Friday, 23 April 2010

The many St. Petersburgs

Many places are reputed to be unique. However, St. Petersburg is unique in a unique way. It is not a city, it is a history book that seems to come straight from the shelf. Empires have printed its appearance, wars and revolutions scarred its face, regimes that could not be more different from one another have left their unmistakable marks. It is incredibly rich and golden as it is grim and grey and miserable. It is a place where people enjoy life to the full while others struggle from day to day or live a deeply religious and modest life. It is fraught with art and culture, vivid with a young and ambitious theatre scene, but still keeping the noble and heavier values of traditional ballet, opera and poetry alive while next door they sell horrific Kitsch with a broad Russian smile or drive around in ridiculous cars to show off.
To see and feel the actual St. Petersburg, to get the idea of it, you probably have to spend months here. So it's not precisely what we can do here in one and a half days. Instead we get a thorough introduction to the history over the centuries by going to p(a)laces…

How to describe the dimensions? How to convey the feeling of being surrounded by dozens of granite columns weighing 114 tons each, that are simply guarding the entrance of Isaac Cathedral? How to take pictures of a place that is actually covered with several hundreds of kilograms of gold, now reflecting the light of about a square kilometre of windows? The pomp is limitless, merciless, overwhelming. And it shows oh so clearly what an Emperor/Emperess really was in his days: A supreme being, equipped with every divine right, whereas his people's only task was to honour, worship and serve him/her. Ah yes, and to just stay alive to continue to do so. Awe mixes with a certain uneasiness when you look at all these unfathomable riches, and somehow the thought steals into the back of your mind that these guys actually had it coming when the revolution of 1917 broke loose, triggered by that famous gunshot of the battleship Aurora
A lot has happened since then, wars and sieges, ending with Hitler's 900 days wait at the gates of "Leningrad". (Rumor has it that he had the invitations for the victory party in the famous Hotel Astoria already printed.)
And today? There's not one St. Petersburg, as it seems. There's many of them. A lot of new money around , hard to miss, big cars, big watches, and of course only top fashion. Not really subtle, though. Then there is a lot of friendliness, too, that feels genuine, even in a small encounter in the streets, even in a restaurant that is apparently for tourists There is all the hustle and bustle of a modern city, sometimes the scenes just don't seem to fit. Married couples and their families dancing traditional dances in old-time places, the extendes Humvee Limo waiting in the background. It is all very transitional, re-orientating, insecure on one hand, but challenging and self-assured on the other. It is charming, fascinating, unknown to us. Wish we had more time!