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Nyevski Prospect

In St. Petersburg all roads lead to Nyevski Prospect, the main boulevard and jugular vein of the city. Sparse arrangement of government retail outlets in the city's outlying regions, most acute in the densely populated tenements, forces shoppers into the city center in search of affordable goods. The Admiralty with its golden spire at the North West end, and Insurrection Square with Moscow Train Station in the South East, frame the two mile thoroughfare which dissects three water ways.

One find's it impossible to conduct conversation on Nyevski Prospect. The maelstrom of images and information overwhelms the capacity to concentrate. Not for the faint of heart, strolling down Nyevski is a unique experience likened to a contact sport. "Keep your elbows down, and watch out for those babushki ! They can really hit." It's an odd paradox that Russian hockey players carry a reputation for being pacifistic, yet the rest of the country takes to the streets so aggressively.

In front of Gostiny Dvor, at the epicenter of Nyevski and the city, Ancien Régime fossils agitate and distribute propaganda. A tall, old man in ski cap and filthy glasses sells issues of "Pravda." Two men debate beside him in a cacophony of obscenities and whir of hand gestures. Behind them hang banners with profiles of Lenin, and Stalin. Young souvenir hawkers taunt, "Sell us those banners grandpa. We'll pay in dollars!" If looks could kill, St. Petersburg would be a ghost town. A lone anarchist stands bearded, in black, holding his flag, and taking on the world in heated debate. Off to the side stands a little old lady leaning on a cane with a blank expression, trying to sell an old alarm clock. A colorful large billboard for "West" cigarettes looms over the scene, urging the new consumers to "Go West!" A bemedaled old man wearing a naval officer's cap looks on with stoic dignity. He's clearly loyal to the ideals he grew up with and defended. His presence reminds one, that behind every political point of view are people with good intentions, worthy of tolerance and respect.

The wide sidewalks teem all day long. Young women promenade in micro-skirts, black lace blouses, and the ultimate fashion statement; dark glasses with the decals left on the lens, strolling two by two, arm in arm. One woman comments to her friend, "What are all these men doing here in the middle of the day? Isn't anyone at work?" Tourists new in town often observe, "There's a lot of people just standing around doing nothing." Nyevski is where they come to do it.

In front of the central metro station Lonya, the demure street performer, holds court. In huge, dark glasses, a Soviet army hat and streaks of hair shaved off, the little man screams discombobulated, suggestive verse while intermittently banging on a toy guitar and gyrating his pelvis with hands clasped over his head. Roaring with laughter, the crowd loves him but seldom makes donations. Sulking, adolescent militiamen stand nearby and observe.

Across the street a group of simian gangsters, or "bulls"(The natives call them bulls because of the way they walk, the shape of their foreheads, and their corresponding intelligence.), in uniforms of British sporting caps and nylon flight jackets, mill around late model Soviet cars and Mercedes Benzes in front of their headquarters, the Sever Restaurant. Their molls, long on legs, short on everything else, stand quietly off to the side. Leaders of the deaf and dumb syndicate stand in circle formation, discussing business in sign-language. Waiters with droopy mustaches and bow ties dangling from their collars, stand in the doorway to catch a glimpse of the spectacle unfolding on the avenue.

A pair of idiots sell maps to tourists a few doors away. Children, drunks, and old women weave through the masses to beg funds. "Young man, give granny some money Oh, excuse me. I thought you were a foreigner." Young Mormon missionaries straight from Utah, clad in dark suits and raincoats with name tags, spread the Word. One burly babushka strolls along, smoking a Russian tube cigarette. Knee-high waifs do the same, following the adage: "Do as babushka does." Menacing packs of gypsy girls with children swaddled to their backs stalk generous foreigners. Bands of street urchins troll for tourists, fishing billfolds from pockets, while feigning to sell t-shirts.

In the underpass, Misha with a Rod Stewart mane of gold, a garish plaid raincoat, and a wide grin gaily plays his accordion. In a booming voice he enraptures the throng with his ballads about "catastroika" and the misadventures of Gorbachev, Khasbulatov, and the People's Deputies. A few feet away a band of hippie adolescents compete for attention, banging out Beetles' standards on tinny guitars, homemade tambourines, and an enormous balalaika. An amputee lies beside his crutches and a synthetic fur cap filled with worthless kopecks, looking skyward with eyes closed as if sunning himself in the mouth of the underpass. Passersby seem to give no notice except for a very small waif who stands by the man with a look of bewilderment. The Newyorkification of urban Russia grinds on at a steady pace.

In the evening two old crones squabble on Anensky Bridge beneath a swollen St. Petersburg moon. Portly German burgers singing with their new acquisitions, teeter out onto midnight-Nyevsky, from Chaika; their bar, bordello and unofficial consulate. Flocks of black Volga taxis fly down the boulevard like bats, closely following the contours of the earth. Even ambulances compete for those high, late-night fares. For those seeking a way home anything on four wheels is fair game. Barreling straight ahead, drivers coquettishly wait till the last instant to sharply pull their machines over to the curb and begin the bargaining process.

"With these reforms, the price of gas is going through the roof! Last week Yeltsin doubled the price." the story goes.

"Yeah, and on Monday he rescinded the order. Three thousand. Take it or leave it."

The cabby grunts acquiescence, and so ends another day on Nyevski Prospect.

 

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