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A Return to St. Petersburg

May 11, 2010 at 4:13 am
By Kenny Bendiksen

Ah, St. Petersburg! This was my second trip to the city as I also partcipated in the Moscow program last year. And while I usually enjoy returns to find out the ways a place has changed, St. Petersburg is something different. Without a doubt, this city has a pulse, a life of its own, yet it also seems to have some eternal, unchanging quality about it—I returned after a year feeling as if the city had been waiting in stasis for me since the moment our train back to Moscow pulled out of the station in 2009. The city has a timeless air about it (though I won’t venture to say whether that makes it supernatural or a zombie…). You walk its canals surrounded by uniformly 18th- and 19th-century architecture (or else, sometimes, excellent modern imitations, with the occasional Stalin-era building rearing its cold, clean, austere proportions) and history, the rich history of this city, confronts you at every turn. Walking down the same canal you can start from St. Isaac’s Cathedral, wander past the Yusupov Palace (where Rasputin was murdered) and then proceed on to the apartment where Pushkin, Russia’s most famous poet, died after being wounded in a duel. Indeed the city is so steeped in history that you can’t escape it, and can’t help but feel at times as though you’re walking through one big museum.

Speaking of museums, I should mention: though the “aura” of St. Petersburg is something unchanging for me, the city always holds surprises and new sights to see. One of the most fascinating this year was the Kunstkamera (German for “art chamber”), Russia’s first museum. Peter the Great founded it in 1727 with the goal of preserving “natural and human curiosities and rarities.” I would say wholeheartedly he succeeded! I greatly enjoyed sitting down on a bench off to the side of one of the collections just to watch the passing tour group of Russian schoolchildren gaze wide-eyed at the artifacts and mannequins portraying Native American life as a tour guide explained their lifestyle on the plains. I had my wide-eyed moments, too, like when I saw the example of an early raincoat made by the ancient inhabitants of the Far East from what was labeled as "whale intestines" (read Moby Dick for the true, grisly details...)! And without a doubt the most interesting section was also the hardest to stomach. Imagine if you will a room full of deformed human babies and other animals preserved in jars or dried out and hung about the place--all in the name of science! Peter was interested in finding out why physical abnormalities occur in human beings (still a relatively new science in his time) and so he collected, well, abnormalities! He even issued a decree to have still-born infants with abnormal bodies sent to Petersburg to be put on display. I would rather not recount some of the things I saw floating in jars, and seeing them once was enough. Among them were: a baby with three arms and no legs, a baby with three legs and no arms, a two-headed calf, human spines and hearts aplenty, and even the preserved heart of a man who was invited to become Peter’s footservant because he was so abnormally tall (it really is a huge heart!). The best part of this museum was seeing whole families visiting. This is not the type of place I would take a six-year-old, but there they were, led by the hand and enthusiastically asking, “Mommy, mommy, what’s that in this jar? And this one?” So, if you’ve got the stomach for it, I highly recommend a visit should you find yourself in St. Petersburg.

My feelings on the city as a whole have always been divided. On the one hand, I love experiencing all the rich history of the city and realizing that so much happened in this one place, this very place. But, as others have noticed, the city feels fated or dark at times. It is, after all, a symbol of man trying to exert his will over nature (built on a swamp) and at the same time (remember its history of floods) it’s a symbol of nature fighting back. That battle is never really over—just look up the city’s efforts to provide clean drinking water in the past decades, for example. So you can enjoy its orderly, beautiful architecture and logical layout as the astounding accomplishment that it is, or if you look at it a bit differently, it can seem artificial and synthetic sometimes—not quite the relaxed classiness of Venice and a long shot from traditional Russia, some sort of bastard mix that belongs in Peter’s cabinet of curiosities. At night the city takes on a wholly different character, and a nighttime stroll along the canals is not to be missed. The architecture and lighting at that time suggests something sullen and forbidding, but the night life is lively and bustling since Petersburg has such long hours of sunlight.

I still remember one of the early Russian phrases we were made to record in the language lab: “St. Petersburg is [a/the] city of rains and depression.” We were in fact concentrating on getting the intonation and pronunciation right, but I haven’t forgotten the sentence! There’s something to it without a doubt. At the Catherine Palace we saw an ornate (but long broken) barometer with the arrow stuck to “changeable” weather. On second thought, considering St. Petersburg, perhaps it was working after all! We saw both rain and shine, but it was unwise to ever leave the hotel (as some of us discovered the hard way…) without a rain coat or umbrella. I feel that this sort of weather is indicative of Petersburg’s duality of character. It is definitely not a city to trust, but it sure is one to enjoy!

Comments

  • May 15 2010 at 10:58 pm
    Lisa Hellerstein

    Thanks for this great write-up.  Peter the Great was a very interesting guy, but I'm not sure how I feel about his bottled specimens....

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