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Petersburg: The Stories Behind the City

May 9, 2010 at 10:36 am
By Denis

Actually, it's impossible to tell the stories behind St. Petersburg. It's impossible to even know them all. There's a story behind every door, down every alley. Or at least that's how it seemed to me, walking down the gridlined streets of secretive European-style buildings that is downtown Petersburg. This is the city that produced some of the greatest works of Gogol, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and many others, and while it might be a little hard to understand where these writers are coming from sitting in a living room in America or even in an armchair in Moscow, their inspirations become crystal clear in the swamp-turned-city that is St. Petersburg.

Perhaps I should actually begin with something concrete. We arrived in Petersburg via an overnight train at around 6-something-unholy in the morning on a Friday morning, welcomed by the dawn and a solid roof of clouds. Even just watching through the window on the ride in, I felt like this was territory that could make anyone write stories--with the mists and the dawn light, imaginations could run wild. Nor did this feeling fade when we got into the city proper, and over the course of the day went on two tours that well demonstrated the extremes of St. Petersburg's upper- and lower-classes (see Karl's blog post for a more in-depth discussion of these tours). In the process, we saw a lot of the architecture of the city, and certainly many more of its back alleys than I suspect is the custom among tour groups (one of the tours was of the places of action in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, in great detail). During those tours and over the course of our wanderings during the next few days, we managed to get a great feel for the strange mixes that make up St. Petersburg.

A great feel, perhaps, but certainly not a great grasp. Petersburg is, in many ways, a mix of both European and Russian, managing at the same time to be both and neither. St. Petersburg's history is as something of an experiment, trying to bring the influences of Europe into a still un-Enlightened Russia. As such, the city was built greatly in European styles--perhaps the city's most well-known (and one of her most prolific) architect is Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an Italian in every way. Nonetheless, Petersburg was populated by Russians who, despite hundreds of years of attempts, never managed to lose their essential Russian-ness in favor of becoming true Europeans. As a result, while the city looks European, it still carries a distinct feeling of being Russian, and this sets up a conflict in all aspects of life in the city. One of the greatest testaments to this conflict--and the uneasy truce in which its parties have lived for centuries--is the most iconic image of the city, and setting for one of Pushkin's greatest poems, the Bronze Horseman. This statue of Peter the Great stands on the banks of the Neva, and carries on one side an inscription to Peter and to Catherine (under whom the monument was erected) in Russian--on the other side is the same inscription, in Latin.

This conflict between Russian and European has been a driving force through much of the literature of St. Petersburg, and has often contributed to some of the most apocalyptic visions of the city (in early times, in fact, Peter and his city were considered the Antichrist, because of the opposition they presented to traditional Russian ways). Perhaps the strongest other force seen all throughout Petersburg's literature, and strikingly visible all throughout the historic center of the city, is the cold rationalism that has been so much of a guiding force in her history. It was in St. Petersburg that the truly enormous Russian bureaucracy of the later 19th century and continuing into Soviet times had its beginnings and its growth, and the logic and procedure that ran this bureaucracy is seen particularly in the writings of Gogol and Dostoevsky--particularly as an inhuman force that tends to drive those who live under it mad. This pure rationalism was particularly evident to us in our wanderings around the city, as we traversed her gridded streets past endless buildings of the same height, the same style, and with the same dark corners hidden in their courtyards.

I've been asked several times in the past week how I liked St. Petersburg, and I'm still not sure how to respond. Though the city can be beautiful (particularly in the evenings) and a wonderful place to walk around in, there's still a feeling that pervades it, that Petersburg isn't quite what it seems. There's a lot to this city, and most of it, I think, lies behind its closed doors. At any rate, I think I'll be going back at some point, preferably with a few dozen more Russian novels under my belt--maybe then I can start to understand one of the strangest cities I've ever seen.