July 15, 2004

St. Petersburg

Posted by Curt at 05:54 PM in | TrackBack

“Hey Curt-Lots of questions. How long were you in St. P? What sights did you see? Where you there for the White Nights? What clubs did you go to? Elaborate on your impressions of the city/Russia. Did you learn any Russian?
My apologies—I just got back from Russia (Siberia, capping off with a month in Moscow) and didn’t get to visit Peter, which absolutely killed me. Hearing about your experience will alleviate some of that…Thanks for indulging me.”

My observations concerning St. Petersburg may prove less enlightening for someone who has already been to Russia than to someone completely uninititated, becaaue much of what I found most surprising, even startling, concerned the people and the social life, which I would assume is more typical of Russia as a whole than the architecture and monuments of the city. Nevertheless, I am tempted to call St. Petersburg my favorite European city along with Venic, and not only because St. Petersburg, like Stockholm, often finds itself saddled with the title “Venice of the North.” Like Venice also, I only visited St. Petersburg for a few short days, so I do not pretend to have penetrated very deeply into the life of the city, although I was staying with the family of one of my best friends and made friends with several Russian girls and subsequently visited their apartments and wandered the city with them. Hence, I feel like my little experience was perhaps at least representative of typical teenage life there.

Now I said that I enjoyed St. Petersburg probably the most of any European city I have visited, along with Venice. This inevitably seems to invite a comparison, and not only because of their shared legacy of canals and ancient palatial buildings lining every horizon. But after several days’ consideration, I am frankly unsure of whether the parallel is deep and meaningful or not. But maybe the one factor which attracts me to both cities, perhaps even what defines the experience for me, is what I would call their cultural and intellectual integrity. Of course, like Venice, St. Petersburg is arguably a city in decline, its world-importance fading with each passing decade. But this somewhat facile impression may be somewhat misleading on two counts. For one thing, just as in Venice, the relics of the aristocratic age here are so magnificent and so overwhelming that they inevitably cast the present into a paltryand disappointing light. Secondly, unlike Venice, St. Petersburg still is a real city, and although it has suffered two massive diminuations in status over the course of the last century, first after it lost its place as capital and then the general loss of rank of Russia as a whole during the last decade, its importance within Russia may actually be growing, since its population grows even as the country’s declines. So many, I believe, are fleeing the provinces and either going abroad or moving to the cities that the city is perhaps temporarily revived by the influx.

And indeed, if you walk along Nevsky Prospekt it is, paradoxically, startling to find things so familiar, at least to a Westerner. To say that St. Petersburg appears almost European is no longer only to claim that the palaces resemble the Europe of the 18th century; at least on Nevsky Prospekt everything almost resembles contemporary Western Europe. The stores could just as easily be in Paris, the girls are all dressed like Italians, and the prices follow the same pattern. Of course, this effect fades almost instantaneously when one follows an alleyway off of Nevsky; the new Russia fades into “real Russia” in less than a block, and anyone who has been to Russia undoubtedly knows what that means: buildings crumbling, sidewalks suddenly tattered, being surrounded by people of uncertain intent. It almost reminds me of the paintings depicting Catherine the Great’s tour of Russia in the course of which the real peasants were hidden behind their houses while actors in stylized peasant costumes greeted the tsarina. But still, compared to what we have been led to believe about Russia, this is all very surprising nonetheless, and in fact even for Russians that have been away for a few years.

So maybe meditations on the “decline and fall” spring a little over-easily, even thoughtlessly, to the mind upon visiting St. Petersburg. The truth is, I would say that the Russian people are holding onto the real essence, as opposed to merely the outward manifestations, of the greatness of the past more successfully than residents of any other European city I have been to, certainly more so than Parisians or Romans or Florentines. And that is what I mean by intellectual and cultural integrity. Russians engage unapologetically in the discriminatory practice of charging foreigners at least 10 times as much as Russians (no exaggeration) to visit most of the major monuments. However, if there is a consolation for this, it is being able to see clearly how much longer the Russian ticket line is than the foreign ticket line. The point is that Russians still visit their monuments and sights in huge numbers, which seems to indicate a general interest in and engagement with their past to a degree far exceeding anything I have seen in Western Europe (as well as the bureaucratic nightmare that a visit to Russia imposes on foreigners and perhaps dissuades a great many from coming, but that is another story). To see a fair number of people casually reading poetry on the subway or hear an old man unself-consciously recite poems that he has written, intertwined by stanzas by Pushkin, is, as simple of a gesture as it is, an experience that I have very, very rarely had elsewhere.
So one could look at St. Petersburg as the enshrinement of Western models in a Russian context. I visited the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world, and devoted entirely to Western art (and archealogical artifacts), and St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which looks more like an Italian Basilica than any cathedral I have seen outside Italy, probably because it was constructed almost entirely by Italians. Yet the ideals seem to have penetrated very deeply here, probably more so, at the present moment, than in the countries that gave birth to them. Perhaps another comparison is in order. St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C. were constructed within the same century, in a similarly artificial manner: both were dredged up out of swampland and intented to be capitals evoking a vague European/classical mythos for their hitherto uncultured populations. Yet St. Petersburg has matured and aged into one of the grandest cities in Europe, genuinely loved and revered. Only recall that Russian film that appeared a couple of years ago called “Russian Ark,” in which the “ark” is the Hermitage, a haven of culture and art intended to survive the dark days and re-seed the world in the coming times. Washington, D.C., on the other hand, is loved and revered by exactly nobody that I know of. It seems to me that it simply has not sunk into our collective imagination. It certainly appears archaic in one way, but on the other hand it almost seems not to have aged at all, as if it is floating like a water-lily in some indeterminate space and time that has no real relation to America. Perhaps that is why no one lives there or spends any time there after business hours are over with. This is not to cast aspersions on it, but I think that perhaps American culture is perhaps actually too democratic, too utilitarian and suspicious of aristocratic “high” culture for a project (and projected ideal) of the type of Washington or St. Petersburg to succeed in America as it does in Russia. Perhaps noblesse oblige is the price that Russians pay, and have paid, for that.

