Saturday, 21 August 2010

St. Petersburg: The Light of the North

St. Petersburg: The Light of the North

St. Petersburg,

The Light of the North,

Window on Europe, saviour of the Russian soul,

Harbinger of the Russian Renaissance,

Birthplace of Great Russian literature and ballet

City of novel ideas, beauty, glory, revolution and grandeur,

City of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Bronze Horse Man,

City of white nights, innumerable canals and bridges,

City of Heroes,

City that withered the nine hundred days of blockade.

St. Petersburg ceased to be the capitals of Russia a long time ago but its inhabitants still call it as the Northern Capital or Cultural Capital of Russia. Peter I (Peter the Great) founded the city in 1703 reclaiming the marshland to open a window on Europe.

The area where St. Petersburg is located today was under the control of Swedish King Karl II whom Peter I defeated in the battle of Poltova and built St. Petersburg with the help of the prisoners taken during the battle. Many thousand lives were lost in building this beautiful city out of a marshland but St. Petersburg was built from scratch and became the capital of the Imperial Russia in 1713. It continued to be its capital till 1918 when Lenin, after the Russian revolution of 1917, decided to make Moscow the capital of the new Soviet Union. After the revolution St. Petersburg was renamed as Petrograd and in 1924 after the death of Lenin it was renamed as Leningrad in his honour however after the break up of the Soviet Union, its original name St. Petersburg was returned to it in 1991.

People of St. Petersburg consider their city one of the most beautiful cities in the world and especially more beautiful than the Russian capital Moscow. Moscow and its culture is considered here a little rustic and crude compared to the finesse of the St. Petersburg traditions with an European touch. Having spent two years in Moscow, which I found grand and magnificent, I have to be diplomatic about my admiration for Moscow while being asked ‘which city is better between the two’. Each time my answer would be –‘Moscow is magnificent but nothing compared to St. Petersburg’. And I wonder sometimes, it is true. St. Petersburg has innumerable, rivers, canals and bridges adding to its splendour. It is also the city of White Nights, world famous Hermitage museum, Marinsky theatre and the birthplace of Great Russian literature and Russian ballet. Above all it is a compact and convenient city without much of traffic hassles.

St. Petersburg has population of 4.6 million people and is the fourth largest European city and the most populous city at its latitude. St. Petersburg has a very compact historic centre which has been declared as UNESCO heritage site. In fact almost all its activities take place around 6 lanes wide beautiful Nevsky Prospect and one can see majority of the great architectural monuments walking on this long street. These include Elisievsky Palace, Alexandrsky theatre, Kazan Cathedral, Church on Spilled Blood, Winter Palace, General staff and Admiralty building, St. Isaac cathedral and Central Manezh. One can admire the panoramic view of the river Neva, Rostral Coulumns and St. Peters and Paul Fort (first settlement of the city) standing on the Palace bridge that opens every night at 12:30 A.M. during summer months.

City Blues

The city is more than three hundred years old and so are most of the buildings built in baroque and neo-classical architectural styles. But the outer beauty compensates very little for the inner comfort. The water pipes are old and rusted and tap water must be first filtered and boiled and then again filtered before it is fit for drinking. Buildings being old do not have lifts and though I am lucky to live in a building that has a lift, the lift starts from the first floor (In Russia floors are counted as ground floor, first floor and so on…). It seems the building planners during Soviet times just were too busy to look at these small details and as a result now I have to carry things up to the second floor before I can put them in the lift and take them to the fifth floor where I live. I tried to find out what was the reason of putting a lift from the first floor and was told that the residents of the first floor during the Soviet times did not want to pay for the lift services so the planners decided to deprive them of the free lift services. In that process they forgot about those living on the higher floors!

When I came to St. Petersburg, I could not think of travelling in Metro because of skin head fears and buying a car was not easy at all, first I had to put an order and wait for the car to be imported. When the car was imported, the price quoted by the car dealer had already changed and I was left with no choice but to pay the price they wanted. Once I had the car, I had to take it to several places for registration.

Since I have bought a car, I have had an adventurous driving experience in the city. Drivers here are full of adrenaline and aggressive driving is the norm. The insurance companies are legendary in this city. In case one has an accident, the vehicle should not move an inch till the traffic police arrives and takes all the measurements and issues a certificate. Afterwards the trial begins. Parties involved in accident have to go to the regional central office of the traffic police where ‘who is guilty’ will be decided and it might take months. After obtaining certificates from this office one has to go and file for an insurance claim. First the long queue and then inspection and then again to the repair shop for inspection and quotation of the prices and more…it can take anything like 6-8 months for the repair to be done.

