By ELLIOTT HOLT
My friend K. and I traveled to St. Petersburg on the overnight train from Moscow, where I lived then. She had come from New York to visit me. It was December, 1997, and the cold was brutal, but you have to see the Hermitage, I said. So we took the train north and then, at dawn, made our way to the international youth hostel. It was the first one in Russia—opened in 1992—and like every hostel I’d visited, it was full of backpackers eager to tell us how much of the world they had seen. No one’s hostile in a hostel, I said to K. She and I had been out of college for just a couple of years; our fellow travelers were about our age. Many of them were from Australia and New Zealand. At breakfast that first morning— a room with tentative light and forlorn bowls of muesli—we met a young Japanese-Finnish woman. (Her parents were Japanese, but she’d been raised in Finland.) She had traveled from Helsinki, she told us, to photograph corpses.