One cold March day in St. Petersburg, I paid a visit to Vladimir Ignatievich Deriabkin, whose apartment does double duty as the Museum of Gramophones. Above me was a gramophone wearing red and white clown shoes, perched on a unicycle. A samovar walked a tightrope across the room, holding a stick to help it keep its balance. Train tracks stretched across the ceiling. Brightly painted, blooming wide, the gramophones were like a garden of enormous morning glories.
I was in St. Petersburg, the city once called the “Russian mirage,” doing research on criminal songs of the Soviet period. My investigations had already taken me to such exotic places as the St. Petersburg Record Collector’s Club, a set of subterranean rooms full of grizzled, toothless men in caps and striped sailor shirts. Escorted into the back room, where the head honchos were celebrating International Women’s Day by drinking cognac from metal jiggers, I suspected that I was the first woman ever to enter the building. One man asked me to marry him, saying that he didn’t want to live in New York but wanted to live as if he were in New York. This intriguing rhetorical turn was the central finding of that day’s research; the men were too busy celebrating to answer my questions.
A helpful friend had told me that Vladimir Ignatievich was someone I absolutely had to meet before I left town, and I hoped that my interview with him would be more fruitful than my trip to the record club. Armed with my dictaphone, notebook, and tattered map, wearing my too-thin, too-short New York coat and my cracked, leaking New York boots, I tramped through the drifts of snow. (The St. Petersburg city administration is lax in clearing the streets—but they do better than Kiev, whose mayor was said to have proclaimed, “Let whoever put the snow down clean it up!”) The Museum of Gramophones was clearly marked and above ground, just off a major thoroughfare, and from the moment I entered it was clear that there was no risk, as with some of my previous research subjects, that I would be invited to consume multiple liters of vodka in the course of my interview.