In the meantime I go on a quick trip to St Petersburg. Until recently it was called Leningrad, but it reverted to St Petersburg in June this year. A friend has taken me to meet her mother and sister, who live in a communal apartment. Before the revolution this would have been the residence of a wealthy family, but now it accommodates 65 people, who all share bathroom, toilet and kitchen amenities. As I walk down the three flights of stairs people are milling around in the kitchens on the landings. Getting privacy here would be tough.
My friend says, “Can you imagine living here with three generations of your wife’s family and only these paper thin walls separating you?”
“Ah, no.” How the hell could you ever have an undetected shag?
“Resentment permeates places like this,” she says in a hushed voice.
“What do you mean?” I ask, like a dumb bastard.
“Jealousy for the food you may have or the benefits your job provides or the partner you may have.”
I get it. It’s easy to visualise the tension and complexities that could fester in this environment, easy to imagine all the innuendos and the fantasies about shagging your neighbour’s wife. But, interestingly, my friend’s elderly mother looks happy enough.
“Are there many apartments like this?” I ask her.
“About 750,000 people still live in communal apartments in St Petersburg.”
As we walk out to the street my friend points out a sign on the other side of the road, which instructs people to beware of shelling. The reminders from the Great Patriotic War remain. “During the Nazi siege of Leningrad, one million out of the two million people who lived here died.” She looks at me as if that experience is woven into the very fabric of her being. And yet she would have been born just after the war.
“It amazes me how people can survive in a completely annihilated environment like that. How do they do it?” I ask.
“Hope. We have a saying. Hope is the last thing you lose.”
“I guess that’s right.” If anyone knows about hope it has to be the eternally down-trodden Russian.
“We still cling to hope. Hope that things will get easier, hope that one day there will be no fear, hope that the grace of God will flow in our favour. We all hope that one day we will experience endless love and peace and joy.”
Startled, I realise that’s exactly what I want. As I gaze around the street I realise not only how resilient the Russians are but also how determined humanity is to survive and to cling to the hope we will all “live life in love”.