My second article will take you to St Petersburg you might never see if you visit as a tourist – the city as an ever-growing belt of sleeping districts. I remember once in the 2000s my friend whose boyfriend was Chilean asked me to show Kupchino (one of the biggest sleeping districts where I lived since the age of 3) to him, as he wanted to know how real Russians live. I think he liked what he saw: blocks of flats of late Soviet architecture, micro-districts where you could find a school and a kindergarten, a post office, universal shops (universams) and other conveniences within walking distance, as this is how New Kupchino was built with the intention for its residents finding everything they need nearby. And in fact, I don’t think I travelled to the city centre regularly till the age of 16 – when you were born in Kupchino, this was your city. Even taking a tram or a trolleybus further than 2-3 stops was considered a long journey, and I rarely visited some of my school friends who lived beyond this ‘diameter of childhood mobility’.
Apart from New Kupchino which is the end of the city marked by Bukharestskaya and Malaya Balkanskaya streets, there is also the so-called Old Kupchino within 5-6 tram or bus stops in the direction of the city centre, with the distinction indicating the fact of the initial presence of a small village Kupchino where Soviet re-planning works began in the 1970s. A brick factory also existed near the village, and its quarries are now ponds of what has now (after significant renovation) become the Park of Heroes-Firefighters near the new metro station Prospekt Slavy.
The Park of Internationalists, one of the landmarks of Kupchino, called so because slava means glory, and is associated with the victory in the Second World War that in the Soviet version of history involved liberation of Europe, is nearby and is one of the main green spots of the area. There is also the Apple Orchard, the remainder of an earlier Soviet ‘kolkhoz’ (collective farm), near the Mezhdunarodnaya metro station – it blooms beautifully in May. Metro stations are a novelty and an item of luxury for every Kupchinite, as until recently it was only Kupchino metro station that connected its residents to the outside world. My Mum tells me that when they moved to where we lived (in 1983, as my parents bought the apartment in a new type of housing – cooperative house – after their graduation from Polytechnic Institute), three metro stations were supposed to be opened by 1991, but in fact it was no earlier than 2019 that they did. Their construction was frozen for an indefinite time at some point, with the existence of metro tunnels somewhere below the grounds becoming just another of Kupchino’s myths for decades. When you were born in Kupchino, your mindset divided your world into two spheres: your home and the city centre, and I think it is still that way for me now. Each trip to the centre of St Petersburg is an adventure, a journey requiring efforts and time ranging from 1 hour to 2.5 hours if you need to go to Northern parts of the city. Daily commute and daily fight for a seat on the metro is what you get used to if you are a grown-up Kupchinite, and many books were read on these commutes before the advent of the Internet.
When I think of growing in this southern sleeping district of St Petersburg, I can’t help wondering about the strangeness of the situation when you don’t have much choice in being born at a particular time in a specific place, while it inexorably defines who you are. Kupchino, its blocks of flats, its distances between the micro-districts, its green hills that in fact are mounds of former construction waste covered with grass are associated with formation of my universe.
I was a late-Soviet kid growing up in one of the most difficult and era-defining times my country lived through – the late 1980s and early 1990s. I perceived everything as a given, normal situation without the possibility or need for a change – food cards (kartochkas) and general food shortage (I queued with my Mum to grab sugar quicker than others), the severe cold of 1986 (the temperature went down to -43 C and we spent our time in a kitchen with the electric stove on full blast), the Soviet system of Oktyabrists and young Pioneers – I had a ceremony of pervy zahod (being among the first for those who had good school marks) admittance to pioneers at the Battleship Aurora one year before the whole system collapsed.
And then all of a sudden there was obsession with the West and my school exchange trip to the USA in as early as 1993. Somehow our minds had to be flexible enough to accomodate this cosmic leap and I think that living through these times made me strong and adventurous to be able to live through further changes, and consciously take new risks when necessary. Obviously my life was not evolving around these historic changes in Soviet-Russian history, and my own big events were slightly different. I remember jumping classes (as I already could read, write and count) in my first school, and then being admitted to a newly-opened Gymnasium 587 where the education was taken to another level with advanced English and German classes and program of art and music education.
