Revolutionary way to show off a Russian city

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.

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 Russian.

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 Lenin.

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 tourist.

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 business.

“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 the future.

Up here, on the rooftops, Kozyrev is free. Up here, he celebrates the future. Up here, he’s his own boss, earning his own money.

“Lenin,” he laughs. “For my generation, he’s a cult figure.”

© Baltimore Sun, August 20, 1999, by Kathy Lally