The Observer NOVEMBER 30, 1997 - by Brian Eno


E-mail from St Petersburg, where the glass is always half full

By our standards, most working people in St Petersburg live a hard life. They occupy communal flats, sharing bathrooms, toilets and kitchens, or Soviet tenement blocks which are just as dull as they sound. So why is there such a buoyancy to the city? Why isn't everyone miserable? Because they live not in that communal apartment or this tenement block, but in the most beautiful, most improbable, and most heroic city in the world.

They are proud of their stake in the city. The galleries and museums are alive with ordinary people, excited, chatting, pleased to be there. It's their stuff they're looking at, and they regard it with the affection we would hold for a family photo album.

It's a bit of a stretch for us, accustomed to thinking that what we possess is what we can keep under lock and key - that which is exclusively ours. I don't think Russians are accustomed to this idea. There's a feeling that the good things in life are the things you do together. This is why those marathon vodka bouts are so important.

When people have fun here, they do it without restraint. As soon as something starts to happen, it explodes into spontaneous, marvellous chaos. Organisation becomes the process of naming a place and making sure there's enough drink to go round. The rest will look after itself.

The other night we were in a big restaurant sandwiched between the Naval and Zoological Museums in Vassilievsky Island. Like most restaurants, it has a dance floor and band (because nobody would think of going out just to eat). Our daughters - aged seven and six - started chasing the disco lights panning over the dance floor. The band was playing Nothing Compares 2 U in the Sinead O'Connor version. A couple of gaudy molls - all see-through tops and sparkly stiletto heels - got up and started dancing with the girls in that sweet, kind way all Russians seem to have with all children. Within 30 seconds the whole restaurant went from Cool European to Hopping Slav - IT'S A PARTY!

It's not just this lack of a lock and key mentality that I like. It's the sense that lots of apparently quite normal individuals are really very individual, that their passions are genuine, that they didn't get it all from magazines and soaps. I mentioned this to a friend who said: 'Well, of course, unlike you, we Russians have always known it's all propaganda...'

Walking through Heathrow, after six months away, seeing the 250-odd glossy lifestyle magazines winking at me, I understood how effectively we propagandise ourselves. I can't imagine that happening in Russia for many generations, because the media there aren't as good at it, and the Russians are much more sensitive to it.

OK: Russia is a big mess and half of it doesn't work. To us outside, it all looks like chaos. But we ought to be paying it a better kind of attention. If we aren't noticing the evolving consensus it doesn't necessarily mean there isn't one.

A parable for the future is what's happening to phones. Traditionally, Russia had few homes with a phone, then it leapfrogged to mobile phones - you see them everywhere. I mention this to make the point that societies don't have to retrace all our steps. They might miss a lot out, leapfrog, or take different steps altogether. Some may be disastrous, others spectacularly successful. This is what you may expect from the Russia of the future.