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Presence & Pointy Domes

May 8, 2009 at 2:23 am
By Laura Roberts, Ben Tyler

Despite four full days of excursions in and around Sankt Petersburg, what we saw of the city was at times hard to recognize as the "Piter" of Russian literature. One of the primary aspects of the city's literary and cultural character had conspicuously vanished, leaving us to see Petersburg in full-bright sun and May warmth. In this city where residents live by lamplight in midwinter, navigate dense ocean fog, endure Baltic winds and legendary floods, experiencing this former capital in perfect Spring weather tended to enhance the nagging sense of tourist-ness1.

An example of the weather from the first day:

Petersburg Weather 

 While Moscow has been periodically reshaped by fire, Petersburg is a city utterly defined by water. Constructed on a coastal marsh, spanning rivers and islands, vein-like canals spread through the historical city, home to the administrative center of Russia's navy, Russia's major shipyards, and immense port facilities. To prevent the devastating periodic floods2, the authorities have reshaped islands, added meters to the ground level, crafted complex drainage systems, lined the canals with high granite banks, and are now building a gargantuan, 24 kilometer-long, system of dams and storm barriers spanning the Gulf of Finland (begun in the 1980s, still in progress).

One does not need to search for long to discover the origin of such costly efforts to control natural elements. Peter I's grand project was the modernization of Russia's power and attitudes, a task which required a titanic demonstration of human reason over nature and superstition. Petersburg is that demonstration. Its construction required immense feats of engineering to provide stable foundations in the swampland on which it stood, while its streets are laid out according to a precise and reasoned plan, with major "prospekts" radiating from the Admiralty, each intersected at regular intervals by circular streets and canals - a sharp contrast to Moscow's occasionally outgrown twisting pathways. In some respects, it is the ultimate manifestation of the Russian Enlightenment: Western-style focus on reason, science, and the arts, but constructed as a fortress and home to one of Russia's most famous political prisons (the Peter and Paul Fortress, also the first brick and stone construction of Petersburg), thus stopping short of the political ideas found in European Enlightenment thinkers.

While not always successful (as the 300+ year struggles with water-borne diseases, flooding, fog, cold, and living space have indicated), Peter's founding idea remains, to my mind, the defining principle of the city. It is difficult to express the extent to which Petersburg - physically, intellectually, spiritually - is very much still Peter’s city (and not Saint Peter’s), even several centuries later. It is for that incredible, continuing (nearly tangible) presence that I (Ben) name this post.

And finally, some pictures of Peter in bronze.

All of us getting getting a little closer to The Man:

Getting cuddly with The Man 

The Bronze Horseman:

Bronze Horseman 


 Peter I was the great Westernizer, but there were plenty of Russians who thought that his moves towards Europe were sheer devilry. While such language may resemble student-penned hyperbole used to enliven historical events, some of Peter's opponents actually named him "the Anti-Christ." Years after Peter's death, this conflict between those who supported Peter's project (the "Westernizers") and those who believed Russia should forge its own path (the "Slavophiles") remained a key issue for intellectual Russia.

One physical expression of that debate is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, which a few of us explored on Monday after seeing the Russian Museum.

"Храм Спаса на Крови" was built in memorial of the assassination of tsar Alexander II.  His son, Alexander III, started construction in 1883 on the very spot where the event occurred, but the church was not finished until 1907.  The embankment of the river was expanded to make room for the new building, and a shrine surrounds the cobblestones where the tsar’s blood was spilled.

The medieval architecture of the church sharply contrasts with that of the rest of the city, which is mostly baroque and neoclassical.  This is due to Alexander III’s return to the Slavophile movement, which believed that Russia was a distinctly different nation, neither Western nor Eastern, with its own cultural past, present, and future.  Thus, the façade of the Church on Spilt Blood is architecturally very similar to St. Basil’s Cathedral, with elaborately decorated cupolas and soaring towers.  The interior is filled with beautiful mosaics of icons, which were designed by brilliant Russian artists, including Viktor Vasnetsov and Mikhail Vrubel.  While our group explored the interior, we were impressed by the quality and detail of the mosaics and the quantity of marble used to construct the floors.  The icons were unusual in that they did not use the traditional two-dimensional format and personas depicted looked straight to their audience, rather than curving their bodies in unnatural positions like the icons of the past.  The iconostasis is also wide open, which is very unusual, since it is the place where the sacred mysteries of the orthodox faith take place.

Unfortunately, the church was sorely damaged in the Revolution and later became a vegetable warehouse during the Second World War.  However, restorations began in the 1970s and it was reopened in 1997 as a museum.  Since the main purpose of its construction was to honor the death of the tsar, it has never served as a place of worship and it has not been reconsecrated.

The Church:

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood


1While I (Ben) originally planned on removing this rather ineloquent construction, it demonstrates my new-found appreciation for construction of abstract nouns in Russian, with the "-ость" or "-ство" suffixes. And so while I imagine this is equally inelegant in Russian, somehow "туристичность" (made from the adjective formed from "tourist") doesn't seem quite so awful as "tourist-ness.

2Pushkin's "Bronze Horsemen" describes bodies floating up from submerged graveyards in 1824.



  • May 9 2009 at 6:34 am
    Phillip Peck

    Ben, I loved your comments about St. Petersburg. I believe it was Dostoevsky who said, "the most artificial or deliberate city in Russia..." (not quite right but he struggled with its non Russianness). I am so excited about your Russian studies. Did you know I was a modified Russian Studies/History major.  Anyway, great to see your postings.  Cheers!  Phil

  • May 10 2009 at 12:07 pm
    Peter Durnan

    BT,  Thanks for sharing the post.  I appreciate the nounal ju jitsu you throw down to explain "touristness."  Ever the linguist.  Are you reading your way through the city?  I've just hunted a translation of The Bronze Horseman on line.  All the best.  PD