St Petersburg by Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles on St Petersburg: ‘A city perpetually torn between extravagant hope and hopeless deprivation’

St Petersburg

The frustrations which compromise innovation and the recurring and unresolved tensions make the story of St Petersburg as maddening as it is exciting

In 1839, the Marquis de Custine observed that St. Petersburg was undoubtedly one of the wonders of the world and yet, it was a folly without measure – a Greek city improvised for Tartars like some theatre set, a site where hoards of peasants camped in shacks ‘around a pile of ancient temples’. This juxtaposition of order and chaos was a source of great tension in the nineteenth century and a major theme in the literature of that period. Petersburg writers created the figure of the ‘little man’ adrift, struggling against the injustices of officialdom. In the shadowy, post-communist city, it is once again, the ordinary, honest citizen who is suffering. On my previous trip – just after the break-up of the Soviet Union – I happened upon impromptu markets where desperate people tried to sell one shoe, one boot, a lock without a key, a key without a lock. When I talked to dancers from the Mariinsky Theatre, they attributed a decline in the standard of their performances to worthless wages and malnutrition. The market was de-regulated at the beginning of 1992 and prices doubled, then trebled. For vast sectors of the population with no access to hard currency, the situation became extreme. The problem of under-developed modernization which assailed the population for 300 years was still – in a newly re-incarnated St. Petersburg – claiming innumerable victims.

Continuing down the Nevsky Prospekt, I step into the underpass by Gostiny Dvor metro station. Some buskers are punching out Blue Suede Shoes. Only years before, such freedom was forbidden. But accompanying such vital performances are wildly misguided visions of life in the glittering, gilded West; St. Petersburg is – and always has been – a city in which dreams are big and information and truth are in short supply. I spoke to a friend who, as a child, had been sent with her school choir to sing in Kiev soon after the Chernobyl disaster. When they returned to what was then Leningrad, the children were told simply to throw away their shoes. Restriction of information – the chilling scale of official secrecy – runs through the history of the city and has given rise to a rich and dynamic underground culture.

I walk into the heart of historical Petersburg on the banks of the Neva where I am struck by the majesty of the Admiralty and the Headquarters of the General Staff – buildings which remind me that Peter-the-Great’s original intention was to build a fort to protect a port. But the siting of a naval and trading base on the banks of a river which freezes-up for eight months out of every year was absurd, or perhaps, desperate. Craving access to the Baltic trade route, Peter situated his new capital on Russia’s vulnerable north-western frontier. The risk was, at once, made obvious by the Great Northern War against Sweden which disturbed the first years of the city’s construction.

As I stand before the magnificent parabola of official buildings which embraces Palace Square, I am reminded of what the French writer, André Gide, said when he visited in 1936: ‘What I admire of Leningrad is St. Petersburg’. I glance across at the turquoise, gilt and white façade of the Winter Palace where the 1917 Revolution began – a historical ‘moment’ emasculated by the ease with which the revolutionaries entered the building. The only shooting in Palace Square, observed the poet Joseph Brodsky, was done by Soviet film-maker, Sergei Eisenstein in his celebration of the Revolution – October.

Between 1711 and 1917, the Winter Palace – in one or other of its incarnations – has been the residence of so many larger-than-life personalities - epic figures who played their extravagant part in the folly and bravura of St. Petersburg: the impulsive and despotic founder, Peter-the-Great; the indolent and sadistic Anna I; the hedonistic Elizabeth I; the culturally and sexually voracious Catherine-the-Great; mad Paul I, repressive Nicholas I. Add to these rulers, the subversive Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Chernyshevsky; the flamboyant showman, Diaghilev; the disturbed dancer, Nijinsky; the priest turned celebrity protester, Fr. Gapon; the pilgrim turned debauched con-man, Rasputin; the uncompromising revolutionary, Vladimir Illyich Lenin. Add to those, the many writers, artists and musicians whose innovative and often preposterous creations have captured the spirit of an improbable capital in which a resilient and resistant population has battled every kind of adversity. Beyond this incredible cast of extraordinary characters, stands the grandest and most interesting of them all –  the awe-inspiring, dysfunctional city itself, risen from the mists and – at this point in 1993 – in danger of sinking in the mire. 

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