There’s no tree to be found, only fake ones or bunched branches. But just before New Year’s, a man appears on Garden Street with beautiful real trees brought from the Volosov region. The Haymarket tree fair at is closed due to the pandemic.


AB chooses a small tree with cones and lichen on the trunk. Two branches jut forward like hands outstretched to offer and claim gifts.


Not planning to extend New Year’s invitations, we welcome a visit from someone we haven’t seen for about a quarter century and who says he’d like to join us.


Dmitry Kalashnik is a longtime friend of Mike Naumenko. He taught Mike to play guitar. He and Mike went to school together, loved the Beatles together. Dmitry even went on to have a conservatory education. He writes compositions for piano and voice.


Unlike Mike, Dmitry stayed in school. He became a linguist. He and Mike had a quarrel about Mike’s decision to drop out of college. Then they made up.


Dmitry remembers how Mike’s father, a teacher at their college, tried to rehabilitate his son’s standing there.


Apraksina recalls that at the same time, Mike, not wanting to go to college, came by her home every morning and simply sat there until evening. Then he went to “Saigon” or somewhere else.


“So that’s how things were,” says Dmitry, surprised.


Dmitry is clearly more than a random guest, and he himself understands this. In surplus confirmation of this, he’s arrived on a wave of green lights and found a parking space right by the gate.


When midnight comes, Apraksina counts down the last seconds of the Old Year. Others’ watches run slow. The glow from the lighted tree tints faces turned toward the future.


Dmitry’s face wears an obedient, attentive expression; he stands like a highly disciplined soldier.


There’s a sense of a wave of time passing through the room, an almost visible hand tearing away the crust of the already lived. A blue-white spirit flutters in the air.


“Do you feel how things have changed?” asks Apraksina. “This year is completely new.”


Everyone feels it. “I didn’t serve in the army, but I’ve talked a lot with military people,” says Dmitry. “The military is very good at making effective decisions.” Then he plays one of his compositions. The very first one.


The words, in English, belong to Mike. The melody is lovely. The song’s era is immediately perceptible, but above all it just sounds like a person trying to comprehend life’s charming mysteries.


“I don’t know what angel made Mike start writing songs in Russian,” Dmitry says. “I myself started getting interested in more progressive music then — Bowie, Yes, Jethro Tull. Mike stuck with what he’d always like: Lou Reed and T. Rex. “


Dmitry recalls that he himself made two musical discoveries earlier than others in Russia: Elton John and Madonna. He first heard Elton John on the waves of Radio Luxembourg, which he could pick up late at night. At first, the black-market LP traders he asked had never even heard of Elton John.


The vibrations of Dmitry’s composition are still sounding when the next, also spontaneous, guests arrive at three in the morning.


Vladimir, wearing a Santa Claus hat with a bell, offers a fat pineapple. Marina arranges other fruits on a bookcase with an icon and a child-sized violin. Inna sits next to Dmitry on the couch, where he immediately begins to tell her about Mike and about his, Dmitry’s, rather hostile attitude towards Alexander Kushnir’s recently released Mike book.


Dmitry, interviewed for the book, insisted on the right to check the relevant parts before publication, warning Kushnir that if something turned out to be wrong there, Kushnir might be surprised by the degree of Dmitry’s dissatisfaction.


But there’s no fixing the main source of Dmitry’s displeasure with the book: its sentimentality, its pathos, which Dmitry tends to associate with Kushnir’s evident feelings toward himself. The author remains foreign to the cultural environment he studies.


“If there were a list of everything we talked about this New Year’s Eve,” Apraksina later recalls, “anyone would be surprised. I just sat there and basked in it all.”


The guests sit until half past six in the morning and even then are in no hurry to leave. The later the hour, the more serious the whole conversation grows.


Inna, a hemostasiologist, having taken part in opening new hospitals throughout Russia over the past year, remarks on the exceptional humaneness of Russian intensive care workers.


She then tells the amazing story of a Buryat Buddhist lama who left the world in the lotus position in the 1920s and has since stayed incorrupt, in deep meditation. Now seated to receive visitors in this mysterious state, he continues to impart wordless advice and blessings.


In the already transcendent hours of New Year’s Eve, this transcendental tale leaves a sense of the imperishable mentor’s astral presence among the guests.


The assembled company is permeated with an air of engagement in a spiritual quest. Everyone seems to dream of further reassurance that they’re fully alive, that the year has really changed, and that the experience of the past year was not in vain and will not repeat itself.


With all agreed that important experiences have been gained — in particular about the value of communication and being physically in the world — a passionate discussion of culture begin.


One guest defines culture as good manners; another sees it as something more: a code of memory and traditions, or a reflection of subjective reality in general.


We speak about the cultural encodedness of St. Petersburg, about the semantics of culture — a formal definition that is somewhat offputting but which remains valuable if one doesn’t let the realities it signifies be stripped of living content.


There’s an impression that each person feels the fate of culture largely depends on managing to meet this New Year correctly.


“The makeup of the population of St. Petersburg has changed completely at least three times,” says Dmitry. “The city itself cultivates new people.”


So true. And on New Year’s Eve, cultivation was in full swing. May it continue all year long!


We wish you, our friends, a wonderful New Year and new happiness — and look forward to new collaboration in cultivating Blues.




— James Manteith, St. Petersburg, January 2021

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