I remember how playing domra in its folk instruments orchestra was one of my after-school activities for years. I remember going to America (New Hampshire) and buying a walkman and Michael Jackson audio cassettes. I remember my love crushes: in my first school it was lanky and ginger Dima who was the last in our class – we went to see a sci-fi film My Enemy in the cinema Balkany that has long since been demolished. In my second school it was a fashionably dressed Nikita who often teased me because of my stuttering. I now realize that my teeanage years made me conceptualize love as a painfully condescending, silently humiliating desire of a male who was never too sensitive and never too bright to reciprocate. Class divisions into the poor and the rich (based on clothes and backpacks) was also a novelty, as in 1994 we stopped wearing schoool uniforms and that was a painful moment of understanding that some people lived in the universe of sweetshirts with exotic prints and Adidas (probably fake) sneakers, while some just didn’t. There was also a boy Ivan (or Yan as he self-identified) who was my love crush in our yard – the yard of our block of flats was my whole childhood world, and as Yan lived in block 1, while I lived in block 3, he belonged to an unknown and romantic universe. I met Yan recently – having been addicted to drugs and alcohol, he hadn’t made much of a career. I must admit neither of my yard friends have – being a Kupchinite often led you to connection to a crime gang and generally people’s ambitions never went further than a job and a family former in early adulthood.
As I walk in Kupchino today (not that I do it often), I am trying to think of interesting facts that will make my childhood sleeping district stand out for you. Did you know that all its streets’ names are connected to Eastern and Central European countries belonging to a friendly Warsaw Pact block? I lived on Moravsky lane (taking its name from Moravia in Chechoslovakia), there were also Yaroslav Gashek, Aleksa Dundić, Béla Kun streets, as well as Belgradskaya, Sofiyskaya, Bukharestskaya and Budapestskaya streets and Zagrebsky Bulvar, with all capital cities faithfully represented. Several years ago there appeared a statue to Brave Soldier Schweik near the metro Kupchino to conform to this tradition, and you could rub his nose for luck before the new coronavirus times. On Bukharestskaya street on 3 September 1970 there appeared Frunsensky Universam that was the first one of its kind in Leningrad and in the whole USSR and used foreign self-service equipment. There are also monuments to the Bulgarian revolutinary hero Georgi Dimitrov and Russian general Georgy Zhukov in Kupchino. In the Park of Heroes-Firefighters you could also find a cement-made, deeply entrenched permanent fire position built in 1943 – it was part of the whole line of similar one during the Siege. Kupchino has all types of late-Soviet architecture mainly consisting of different series of blocks of flats made of concrete – the one I lived in was a 12-storey 137 series.
In recent decades there has been additional building process where it has been allowed by local municipal authorities, as the housing prices have risen because of the new metro stations and quicker access to the city centre. Near Sortirovochnaya railway station there are still earlier 5-storey houses that belong to post-War building era, but they are almost extinct. New luxuries include fitness houses (an unknown thing in Soviet times) and huge shopping malls near Kupchino and Mezhdunarodnaya metro stations. There is also an important eye surgery centre named after Sergey Fyodorov that was the first in the USSR to perform laser eye vision correction operations, initially doing them for free, inviting volunteers for additional publicity.
There are a couple of Russian Orthodox churches, while 1990s saw the temporary arrival and then disappearance of the neo-Pagans: they built some wooden figures on the hill near where I lived and since then the place where I went sledging became haunted. There is – a bit of a surprise – an Obukhovskaya prison where Sergey Dovlatov passed a 2-months imprisonment term. Victor Tsoy often visited friends in Kupchino (he lived in the nearby Moskovsky District) and I remember my classmate boasting about his Mum going to the same school as the singer. It is a place where the Soviet past is getting buried deeper and deeper under layers of time, so modern generation would be excused not to know anything about what Kupchino had in store for us. Nowadays it is just another sourthern sleeping district of St Petersburg where new young people grow, develop, fall in love, marry and learn to commute to the city centre. But for the late-Soviet Kupchinites it is the place where they unwillingly and unconsciously witnessed the history of the late 20th century through their own small adventures.