
loved them. When the Soviet Union collapsed, joyous crowds toppled
Lenin statues across the Soviet empire -- everywhere except Russia,
where his statues preside as majestically as ever.
And mushrooms! Russians worship them every bit
as much as the child in them does Lenin. They hunt them, they dry
them, they pickle them, they eat them, every sensuous chanterelle
and beefy boletus celebrating the essence of what it means to be
On that day in 1992, Kozyrev sat in his college
dormitory watching a panel of experts discuss how Lenin's love of
mushrooms had gone terribly wrong. In fact, the serious-looking
men on television assured St. Petersburg viewers, the fungus had
taken over the revered leader's brain. The Russian Revolution had
been inspired by a giant, hallucinogenic mushroom.
Kozyrev and his fellow students looked at each
other in amazement. Those crazy, tortured years of communist rule
at long last could be understood.
"Those 70 years," Kozyrev exclaimed,
"were nothing but a bad trip."
The program had been presented so straightforwardly
that it wasn't until the end that many viewers realized they had
been watching a joke. What a moment, Kozyrev recalls thinking. The
unimaginable had indeed occurred: It was possible to joke about
And it was a liberating moment for Kozyrev. The
old, gray past was behind him.
That sensibility has informed his life since. Today,
he lives in his imagination, inventing his life as he goes along
instead of obediently stepping into one ordained by central planners.
Summer days find him riding across lovely St. Petersburg on a bright
yellow bicycle, and as the sun considers whether it will set, Kozyrev
can be seen leaping across the city's rooftops.
Kozyrev, 26, works mostly as a free-lance journalist.
But he also leads walking tours of St. Petersburg, on the ground
or in the air, depending on the adventurousness of his clients who
pay him about $10 each for the tour.
St. Petersburg hardly lacks earthbound sights. The Hermitage --
an art museum housed in the elegant Winter Palace on the banks of
the Neva River -- holds 3 million objects, enough Picassos, Rembrandts,
Impressionists, sculpture and other art to challenge the most energetic
The Kunstkamera, founded in 1714 by Peter the Great,
has enough bugs, snakes and pickled two-headed babies to pique the
imagination of the most jaded traveler. The Peter and Paul Fortress,
where Peter had his son imprisoned and tortured, radiates enough
czarist glory to dazzle the most democratic of visitors.
Let the ravenous sightseer gorge on all of this
splendor. Kozyrev offers hardier fare. He seeks out alternative
tourists, finding them by leaving leaflets at the International
Youth Hostel here.
"I like the whole thing of word-of-mouth and
the atmosphere that has created," Kozyrev says.
Tonight, Kozyrev is prowling across Vasilevsky
Island, a big, flat piece of land full of 19th-century buildings
where the streets have names like Line 1, Line 2, Line 3, made confusing
because one side of the street has a different name than the other.
The streets are broad; Peter the Great had intended canals to run
through the center of them, a plan that was never realized.
This Peter -- Kozyrev -- is heading for a typically
shabby five-story 19th-century building. "Don't say anything,"
he warns his two companions as he heads through an archway and into
the courtyard. "Walk as if you know where you're going."
They climb 122 stairs, past empty vodka bottles
and crushed cigarette butts, through the dimly lighted and urine-reeking
stairwell of the ordinary Russian apartment building, to a small
doorway opening into the attic.
Kozyrev pulls out a flashlight and illuminates a path along the
dirty wooden floor. He hoists himself out a small dormer window
onto the roof, his charges clumsily following.
They walk cautiously along the edge of a sloping
metal roof, then climb a dozen metal rungs to reach a small tower
on the top of the building. At first the view looks plain enough
-- chimneys lined up, one after another. Red paint peeling from
tin rooftops. Antennas poking awkwardly into the sky, challenged
by the rare satellite dish.
Then, slowly, the other St. Petersburg begins to
settle over the three small people standing on the roof. It's a
quiet city, here, despite the nearly 5 million people in the buildings
and on the streets below.
And it's a very different city. To the west, the
sun is gently lowering between the tower and dome of the former
Lutheran Church of St. Catherine, which rises gracefully beyond
St. Petersburg University.
To the southeast, the magnificent spire of the
Admiralty rises up to the sky, like a golden 19th-century spaceship.
From here, the great landmarks float above the city.
The heavy gold dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral looks
delicate, even ethereal. The onion domes of the Church of the Resurrection
of Christ -- also known as the Church of the Blood Spilled on the
Pavement -- twinkle with their mosaics and majolica and gilt.
Any dowdiness or despair disappears into the great
peace that settles over the rooftops.
"You don't see any people up here," Kozyrev says, enjoying
the solitude. "You're in the middle of 5 million people, and
you can't see anyone. It's a unique experience."
Kozyrev has been exploring rooftops for four years.
It was his way of melding his excellent command of English and his
love of St. Petersburg. It helps him earn money, and it's his own
"I've had about 20 jobs," he says, "and
I figure what I'm doing now is the best."
After graduating from St. Petersburg University,
Kozyrev worked in television in his hometown of Samara. At one point,
he had a job doing live translations of movies in St. Petersburg.
He sat in the projection booth, holding a microphone and doing all
the voices in the film.
"You repeat the same thing three times a day,"
he says. "That was probably the funniest job I ever had. I
could edit as I liked. I could even change the script, and no one
would ever know."
Below his rooftops, thousands of people are caught
in the past. They are old people, trapped on miserly pensions. Or
they are workers going to the jobs that supported them for years,
but now pay sporadically. They are Lenin's victims, and they dread
Up here, on the rooftops, Kozyrev is free. Up here,
he celebrates the future. Up here, he's his own boss, earning his
"Lenin," he laughs. "For my generation,
he's a cult figure."