Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Renamed City

Talking this weekend with my teenage son about holiday ideas, we agreed that the place we would both most like to visit is St. Petersburg. I wonder when that might be possible again... I have never been, but I've always assumed I would go one day. I’m not sure I associated Leningrad with anything much when I was a child - it was when I started to read Russian literature that St. Petersburg came into focus, accompanied by a shock of recognition. In Gogol, men ‘scuttle between their offices in vast ministerial buildings and the equally soulless tenement apartments in which they live.’ When I first read his stories, I too was a lowly, alienated civil servant living in shabby accommodation. And then there was Dostoevsky’s Petersburg, ‘full of dreamers, a fact which he explained by the city’s cramped conditions, by the frequent mists and fog which came in from the sea, by the icy rain and drizzle that made people sick’ (Orlando Figes, Natasha's Dance).


 Vasily Sadovnikov, Panorama of Nevsky Prospect, 1830s

In his 1979 essay 'A Guide to a Renamed City' Joseph Brodsky talks about how the city has been reflected in Russian literature. The presence of the Neva means that St. Petersburg's 'architectural landscapes' are already reflected in water, 'as if the city were constantly being filmed by its river, which discharges its footage into the Gulf of Finland, which, on a sunny day, looks like a depository of these blinding images.' But behind these surfaces, it was the interior of the city that became the subject of Russian poetry and novels. And as this was happening, St. Petersburg itself grew and changed at extraordinary speed, until the Revolution came and it entered a long period of stasis and decline - 'quiet, immobilized, the city stood watching the passage of the seasons.' Brodsky concludes his essay with Russia's literary city preserved in the memories of Soviet school children, as they learn verse and re-read nineteenth century prose. He ends with a memorable final paragraph, that describes the cityscape in June...

A white night is a night when the sun leaves the sky for barely a couple of hours - a phenomenon quite familiar in the northern latitudes. It's the most magic time in the city when you can write or read without a lamp at two o'clock in the morning, and when the buildings, deprived of shadows and their roofs rimmed with gold, look like a set of fragile china. It's so quiet around that you can almost hear the clink of a spoon falling in Finland. The transparent pink tint of the sky is so light that the pale-blue watercolor of the river almost fails to reflect it. And the bridges are drawn up as though the islands of the delta have unclasped their hands and slowly begun to drift, turning in the mainstream, toward the Baltic. On such nights, it's hard to fall asleep, because it is too light and because any dream will be inferior to reality. Where a man doesn't cast a shadow, like water.


Mike C. said...

We were in St. Petersburg in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup, and I was surprised by how westernised the city had become. In any number of hipster venues with today's vegan specials written up on a chalkboard you would be served your Americano by the same young girl with piercings and tattoos, or the same young man with a fancy beard and topknot that you will encounter in similar places from Edinburgh to Florence. They were glad to practice their English, and apparently genuinely happy to see you.

The big white nights festival there is known as "Red Sails", with literally millions of people turning up to watch the spectacular city-funded events on the Neva. I doubt you could hear a teaspoon dropped next to you, never mind in Finland... It's hard to believe the turn of events since then.


Plinius said...

Thanks Mike. So many countries now seem off limits, although things do change - I remember in the nineties marvelling that I'd once had a holiday in what had become war-torn former Yugoslavia.