Petersburg: Poetic and prosaic

Petersburg: Poetic and prosaic

A new book explores facets of St. Petersburg from dark episodes in its history to modern Russian women.

Published: January 23, 2013 (Issue # 1743)


The cover of ‘City-Pick St. Petersburg.’

A cultural guide to St. Petersburg that was published in October by Academia Rossica in cooperation with Oxygen Books in London, “City-Pick St. Petersburg” offers a fascinating view of Russia’s northern capital as seen by more than sixty writers, poets, dancers and artists from different eras.

“It is an essential read — slip it into your bag alongside a Rough Guide,” is the advice to readers from Waterstones Books Quarterly, a literary magazine published by the U.K. book retailer Waterstones.

While a classic guidebook serves travelers up heaps of helpful practicalities, from ideas for quick refuels between sightseeing and water taxi schedules to skating rink locations and warnings about pickpockets’ favorite hangouts, “City-Pick St. Petersburg” offers readers a wealth of different flavors of St. Petersburg, creating a fabulous sense of the city. Flipping through the pages, the reader is presented with a diverse and beautiful portrait of the city, and a fair idea of what St. Petersburg is about.

“Along the canals, the globes of the street lamps throw pale circles onto the pastel walls; in the deserted Square of the Decembrists, the Bronze Horseman looks lost, the only complex, human form in the middle of a vast geometric space, standing out in the mist made of mingled water and sky, the receding perspectives of the palaces converging on the shining spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress,” reads an excerpt from a 1987 essay by French journalist and travel writer Olivier Rolin.

A rather different image of the city comes from an essay by the British writer Duncan Fallowell, the author of “One Hot Summer in St. Petersburg.” “St. Isaac’s balloons ahead, the cross mounted on an anchor at its apex (anchors and tritons are everywhere in St. Petersburg),” he writes. “This is the almightiest cathedral in the city, with Samsonic columns to prove it outside, and within an opulence of malachite and lapis lazuli and harlequinades of colored glass.”

Divided into nine chapters, the anthology interweaves memoirs and diaries with fiction and documentary prose as well as historical essays and travelers’ notebooks.

Incorporated in the book are short fragments from the novels of some of Russia’s greatest writers, including Leo Tolstoy’s “War And Peace,” Ivan Goncharov’s “Oblomov,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and Alexander Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter.”

The lion’s share of the anthology, however, is devoted to much more recent writing, encompassing the prose of Vladimir Nabokov and Andrei Bitov, and the recollections of poet and Novel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky, composer Sergei Prokofiev and filmmaker Alexander Sokurov.

The most sobering and perhaps also the most emotional chapter, “City Under Siege,” is devoted to the 900-day Nazi Siege of Leningrad during World War II, the most tragic period in the history of the city. Here, a translation of the sharp official proclamation by Leningrad Defense Chiefs and Soviet Party Leaders, giving chilling descriptions of the cruel and ruthless enemy, is fused with a moving story, the novel “The Conductor,” Sarah Quigley’s humane account loosely based on the events leading to the writing of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony and the preparation of its premiere under the baton of conductor Karl Eliasberg.

With winter temperatures lower than minus 30 degrees Celsius and no electricity or heating during the second winter of the Siege of Leningrad, the orchestra’s pianist Alexander Kamensky kept his hands warm by placing two scorching bricks on both sides of the instrument to radiate some heat. Eliasberg was so weak he was driven to rehearsals on a sledge.

The Leningrad Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra gave 300 performances during the nearly 900 days of the siege, but the performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was special.

Many Leningraders who didn’t have a radio at home would gather on the streets to listen to orchestral music coming from the loudspeakers. It was an opportunity to rise above physical weakness, fear and starvation.

The book is primarily aimed at culture vultures, barely touching upon mundane matters such as the local political hierarchy, gastronomy or sports.

Instead, we find the legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova describing her studies at the Imperial Ballet School.

“I learnt my art under as nearly perfect conditions as one ever found on this earth,” reads the ballerina’s story, originally published in the U.S. in “The Lady’s Home Journal” in September 1924. “The Russian ballet owes its subtle perfection of detail, its greatness … to the fact that it is made up of dancers who from the day they went to live in the dormitories of the Imperial School saw nothing — were surrounded by nothing — but beauty — beauty — and the highest standards physically, mentally, morally and spiritually.”

Another renowned Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, remembers on these pages a precious tradition that still exists today, that of the finest pupils of the Vaganova Ballet Academy — the former Imperial School — being allowed to dance on the venerable stage of the Court Theater at the Hermitage. On each such occasion, one member or another of the Imperial Family would come to have supper with the artists — the part that nobody wanted to miss!

In one of the more recently written travel features, the U.K. journalist Miranda Sawyer delivers a bitter and rather sarcastic account of her observations of apparently overdressed modern Russian women, whom the author slags down as “Swarowski-studded glamazons” and “stout grumpy lady trolls.”

“Today’s Russian woman is tall and gorgeous and dressed like a Selfridges Christmas tree,” Sawyer wrote in her piece “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” originally published in British newspaper The Observer in 2011. “There is no part of her clothing that is plain: Everything is stonewashed, or appliqued, or has diamante dangly bits, or is made out of actual leopard. Heels are killer. Make-up can be viewed at a hundred paces. Our trousers — and us — are just too dull.”

One would bet that Tim Stanley saw a rather different Russian female crowd in the new St. Petersburg art galleries that he describes with enthusiasm and admiration in his essay, discussing the “sudden northern Renaissance.” It is not dress sense that Stanley examines but rather the phenomenon of the appearance of a whole array of wonderful new museums of the caliber of the New Museum and Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art.

As for the appearance of the city and its residents, the male opinion that can be found in the book is much more delightful to hear. As Viv Groskov of the British Airways “High Life” magazine puts it, “St. Petersburg is seductive, charming, and a little eccentric.” Most locals, regardless of their sex, age, occupation and social status, could not agree more.

“City-Pick St. Petersburg” is published in English by Oxygen Books, 272 pages, and is on sale for around $16.

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