However, I have not visited any other cities in Russia, so my interpretation of St. Petersburg’s cultural niche may be completely mistaken. And perhaps I did not even capture the real mood of the place, firstly because, with my extremely rudimentary knowledge of Russian (which is, however, getting slowly better) I may not have understood aright what people were communicating to me, but also because I visited at the end of June, right after the White Nights, when the sky never gets dark and people, even old people and small children don’t go to bed until three in the morning. Hence, the mood of the city is somewhat giddy and high-spirited in a way which is possibly not typical of the rest of year, although I think some of the natural exuberance of summer is actually dissipated to an extent by the lack of a daily catharsis of sunset and sunrise—there is a little element of restlessness and unsettledness, the “dawn which sets on another dawn,” which is actually I think very well-evoked in “The Bronze Horseman.” In short, ask me again after I have visited in the winter.

p.s. I will have pictures up momentarily of all my travels, including the sights I visited in St. Petersburg—most prominently the Winter Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Peter and Paul fortress and Peterhof. No pictures of clubs, because I in fact didn’t have time to visit any, and more disappointingly, at least for me, I also did not have time to see the bridges over the river Neva go up at night.


Dear Curt - I read your article about St. Petersburg with interest because I too just spent a couple of days in St. Petersburg as part of a Baltic cruise. My question is, where are all the people in St. Petersburg? Do they stay indoors most of the time? We saw massive apartments, some luxurious, some shabby - to be expected in any big city. We saw lots of people in cars and lots of cars; on our tourbus we saw serene parklands; we visited magnificent cultural institutions, never to be forgotten. But we saw no street life, no squares filled with people having coffee tea or vodka while reading their poetry, no gathering places filled with people except the Hermitage courtyards.There were no strollers enjoying the streets lined with classical-styled buildings near the Yusupov Palace during the long White-Nights evening. We saw no people sunbathing in the lovely parks and grasslands near Pushkin. For a city of 5 million, it was a little eerie. Any explanations??

Posted by: donnat at July 31, 2004 02:15 PM

Hmm, it's hard for me to say, since that certainly wasn't my experience. Now, what you are describing does sound like a pretty good description of my impressions of Helsinki--that place put me in mind of a city after some nuclear apolcalypse, a fallout which however left all the buildings intact. There I saw hardly anybody on the streets, at the harbor, or in the squares--nothing. As for St. Petersburg, though, in one trip down Nevsky Proskpekt I saw more milling hordes than I could shake a Kalashnikov at. Thus, since I don't doubt the veracity of your claim, it is hard for me to imagine how the milieu could have been so much different when you were there. However, there are several factors to consider. Firstly, there is a big difference between the "city center" and the outskirts. The "city center" is basically Nevsky Prospekt and the various significant buildings nearby, and the friend with whom I travelled, who is Russian, always spoke of the "city center" in heavy contrast with all the rest of the city. And indeed, Nevsky itself is very crowded and busy, with many luxury boutiques and nice stores and cafés and so forth. But a block off of Nevsky everything degenerates almost instantaneously to poverty and crumbling buildings and so forth, basically empty because no one wants to spend any more time there than they have to. Never have I seen such a blatant contrast in a city between the rich and the poor zones of a city. So the allure of the city center, coupled with the crime and poverty in many other parts of the city, probably combine to make the poor parts seem much less inhabited. Secondly, it is certainly true that Russians, like Americans and in contrast with Western Europeans, tend to drive more and walk or take public transportation less, so there are probably relatively less people walking around than in much of the rest of Europe. This is compounded by the fact that St. Petersburg is so geographically enormous, much more spread out and less dense than most of the big cities in Western Europe, so the concentration of people is less than what you may have been accustomed to in other parts of Europe. One other factor not to be overlooked entirely is the weather. I have observed that northerners, Scandinavians as well as Russians, seem to be more sensitive to the weather than people in America or Western Europe, so that when it is rainy or cold you hardly see anybody out and about, whereas when it is warm and sunny you will see many times that number. So if you were in St. Pete's when the weather was bad, I would not be surprised if you saw less crowds than one would ordinarily in summertime. The other factor to consider, of course, is that pretty much everyone in the city owns a dacha in the countryside, and that periodically (i.e. the weekends) a mass exodus of people tends to abandon the city to live out on the farm for a little while. I don't know if any of these explanations is sufficient, particularly since it is unclear to me that our difference of opinion does not simply lie in different relative perceptions of busy vs. empty, but I hope those various factors to consider at least hint at an answer to your question.

Posted by: Curt at August 5, 2004 12:29 PM