St. Petersburg: In a Time Warp All its Own
[An account of my fascinating recent visit to St. Petersburg, Russia]
Growing up in Communist Calcutta in the late eighties and early nineties, Russia (or the USSR as it was then) was the ‘good foreign country’. Russia supported us internationally, gave us weapons and educated droves of aspirant doctors who had failed to make the cut domestically. This was in contra-distinction to the United States of America, (simply America to us at the time), where men roamed the streets freely with guns, money was the only language people understood, and which doggedly supported Pakistan, our arch rival in every sphere of our waking lives. It was an elegant classification, simple in its design, intuitive in its premises and direct in its conclusions. It was unsurprising then, that to me as a child, the classification was greatly appealing- good Russia, bad America; love the former, hate the latter.
An extensive visit to the United States however shattered this classification decisively. Much to my happy dismay, people didn’t roam the streets with guns in America and neither were they vainly in pursuit of material pleasures alone. I liked America, its people, its cultures and its unstinting, almost dogmatic insistence on individual freedom as the bedrock of society. But what of Russia? The end of the Cold War, the fluid geopolitical relations of the last two decades, the near-universal disenchantment with communism as an organising principle of human relations and the none-too-appealing stories of the mafia, organised crime and authoritarian politics in Russia that appeared in the world press, in the space of a few years, made it a prohibitive place, difficult to love, easy to hate, easiest to ignore.
It was with this combination of dim nostalgia and overwhelming indifference towards Russia that I visited St. Petersburg last week. As far as cities go, I have scarcely seen something as beautiful. The frozen rivers bathed in the bright March sunlight, the imposing facades of palaces and museums on the riverfront, the most elaborately designed metro stations, intricate mosaic work in its Orthodox churches capped off with characteristically Russian, multi-coloured onion-shaped domes, the sights that St. Petersburg had to offer were simply breath-taking. Walking around the city for three days, I could only look on in awe at its churches, museums, statues and palaces, wondering how in seemingly intrigue-filled Tsarist Russia, kings, queens and the nobility had the time or the inclination to cultivate their aesthetic tastes and that too, so beautifully. Inexplicable, how a wife can ruthlessly have her husband murdered to wrest political power and almost at the same time, authorise one of the largest acquisitions of Western European Art for the palace.
But more than its natural or architectural beauty, what really struck a chord was St. Petersburg’s independent personality which was much more than the sum of its parts. At a time when cities in the world are increasingly beginning to resemble each other with the stagnant uniformity of a McDonalds and Subway dominating every crowded market square, large supermarkets selling everything from lentils to toilet paper, and the convenient but unexciting use of English on the streets, St. Petersburg struck out as a city that was still largely in its own time warp. And such oodles of character its time warp had. Though the McDonalds was around somewhere, it was easily overshadowed by cafes serving up blinis with the most delightful fillings; the high street was still dominated by mom-and-pop stores which substituted the convenience of everything being available under one roof with the warmth of a smile that wasn’t the product of a training manual, and English was nowhere to be seen or heard, replaced by the stodgy Cyrillic characters and guttural sounds of Russian, the most authentic and representative expression of a people who were holding out against the relentless onslaught of a bland uniformity. Russia was still desperately clinging on to its own world, and though seemingly a hapless and perhaps futile pursuit, I loved it for trying.
To be sure, this Russian world was neither perfect nor ideal. Its utilitarian blocks of flats, despite their romanticised egalitarianism were grotty and in a state of abject disrepair; its airport shockingly inconvenient for passengers with minimal infrastructure and facilities, many of its buses falling apart at the seams, its old shops suffering closures due to poor business. At the same time, or perhaps as a result, globalisation led by its calling card of a grand and glorious mall, had steadily infiltrated. Just off the high street, dominating the skyline, stood Galleria, with its 21st century air-conditioned and anonymous shopping comfort and the best of British and American brands under one roof. Close by, a conducted tour guide, with more than a hint of pride, pointed out the presence of Zara, the clothes brand and its three floors of wholesome fabric goodness. The shops, in Soviet times, the guide said were empty because there was nothing to sell. Now the unhappy times were over, and while they couldn’t afford much, it was still there and available for the day they could.
Caught between grudging acceptance of an all-pervading worldview which claims to have something for everyone, and an equally grudging acceptance of an experiment that failed, Russia finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Young Russians are, in equal measure, embracing something that they know is not their own while ruing the failure of a beautiful idea that had brought ephemeral pride only to be replaced by a more permanent misery. In this mix of pride, vanity, nostalgia and pragmatism, I found a city in its quest to find itself. And doing so with so much character, that it’s hard to describe in words. Go find out for yourself- you won’t be disappointed!
*Apologies for the constant conflation of St. Petersburg and Russia. It’s deliberate since I’m not travelling to Vladivostok in a hurry to be able to give you an accurately generalised picture.