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

From Peter the Great to Putin: this is an unforgettable epic history of three centuries of St Petersburg, one of the most magical, menacing and influential cities in the world

Twilight on the Nevsky

1993
 

In October 1917, a blank fired from the Battleship Aurora signalled the start of the Russian Revolution. Three quarters of a century have passed and, once again, there is chaos and change. It is an eerie three a.m. on a summer’s morning in 1993. I am standing on a balcony overlooking the Nevsky Prospekt, the once great avenue of the once great city of St. Petersburg. There is something surreal about the perpetual twilight of these so-called ‘White Nights’. The French novelist, Alexandre Dumas, visiting the capital at the height of its glory, suggested that, at such a moment, the silence makes you wonder if you ‘hear the angels sing or God speak’. For me, there are no angels and the silence is disturbed by the rattle of antique traffic. When Dumas wrote, the splendid metropolis was a powerful magnet for the greatest European architects, writers and thinkers. In the early 1990s, having flourished for much of its 300 year history, St. Petersburg is visibly crumbling. The street below me is pot-holed, the façades on the far side of the prospekt are cracked, their stucco flaked and their windows mired. There is no money or any adequate agency to protect and care for a city created as a spectacular setting for its own great drama. After three riveting acts, 1703-1825, 1826-1917, 1918-1991, I wonder if this is not the final curtain.

I look down on a scatter of thugs and watch as they close – in on a victim. People on the street shuffle by. A shot rings out. Another. It strikes me as odd that a city whose past has been dominated by the struggle between the revolutionary intellectual and repressive authority should now resemble a lawless frontier town – but maybe it always has.

As I watch these deft hoods leave their victim in a heap, I can’t help thinking that violence is endemic to the city. It was conceived in violence as the capital of a new Russia – an attempt to yank the country from its isolated past by a megalomaniac europhile. Peter-the-Great set his will, not only against nature, but also against the practices of a vast country stretching from the borders of Poland and Germany across 8,000 miles of northern Asia to the Pacific Ocean. It is hardly surprising that Peter’s ‘window onto Europe’ has been slammed shut again and again, the city abandoned to tyranny and coercion, the spirit of the population perpetually torn between extravagant hope and hopeless deprivation. Even in the first years of the twentieth century – when the city centre was bright with bourgeois opulence – the three mile stretch of the Nevsky Prospekt, from the magnificent government buildings at the historic heart of the capital to the muddy slums on its outskirts, dramatized the persistent gulf between dazzling wealth and dire poverty and the new and old Russia. Petersburg is confrontational and contradictory.

Compare the swift creation of its magnificent physical structure – an architectural and engineering achievement unparalleled in modern times – with the sloth of a paralyzing bureaucracy which stifled the lives but not the souls of its inhabitants. The city is schizophrenic – pushed and pulled by dramatic changes of identity and name. It has been expeditionary, imperial, enlightened, repressive, dissolute, revolutionary, communist and chaotic. It has been called St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and, once again, St. Petersburg. On this visit, I can see that whatever joy the inhabitants feel in shaking-off the yoke of 75 years of communist rule is negated by the material difficulties of a society unprepared for radical change. That is typical St. Petersburg time warp – politically, everything happens too quickly or too slowly and the population is left stranded. The frustrations which compromise innovation and the recurring and unresolved tensions make the story of St Petersburg as maddening as it is exciting.

As the sun rises on another difficult day, I go down onto the Nevsky Prospekt on which and around which so much of Petersburg’s history has occurred. The Nevsky is the central nervous system of the city. There has been no greater display of Petersburg’s modernity.  By 1830, it had become most important avenue, the longest, widest, and best lit thoroughfare. In its heyday, the Nevsky was a polyglot consumer showcase. Sadly, as I walk down the Nevsky in the dying years of the revolutionary twentieth century, I see broken cars and abandoned trucks shrouded by muck left from the late spring thaw. And yet, strange new illuminations glint through the stagnation of this brown-wrapped world: an aluminium hamburger stand with its acid lights breaks the neo-classical decorum of Art’s Square. The logos of Lancôme, Oréal and Baskin-Robbins shine through the gloomy dawn, hinting at the shape of things to come. Although ten years on, there will be a surge of confidence in the rouble, in 1993, these Western consumer outposts only tease the population with dreams. The Philips shop trades only in dollars and a middle range hi-fi costs what an average citizen earns in many months. A supermarket on the Nevsky Prospekt fronted with garish neon and filled inside with rows of glaring white freezers, has only apples for sale. The queue and empty shelves are the two givens of any shopping trip – just as they were under Communism. It is tragic to see how one of the world’s great social thoroughfares is so broken. But this new dawn is only a moment in the story of the swift rise, difficult life, rapid decay and agonized rebirth of the glorious city of St. Petersburg. The vandalized phone kiosk­­­­­­­­ which I pass is a witness to what must be the defining notion of this city: absurdity. When you can find a booth that is not battered into oblivion, you find that the public telephone takes a 15 kopek piece. But 15 kopek pieces are out of circulation and can only be obtained from cunning racketeers for 50 times their face value The closer you get to what passes for normal in St. Petersburg, the more irrational the place becomes. The writer Nikolai Gogol knew this. The composer Dmitri Shostakovich contended with it. There was folly in the choice of the site. There was madness in the excesses and fetishes of its early rulers. And yet, if you look at a plan of Petersburg, there is logic. There is order. There is intention. 

 

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. 

More about the book

St Petersburg

Jonathan Miles

'This extraordinary book brings to life an astonishing place. Beautiful prose renders brutality vivid' The Times - BOOK OF THE WEEK

From Peter the Great to Putin, this is the unforgettable story of St Petersburg – one of the most magical, menacing and influential cities in the world.

St Petersburg has always felt like an impossible metropolis, risen from the freezing mists and flooded marshland of the River Neva on the western edge of Russia. It was a new capital in an old country. Established in 1703 by the sheer will of its charismatic founder, the homicidal megalomaniac Peter-the-Great, its dazzling yet unhinged reputation was quickly fashioned by the sadistic dominion of its early rulers.

This city, in its successive incarnations – St Petersburg; Petrograd; Leningrad and, once again, St Petersburg – has always been a place of perpetual contradiction. It was a window on to Europe and the Enlightenment, but so much of the glory of Russia was created here: its literature, music, dance and, for a time, its political vision. It gave birth to the artistic genius of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Pavlova and Nureyev. Yet, for all its glittering palaces, fairytale balls and enchanting gardens, the blood of thousands has been spilt on its snow-filled streets. It has been a hotbed of war and revolution, a place of siege and starvation, and the crucible for Lenin and Stalin’s power-hungry brutality.

In St Petersburg, Jonathan Miles recreates the drama of three hundred years in this absurd and brilliant city, bringing us up to the present day, when – once more – its fate hangs in the balance. This is an epic tale of murder, massacre and madness played out against squalor and splendour. It is an unforgettable portrait of a city and its people.

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