If you recall from my first post, this is my first experience abroad. However, this inexperience did not stop me from having a preconception of St Petersburg as a European city separate from the rest of Russia—which is not definitively European. And, to some degree, I was right. The canals evoke ideas of Venice, there are no towering skyscrapers blotting out the sun (although Gasprom is building one away from the city center), and old gorgeous palaces are on almost every street corner. The admiralty spire orients you wherever you are, guiding you back to the city center and then sending you off down one of the main thoroughfares going to and from it. Suffice it to say Petersburg, or Peter in the vernacular, is gorgeous, especially on a clear day.
But, my title gives it away, something about the city stops you from considering it European. Like many great European capitals, there are tourists everywhere, museums, different languages spoken, and a cosmopolitan attitude. But, still, something about it is different. Perhaps it’s the climate, as the city is so far north, during the summer for a time there are “white nights” where the sun doesn’t descend far enough below the horizon for darkness to set in. A day in Peter could begin with warm sunlight rousing you from your bed and then descend into a gray drizzle in the afternoon—although from what I’ve heard that describes London too. The climate likely contributes to a unique culture and atmosphere in the city, and undoubtedly shapes the people who call the city home.
But for me, it was the aspect of the city that I most liked that made it different from almost all other city. It’s planned. Wherever one stands, finding where one needs to go is a simple task. The rivers and canals pose some challenges, but sooner or later one finds one of the major avenues leading to the admiralty and one is no longer lost. Every city has landmarks, but most cities are more akin to Moscow in how they grew: organically, almost circumstantially. Cities grow out of necessity of population, defense, any number of reasons. But Petersburg was built in a time before most big cities were planned, in a swamp. And I think that the unstoppable will of the tsar who created the city still influences it today. Peter the First built the city to show the wealth and power of Russia to Europe and tens of thousands died in the process.
Later on, when the Nazis besieged the city, for almost two years, hundreds of thousands died. Citizens within the city would eat broth from boiled leather, nursing mothers would prick themselves so their babies could gain nutrients from their blood. Yet, by force of will they survived and saw the city liberated. Much like the stern visage of the Bronze Horseman, the city itself seems to have developed its own face, sculpted by the founder of it, and the people who protected it. I think it is that force of will and loss of life shown by the people of the city lends the city a surreal ambiance to this day.