Putin and Petersburg’s Naval Disgrace
August 1, 2016
Navy Day in Petersburg is not a holiday for adults, because the fleet is tiny, but there are tons of adults.
So Navy Day is really meant for two tiny groups of people: the demobbed navy vets who are already blotto by morning and stumble around town hanging onto a buddy and a flag, dressed in striped sailor’s shirts and pants bursting at the seams in the chest and the ass—and children.
Children gaze at the ships anchored in the Neva, tug on their parents as they queue to go on board, and in the evening wait for the fireworks to start.
“Pa, are the fireworks going to start soon?”
All the news agencies had reported the fireworks in Petersburg were supposed to start at 10:00 p.m. on July 31, 2016.
Since the city on the footloose Neva is the only tourist mecca in all of Russia, and tourists do not know Navy Day is meant only for children and demobbed sailors, the Neva’s embankments were threatening to collapse under the weight of the bodies yesterday evening at ten o’clock, as were the bridges. There were so many boats, craft, and ships on the Neva it looked less like a navy-style broth with dumplings, and more like a rich Marseilles bouillabaisse. The street vendors were doing a land office business in peddling patriotism, and sailor hats for the kiddies were selling like hotcakes. Flags and smartphones were raised in the air.
There were no fireworks at 10 p.m., however.
I am practically no longer a child, I am not a tourist, and I am certainly not a demobbed sailor. It was just that yesterday somewhere between ten o’clock and ten-thirty in the evening was my only chance to hop on my bike and have a gander at the ships standing at anchor. I jumped on my bike and took off.
I biked past the triple-parked cars on the Palace, Admiralty, and English Embankments, past the tense, frozen crowd glued to the granite parapet, past the nervously grumbling mob (“Pa, when’s it going be?!”), and realized that since the fireworks had not happened at 10 p.m, as had been promised, they were not going to happen at 10:30 p.m., either.
Because there is only one man who makes time stand still in this country.
We are the kind of country where even commitments to children mean nothing. Children in Russia, even as we swear by their future, exist only to be raised and overworked for the glory of the state, meaning so that all the Shuvalovs, Naryshkins, and Yakunins, all the tsar’s intimates, can own villas. We are the kind of country where military honor consists not in doing one’s duty but in sucking up to the supreme commander, who, I happened to know, had come to Petersburg for the celebrations and was probably late, as was his wont. He has long been late to everything.
When I biked away from the embankments, the fireworks still had not happened.
Children were crying, while the adults were poking at websites on their smartphones and swearing under their breath.
When I was already far from the big water and the ships, the salvos from the toy cannons finally thundered. The walls trembled, the skies lit up, the shots echoed off the walls, and the car alarms barked and growled. The time was approximately 10:51 p.m.
The tsar must have arrived in the end, and our brave admirals pressed their lips to his lips, or to what they took to be his lips as they shut their eyes in servile delight.
I was ashamed I felt not the slightest shame for the admirals, Putin or the adults telling their kids sorry lies as an excuse. Basically, I have not given a rat’s ass about any of them for a long while, just as someone could care less about a summer cottage standing on a crooked foundation, which is pointless to patch up because it will fall apart anyway.
Although behind me was a wondrous performance, a piece of contemporary art: the multi-figure personification of Russia’s modern disgrace, a state of affairs in which no one gives a fuck about children, and everyone is on their knees before the tsar, for he is the only person whom our gallant admirals genuinely fear.
Russia, blah, is a great country. Our navy is invincible. Dostoevsky, the tears of a child.
I am sympathetic to the senseless, drunken demobbed sailors, who have only one chance a year to prove they are men.
It is better to get stinking drunk and tear the sailor’s shirt on your chest, since drunkards are exempt from shame.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of Dmitry Gubin and Washington Monthly/iStock.
This post is dedicated to my Russian dog, who was awoken at eleven o’clock at night by the shelling from the Neva, as described, above, by Mr. Gubin, and got so scared he wet the bed.
I could not sleep, either, and it occurred to me as I lay there waiting for the fireworks to end that there was a connection between the fun a few kilometers away and the siege of Aleppo. I am probably slightly off my hinges, but I have always taken such celebrations as a reminder to the folks on the home front that its “boys” are quite capable of doing to them what they do so casually to the swarthy types in Aleppo, Grozny, Fallujah, etc. That is, should the folks on the home front suddenly withdraw their loyalty or, rather, cheerful passivity towards the status quo and attempt to dethrone the tsar and his henchmen.