Seva — an 18-year-old, iPod- wearing, St. Petersburg tour guide with wild, curly blond hair, a youthful wit, and a subversive edge — quietly leads me and my newfound friend Nastya into an 18th-century, yellow apartment building with a grid of rectangular windows, up five flights of stairs, through a dark attic with a coarse, concrete floor, and across a wooden walkway. Nastya — an ambitious, smart, fashionable, 23-year-old Russian woman working in advertising with a round face and dirty blond hair — has generously agreed to show me around St. Petersburg.
Nastya and I follow Seva toward a blinding light shining through an opening in the slanted roof until we’re climbing a rickety, wooden staircase. Suddenly, we’re standing on the building’s tin roof, looking down at tourist boats cruising under green, arched bridges crossing the murky waters of the Fontanka, flanked by the white, yellow, beige, and red waffle-like fronts of 18th-century buildings. In the distance, I see St. Petersburg’s most well-known landmarks: the golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the green, blue, and grey onion domes of the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. “Try to step only on the ridges,” Seva advises as the three of us walk across the roof and then step onto the roof of an adjacent building.