The traffic signs in the city could be more confusing than assuring and at any given time some or the other road is closed for reconstruction purposes. Besides that, there can be VIP movements any time without warning and the traffic police can shut any road any time and then people have to wait for hours to find one’s way out from the resulting traffic mess.

Lately there have been a lot of investments in automobile sector and St. Petersburg has been turning into a Russian Detroit. It seems there will be many more cars on the road in the near future though the financial crisis has provided a respite.

The Great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin said- “Nature does not have bad weather” but St. Petersburg is severely cold in winters and it rains most of the spring and summer. The normal sunny days in St. Petersburg are rare. Though Peterburgers love their city, they are always ready to leave it for the warmer and sunny tropics viz. beach resorts in Turkey, Egypt, India, Thailand or Maldives.

Silver linings

But every cloud has a silver lining. I have spent a year in St. Petersburg, and what a tremendous year it has been for me. What has been remarkable is the number and variety of the people I have met during the past year- writers, painters, singers, poets, diplomats, soldiers, businessmen, song-writers, actors, theatre-artists, students, dancers, professors, political leaders, thinkers, museum curators, interpreters, India-lovers and more. I have enriched by their energy, ideas and friendship beyond expectations and have no hesitation in saying that St. Petersburg is a city of creative people, a city of people with beautiful minds.

St. Petersburg is cultural capital in true sense as its inhabitants have real love for arts and culture. The statues of their writers, poets and painters adorn the squares and streets of the city. I have had the opportunity during the past one year to know many people who form the core of the St. Petersburg art circle and are internationally reputed. They have inspired me to look at life from a different angle. They have shown me the power and beauty of arts and the influence it has on our lives. It has helped me to acquire a new language to express my deeper consciousness through colours, drawings and paintings and photographs which I could not do through written or spoken words. St. Petersburg has inspired me to paint and now I also have a small gallery at home of over fifty paintings I have done in since my arrival to St. Petersburg.
(Available at )

It would be difficult to imagine St. Petersburg without its greatest treasure i.e. Hermitage. Hermitage is an institution in itself and has a huge influence on the city dwellers. It has inspired generations of St. Petersburgers and moulded many of them into fine artists. It has some of the finest collections of Renaissance and post Renaissance paintings and sculptures. From time to time it organizes special exhibition and invites members of Hermitage’s Friends Club along with the members of the Diplomatic Corps in the city.

Besides Hermitage, Russian Museum, Marinsky and Mikhailovsky theatres, a number of art galleries play a central role in the cultural life of St. Petersburg. Pushkinskaya- 10, Art Centre, is one such address in St. Petersburg which leads the contemporary arts scene in the city and is well known in European capitals such as Paris, Amsterdam and London as well as in New York. Loft Proekt Etazhi at Ligovsky Prospect-92, is another such Project that has transformed an erstwhile bread factory into a centre of contemporary arts in St. Petersburg and since the past one year I have been a witness of its mind boggling transformation process.

One can enjoy walking in the legendary Summer Garden built by Peter the Great (which the City authorities plan to close for three years for its transformation) and the Nevsky Prospect, along the banks of Fontanka River (the boundary of the old city) and the Garden of Joy in the Elagin Island or take the boat rides in the Neva, Moika or Fontanka rivers and watch the sunset at midnight from the Gulf of Finland from the bank of the Baltic Sea on the Vasilievsky Island. One can go to Peterhof (a palace located on the shores of Baltic Sea with fountains and design like the Palace in Versailles) riding a speedboat, driving to Pushkin (Tsar’s Village) and treading upon the golden leaves of autumn or can see the ancient city of Novgorod (190 Kms from St. Petersburg) or the city of Vyborg (close to border with Finland and has unique architecture) or one can play volleyball at the beaches in the north of the city in June or July on sunny summer days or can walk around the city whole night.

I must say I have loved working with friendly and open hearted St. Petersburgers who love India, know our culture and wish us well. I would like to end this with these lines that came to my mind spontaneously-

I know the glorious short summer will be over

And the long cold winter will arrive soon

There will be no sunny skies

It will be all grey and gloom.

But then I’ll turn to the inner lights

And cherish the wonders of life

Till summer comes again

And the Light of the North turns white once again.

Abhay K. is author of ‘River Valley and Silicon Valley- Story of three generations of Indian family’ ‘Enigmatic Love- Love poems from the fairy-tale city of Moscow ’ & ‘Fallen Leaves of Autumn’. His fortcoming books are ‘Candling the Light’, 'Colours of Soul'. Views expressed here are his own.

Published in 74th FC Newsletter in October 2009



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