Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Everyday St. Petersburg

I’m scheduled to go to return to return to St. Petersburg in about a month.  If all goes accordingly to plan, my two-week administrative Fulbright will take me to Kaliningrad, Archangelsk, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.  As some of my readers may know, I am not conversant in Russian and have only been to Russia once in my life.  On my single visit to Russia I stayed in St. Petersburg, which quickly became my favorite place in the world.  To a large extent, my love of the city is predicated on my fascination with what Solomon Volkov called “the myth of St. Petersburg,” which focuses on a long series of interconnecting legends of monarchical power, aesthetic and political inventiveness, and resistance to Nazi (and even Stalinist) totalitarianism.  The power of the St. Petersburg myth rests on the firm foundations of dozens of brilliant historical and quintessentially modern actors, including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, and Anna Ahkmatova, as well as on Leningrad’s 900 day siege.  As I walked up and down the Nevsky Prospect, or took a boat tour of the city’s famed canals, I hardly needed to interact with the “real” St. Petersburg at all.   At first, I thought that the St. Petersburg I visited two years ago was oddly historical.  Only interacting with people when I needed to order a sandwich or ask for the way to a hidden museum entrance, I was the archetypal tourist, staring at the city’s bridges, cathedrals, and palaces—many of which were utterly impervious to time.  But perhaps my second visit to St. Petersburg will allow me, or force me, to catch at least a glimpse of life beyond the myth.    This is of course easier said than done.  I have encountered St. Petersburg many times, but always through the lens of literature.  These encounters, and even those which are mediated by the work of literary theorists, are in a sense of a form of concentrated mythology.  The house museums in St. Petersburg are a case in point.  My first visit to St. Petersburg put me in one writer’s flat after another.  Genius (the genius of Blok, Ahkmatova, Pushkin, Nabokov, and Dostoyevsky—I never could locate Leskov’s pad) permeated the city. 

If there’s any academic anecdote to the myth of St. Petersburg, it is certainly Catriona Kelly’s recent book, St. Petersburg:  Shadows of the Past.  In this book, Kelly does her best to circumvent the city’s legacy of aesthetic and political brilliance.  Instead, she takes an almost anthropological tour of the city, explaining how ordinary Russian and Soviet citizens lived everyday life.  Kelly’s tour de horizon of Leningrad/St. Petersburg takes us into the most quotidian aspects of the city’s existence.  Relying on insights from scholars in the field of cultural studies and related fields, Kelly breaks city life down into its simplest parts.  Where did people live?  How did they make use of their shared and private space?  What did they eat?  How did they get to work or move around the city?  What entertainment did they seek out?  The value of Kelly’s work is immense, especially in light of the fact that the city has been subjected to so many one-sided treatments in the past.  St. Petersburg’s denizens did not (and do not) spend their lives at the ballet; nor do they always fret about politics.  More often than not, men and women are navigating complex rituals related to their kitchens, television sets, and recreational activities.  Kelly’s treatment of everyday life in St. Petersburg is encyclopedic, although it deliberately deemphasizes those aspects of city life that have already been documented, including work as well as politics and art.  While Kelly, a scholar of language, is intimately familiar with St. Petersburg’s poetry scene, she only quotes specific poems to illustrate some detail of the people’s most banal experiences.  One downside of Kelly’s approach to her subject matter, is that St. Petersburg often seems to be the mirror image of every major, modern city.  Although Kelly explores many of the city’s peculiarities, one is left with the overall impression of urban sameness.  If you take away the political and artistic myths, and spend no time admiring the city’s famed Bronzed Horseman, you might be anywhere.  Her argument might be summed up this way:  if you live in Chicago, how much time do you really spend dwelling on the significance of the lion sculptures that adorn the Art Institute?  As somebody who recently left the city to take up residence in a distant suburb, located in what one scholar labeled “the geography of nowhere,” I can’t fully embrace her line of thinking.  Cities are more than the sum of their parts.  While it’s interesting to note that the citizens of St. Petersburg rarely actually use its famed canals in the service of business interests, the canals have been, and remain, vitally if ineffably linked to what it means to inhabit (as well as visit) this special place. 

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